OGC addresses the Ethics of Geo as part of its Future Directions September Programming

The Ethics of Geo banner

As part of our 116th OGC Member Meeting during the week of September 14, 2020, OGC dedicated a session to discuss the topic of GeoEthics and the role of OGC - as a consortium and as a community of global experts. The session was part of OGC’s regular Future Directions programming, led by Dr. Gobe Hobona, and a panel moderated by OGC’s CEO Dr. Nadine Alameh, with participation from the following OGC members:

  • Ajay Gupta - Founder and CEO of Health Solutions Research Inc
  • Dr. Ram Peruvemba - Founder and CMO of Health Solutions Research Inc
  • Ed Parsons - Google’s Geospatial Technologist, also member of the OGC Board of Directors 
  • Dr. Steve Liang - Founder and CTO of SensorUp
  • Dr. Anneley Hadland - Head of remote sensing at helyx SIS Ltd and co-chair of OGC’s AI Working Group
  • Dr. Chris Tucker - Chairman of the American Geographical Society, also member of the OGC Board of Directors 
  • Emily Daemen - Data consultant at Geonovum
  • Frank Verschoor - Data consultant at Geonovum

Why are we discussing GeoEthics in OGC? Why now? 

Three dynamics have set the scene for a timely discussion of GeoEthics amongst the OGC membership of global geospatial experts and a hub for thought leadership and innovation:

  1. We are living during a global pandemic
    COVID-19 has a strong geospatial context to it. Response to the public health pandemic requires location-based data to determine outbreak predictions, share pandemic maps, conduct contact tracing, etc. Suddenly, what the geospatial community does has become particularly relevant. The pandemic has shone a light on the issues and sensitivities about data privacy in a world of digital surveillance.  

  2. Geo IT Ethics is identified as 1 of 12 tech trends related to geospatial
    As detailed in the OGC Tech Trends, Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for an “open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographical boundaries” has been challenged by increasingly powerful digital gatekeepers whose algorithms can be weaponized by master manipulators. Considering the power of location, geospatial data has particular opportunities for misuse regarding privacy, tracking, and bias. 


    OGC Technology Trends identified during Q2 2020

  3. Geo Ethics is identified as a key recommendation by the geospatial data science community
    Geo Ethics came up as a strong theme in OGC’s White Paper on Geospatial Data Science (based on the Location Powers: Data Science Summit of November 2019). The paper surfaced the need for consideration for ethics regarding data, algorithms and associated analytics. It additionally recommended the promotion of community practices for geospatial data science ethics. 

What main themes bubbled up out of the September session?

It’s hard to summarize an exciting and full session on such a timely and open-ended theme, although I’ll do my best. OGC Members, however, can listen to a recording of the session on the OGC Portal

Here are some highlights from the speakers:

Ajay Gupta and Dr. Ram Peruvemba kicked off the conversation by stating the value of geospatial analytics in the Healthcare domain - where “sharing location data adds an entire new wrinkle to medical ethics.” Very quickly, the conversation honed in on privacy concerns related to data that can now be linked to location about individuals, communities, and their associated social factors.
How do we protect this data such that it’s ONLY available to the people/organizations who should see it? And how do we balance the risk of abuse of location data vs. the potential for analytics to save lives? 

Ed Parsons followed by sharing insights from his recent blog on the Ethics of Geospatial. He noted that, in addition to COVID, what brought geo/ethics into the forefront is that we live in a world of “Ambient location,” where knowledge of one’s location is continuously accessible via smart phones and other location-enabled devices. Ed stated “There’s something interesting/dangerous/valuable when location is coupled with time,” and shared his '4Es' around ethics: Efficacy, Equability, Execution, and Eradication.
Will the use of geospatial technology actually deliver for the specific problem at hand (e.g. is location critical for contact tracing or do other technologies work better)? How do we build an app/service that takes into consideration ethics, transparency, user control over their data/when to destroy the data/etc?
To underscore the importance of the dialog, Ed also reminded us that “as an industry and as a community, NOW is the time to put together an ethical framework” or we risk what we are developing in the current emergency situation be misused for harm. “OGC is poised to address policy and technological issues because this is now VERY important AND the issue is not going away after COVID”.

Dr. Steve Liang shared his perspective as an innovator passionate about using technology (particularly sensors and IoT) to push to new limits. “Social distancing is about location but also condition and context.” Geospatial information and sensors provide that context - with huge amounts of data coming from disparate IoT and other systems.
The question becomes what’s the right use of the data? How could this data be used post-COVID? And how do we balance creativity with responsibility as we build the apps and the systems? 

Dr. Anneley Handland shared the work done within the OGC GeoAI working group, with a focus on the tools and techniques that can help us plan, assess, and track in a GeoAI project with a reference to the values and principles from the Turing institute. She noted an increased awareness of the Ethics issues within the applications of GeoAI. She recommends that OGC develop best practices and guidance, and explore how existing geospatial technology can assist in the delivery of Geo IT best practices. But more importantly: “We need to practice what we preach, to demonstrate projects where the values and principles are built in, and be part of the conversation.” 


Speakers on the GeoEthics panel during the virtual 116th OGC Member Meeting

Dr. Chris Tucker reported on AGS’s EthicalGEO initiative, which explores the implications of geospatial technologies in the broadest sense, including ethics. He shared the outcomes of the Location Tech Task Force exploring problematic and unanticipated effects of using mobile location-based applications, particularly when it disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations. He also announced the creation of the Locus Charter - an international charter for the ethical use of location technology. He “invites the engagement of the OGC community in the international charter.”

Emily Daemen and Frank Verschoor from Geonovum shared the ethical framework that they’re developing in the Netherlands, which also feeds into the Locus Charter. They highlighted the issues around “responsible use of data in projects and the importance of focusing on the data use FOR the project, purpose, and user in hand.” They mentioned that within the COVID-19 bluetooth-based app in the Netherlands, the conversation is around privacy, compliance, and volunteerism rather than the effect of the app on the virus spread, analytics process, and people’s behaviors. They also made the point that “maybe it’s time that we make a switch from following the law to following Ethics?” 

What are the key recommendations of this event? 

The session included several recommendations from the speakers and the audience on what the OGC community could do to contribute to addressing the issue of Ethics and Geo while noting that it’s going to take sustained effort over a period of time to raise awareness and to make an impact; also noting that this is a critical contribution of the OGC given that our competency and experience is at the heart of the issue.

  • Create a home within OGC to keep the dialog going - a forum such as a Domain Working Group that would engage in activities such as documenting the ethical challenges and potential trade-offs of geospatial technologies to inform broader national and global ethical discussions. 
  • Use the OGC Innovation Program process to experiment with architectures (data quality, security, portrayal, etc.) based on specific use cases and in turn develop best practices and guidance based on the outcomes - to again contribute to a wider discussion on ethics. 
  • Connect with other initiatives such as the EthicalGEO initiative and contribute our global expertise on location towards the development of the Locus charter.

How can I get involved? 

Our panelists were in agreement: “This is a wonderful opportunity for the OGC global community to add value to the rest of society in answering questions and developing solutions that go beyond standards and technologies.”

This is our opportunity to use our global expertise and knowledge to make a positive impact on the world. 

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