30 Sep

Company Spotlight: Benchmark

By Conor White

The Benchmark Initiative was launched in 2019 by Ordnance Survey’s location data and property tech accelerator Geovation, based in London, United Kingdom, with support from Omidyar Network. The initiative is – in parallel – a funded entrepreneur strand and a thought leadership program, both exploring the ethical considerations of using location and geo-enabled data.

The American Geographical Society was given the opportunity to speak with two members of the team at Benchmark, Dr. Ben Hawes and Ms. Denise McKenzie about the initiative’s mission, current projects, and future plans. Dr. Hawes is the Lecture Series Director at Benchmark and has a background in the world of ethics surrounding smart cities and artificial intelligence, having worked on the United Kingdom government’s technology policy for fifteen years. Ms. McKenzie is the initiative’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program Director as well as being Chair of the Board at the Association for Geographic Information (AGI-UK). She has over twenty years’ experience working in the international geospatial community and has worked with the United Nations around standards within the community.

Benchmark is delivered by Geovation, an innovation arm of the Ordnance Survey, the UK’s national mapping agency since 1791. Geovation was started five years ago as a means of ‘maturing’ the geospatial community through engagement with the startup and broader IT communities while looking to make positive change happen.

Geospatial data applications are growing rapidly in both performance and the number of platforms in which they are now used, the GPS receivers in cell phones being the most well known of these. This is making possible an ever-growing range of applications. Location data has only surfaced recently in the international data ethics debates. Benchmark’s mission is to mature this dialogue and explore the unique aspects of ethical location data use and bring the learning from the rest of data ethics into the geospatial world as its importance increases. Dr. Hawes said that “location is going to be absolutely essential if we’re going to really deal with climate change, better use of location data and management of resources and energy.” Benchmark is trying to get an integrated, open conversation going so that people designing applications can become more aware of how they can negatively affect people and markets, while also producing the positive view of what ethical use is and how it should be judged, what is deemed acceptable and what is not. As we have all learned with data online, recognising and addressing risks is the best way to capture benefits for everyone.

There are two primary elements to Benchmark, one being the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. This program is directed by Ms. McKenzie and is aiding the development of applications and services that illustrate the risks, opportunities and ethical considerations of location data. There are currently four entrepreneurs on the program, investigating areas of transport data, health, and public understanding of risk; Emerging Field, Gather, Projects by IF, and TravelAi. These start-ups are receiving £10,000 to £50,000 in funding to build applications and programs dedicated to addressing ethical challenges posed by the proliferation of location data and geospatial technology. The first of these tools is already available to help with protection of privacy in the use of mobility data. Full details of this tool and the links to the jupyter notebook can be found here.

The other element to the Benchmark Initiative is the Lecture and Webinar series. Dr. Hawes has been running these discussion events convening thought leaders and innovators in the geospatial sciences to discuss the ethical usage of geodata and its potential for social impact. The American Geographical Society’s chairman, Dr. Christopher Tucker took part in the first of these lectures in October 2019 discussing the ethics of geospatial enterprise data. The COVID-19 pandemic has put responsible use of location data on everyone’s agenda. Benchmark have developed the Lecture Series to respond to how location data is used in managing the pandemic, including in managing movement of people..

Based on their experience of delivering the two primary elements to the Benchmark Initiative, the team believe that there is a pressing need for agreed international guidelines on responsible use of location data, to help guide users to good practice, and hold poor practice to account. They have teamed up with the American Geographical Society’s EthicalGEO initiative to support collaboration on a new global charter to guide the responsible use of location data. The two initiatives from the United Kingdom and the United States are drafting an international set of principles and guidance for the ethical and good practice in using location data. The Locus Charter’s vision is a world where location data is utilized for the betterment of the world and all species that live in it. The principles of the charter will be available for international public comment, and ultimately, implementation by location data practitioners across all sectors.

Benchmark is located in London, United Kingdom and is raising the standards for location integrity while exploring the ethics behind the responsible use of location data. If you or someone you know would like to get involved with the initiative or to find out more about their current and future projects, connect with the team at benchmark@geovation.uk.