Winning public trust in location data can pay off

Bushfires and COVID 19 have boosted location data literacy among Australians. And that’s good news for the public sector, writes Kirk Mitchell.

Kirk Mitchell

Commercial uses of location data have become increasingly commonplace ever since the advent of the smart phone. From planning the route to work to finding restaurants and booking taxis, location data is omnipresent and in our pockets.

 Recent events have prompted an awareness of location data that the public sector is not only driving, but benefiting from.

Our research shows improved location data literacy among Australians, and an increasingly positive perception of its value to both the individual and government agencies – especially when it comes to improving public safety.

Population warms to location data

A survey of 1,000 Australians we conducted in October 2020 revealed that almost half (46 per cent) were more willing to share location data over time.

National crises like the Black Summer bushfires and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic were major triggers for this shift in comfort, with citizens growing increasingly aware of the instant impact their data could have on protecting themselves and locating their loved ones during a natural or health disaster.    

From a government perspective knowing in real time where your citizens are and how to reach them is imperative to effective crisis response, including dispensing emergency assistance when required.

During the 2019-20 bushfires location-based alerts and evacuation warnings quite literally saved lives, and more recently location tracking for COVID-19 contact tracing became a key part of the global response to the pandemic.

But this data is also crucial in terms of planning for the future.

Our survey showed over half (55 per cent) of those surveyed use location data daily or a few times a week, with two fifths leaving some or all location data services switched on. 

Aggregated access to this information allows authorities to analyse where people are and how they move around – a powerful tool for decision makers in knowing how best to improve infrastructure or community services for a better city or council. 

There’s also a perceptible preference for location data to be used by the public sector rather than handed to private companies – driven by its tangible use in emergency response, pandemic control and improved health care services this year.

In fact, nearly two thirds of our survey respondents trust that their location data will be used positively by government agencies – compared to only 39 per cent for private companies.

Some hesitation

There is still some hesitation around sharing location data, with over half of the sample (52 per cent) saying the use of their data by companies or government agencies is something that concerns them.

However, the survey also suggests that Australians are most likely to feel comfortable when they know exactly how that data is being stored and used, and how it’s going to make their life easier – giving private companies and government agencies alike clear direction on how to approach the issue. 

Older and more rural citizens are most hesitant when it comes to either private or government use cases.

We believe this points to a need for both better education and infrastructure upgrades for the less tech-savvy layers of our society to bring the benefits to bear for all.

Those in the oldest age category were twice as likely to have no idea how to control their location settings compared to the population at large, and a lack of technological access in rural areas in general may be to blame.

Without the infrastructure required to use these services, it is harder to understand the importance of location and its benefits.  With the recent investments into NBN and 5G outlined in the Federal Budget, we will hopefully see momentum in bridging this gap.

In general, a positive shift in attitude towards location data signals good news for government agencies trying to juggle public safety with privacy. But the responsibility remains with them to inform and educate Australians, as well as staying ahead of the curve in terms of the latest innovations and security protocols to ensure data is safe and used in the public’s best interest.

There’s no doubt that disasters like the pandemic or the bushfires may occur in the future, and location-based services will only become more viable and valuable when it comes to responding to these events at speed and scale.

If Australians can agree that anonymous access to their location is not such a terrible thing if it’s used correctly it will represent a powerful evolution off the back of an incredibly hard year. 

Kirk Mitchell is Vice President, APAC Corporate Development at Netherlands-based mapping and location data company HERE Technologies.

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