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Understanding legalities and tech convergence

Kevin Pomfret,
Editor – Policy,

highlights the legal
and policy challenges
associated with
technology convergence
in the geospatial industry

The integration of geospatial technology and geoinformation with other technologies opens up a number of business opportunities

The geospatial industry has undergone a series of significant transformations since its evolution. Initially, only the government agencies and large industrial sectors – such as utility and telecommunication – were the primary customers. But, over the past decade, the customer base has shifted to include a much broader set of industries as well as the consumer market. However, for the most part, geospatial technology has tended to exist as its own silo within a service or solution. This is beginning to change as geospatial technology and geoinformation are being integrated into and with other technologies.

A practical requirement

This integration allows companies to provide a more complete solution to end users and further expands the power of ‘where.’ Unfortunately, such convergence of technologies also raises a number of new legal and policy challenges that the geospatial community needs to address.

Though the geospatial industry is facing numerous challenges, one such challenge is that the community will have to deal with additional legal and regulatory bodies. A simple example is the migration of geospatial sensors to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. While sensors have been deployed on satellites, manned aircraft, and ground-based geospatial technology for years, their deployment on drones has caused a great deal of concern around the world. As a result, traditional geospatial providers and users like engineers and surveyors are now forced to consider decisions being made by the regulatory bodies that regulate the national airspace. The primary concern of these regulatory bodies is safety, and therefore, the importance of geoinformation to a society is often not understood. In addition, due to privacy and homeland concerns associated with drones, geospatial professionals will soon have to deal with agencies that address these issues too. Many of these see the collection and the use of geoinformation more like a threat, than a value, to the society.

Legalities involve understanding

Another issue that is likely to arise is that many of these new legal and regulatory bodies often do not have an understanding of geospatial technology or the value of geoinformation. As a result, they are more likely to introduce laws, policies and regulations that are overly restrictive or have unintended negative consequences for the broader geospatial community. For example, companies such as Uber and Lyft are capturing and using geoinformation in innovative ways. Their Smartphone apps allow users to locate order and follow private drivers to take them to their destination. Such business models are proving to be quite disruptive to the traditional taxi industry. At the same time, lawmakers and regulators are struggling to adapt the existing laws and regulations pertaining to taxis to Uber and Lyft drivers. As a result, some regulators have suggested prohibiting Uber and Lyft from including maps on their Smartphone apps, thereby making it difficult for a user to know when a private driver is nearby. While such an approach might limit Uber and Lyft’s competitive advantage over the traditional taxi, it would be a misguided fix to the larger problem that the legal and policy communities have been unable to keep up with technology.

Taking the legal route

Moreover, when lawmakers do try to address a legal or a policy issue involving geoinformation, the trend

has been to introduce new laws and policies rather than adapt existing laws or policies. This trend is the result of several factors. First, lawmakers often receive more publicity from stakeholders and their constituents by creating new legislation rather than amending or broadening existing legislation. Also, regulatory bodies tend to focus on particular industry segments or technologies, such as energy, transportation, telecommunications, etc. These bodies have limited ability to change laws and policies subject to other bodies. And often such issues cut across a number of legal and policy disciplines, such as privacy, intellectual property rights,

homeland security, data quality, and technology domains. As a result, it is sometimes easier to create something new rather than modify a variety of otherwise unrelated laws and regulations. For instance, members of the International Bar Association proposed a convention to address a variety of legal and policy issues associated with the collection and use of geoinformation concerns.

An associated risk is that these new bodies will develop new laws and policies that are difficult for the industry to conform. Numerous lawmakers and regulators have already expressed their concerns over the privacy issues associated with the collection, use and distribution of geoinformation. However, in many cases, each legal and regulatory body has developed its own definition of what geoinformation should be protected and how.

In many countries, different regulatory bodies are responsible for mobile devices that collect geoinformation, smart grids and intelligent transportation systems. Each is developing their own definition of protected geoinformation. In many cases, these definitions do not conform. Requirements also differ as to how long the information can be stored and whether it can be distributed to third parties. These differences, however, will not have a greater impact on companies that work in one industry sector. They will, though, become increasingly difficult for geospatial companies that are trying to develop products and services to be used across industry sectors. The companies will need to spend time and money, making sure they identify and comply with diverse and, in some cases, divergent regulations. Geospatial companies that wish to integrate geoinformation from different industry groups also need to identify understand and comply with each set of applicable regulations or laws.

The way forward

The convergence of geospatial technology and geoinformation with other technologies opens up a number of different business opportunities. However, it will also result in a number of new challenges. Some of the most difficult challenges will deal with addressing new legal and regulatory bodies and regimes. Companies that understand and prepare for these challenges will have a significant advantage over those that wait.