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Clear Laws on Spatial Tech Needed Globally, Attorney Urges

RICHMOND, Va. Feb. 7, 2011 Kevin D. Pomfret Hyderabad, India


At the Geospatial World Forum—a major international conference that brings together a wide variety of stakeholders and end-users in the global geospatial community—Pomfret gave two presentations dealing with the law and policy implications of spatial technology. The first was to the heads of national mapping agencies from around the world; the second was to government officials tasked with handling land administration and land management.

"National Mapping Agencies are being asked to help address a number of critical issues, such as economic development, transportation, infrastructure development, and national security," Pomfret said. "New sensors and technologies are making it easier for governments to collect, map and share data with one another. However, many are concerned about the legal and policy implications of doing so.  For example, the privacy implications can be confusing and conflicting, particularly internationally.

"The notion of privacy is of particular concern because it is rooted in culture and varies dramatically from one nation to the next," he continued. "Throw in the newness of spatial technology itself, and that complexity is compounded. People want to protect their privacy, but it is still unclear what privacy is from a location standpoint."

By way of illustration, Pomfret noted that Europeans tend to be less troubled by the presence of government-monitored, closed-circuit TVs in their countries than the notion of a private company collecting and using such data. "Google Street View makes many Europeans and their governments quite nervous," Pomfret observed. "By contrast, Americans would be more bothered by the idea of ‘Big Brother,’ the government, collecting street-level imagery. So there is very much a cultural component that needs to be considered with respect to this issue. Thus, national governments must develop internal policies that are appropriate for their legal systems and cultural mores, even as they sort out how and when to share data with global trade and governmental partners."

Even in the case of land management, issues of spatial law and policy are important. "For example, a decade ago, only a few people were qualified to go out and do a survey and these were subject to governmental regulation," he noted. "But the introduction and broad acceptance of geospatial technology is making it easier for the average person to collect and try to use spatial data. As technology evolves, when does this become appropriate? And how does policy change in response?"

While spatial technology is empowering people in new ways, Pomfret told the conference, what remains unclear is what impact this will have. "Accurate land administration/land management is fundamental to a country’s economic growth," he said. "Being able to prove land ownership is often critical, for instance, in order to obtain a loan from a bank.  However, in some countries, political and business elites may be benefiting from such uncertainty, so such measures could prove to be disruptive and threatening. Laws and policies must develop to allow such technology to be incorporated into the land administration/land management process."

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