Today the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics has launched its first piece of ethics guidance – focused on addressing ethical issues in the use of geospatial data for research and statistics. Alistair Calder, Head of Geospatial at the Office for National Statistics, outlines what this draft guidance hopes to achieve.

When the UK Statistics Authority first established its Centre for Applied Data Ethics in February, a key strand of the Centre’s work was to produce user-friendly, practical guidance addressing real ethical issues currently faced by the research and statistical community. The ambition is for this guidance to be co-developed in collaboration with the user community.

Today we are delighted to publish the Centre’s first piece of draft ethics guidance, which focuses on ethical considerations in the use of geospatial data for research and statistics.

Geospatial data and tools provide huge benefits and are fundamental to the production of statistics. They provide new means of integrating, analysing and interpreting information for the public good, allow us to locate services such as schools and hospitals and to plan local transport and housing. They enable us to monitor weather and traffic events and plan flood defences and have recently proven vital in managing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, although the use of geographic data and methods bring real value, geospatial data brings with it ethical considerations common to all types of data – but also some of its own.

Since data often locates individuals, addresses or businesses and because it is often sourced from ‘personal’ devices such as mobile phones, geospatial data may be considered by the public to be a somewhat special or intimate type of data. This is particularly relevant since locational information is ubiquitous in modern society – we carry personal smart devices, we drive cars which are located by GPS or are captured on CCTV and other sensors. There is wide public acceptance of this type of locational tracking but of course there are ethical dimensions to the way we use these and other types of spatial data in research.

These include the potential for discrimination or harm based on location, issues related to maintaining privacy and protecting the identity of data subjects, the potential for bias in data sources or our research, and ensuring inclusivity in sources, particularly where digital technologies are concerned.

While there are a number of sources for guidance on data ethics, and the Locus Charter proposes a set of principles for use of geospatial data, there is not much direct, real world advice to guide the geospatial researcher or analyst – particularly in relation to work with statistics. These guidelines attempt to put that right – providing a discussion of the main issues – and critically a checklist of points for users to consider.

We will not have got this all right, or covered all the angles – but we hope this draft is a useful first step.

We are publishing these guidelines as an open draft and strongly welcome comment and feedback from the wider user community.


We hope that you find this guidance useful and informative. If you are a user, particularly a new user, of geospatial data within the research and statistical space, we would love to hear your feedback or suggestions for improvements. Feedback can be provided by contacting the data ethics team – we look forward to hearing from you.