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GIS technology can be useful for identifying correlations, but the information must not fall into the wrong hands, ...
GIS technology can be useful for identifying correlations, but the information must not fall into the wrong hands, says Jon Hanlon

Geographic information systems can help councils deliver better services by 'mapping' their communities, but civil liberties groups are concerned about the information being gathered by councils.

The system links together sets of data by location and can therefore provide a fascinating insight into trends in certain areas.

Brent LBC health action zone used such a system to collate data from different agencies including the police, council and public registers to tackle common issues.

For example low-income data, and even information on whether there have been any deaths in the family, can be compared to data on the number of school exclusions to find out if the two issues are linked.

The system in Brent revealed a correlation between domestic violence and teenage crime. Such patterns of domestic violence were consequently presented to a Domestic Violence Forum in the borough.

As well as formulating policy, geographical information can be used to help residents to gain better access to services. Wiltshire CC and Swindon BC have teamed up with four district councils and the police, fire and health services in the region to provide residents with greater access to services.

Naturally, this does not involve data on domestic violence and other sensitive issues but centres on property information. This helps residents to find local councillors and report problems such as faulty street lighting.

Management consultant at Wiltshire CC John Geary says: 'The principle aim is to enable local people to access local information when and where they want. In the longer term, as more local people gain access to the internet, we expect it to become an increasingly used alternative to other forms of communication, in particular telephone enquiries.'

The Neighbourhood Statistics Service, part of the Office of National Statistics, uses a GIS to provide information on subjects such as the location of properties or streets and council boundaries.

The service says it is 'abandoning the 'list' method of searching which is becoming increasingly cumbersome as the amount of information in this rich databank [geographical information] continues to grow'.

So geographical information systems are growing rapidly and can hold data ranging from information on drug use among teenagers to where a councillor is based. It is this lack of definition that concerns civil liberties groups.

A spokesman for Liberty says: 'The information gathered by local authorities should only be what they strictly need - and they should only hold that data for the purpose given. We are concerned that data is extremely leaky. It can flow with unerring ease to other parts of the public sector.'

He says GIS can help in a number of areas, for example solving traffic problems or reducing crime, but there needs to be a serious reassessment of how this data is gathered and used.

He adds: 'Collecting geographic information is a problematic area and each issue must be treated on its own merits. For example, it is alright for the police to know about domestic violence levels, but I don't see how this is necessary for education departments. I am sure the motives are good, but this sort of data can quite easily fall in to the hands of bureaucrats for wild and wonderful purposes.'

The unspecified nature of GIS data is the root cause of concern on the issue and the ODPM's guidance does little to bolster the confidence of sceptics.

It says: 'Geographic information is information that can be related to a particular location on the Earth, particularly information on natural phenomena, cultural or human resources.

'It covers an enormous range of subject areas, including the distribution of natural resources, the incidence of pollutants, descriptions of infrastructure such as buildings, utility and transport services, patterns of land use and the health, wealth and employment of people.'

Brent health action zone's examination of geographic data looked at the relationship between domestic violence, low-income families, social housing, drug offending, noise complaints and mental health in order to highlight the concentration of key risk areas.

This sort of data can be used by councils to ensure effective allocation of resources, but authorities will have to consider the ethics of collecting information on such sensitive subjects.

Yaman Akdeniz, who is director of a non-profit civil liberties organisation called Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties, says the key is to ensure the information is not linked to people's identities.

He says: 'The data needs to be anonymised. The results of these studies are important, but the information does not need to be related to individual residents.'

Geographical information systems are just one of the myriad opportunities emerging for councils striving to ensure they are at the forefront of technology, but the accompanying issues should be of paramount concern to councils seeking to ensure they do not trample on residents' civil liberties.

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