Data asset security & sovereignty for nationally important geospatial datasets

Jul 22, 2021 3:20:27 PM / by Andrew Smith

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We keep hearing that data is the new oil and while you would be unsurprised to learn that here at NationalMap we have ALWAYS seen the value of high quality geospatial data – it seems the rest of the world is finally catching up with that concept.

Now, while those of us of a certain vintage can recall a time before cloud computing (where many organisations had a server room as part of their onsite premises) these days “the cloud” has completely changed how and where data is stored - both physically and virtually.

But what about ownership of data?

And here I don’t mean ownership of personal data, as that’s a whole different kettle of fish and not really my main area of interest – I mean of course geospatial data.

Because data can be a nebulous construct. For example, who owns the geospatial data about New Zealand? While it’s true that government agencies administer many fundamental national datasets, are they the datasets that actually get used in times of need or crisis?

Are they all fit for purpose?

In a number of instance they are, but for a significant number of applications this “government curated” data is not actually fit for purpose. For example, a road dataset designed primarily for labelling on a topographic map will not be suitable for generating turn-by-turn navigation.

This is why private companies (like NationalMap) obtain “raw data” and significantly improve it, so that it IS fit for purpose for commercial or other uses. These companies will then (rightly) claim ownership of that improved data, as it now contains all their IP (in terms of maintenance, curation and other improvements).

Sometimes those same private companies will supply that improved data for mission critical public services. This happens because while data often seems as if it is “freely available” almost everywhere, it actually requires highly experienced data scientists to CONSTANTLY maintain and curate it to ensure that it is current, complete and accurate. Only then is it truly data that you can actually rely upon to make good decisions.

So, while I’m sure we all want our critical public services to be using truly fit for purpose data (and sourcing that from commercial entities if necessary) what happens if those private companies are not New Zealand owned?

What happens (for example) if some executive in the US decides to simply discontinue data operations in New Zealand (because we are such a small part of their global operations and they just need to cut some cost)?

While some people might expect government agencies to own, curate, and manage all our mission critical national spatial data, to my mind, the important issue is that so long as the ownership of these nationally important datasets remains within New Zealand, it should not matter that the government doesn’t do this directly.

Now full transparency, of course a 100% kiwi-owned business like NationalMap has an interest in this particular concept of “data sovereignty”. But local ownership also provides the right degree of control over considerations like stewardship, analysis, dissemination and infrastructure (as well as the physical and virtual storage) of national data.

These questions around data asset security and sovereignty are growing and fast evolving.

All of which means that it’s more important than ever that governments have the right arrangements and policies in place to mitigate risk when it comes to the ongoing supply of nationally important spatial data.