Location Data is Not Location Information

Where are you?  Do you know where you are?  Are you sure?  Location is a common parameter used in the provision of context-based services.  Information technology can be used to capture data about locational parameters but quality information about location can still be difficult to find.  Location data is not location information.

Where am I?  May be I am at work but my employer has property at a number of locations; each location has a number of buildings.  Each building has a number of floors.  Each floor has a number of public and private areas, some of which I am authorized to access and some areas that I am not authorized to access.  Then there are the other spaces in the building to consider, such as the space between floors and walls, and the roof of the building.  May be I am ‘at work’ but working remotely, perhaps visiting a client.

Was my access card used to gain access to a building or an area in the building?  If a card containing my access details was used, was it my card or a copy of my card?  Did I personally use the card?  If so, what time was that?  How accurate is that time?  Was the system clock changed when the UK moved from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time?

My mobile phone identifies its location but the location is five miles away from where the phone is truly physically located due to transmitter issues.  Am I at the same location as my mobile phone?  How does anyone know that it is my mobile phone?  I have a mobile phone with me, but is this the same phone?  How many phones do I have?  Could a phone have been cloned?

My credit card usage provides a trail of activity but was I using the card?  Was someone else using my card details with or without my consent?  The credit card data shows that a purchase was made thousands of miles away but the original point of the transaction was much closer to home.  Is the data from the credit card company reliable?  Could more than one credit card be in my possession?   May be I am an authorized user of a credit card owned by someone else?

My car registration number has been picked up on a traffic camera.  Was it my car, or a car with my number plate on it?  Was it still my number plate or have I recently changed the number plate? Perhaps the change of ownership details are still in the post on their way to the vehicle licensing agency.  Was I driving the car?  Are you sure?  Could the camera show someone who looks like me?

Do I have a GPS device?  Am I inside a building?  Are any proximity sensors triggered inside or outside a building?  If so, did I trigger them?  Could they have been triggered by a moth or a cat?  Could my IP address be traced?  How do you know what my IP address is?  How can you be sure it is me using the address?

Movement has triggered a motion sensor.  Thermal imaging shows the outline of a person.  Could it be me or is it a security guard on a routine patrol?  Is it time for the guard to check the area?  Where was the guard’s last known location?  Did the guard have time to get from his last known location to here?  How far away was it? How would he have travelled?  What route could he have taken?  Was his route clear?

Are there any data in my recent emails or social media usage to indicate my location or what my plans may have been?  Can you be sure that I posted the data on social email?  Is the pattern of usage, phrasing of language consistent with my previous posts?  Was I telling the truth or providing you with false information?

Information technology provides the means to capture data from which location may be potentially derived, however, location information can only be derived by interpreting correlated location data to structure a meaningful context from which location information can be derived.

Do you know where you are?  We use visual data to act as formal or informal signposts, clues that we can correlate to form a context from which we can deduce our location.  Translating the same visual clues into digital data for computer processing extracts location data from the social, cultural context of personal history and personal experience.  Data from Google maps may suggest my location is a lake but that does not mean that the information about my location is accurate.  When location-related data have been collected, they need to be interpreted in a meaningful context in order to derive meaningful location information.  Location-based data should not be confused with location information.


Further Reading: location-based services are discussed in Chapter 5 and Chapter 13.

Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2014), ‘Location Data is Not Location Information’, 7 November 2014, http://www.managinginformation.org/location-data-location-information/, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]



© 2014 Sharon A Cox