This is a profile of PLACE, a member of Mozilla’s Data Futures Lab 2022 cohort. In conversation with Christopher Keefe.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital, mapping and locating roads, buildings, and houses can mean the difference between fatality and relief. Abidjan is one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities and sits on a landmass surrounded by water. The city is prone to flooding, receiving rainfall year-round and a striking average of 8.6 inches during the country’s wettest month of June. The floods often cause fatalities and infrastructure damages. Mapping the country's fast urban growth amidst these frequent floods is a pricy and often neglected task - but a problem that PLACE is working to remedy.
PLACE, a non-profit tech organization, is currently working in close collaboration with the Ivory Coast’s government to map and collect data about vulnerable and inaccessible areas. This will enable local authorities, community leaders, NGOs, and public and private entities to forge informed development plans, and prepare and respond effectively to disasters.
And while many companies today hoard data rather than share it, PLACE takes a refreshingly different approach: Through a stewardship licensing trust, PLACE ensures that the data remains under the country’s ownership, yet accessible to serve the public's interest.
“Public interest interventions such as mitigating the effects of climate change, providing affordable housing, digital financial services, determining locations for COVID 19 vaccination sites, developing natural disaster risk models, or documenting land rights – all require quality and reliable data. Yet, high-quality mapping data is not available in many parts of the world, and where it is, it doesn’t benefit people or societies equally,” remarks Keefe.
..Interventions such as mitigating the effects of climate change, providing affordable housing, digital financial services, determining locations for COVID 19 vaccination sites, developing natural disaster risk models, or documenting land rights – all require quality and reliable data. Yet, high-quality mapping data is not available in many parts of the world, and where it is, it doesn’t benefit people or societies equally
Christopher Keefe, PLACE
PLACE collects data using drones and street camera systems, processes the data, and stores a copy of it in the cloud. Members pay an access fee based on the type of organization (e.g. nonprofit vs commercial), and the original data is the property of the government.
Data Stewardship and Ethics
The organization works in partnership with the government, whereby the data remains as the country’s asset – and PLACE pays for its usage. In return, the government provides them with a license which they then use to grant access to their selected members.
With an understanding of both the dangers and opportunities access to such data provides, their members must be an organization in good standing and agree to the ethical use principles rooted in the Locus Charter - international principles in support of ethical and responsible practice when using location data. PLACE is also working on making licensing, governance, and membership agreements transparent and freely available through Creative Commons licenses.
“To ensure we cannot abuse a potential monopolistic position as the data grows over time, we want to house the licenses and the data in a trust stewarded by a separate corporate body from PLACE. PLACE will be connected to the Trust and will continue to act as the operational nonprofit collecting and paying for this data,” Keefe explains. “It is imperative that we enact a framework of governance, stewardship, and management that is ultimately in the hands of our Trustees,” he adds.
PLACE will bring this data stewardship philosophy to its work with Mozilla’s Data Futures Lab. Keefe is particularly excited about being part of communities that are working on data for good and advancing public data infrastructure.
Challenges and Big Wins
Keefe opened up about the challenges of setting up data stewardship structures like licensing, and membership agreements. Although they are necessary and critical to their work, it is a lengthy and rather slow process. Their work is also highly dependent on their cooperation with governments, and at times calls for a tightrope balance between navigating the public, private and non-profit sector needs.
Despite the teething challenges, PLACE implemented a test in Ghana in late 2020, using local talent. They are working with Spatial Collective, Micro Aerial Projects, and local partners in Kenya to coordinate drone imagery collection and labeling activities, and publish imagery on the PLACE data trust. Plans are underway to extend their Pioneer Partnership in Ivory Coast and collect imagery beyond the capital.
They have also engaged GovLab (NYU) as well as Future State to help them with an initial governance framework that informs members of how data is collected, accessed, and used.