The Pros and Cons of Using Geolocation in Online Community Engagement


Geolocation is something we hear more and more about from potential clients in the online community engagement space. It can be extremely useful, for example, for a community member wanting to drop a pin in an interactive map where they are standing, perhaps to report an issue or to suggest an improvement.

But some are taking this idea further and using location to gather data about the participants in their engagement projects and to make judgements about their rights to participate or the value of their contributions. It’s an attractive proposition, the idea that we know where people submit their data from and so feel more sure about who we are speaking with. Geolocation is something our clients are able to do on their EngagementHQ sites using simple third party tracking software but it’s not something that we necessarily advise. Here are some reasons why.

1. Who people are is much more important than where they happen to be on a given day

I have yet to see the location technology that can really tell you anything about who someone is. Generally our clients want to know if someone lives, works or plays in their area. They want to know their age, gender and perhaps their ethnicity so they can ensure they are talking to a representative sample of the population. They might even ask for an address but I’ve never seen anyone add a the question ‘where are you right now?’ on a sign up form.

2. Privacy and personal data rights

With the issues of privacy and personal data finally receiving the attention they deserve, it’s much better to rely on people to tell you where they are, thus getting explicit permission rather than tracking them, possibly without them being aware. Jurisdictions leading the way on data privacy like Europe and Canada, along with some US Federal Statutes such as COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act ) are starting to form an opinion that IP addresses are PII, or “personal data”. It’s fair to say that, as regulations tighten, this is not the sort of data you want to be gathering without very good reason and very specific permission from participants.

3. How meaningful is the data anyway?

There are many technical and non technical weaknesses to the way geolocation works that make this information unreliable at best. A participant might be a local resident who is out of town for the day or uses a VPN to shield privacy, this should not detract from the value of their input. Conversely, they might be a tourist who happens to be using an in town wifi network temporarily.

We need to take care about whose contributions we value and, for the reasons laid out above, location is not necessarily a factor that should be taken into account.

4. It’s much more effective just to ask them

My advice to people wanting to know more about their participants is just to ask them.

“Yes but what if they don’t tell the truth?” I hear you ask. Well why would they lie to you? Only if you give them a reason to.

Nobody is going to lie to you if you set the right context.

Imagine the sign up form that tells you:

We value contributions from everybody but it is useful for us to understand more about you, please let us know if you live, work or play in the area’.

There is no reason to lie in response to this.

I recognize that there are rare cases where we see people trying to ‘stack’ both face to face and online engagement processes to influence decision makers. Geolocation is never really going to prevent this. If you can bus people into a meeting you can most certainly get them contributing from a location within your boundary. The best protection from this, both online and face to face, is to use your engagement process to draw on ideas, stories and inspiration and to avoid polls and votes.

If you are really concerned you are going to get rogue sign ups, then simply ask for a verifiable detail (a mobile phone number perhaps) and state clearly that you will be calling a sample of participants to verify their identities. It’s pretty easy and affordable to do this.

But let’s not get carried away with paranoia. As a general rule if you give people no reason to lie, they will not. And who knows, some of these outsiders might have valuable insights for you.

A good idea is a good idea whoever or wherever it comes from. Similarly a bad idea doesn’t get any better if it’s submitted from the geographic center of your city.

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