Sharing data: time for new rules

Data improves our lives. For one, we have been mapping data for centuries to help us navigate oceans, and data has only become more important over time. GPS data allows you to effortlessly make your way across city centres, while the world of healthcare has really benefited from data innovations that eliminate routine tasks, freeing up time for nursing staff to spend on patients. But do these pros outweigh the cons? Henk Scholten, CEO of Geodan and Professor of Spatial Informatics at VU University Amsterdam, shared his ideas.

Replica of the real world

Every day I witness how our location data make the world a slightly better place. For example, we use this data to help delivery drivers find the most efficient routes and identify risk for our clients. We use all this big data to create what we call ‘digital twins’: digital replicas of the real world which are increasingly realistic and that can therefore increase the number of items that are visible. We visualize problems and can experiment with potential solutions in order to create a smarter society.

Who really reads those disclaimers?

Of course, I am also well aware of the downside. Data is big business, after all, which comes with the risk of excess. The likes of Facebook and Google collect massive amounts of data on all of us and our behaviour. If you think about all the purposes for which we use Google, it’s shocking to discover just how much information we willingly ‘share’ with this tech giant every day, ranging from Google Maps to search requests to email and Google Trips. Sure, we all once – sort of – gave Google and Facebook permission to use our data, but who really takes the time to read those disclaimers?

What we need is an alternative, a ‘third way’, where the government sets the rules without being all-powerful and people remain the owner of their own data.

Chinese point system

The upshot is that not just Google and Facebook are cashing in on our data, but also that the companies purchasing this data aren’t always scrupulous in how they use it. You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Cambridge Analytica, which used the profiles of Facebook users to find the triggers to successfully persuade hundreds of thousands of Americans to vote for Trump. Examples in the US show just what can happen when people’s data is in the hands of corporations. Then there’s the other extreme, China, where the central government is in control of data, with the objective of unlimited monitoring and surveillance of its own citizens. One example of this is the point system introduced by the Chinese governmentto keep all its people under control. The government gives its citizens merits and demerits for their behaviour, and also works together with the e-commerce company Alibaba.

Time for a ‘third way’

Neither the US nor the Chinese model is desirable for Europe; we want to prevent companies from being able to use our data for whatever purposes they want, but are equally wary of an all-powerful ‘big brother’-type government. I think we need to aim for a hybrid model, a ‘third way’, where the government sets the rules without being dominant and people remain in control of their own data.

Blurring faces

Above all, companies need to examine themselves, which is exactly what we’re doing. As a major consumer of data, we use the data in our possession very conscientiously, although I admit the bulk of the data we use does not qualify as sensitive personal data and cannot be traced back to actual individuals. A lot of data is encrypted in such a way that you can’t actually identify any real people. For example, we anonymize any potentially sensitive information and blur any faces displayed. Yet we handle all data as carefully as possible, since we know you can find out all kinds of information by aggregating data. You might not even be aware that you’re doing this, but it’s still something to be avoided.

Life-or-death cases

Our policy is also to agree on a set of clear terms with our clients and strictly complying with those terms. One of those terms, for example, is that, as a rule, we never share client data with any third parties. I say ‘as a rule’, because there are always exceptional circumstances, actual life-or-death situations. Several years ago, for example, we were contacted by the police: a girl had gone missing and they’d found out we had the location data needed to trace her. This actually prompted a discussion at our company, as it had never been our intention to use data for this purpose, and wasn’t this something of a slippery slope. We decided in the end to use the application for this purpose, but just for this once. Fortunately, the girl ended up being found, alive and well. It just goes to show the power of data. We’re extremely aware of that power in everything we do, every day.


Geodan has two branches in the Netherlands

One location in Amsterdam and one in 's-Hertogenbosch. The general mailing and visiting address is President Kennedylaan 1, 1079 MB Amsterdam.


GPS Lat/Lon:Geodan ‘s-Hertogenbosch
51.69174 5.299683
GPS Lat/Lon:Geodan Amsterdam
52.342346 4.91305

Geodan ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Buitenhaven 27-A
5211 TP ‘s-Hertogenbosch
 +31 (0)73 – 6925 151


Geodan Amsterdam
President Kennedylaan 1
1079 MB Amsterdam
 +31 (0)20 – 5711 311