GeoLocation and Self-Identity

‘Who am I’ is one of the most important questions we’ll ever ask ourselves.  There are some enduring aspects of our answer – our family and town of origin, fundamental personality traits, long-standing hopes and fears, among much else – but there are other parts of ourselves that change over time.  Where we go, what we do, and who we know help answer the question of self-identity and, whether we like it or not, our GeoData holds much of this information. Therefore, whoever has access to our GeoData also has significant insight into an otherwise personal task.

As we all work to answer the question of ‘Who am I,’ most of us don’t give much thought to the fact that others are trying to answer that question about us as well.  Companies, governments, even other individuals, use our GeoData to determine who they think we are and, often enough, to influence who we are.

Truth be told, this has always been true.  Well before the age of data, nosy neighbors and co-workers have had an interest in knowing about those around them and local news sources served as repositories of information about other people.  But there is something fundamentally different about what we used to know about one another and the world of GeoData. I’ll explore those differences a little later.

My project will field a survey that asks people about their GeoData and the degree to which their self-identity is revealed by what can be gleaned from such data.  As a scholar of health policy, I am particularly interested in data that reveals information about our health status and health behaviors.  Our health is yet another dimension of who we are and it happens to be a part of ourselves that many other people, for good and for ill, are interested in.

Ethics is about how we ought to live together.  The creation of and access to GeoData means we live together differently today than we did before.  That’s potentially a very good thing, but for it to be good, we must do the hard work of deciding who we are in relation to our data.   

Michael Rozier is a Jesuit priest and faculty member in health management and policy at Saint Louis University. His own life is fairly boring, but he likes living vicariously through others’ geolocations. Twitter: @RozierSJ