Ethical Insights

By Al Butler, GISP

Ed. note: This article originally appeared in the GISCI Newsletter and is reprinted here by permission.


The old joke goes, "Ethics and morals are different. Lawyers have ethics, clients have morals." If you are like most people, you believe that you are an ethical person, as well as a moral one. As a certified GIS Professional (GISP), you have actually sworn to uphold the ethical principles of GIS practice, as defined by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct. In this first of a series of articles on ethical professional practice, we are going to challenge you to better understand professional ethics and how they apply to decisions you make every day.

Each person who becomes a GISP agrees to abide by a Code of Ethics and its implementing Rules of Conduct. There are many aspects to the Code and Rules. This article will discuss one of the rules that you are likely to be called upon to apply daily and that is probably difficult to understand in its impact. We are talking about the metadata requirement.

Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct

Before we get into the details of that specific rule, we need to have a good foundation of basic understanding regarding the GISCI Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct. The Code of Ethics actually predates GISCI's formation. Since the Code had to be in place when the GISP program began, it had to be developed by URISA-The Association for GIS Professional at the same time the association developed the GISP certification program. The Rules of Conduct were added a few years later in order to provide for enforcement of the Code of Ethics. Collectively, the Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct provide guidance on how to live a professional life 24x7, not just at work, and serve as a general guide for lifetime decision-making. This approach was motivated by the belief that a professional person should embrace certain principles and resulting behaviors throughout his or her life.

The overall concept behind the Code of Ethics is the principle of treating others with respect, which means GISPs must consider the impact of their actions on others and modify their actions so as to show respect for others. In this context, 'others' means several things. One of those meanings is what we might call the dictionary version; i.e., individuals in the general population. A second definition is formed by our coworkers and other people in the geospatial profession. This subset of the general population presents additional requirements for ethical practice. Employers and organizations that fund our work-be they clients, academic institutions, or other organizations-are another special subset of the general population. Lastly, we have society at large. Where the first meaning targets our responsibilities to particular, identifiable persons, this last definition points toward our responsibilities to unnamed individuals and groups of people.

The Code of Ethics is structured as a set of goals toward which GISPs must continuously strive. Most are generally applicable to all persons, not just GISPs. For example, one obligation to society is to "practice integrity and not be unduly swayed by the demands of others" [I.1.2]. Another example is to "admit when a mistake has been made and make corrections where possible" [I.3.3]. Some elements of the Code are specific to information technology professions, such as "help develop security, backup, retention, recovery, and disposal rules" for data assets [II.2.7]. Only a relatively few rules are specifically aimed at the GIS Professional. Some good examples are "Be especially careful with new information discovered about an individual through GIS-based manipulations (such as geocoding) or the combination of two or more databases" [IV.1.2] and "make data and findings widely available" [I.2.1]. In all cases, the elements of the Code are written with a positive focus that urges the GISP to take a particular positive action.

One of the reasons for the GISP credential to exist is to be able to provide a mechanism to acknowledge and enforce the Code of Ethics. We quickly realized, though, that we needed more than the Code itself to be able to attain that objective. What we needed were specific rules and an ethics complaint procedure to provide an enforcement mechanism. These aspects of professional ethics were added to the program in 2006. If you look at the Code of Ethics as the constitution of the GISP program, then the Rules of Conduct are the laws and statutes that carry out the ideals of the constitution, while the Ethics Manual forms the administrative rules. In order to be most readily related to the Code of Ethics, the Rules of Conduct are organized under the same four group headings representing obligations to: society, employers and funders, colleagues and the profession, and individuals in society.

The Metadata Rule

There are 40 rules governing the behavior of GISPs, but we are going to focus on just one, Rule II.1, which addresses the need to provide four pieces of information, or metadata, about all publicly datasets released: source, date compiled, projection used, and contact information. 

Rule II.1 - All data shall have appropriate metadata documentation sufficient to meet the minimum standard, as stated here. All data to be published for general public consumption shall note:

  1. source(s) of data or at least from whom you obtained the data,
  2. date(s) collection/aggregation of data or at least the date you obtained the data, 
  3. projection, and
  4. author/compiler's contact information or other contact information.

At the time the Rules were being developed, I raised the issue of employers with policies not to disclose metadata, such as Google, which does not provide all this information on its web sites. (There was actually an article in a recent issue of a peer-reviewed journal regarding the lack of metadata on Google Earth.) My question was, "Is the obligation of a GISP to this employer greater than the GISP's obligation to supply metadata?" The answer to my question was that the private employer, Google, was not bound by the Rules of Conduct; however, any GISP working within the organization had to provide his or her employer with the required information. This answer rests substantially on the proprietary nature of Google's data assets, the acquisition and use of which are bound by various licensing agreements, including the one accepted by the end user. If you are using Google Earth, you are doing so as a license holder with specific rights and obligations; you are not part of the "general public." 

GISPs at public agencies have no such "third-party" relationship with the public, as everything produced at a governmental agency is essentially a public record. So, the short answer to the question of when this rule applies is, "It always applies when delivering work products to your employer." 

When we were developing the Rules of Conduct, we created a matrix of ancestry for each rule in order to be certain that it had a foundation within the Code of Ethics. The two "parents" of the metadata rule are the fifth bullet under Code Element II.1, which addresses the obligation to deliver quality work, and the fourth bullet included under Code Element II.2, which tells us to describe products and services fully. The intent is full disclosure. In Code Element II.1, disclosure is related to allowing others to be able to use the data for additional applications and specifically mentions providing metadata. In Code Element II.3, disclosure is tied to the need for users to fully understand what the data are telling them, which requires that the way the data were compiled to be well described.

There are also a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the family tree of the subject rule. Metadata helps us meet a number of requirements for our obligations to society at large and our colleagues. If we compiled the data ourselves, then we must tell how we did the work, because the collection method or analytical process that generated the data is just as important as the data itself toward understanding what it all means. If we used someone else's data, then we owe it to them to give them credit for their efforts. If we know how they compiled the data, then we need to pass along that information. If not, then we need to at least provide contact information for the original source so a downstream user can try to get that information directly. I would strongly suggest to you, though, that you not routinely publish data for which you lack information as to its origin.

There are also what might be called five brother and sister rules that tell the rest of the story with regard to metadata requirements in the Rules of Conduct. Rule I.2 tells us that we need to utilize standard analytical procedures. Including a description of your analytical methods in a section of the metadata document is one way to show that you have complied with this rule. 

Rule I.5 requires us to evaluate the work of others when that work is an input to our own. This gets back to the admonition to only publish data about which you know its derivation. Sometimes, though, the best data are the data you have, so you will need to include disclaimers and an explanation as to why you used a particular data source in your metadata. Be careful about mixing data with varying vintages. Doing so may require you to provide extensive explanations.

Rule II.8 says GISPs "shall describe our products and services fully, accurately, and truthfully; ... and shall not take advantage of the lack of knowledge or inexperience of potential clients or employers." A client of mine says that everything has to be boiled down to a "third grade level" when presenting the results of geospatial analyses. Said another way, we always need to bring the answer down to the street. This may mean providing two sets of metadata, one for our fellow professionals and another for the general user.

Rule III.2 requires GISPs to "recognize and respect the professional contributions of our employees, employers, professional colleagues, and business associates; and, we shall not use the product of others' efforts to seek the professional recognition or acclaim intended for the producers of the original work." Another way to say this is to give credit where credit is due. Failing to provide metadata telling the user the original source of the data could be construed as your trying to take credit for the work of others.

The last directly related rule is tied to the previous one. Rule III.7 commands GISPs to "honor the intellectual property rights of others, including the rights to software, data, and other relevant information and analysis associated with the work of others." The reference to software is not limited to following the terms of the user license. It also means that your metadata entries regarding data transformations, analytical processing, and similar automated aspects of the data creation process will need to name the specific tools and options used.

Complying with Rule II.1

The bottom line is the following set of guidelines for how to comply with the metadata rule's requirements related to source:

  1. If you developed the data yourself, then you need to describe how you did it. This description needs to be provided for the colleague and the lay person. 
  2. The contact portion of the metadata should include your identity and how to reach you. If you used someone else's data, then you need to provide the source and contact information, along with any caveats and explanations that either came with that data. 
  3. If you took the data from a published source, such as a book, journal article, or website, then it is sufficient to provide a normal citation.

You should have noticed that the rules talk only about content, not format. Part of the reason is that the form of the metadata needs to be appropriate for the form of the data, which may also affect the manner in which the metadata are delivered. To the extent practical, the method of acquiring the data should automatically transmit the metadata. Although there is no hard and fast set of guidelines for the degree of specificity required in your methodological explanations, a good rule of thumb to apply is that the information provided should be sufficient for a competent colleague to be able to understand and duplicate your process.

The best known metadata format is probably the standard adopted by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC). However, this format is so detailed and can produce such lengthy descriptions of the data that it could actually work against compliance with the metadata rule, particularly for lay persons. The Rule does not demand that you prepare a full metadata publication for every piece of data you release for use. The KISS principle applies: keep it simple. Less is more when it comes to providing a clear and useful description of the data's origin.

Let's say you are publishing 2009 population data for your county. The following metadata meets the requirements of Rule II.1:

The 2009 population estimate was derived from 2000 Census data published by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, which was adjusted using a 3.5% annual growth factor calculated from the number of residential building permits issued by the county and included municipalities for the years 2001-2008. For more information, contact the GIS Analyst at 407-555-8721 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The original sources of the data are listed (U.S. Bureau of the Census and local government building permits), as is the methodology used to create the population estimate. A point of contact has been provided in order to get more information about the population estimate and how it was calculated. Back in the office, you will need to retain the actual building permit data so the derivation process can be duplicated. Note that this metadata does not include a reference to the map projection used, as the information is a number in a report, but it does include the other key elements. 

This example reinforces the point that the scope of application for Rule II.1 is "all data," not just spatial data or maps. Anything that you release for use needs to include a brief description of what you did, even if it is just in an e-mail that transmits the work to your internal or external recipient. Don't be surprised if you sometimes get feedback that starts, "I thought you were doing it another way," or "We need it done this way."

So, do you still believe that you are an ethical GIS Professional? Are you meeting the requirement for metadata with every piece of information you provide to a coworker or citizen or publish on a website? If not, start today by examining your personal practices for telling people how you got the information you gave them. Doing so can lead to a greater understanding of the GIS profession by others. It may also lead you to new insights as to how the users you support thought you were getting the data you give to them.

Published Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Written by Al Butler, GISP

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