What Makes ‘Do No Harm’ Extra Difficult in the Geospatial World Today?

June 14, 2017

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Editor's Note: In a field that evolves as rapidly as geospatial information science and technologies, ethical practices and behaviors are increasingly nuanced, particularly as data users and producers are now citizens around the world. What factors make the intersections of ethics and geospatial so complex? How are the professionals handling these matters, and how can we keep ourselves and others informed?  Join Directions Magazine as we begin a short series of articles examining these topics.

Ethics and the geospatial industry: a combination so bursting with relevance to our world today that choosing a single starting point is a challenge. We can talk about cars, such as how China is on its way to requiring 100% compliance with state-monitored navigation systems installed in cars in western China, or how borrowing money to buy a car could mean allowing the lender to track and even control the car. We can talk about our houses, like how a realtor can now type your home’s address into their database and can then insert their banner ads directly on to your Internet browser (which it accesses via your computer’s IP address), a practice known by the welcoming term, sniper farming.  And then of course there’s our cell phones, our most precious personal digital device, the one that many of us keep within reaching distance 24/7. Our conflicting expectations are part of the problem. We want to have our breakfast sandwich ready eggs-actly as we approach the restaurant, but we don’t want Uber continuing to monitor where we go after they drop us off.

You might first associate the term ethics with ancient Greek philosophers debating philosophical morals, far apart in time from any context involving a cell phone, which is why the terms values, choices, and responsibilities are helpful ones to evoke the ideas I’m talking about here. It’s at the scale of the individual recognizing a situation and appreciating how his or her actions and decisions affect the outcome, but organizations, industries, and institutions have necessary roles for a cultural shift to take place.

“The geographic information science and technology professions need cultures that promote learning the moral will to do the right thing, the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is, and engagement with values and virtues in research and professional activities.”

-          F. Harvey, in “Values, choices, responsibilities: Thinking beyond the scholarly place of ethics for the GIScience and technology profession and GIScience,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 2014.

These aren’t new concerns for the geospatial sciences, but we have only ever debated, proposed, and implemented partial educational and professional strategies. Meanwhile, disconnects between the information on the map and the designer or producer of the representation, for example, have only expanded and become more complicated. In 1991, J. B. Harley noted:

“Maps, rather than resulting from primary observations of the world, are increasingly derived from secondary packages of predetermined information. Thus, when the data arrives in the cartographer's hands the map is already "pre-censored;" it is often too late to challenge its content from an ethical standpoint.”

-          J.B. Harley, in “Can there be a cartographic ethics?”  Cartographic Perspectives, 1991.

This suggests a simple sequential experience that isolates the interaction between a mapmaker and a purveyor of predetermined information, an exchange almost charming in its intimated simplicity. Would that a modern cartographer had only that as her ethical concern!  Given the tremendously diverse ways that geospatial data, predetermined or otherwise, are exchanged across the world today, there are countless points of friction that could be points of concern for a geospatially-informed ethicist.

Of course, there aren’t many geospatially-informed ethicists out there, but that’s just as well. Professional ethicists, geospatially-informed or not, cannot be the mediators or arbiters of the countless ethically charged, location-enabled exchanges that we undergo in modern life. We may develop guidelines that will help structure formal deliberations on official maps or data but the informal and unofficial uses are equally problematic — and yes, the word official itself can be contentious in its many assumptions.

At every stage of our interactions with geospatially-informed materials and events, there are decisions being made that have the potential to bring or cause harm to individuals, organizations, institutions, and society. Individual privacy is a hot topic, kept in the limelight partly because of the way our phones (cars, computers, etc.) record and publicize our daily whereabouts. Other digital technologies are part of the overall privacy picture too: the many tens of thousands of drones that are being put into flight each month and the new satellites tasked with capturing increasingly high-resolution global activity. How much respect and attention will these sources of potential privacy infractions receive when even more high profile cases are at play, such as the Internet itself?

What makes this intersection of geospatial technologies (GIS, remote sensing, and related mapping technologies) and ethically-informed decisions such a complex and problematic one? What are the factors that complicate the ethical facets of the decisions that are informed by data and imagery?

  1. Honestly, the pace at which technological developments are taking place is beyond anything that geospatial professionals have ever experienced before. The application areas are diverse, vast, and transformative, from the tremendous geospatial implications of self-driving cars to the indoor mapping technology offered by systems like Google’s Tango.  The Internet of Things is more of a reality each day, and I’ll go on record here to say that more than 80% of those things has a geospatial component. No one single person or group of people can stay on top of these developments AND have a normal day job, and it is no one’s day job.
  2. Almost everyone is a consumer or producer of geospatial information in one way or another, but only a global handful know anything about geography, cartographic processes, map generalization, map projections, redistricting, GIS, spatial reference systems, imagery, how GPS works, metadata, geocoding, reverse geocoding, geodemographic segmentation, locational precision and accuracy, statistical sampling, spatial autocorrelation, the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem, or how easy it is to generate a choropleth map that misrepresents the data on which it was built. Basically, it’s safe to say that whole swaths of the public are geospatially clueless. More importantly, there is a significant and growing gap between those with zero understanding about these topics and the small group of experts that know a lot. We lack cohorts of advanced beginners who can articulate basic but important ideas, who can contribute meaningfully to conversations about maps being “error-ridden lies,” or what it would mean if Census data were to be undermined, compromised, or unavailable.       
  3. There is precious little coordination among the stakeholders in these domains, including multiple levels of government, industry, institutions, and academia. There are efforts to improve coordination and organization within and across sectors of the federal government, such as the various Congressional Geospatial Data Acts (2015 – 2017) and the FLAIR Act of 2017, but these compete against many others for attention on turbulent political agendas. Every state has a Chief Information Officer and many also have Chief Technology Officers, but only a few have a Chief Geographic Information Officer. The Federal Geographic Data Committee and members of its National Geospatial Advisory Committee produced a recent report documenting why geospatial standards will be a national asset, once they move past this aspirational stage.  Why is the lack of coordination problematic for ethical matters?  The absence of standards and consistencies and the presence of gaps and oversights are ripe breeding ground for mistakes and missteps.
  4. Not only is it difficult (i.e. impossible) to remain current on the range of technology developments themselves, but it is equally challenging to maintain a well-rounded understanding of any subsequent or affiliated ethical implications.  Formal geospatial curricula, whether for a degree or some type of professional development, is more likely to focus on technology training than the values, choices, or responsibilities of their use. Hundreds of universities and colleges offer geospatial degrees, credentials, and certificates, but there are no common curricula or learning objectives and no accreditation process for any of the geospatial content, much less any part that requires demonstrating an understanding of relevant ethical practices and behaviors. The GIS Certification Institute mandates that every certified Geographic Information Systems Professional read, understand, and follow a GIS Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct and ASPRS has a Code of Ethics as well. Such documents are necessarily general, and certain basic principles have been consistent for millennia (i.e., do no harm to others). The trials lie in the rapidly evolving possibilities for “doing” and “harm” and “others.”

Most of us manage to get through our personal and professional lives without majorly negatively impacting others as we produce, use, and share geospatial data, products, and activities, at least that we’re aware of.  In the world, most people are good, and a few have always been very bad. Location-enabled services themselves are neutral. They work equally well for those who want to sell you new tires for your car and those who want to steal those tires. Is it reconcilable or not to protect privacy and still have precise location data available? Should it be a challenge to adhere to the GISP or ASPRS Code of Ethics and the MAPPS Code of Ethics, and still be consistently competitive when bidding for jobs? 

What we face is an unparalleled potential for abuse and misunderstanding in this complex area, and these topics of values, choices, and responsibilities will be the focus of a series of articles in Directions Magazine in the coming months. Join us in this community conversation as we hear from invested leaders, share our understanding of the most effective ways to teach ourselves and the public through education and professional development, and envision what the near future holds. Yuval Noah Harari contends in “Home Deus that our dataism has already brought us to the brink of intelligence versus consciousness, with algorithms having taken the lead in decision-making. Troublesome science fiction, or what people at GEOINT heard just this month as Robert Cardillo described the desired direction for future efficiencies at the NGA?  Both.  



Harley, J. B. (1991). Can there be a cartographic ethicsCartographic Perspectives. 10: 9-16.

Harvey, F. (2014). Values, choices, responsibilities: thinking beyond the scholarly place of ethics for the GIScience and technology profession and GIScience, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 38:4, 500-510, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2014.956299. 


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