How Do We Integrate Ethics into Geospatial Education?

August 9, 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? This article – one in a short series by Directions Magazine - highlights key issues around education.

A marine science firm is contacted by a mining company about exploring for rare earth elements in the ocean floor. A privately-owned specialized research vessel takes them to a spot in the Indian Ocean for some weeks of intensive data collection involving a remotely-operated underwater vehicle. Before the trip, a technologist with the firm has customized and installed a set of cameras and sensors designed to capture ocean floor data at a millimeter level resolution, optimal so that geologists might later target extraction efforts. However, processing the massive amounts of topographical data that they collect (millimeter!) takes significantly more time than anticipated, in part because it regularly exceeds their available computational capacity, and they must pause while they procure additional funds to migrate to higher performance environments. Meanwhile, the technologist realizes he has become much more interested in refining his customized mapping platform for his own projects and much less interested in what happens to the rare elements that might exist in those remote sediments. He, his firm, and the mining company are beleaguered with intellectual property conflicts.

This realistic scenario contains several of the nuanced elements that complicate ethically-informed decisions within the geospatial realm today. The dramatic pace of technological advances, the diverse factors motivating stakeholders, and the need to work in specialized and powerful environments to complete tasks are all contributing variables. Together, these factors make it both interesting and challenging to design ethics-informed training for individuals and groups that can benefit from them.

Ethics vs. Practicing Wise Behaviors and Actions

As a noun, “ethics” implies content that seems vague and distinct from other material that is being learned in a geospatial course. Values, choices, and responsibilities, or practical wisdom, may be better terms to convey the intent; or, how about changing the underlying premise by substituting verbs or action words? Yes, there are details about how the use of geospatial data and technologies affects individuals, society, and our environment that can be learned, but it is the act of applying that knowledge in an informed manner that ultimately matters.

Having a guide to follow makes practicing a behavior easier to do and the Seven-Step Guide to Ethical Decision-Making by Michael Davis has oft been linked to the geospatial domain. One particularly effective component of the Davis guide is the section where one is prompted to compare the options being considered against possible audiences or outcomes. For example, the Publicity test asks, “Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper? Would I want my Grandma to know?” The Defensibility test states, “Could I defend this choice of option before a committee of peers or a Congressional committee, without appearing self-serving?” But regardless of which guide one uses, what matters is that it structures the sequence of thinking before doing, whether it is for scoping a project, collecting data, sharing data, or designing a map that conveys results.

Practicing, Regularly (Not Just Once and in Week 12)

When someone is facile and competent in a subject area, she or he makes decisions and takes actions quickly and appropriately, adjusting those decisions and reactions as needed in response to the situation. Flowing through a sequence of guided steps takes place as a habit of mind requiring little deliberation, and this is one way that differentiates experts from novices. Having a fluid habit of mind to practice wise behaviors and actions is a desired characteristic of a geospatial professional, but there are no shortcuts or magic pills available to reach that condition. More often than not, if “ethics” is listed as a topic in the syllabus of an introductory GIS course, it appears as the topic of a single lecture towards the end of the academic term. This placement is not necessarily because the instructor doesn’t consider the topic important or as relatively important as others, but sometimes because they don’t feel the confidence or competence to address the content differently.

As one alternative, micro-insertions throughout the term may be a solution. In Week 1 it could be a discussion about location privacy and cell phones, in Week 4 a short lesson about distorting perceptions while learning about projections and coordinate systems, in Week 7 a just-in-time teaching moment about overcoming the barriers to completing metadata records, and in Week 11, a group exercise that highlights the merits and pitfalls of relying on volunteered geographic information and open source tools. The total time spent on these might not be more than the one single long session but the learners have had ideas presented in diverse contexts, modeling the range of real world situations.

The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all for this content. Modifying the micro-insertion approach for short professional development workshops can be done. For others, deeper learning and practice through whole courses on “GIS and Society” may be the right choice for some curricular programs.

Practicing: Regularly and with Authentic Situations

Scenarios and case studies are powerful and effective learning tools. They can be used to establish a situation when a decision has yet to be made, or they can describe a decision already made and the learning takes place when recreating the types and details of decision points that would have been necessary.  

Leaders in the geospatial field have selected and published a series of these as open educational resources for the community as part of a Geospatial Professional Ethics Project. If the topics there aren’t ones that capture your imagination or align with your area of interest, don’t abandon the case study method altogether. Dozens of current events around the globe lend themselves to rich discussions around practicing wise behaviors and actions within a geospatial context, such as the implications of data privacy for information that will be collected by self-driving cars.

Scenarios become even more authentic through personal, direct experience in the matter at hand. Are you a manager and want to cultivate the practice of wise geospatial decision-making within your company? Could your employees experience a few hours, or days, going through the workflow of colleagues from other departments? Could the map designer be tasked with collecting some field data, or the GIS analyst make the client presentation? Or, come up with other ways for professionals to appreciate decisions, compromises, and assumptions that go into the whole geospatial experience. You’ll say such efforts aren’t realistic or feasible, but empathy is a key component within the practice of ethical decision-making. If that matters, you can find a way to make it happen.

Practicing: Regularly, Authentically, and Currently

One reason why educational efforts need to be both frequent and flexible is the speed at which this field is evolving. Effective guides to ethical decision-making take that into account: General enough to capture the enduring essence of doing no harm, and elastic enough to accommodate new audiences and applications. Keeping current is relevant not only for the digital technologies themselves but for the new audiences and disciplines employing them. Thus any educational resources or frameworks for practicing wise behaviors and actions must be revisited and updated on an on-going basis.

Do you have ideas about supporting teaching and learning of ethically-informed professional development in the geospatial domain? Share them with us so we can continue to help our community.


Carr, J., Vallor, S., Freundschuh, S. Gannon, W. L., & Zandbergen, P. (2014) Hitting the moving target: challenges of creating a dynamic curriculum addressing the ethical dimensions of geospatial data, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 38:4, 444-454, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2014.936313

Davis, M. (1999). Ethics and the University. London: Routledge Publishers.

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. 

Huff, C. (2014) From meaning well to doing well: ethical expertise in the GIS domain, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 38:4, 455-470, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2014.936314

 Scull, P., Burnett, A., Dolfi, E., Goldfarb, A., and Baum, P. (2016) Privacy and Ethics in Undergraduate GIS Curricula. Journal of Geography, 115:1, 24-34, DOI: 10.1080/00221341.2015.1017517


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