Government Pros Reflect on GIS Ethical Gray Zones

October 4, 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 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 reflections from government professionals.

What comes more easily with experience is confidence in knowing what you know and recognition of knowing what you don’t know. Like that currently popular image making its way around social media of a wide-eyed dog being crushed within a mass of sheep, having falsely claimed to have experience in herding, it’s when we move into realms where we are unfamiliar with the practices and expectations that we are more likely to get ourselves into trouble.

For people who are new to the geospatial profession, take solace in the fact that you are unlikely to be on your own in this. Most of our work environments include not only other individuals or teams who are positioned to offer guidance on decisions, but also standards, protocols, and work-flows designed to provide checks and balances. When there is solidly clear communication through those channels, such systems are trustworthy and serve to filter out or flag data or situations that may be compromising, suggests Sam Wear, the Assistant CIO of Westchester County, New York.

At the same time, there will always also be circumstances when we ARE on our own as we collect (or not collect) a point of data, or enter (or disregard) information we are typing into a database, or include (or exclude) someone in an email exchange. Here is where our own moral compasses kick into action (or don’t). Fortunately, the vast majority of geospatial professionals practice doing the right thing on a regular basis, and that makes it a habit. Christina Boggs isn’t as anxious about the unusual circumstances when she has to make a difficult decision because she has the foundation laid from the typical ones. As she describes, “I feel prepared to respond in an ethically-responsible manner because the most challenging decisions I’ve had to make aren’t the most common ones I make. It’s the daily decisions about ethics, feeling confident that you’re doing the right things — those daily decisions strengthen your ethics muscle.” Boggs, an engineering geologist who has been active with URISA and the Women in GIS organization, knows that professional networks provide necessary support in these situations as well. “People approach me to talk about their work situations, sometimes people just need to be empowered to do the right thing – sometimes you need a sounding board to confirm that your uneasiness about a situation at work is valid and you’re right to object.”

So, most of us know most of the time what is the right or best decision to make, and we do it, as part of our regular workflows. The individuals and groups that deliberately choose to deceive, betray, skimp, dupe, target, swindle, injure, or scam will continue to exist and act, but they are a minority. However, one of the persistent and substantial gray areas of fulfilling our ethical responsibilities as geospatial professionals exists from ignorance and laziness rather than malfeasance. It’s about metadata, that pesky collection of information about our data that we crave to have and abhor to produce. Metadata, the butt of jokes and the domain of so-called geeks, may be the most frequently disregarded component of the rules that guide our conduct. The absence of solid metadata undermines the communication exchanges that we rely on to make wise decision-making become habitual. Set a resolution to have higher metadata expectations of ourselves and our colleagues, and we will all reap the benefits.

Metadata is one friction area for ethical responsible behavior and it’s as old as the hills; one new area that now presents novel situations is the use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles capable of creating unprecedented violations of privacy. “We [would never] go onto other people’s property under most circumstances and having drones flying low level flyovers is much more invasive than normal aerial photos,” notes Kier Dirlam, the Director of Planning for Allegany County, New York.  The potential legal liabilities keep UAV usage very restricted and controlled in government offices at all levels. For commercial and civilian usage, guidelines and interpretations of the law are being drafted as quickly as the circumstances evolve, such as recognizing problematic areas for drone operators or small UAV usage within large companies.

A second area presenting novel challenges is artificial intelligence. For example, the GEOINT community is actively designing algorithms to extract new knowledge from the geospatial data being collected. This will involve teams and agents from multiple sectors. Geospatial data and digital technologies themselves are neutral entities; it’s how they are applied or misused that can be problematic. It is new territory to gain insights from machine learning at this scale, and categorically dismissing the approach to be harmful or a salvation is short-sighted. Recognizing dimensions of the process that are troublesome, such as introducing unanticipated algorithmic bias, is a new facet of ethically responsible behavior.

It is a very poor use of our time and energy to worry about protecting society and ourselves all of the time, especially because it’s futile. Control is illusionary. As Christina Boggs notes, “Lots of risks are detailed in the fine print, and we can’t force people to read the fine print. We can’t force people to make or read metadata either. More people should know that every time they allow an application to track their location, they’re offering details about their daily movements that could be abused.” But we let it happen anyway, as a trade-off for the convenience and benefit of location-enabled services.

Still, we also have a professional obligation to build awareness so that others can make those decisions for themselves, and others in turn may be protected. A small amount of sleuthing, coupled with georeferencing a newspaper’s published map, pinpointed the household locations of death and dying following Hurricane Katrina. We help ourselves as we help others, such as demonstrating how little it would take to reveal sensitive information inadvertently shared. 

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