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Increasing ethics awareness in GIS

As with other nascent fields of study and more established scientific endeavors forced to confront a history of unethical application, geospatial science has had to reckon with its potential for misuse. As a technical field wherein one can obtain skill, training and qualification through various routes other than a undergraduate or graduate degree, there is a high potential for GIS professionals to enter the industry never having considered or even learned to recognize the ethical and privacy challenges they will face.

Most of the written material on the topic focus on the most basic component of the problem and its solution: Introducing GIS students to issues of privacy and ethics. DiBase et al. (2009) suggest that the “…rich literature in GIS and Society and Critical GIS is more useful to students and instructors in academic programs than those in professional programs” which “produce practitioners rather than scholars.” One could count certificate programs such as the I in which I am a student among educational programs with the potential to yield such professionals.

The authors present a solution in The GIS Professional Ethics Project. They propose a series of GIS-related case studies for use in ethics education for GIS professionals. The case studies may be found currently at Each case study is a one-page summary of the case, based closely on actual events, followed by references or related reading.

The authors describe the seven-step model by Davis (1999) for ethical decision making and propose it be used by GIS professionals or students to consider and discuss each case study.  Using the first case study posted above, they present an example analysis using the seven-step model. The facts and implications and options are systematically described, and while a “right” answer is suggested, the focus is less on that ultimate choice than on the process of evaluating the problem. They suggest using this method in GIS-related education with the remaining cases to prepare “students to analyze ethical problems rationally and to respond with integrity.”

I agree with the problem as they describe it. It is quite possible to learn the mechanics of a technical field without ever considering the ethical, legal, moral and privacy-related issues inherent in the field. This problem is likely to be especially profound among those completing non-degree programs that not make space for consideration of these issues (Elwood and Wilson, 2017),  second to those who stumble into working as a GIS professional without the benefit of any guidance from professional educators.

I also agree with the solution proposed here. It has become evident in my career in local government in large and small agencies that people do not learn ethical behavior from ethics class; they learn by reading in the newspaper about the mistakes made by coworkers and colleagues. Similarly, GIS professionals will best learn to handle ethical conundrums in their work by studying the real-world decisions faced by other GIS professionals. This process can help a GIS professional first recognize such situations and secondly analyze and respond to them. The format appears well suited for GIS students in degree and certificate programs as well as working professionals.

I find little with which to disagree but am somewhat disheartened by the facts that the original domain name obtained for the project has been allowed to languish and that the published cases number only sixteen given the preeminence with which I believe the issue should be treated.

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

DiBiase, D., Goranson, C., Harvey, F., & Wright, D. (2009). The GIS Professional Ethics Project: Practical Ethics Education for GIS Pros. Proceedings of the 24th International Cartography Conference. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from

Elwood, S., & Wilson, M. (2017). Critical GIS pedagogies beyond ‘Week 10: Ethics’. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, 31(10), 2098-2116. doi:10.1080/13658816.2017.1334892

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