Ever Greater Need for a GIS Moral Compass

Posted: April 6, 2014 in GIS
Tags: , , , ,

Now more than ever, we as users of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – both professionals and non-professionals – need to be more vigilant in our use of these technologies. Big data, satellite imagery, social media, and GIS all come together to allow an unprecedented level of information sharing that has never before been available. What sparked this blog post is in response to several tweets and retweets today regarding a map that was published online and freely viewable in response to a recent tragedy. I will not share the link or point fingers, as this occurrence is just the latest in a trend I see becoming ever more prominent.

In this particular situation, the map shared with the public shows individual victim locations of the recent tragedy down to the parcel coded level (in other words, a clickable point was placed on the roof of the victims home). Along with this highly accurate location, personal information, including whether the victim is alive or dead or missing, their address and a photograph of them pop-up when clicking on any of the points. While the people who created the map I am sure had nothing but good intentions, and felt they were respecting the victims while doing a public service, the problem is that they were clearly not trained in the ethical use of GIS technologies. I see this as becoming an ever increasing problem as more and more information is made available about our lives, and the ease of creating maps that can be shared in near-real time over the Internet by anyone with a computer continue to evolve and mature. “Just because we can map something, does not mean we should map something.” This also goes beyond improper use of GIS, but also to poor GIS. A person with no training in spatial statistics, cartography, visualization, and a host of other skills, can now sit down, put together a map in a matter of minutes and share it with the world. While this is wonderful from an open-source point of view, it can also lead to erroneous or misleading conclusions and, in this case, violations in privacy.

So rather than just rant about this, here are some things to consider and think about the next time we sit down to create a map for public dissemination.

From the GIS Certification Institute’s “Code of Ethics” under Part IV Obligations to Individuals in Society

1. Respect Privacy

  • Protect individual privacy, especially about sensitive information.
  • 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.

2. Respect Individuals

  • Encourage individual autonomy.
  • Avoid undue intrusions into the lives of individuals.

From “The Ethics of GIS” by Jeremy Crampton, published in ‘Cartography and Geographic Information Systems’ Vol. 22, No. 1, 1995, page 87 “In relation to infringements of privacy by spatial data collection, a commonly made counterargument is that despite the wide availability of personal information in databases, people’s privacy cannot be infringed if analysis is at the aggregate (census block or neighborhood) level. It is argued that this ensures no personal information is ever made available, and that individuals are unaffected by aggregated data.”

Finally, From “Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass” by Nathaniel Raymond, Caitlin Howarth & Jonathan Hutson downloaded from globalbrief.ca, “These new uses of crowd-sourced data, the rise of social networking, and the integration of geographic information systems with satellite imagery have not only transformed rapid responses to political unrest and natural disasters, but have in fact begun to fundamentally alter the very nature and arc of the emergence themselves.” And also in that same publication, “It must be determined whether experimental projects that use satellite surveillance, crowd sourcing and interactive map-making in new ways during a crisis constitute human subjects research, and thus require institutional review board approval and oversight.”

While I am not suggesting with that last comment that every mapping project like the one being discussed needs IRB approval, it highlights the importance of how careful we all must be before we release a map, especially during a natural disaster or other event, and consider those that are being mapped and how it will affect them and their families.

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