GIS and Ethics: Reloaded

GIS and Ethics: Reloaded


Nigel Waters
University of Calgary, canada
[email protected] This paper discusses ethical issues with respect to GIS software manufacturers, professional organisations, governments, academia, consultants and the public

I had published a short article few years ago on the topic of GIS and Ethics (1). I would like to revisit this topic with an explicit use of Peter Fisher’s (2) suggestion that issues surrounding GIS and Ethics generally revolve around a number of key actors. Here, I will take the liberty of adding one more to his categories of key actors.

Software Manufacturers

ESRI(3) has been quite active in sponsoring and supporting certification programs which advocate that GIS professionals should sign a Code of Ethics. However, if you type the word ‘ethics’ into the search engine on their website, you cannot find a link to a page that ‘specifies’ their own code of ethics. Contrastingly, type in the word ‘privacy’ and the number one hit is a page that specifies their privacy policy (4). But this strategy does not work for ethics. So with ESRI it seems to be a case of: “do as I say”, not “do as I do”. The number of companies manufacturing GIS software has declined rapidly from what it was two decades ago, as companies have gone bankrupt or as they have merged with more successful competitors. In ideal world, software manufacturers would publish their algorithms. In the real world this might well compromise their competitive advantage. At least, standard operations such as polygon overlay routines should be benchmarked on model datasets and results made available to prospective buyers. This was certainly true when algorithms such as location-allocation routines were tested by the academics that developed them. Indeed the data set from my own PhD dissertation was used to test Paul Densham’s (5) Location-Allocation Decision Support System that was later purchased by ESRI and incorporated into ArcInfo Version 7. PC magazine routinely evaluates database software(6) for the 2002 review and there is no reason why we should not have similar reviews for spatial databases or GIS packages. A review of sorts has been conducted and current listings may be found at (7) but it does not represent a true evaluation of available GIS software. GIS software pricing should be appropriate not only to the size of the purchasing company, but also to where the country is located. Third world countries should get the GIS software for a price that reflects the cost of living and the wages that are paid there. This is a contentious issue that is debated heatedly on the Internet, but it is the right policy and it is the ethical policy. Those developed world commentators who have denounced this enlightened policy would do well to reflect on the fact that such a policy might go far towards reducing software piracy.

Professional Organizations

In recent years professional organizations have advocated and supported the need for GIS certification. Perhaps the most successful of these endeavours has been championed by the Urban and Regional Information System Association (URISA)(8) whose initiative has led to the founding of the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). GISCI has developed a Certification Program for Professionals that may be found at their website(9-10). The institute first accepted applications for certification in January 2004.

GISCI has adopted the URISA code of ethics (11) promulgated in 2003. The URISA code is sophisticated and discusses the various philosophical approaches to ethics and provides a list of academic references for the neophyte as well. The GISCI code must be agreed to by all professionals wanting to receive GISCI professional certification(12). It is easy, however, to say that you agree to the code while it is quite a different story to have to pass an exam that tests your knowledge of the code before you become accredited. The code is also written in such general terms that it would be simple for one person to interpret it one way and for another to arrive at a completely different view of its requirements. This is often recognised when authors in their opening paragraphs state: “This code is not expected to provide guidelines for all situations. Ambiguities will occur, and personal judgement will be required.”

The Association of Computing Machinery in the US also has a code of ethics. It publishes a booklet that offers a simplified version of this code in non-technical language that beginners, students and clients would understand. This is a good idea that the GIS industry would do well to emulate. (13)