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GIS Ethics: Understanding implications of action


William J Craig
Associate Director
center for urban and regional affairs
University of Minnesota, usa
[email protected]

Everything we do has an impact on others. Some of those impacts are negative and some are positive. Ethics is the philosophical framework that is used to maximize the good we do and minimize the harm. This brief paper talks about ethics as they relate to the GIS
profession. The author also talks about the new Code of Ethics developed by URISA and now in use by the GIS Certification Institute

On a day-to-day basis we use rules of conduct to guide our actions and these are usually set within a moral standard about what a particular community thinks is right and wrong at a particular time. In Victorian England, for example, ladies were never present when business was being discussed. Ethics would have us step back from the rules of the day and think about our actions in broader perspective. What harm is there in talking to a woman about business? And is there a potential good for society in getting a feminine perspective?

The GIS professional has many opportunities to do harm and to do good. We all try to make the right decisions, but sometimes it is not obvious what that decision should be. There may be times when two courses of action appear right, but only one can be taken; for example, do you take a short-cut to get the job done on time or do you exceed the deadline and budget to produce a more robust product? Other times there is only one apparent course of action, but taking it somehow feels wrong. How do you recognize these problems and how do you think about the right solution? A solid background in ethics could help.

GIS Code of EthicspM

URISA (www.urisa.org), adopted a GIS Code of Ethics in April 2003. The code was developed to complement a GIS Certification program that URISA developed in cooperation with several other GIS-professional organizations in North America. It had become clear to people that GIS had all the aspects of a real profession except certification and a code of ethics. These developments filled that void.

The GIS Code of Ethics code_of_ethics.htm) sets out obligations that a professional has to each of the four major groups:

  • Society as a whole (pre-eminent whenever a conflict arises)
  • Employers and other funders
  • Colleagues and the profession
  • Individuals at large

The text itself is relatively short, only 1500 words including introduction and bibliography. Only general guidelines are provided, rather than specific rules of conduct. For example, the text says things like “Be objective, use due care, and make full use of education and skills.” It does not say things like which algorithm to use in a certain situation or whether a map legend is always required. The emphasis is on making GIS professionals aware of their actions and the impact of those actions.

Not having rules of conduct makes it difficult for a jury to judge whether a person is doing the right thing. This is one of the reasons why the GIS Code of Ethics was presented without apparatus for penalizing those who are thought to violate the code. Other reasons include concern over excessive resources spent on sanctions and concern over potential anti-trust lawsuits coming from those whose earning capacity is reduced.

A new GIS Certification Institute (www.gisci.org) was launched in 2004. This is an independent non-profit organization with a board of directors comprised of representatives from various partner organizations. URISA staff handles details on a contract basis for now. Applicants provide documentation of education, experience, and professional service. If approved as GIS professionals, they must agree in writing to work by the GIS Code of Ethics before they are granted their certificate.