Home Articles The Place of Ethics in the Spatial Information Sciences: an Australasian Perspective

The Place of Ethics in the Spatial Information Sciences: an Australasian Perspective

Jim Connolly

Over the last four years in Australia and for some in New Zealand and the region, there has been a coming together of the spatial information sciences to form a single unified body called the Spatial Sciences Institute – the SSI. While not all the members of the former professional spatial associations have completed the transition to the SSI, collectively the majority of them have done so, ensuring the growth of new Institute to around 3500 members. This includes some 200 overseas members – most of them from the Asia Pacific region. The very first action of the SSI back in 2003 was to create a Code of Ethics for the observance of all members. Why, you may ask, was it so important to do so?

In answering this question, it is useful to point out that the SSI is an “association for professionals” rather than a “professional association”. The main difference is that the latter type of association requires a professional qualification and practice requirements as pre-requisites for membership – in other words the traditional “professional association” allowed only qualified professionals to join as full members. One of the problems with this traditional type of association is that it excludes many people working in the “communities of practice” who directly or indirectly use the spatial disciplines and technology. It also limits the ability of government agencies and business corporations from entering into productive and creative supporting partnerships with the association. The SSI, on the other hand, is an “association for professionals”; which means that anyone working in the spatial information industry, or any of its many communities of practice, may join the Institute to receive the benefits of membership. However, to be considered a “professional” of the Spatial Sciences Institute, they have to meet the stringent requirements of the SSI’s Professional Certification program. The challenge facing the SSI at the outset was to establish rules to guarantee that all members of the Institute would meet the highest standards of ethical professional behaviour whether they had been professionally certified or not.

The SSI met this challenge in a number of ways. Firstly, the SSI embedded a Code of Ethics in its Constitution as a pre-requisite for joining. Secondly, the SSI established a professional certification scheme to recognise the professional standing of members joining from the founding professional associations and to provide a pathway to professional certification for all other members. Finally, the SSI sought and was granted admission to Professions Australia as the sole spatial organisation in this the peak national body for Australian professions. But it is the first of these considerations, the Code of Ethics, that is the focus of this article.

The Code of Ethics of the SSI, which may be read at , was developed by adapting the existing code of ethics of the largest of the founding associations – the Institution of Surveyors, Australia. So, the Code of Ethics of the SSI is based on one which has very successfully guided the professional behaviour of members of the largest of the spatial disciplines – that of surveying. Some associations, particularly business associations, have a code of conduct in addition to a code of ethics; others have tried to combine the two – especially where the association has a regulatory responsibility (as do architects in Australia). The SSI, however, has remained clearly focussed on the classic “code of ethics”.

Late in 2005, the SSI participated in a high-level focus group workshop on professional ethics in Canberra. The workshop organised by Professions Australia was attended by association presidents and CEOs of most member associations. The aims of the workshop were to document the range of codes of ethics / practice of the members associations and to gather their collective experiences in dealing with five specific threats to ethical behaviour which have been identified. The specific types of threats, as documented by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) were: self-interest, self-review, advocacy, familiarity and intimidation. A study of the outcomes of this and parallel workshops in other locations has been jointly published by Professions Australia and Deakin University at https://www.professions.com.au/ethicsresource.html in a comprehensive report Identifying the nature and type of ethical issues and ethical risks faced by members of the member associations of Professions Australia; Phase 1 by Professor Philomena Leung, et al, 2006. The Report summarises the research team’s findings under the general categories of:

  1. Defining professional qualities;
  2. Identifying ethical threats and issues;
  3. Evaluating the causes of ethical threats and failures; and
  4. Examining possible safeguards to minimise ethical threats.

The Report goes on to draw conclusions and make specific recommendations on responses to these four areas of threat to ethics within the professions. This article will review these findings with respect to situations faced by spatial information professionals.

Defining Professional Qualities: As with their colleagues in other professions, SSI members will at times find themselves in situations that threaten their ability to maintain the standards of professionalism expected of them. This ability to maintain standards is central to the whole notion of ethics, as the Report states that, “professionalism is considered to be one of the key qualities possessed by individuals aspiring to be a professional”. The Report also found that the public interest is the key “umbrella” of stakeholders whose interests should be primarily served by the professionals. The dilemma for all professionals, not just spatial professionals, comes when they have to try to serve the interests of individual clients where those interests may not actually be in the best public interest. Spatial professionals generally acknowledge the complexity of the concept of “the public interest” and the possibility of ethical conflicts involved. The Report found that the code of ethics / conduct and supporting rules are very important for all aspects of profession behaviour and rely heavily on sound individual professional judgment. As well, other professional qualities reported to be important by Australian professionals included:

  • Courage to do what is right;
  • Maintaining one’s own credibility and that of the profession;
  • Maintaining confidentiality;
  • Autonomy;
  • Ability to consider broader social and sustainability issues;
  • Exercising due professional care;
  • Maintaining adequate professional standards and competence;
  • Objectivity;
  • Integrity;
  • Respecting the rights of stakeholders with informed consent;
  • Respect for other professions;
  • Being an advocate of professional ethics; and
  • Advancing the profession’s interest e.g. quality of the “brand”.

As expected, the wording of the SSI’s Code of Ethics clearly accommodates and fosters these professional qualities in all its members.

Identifying ethical threats and issues
Participants in the Professions Australia study reported significant occurrences of self-interest and intimidation threats which they have experienced, either individually or within organisations. They reported that other influencing factors on ethical behaviours were conduct of peers and the environment or culture of organisations in which they worked. For spatial information professionals these threats and issues can also be relevant and damaging if steps are not taken to eliminate them or minimise their impact. The SSI has found that one of the best ways of dealing with these threats is for them to be openly discussed within professional development situations so that successful strategies and coping mechanisms can be shared by our spatial professionals.

The SSI’s mentoring initiatives and SSI Young Professional events provide the best opportunities in this regard. The SSI also applauds the inclusion of specific units and modules on professional ethics in tertiary courses of professional preparation. Among other identified threats, the study reported that the shortage of professionals in specific fields may also pose ethical threats, as standards may be compromised due to lack of resources and technical staff. The fact that the spatial information industry in Australia is facing an unprecedented skills shortage heightens the importance of monitoring and responding to this particular threat.

Evaluating the causes of ethical threats and failures
Ethical threats were seen to be the result of a number of factors. The causes identified which may give rise to ethical threats and ethical failures were:

  • Cultural differences, resulting in different expectations and practices;
  • Opportunities where ethical problems are not reported/discovered or lack of
  • opportunities for rectification due to lack of resources;
  • Failure to recognise the ethical dimensions of situations;
  • Rationalisation of unethical behaviour as part of the embedded culture;
  • Inability to withstand pressures from management, peers or outside interests;
  • Absence of leadership within organisations;
  • Lack of professional education and knowledge;
  • Lack of effective corporate governance; and

Examining possible safeguards to minimise ethical threats
A number of safeguards employed by the SSI align with those discussed within the study. They include:

  • A strong, visible and enforceable Code of Ethics;
  • Disciplinary procedures including guidelines and procedures;
  • Continuing Professional Development programs including Ethics education;
  • Mentoring support, especially for young professionals; and
  • A Professional Certification scheme including different levels of professional qualification.

Conclusions and Recommendations
At its outset, the SSI placed great importance on a code of ethics as something that defines the professional and professional behaviour. The report by Professions Australia is a strong endorsement of this stance. The SSI agreed with the study’s findings in favour of a long term approach to the development and maintenance of professional values and ethics. The SSI also supports for a framework approach which links the professional bodies’ systems and education, with an appropriate for the delivery and content of ethics education. The acknowledgement that strong leadership and some regulatory measures were important to ensure the effectiveness of ethics education and training has also found voice within the SSI leadership. What the study has made abundantly clear for all professions is that the key factor which influences ethical behaviour is to have a clear understanding of how the public interest aligns with the needs and expectations of primary stakeholders. Along with our fellow members of Professions Australia, the SSI endorses the researchers’ recommendation that a broad based ethics education framework be developed to ensure that:

  • Professional members understand the nature and expectations of a profession, including the public interest and other professional qualities;
  • Appropriate knowledge and skills are learned to equip professional members in managing ethical threats;
  • A system of continuing education and training be set in place to foster ethical judgment and behaviour;
  • Member associations be provided with practical recommendations of institutional strategies and structural issues; and
  • A joint effort to enhance the promoting and maintaining ethical behaviour be undertaken.


    Joint Project Report of Professions Australia / Deakin University: ETHICS EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT FOR MEMBER ASSOCIATIONS OF PROFESSIONS AUSTRALIA Phase 1: Identifying the nature and type of ethical issues and ethical risks faced by members of the member associations of Professions Australia. Canberra. June 2006

Report Authors:

  • Professor Philomena Leung (Deakin University) – Team Leader
  • Professor Barry J Cooper (RMIT University)
  • Associate Professor Steven Dellaportas (Ballarat University)
  • Associate Professor Beverley Jackling (Deakin University)
  • Ms Heather Leslie (Deakin University) – Research Assistant