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Geoethics – Considerations for General Business Practice and GIS Data Ethics for the GIS Pro

June 25th, 2011

* Please note that this article was originally written for and published in here, on June 15, 2011. Please feel free to add your own ideas on the topic in the comments. Thank you.

Most of us don’t hear much about GIS ethics in our day-to-day work. However, there are certainly moments that arise when we wish that everyone was following the same ethical guidebook that we are. This article focuses on two aspects of ethics that the GIS practitioner needs to be cognizant of: general business practices (important for consultants, non-profits, and government types alike) and GIS data. While it is true that GIS ethics discussions usually focus on data concerns, first we’ll present some of the more general business quandaries that arise. Be aware that neither discussion is exhaustive of the topics, as there simply is not enough space to discuss every potential pitfall.


While it should go without saying that gender, race, and other discrimination should not be present in written job descriptions (and is, in many cases illegal), it is true that our current trend toward informality in hiring practices lends itself to inadvertent discrimination. An example of this is the job announcement sent to friends and colleagues with a request for further dissemination that includes a description such as, “We are looking for an all-around GIS guy.” While the wording has been changed somewhat, this is essentially a true example of a recent email that, hopefully unintentionally, seems to exclude all females from applying for the position.

We must remember that, in general, ethics are not abused intentionally. Usually, ignorance, underlying good intentions expressed badly, or editing neglect are to blame for such ethics infractions. Sometimes the unethical conduct is due to the source simply not knowing that such conduct constitutes a breech in judgment. Without intent the infraction is not as wrong as if it were intended, but wrongdoing is still present. When something is expressed badly, however, it may be that the source simply did not take the time to properly edit. This also falls under the non-intent category but is still a wrongdoing.

Proposals are another good topic to discuss under the general GIS category. Those who review formal request for proposals (RFP) are generally well-versed in the handling of proposals and cost proposals, especially. Proposals can not be made publically available or distributed to the competitors. One cannot gather good ideas from several proposals, then hire the company that one wanted all along and tell the company to incorporate those competitor’s ideas. Time and cost estimates are, of course, confidential as well.

This concept of confidentiality may seem murky when applied to less formal proposals but it is no less so. For example, let’s say you sent out a statement to an email group saying that you would like help with a project. A company called AcmeGIS emails you to tell you how they could help you with the project. You then forward the response from AcmeGIS about how it would approach the project to a competitor of AcmeGIS without AcmeGIS’s approval. This would be a breech of ethics. There are two important concepts in this example. The first is that if you do want to discuss the proposed methods of a company to another company, it is imperative that the first company’s name be left off the correspondence and that the methods be rephrased such that the first company is not implicated. The second is that if you are submitting a response to a request for help, a better business practice is to be diagnostic in the proposal phase while saving the methods description for the delivery phase of a project.

One way to think about these issues is to consider that if an action is deemed as non-collaborative by anyone in the workgroup, then the action is likely to be unethical. Communication and mutual respect via proper citations, announcements of intent to bring in other opinions, and so on, are good ways to prevent this. Additionally, if you feel a breech of conduct has been made it is also important that this be expressed to the offending party. Letting an unethical action be carried out without an attempt to stop it or to acknowledge it is not okay.


Moving on to the ethical considerations pertaining to GIS data in particular, one of the most important is to not misrepresent the data, whether intentionally or unintentionally. If your knowledge of the data is not adequate to ensure that misrepresentation will not occur, then you must seek that knowledge prior to data publication. If needed, represent the data in its most fundamental and literal form to prevent this from happening.

All results from GIS image analytical studies should be accompanied by a thorough estimate of error. While methods vary from rudimentary qualitative to highly quantitative error estimation, it is important that some effort be made on this front. Making it known that all model results are prone to error is important knowledge for the recipient of the data, who may not understand that errors of omission or commission will almost always be present in such analyses, though to varying degrees. Error estimates should also incorporate the level of precision and uncertainty involved in such data. For example, a watershed with 10% impervious surface as measured in 30 meter pixels may only have 7% impervious surface when measured via higher resolution imagery. The recipients of the data must understand the implications of these differences.

Another ethical consideration is that results of a GIS analysis need to be delivered regardless of what those results are. As scientists, we must not suppress results even if those results are contrary to the paying organization’s goals. And it should go without saying that the invention of data solely for the purpose of satisfying a client is unethical. If you are hired to provide a list of potential properties for a wealthy client to purchase for the purpose of ranching, for example, and no such qualifying sites are available, then an empty list must be the deliverable.

There are a lot of other topics that are important to GIS ethics but not discussed here, as this is certainly not a complete list. Citations of sources, for example, ought to be present on GIS mapping outputs. Forecasting of any sort must be carefully considered as to its implications (e.g., 100-year flood mapping). Implications toward human and environmental impacts must also be considered (e.g., warfare, oil drilling). The openness of data, whether public or private, is also important. While this article is too brief to discuss all of these issues, it is hoped that it spurs some discussion in the geocommunity at large. While statements such as, “You have a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards” are easy to agree to, they are essentially meaningless until we answer the question of what those professional and ethical standards are.

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