Responsible and ethical use of location data: Resources from Doug Specht

At a recent conference of the European Association of Geographers, I had the honor of being re-acquainted with Doug Sprecht and his work. Doug is a Chartered Geographer, Advanced Teacher, and Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Westminster in the UK. His work can be found here, including his forthcoming book which I am greatly looking forward to, the Routledge Handbook of Geospatial Technology and Society. At the conference, Doug shared some of his recent writings and additional resources that are germane to the focus of our book and this blog and graciously agreed for me to highlight them here.

Royal Geographical Society Ask the Geographer (Ethics podcast) and teaching materials: [] These include “Roads to nowhere: How maps change the way we travel and experience the world around us”, “Ethics and geospatial data”, “Locating open access resources”, “The ethics of open data”, and “Defining types of data”, all of which are short but insightful, able to be used directly in discussions with students and for consideration in research projects.

UK Statistics Authority ethics guide: []

This guidance document explores ethical considerations in the use of geospatial data for research, analysis and statistics. It has been developed by the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics in partnership with geospatial colleagues. It is divided into 8 main parts, providing an initial introduction to geospatial data and ethics, before moving on to consider case examples and potential mitigations related to four key areas, as well as links to further resources. An ethics checklist is also provided for researchers and analysts using geospatial data, which summarises the main points covered in this guidance.

Locus Charter: [] The Locus Charter is an agreement spearheaded by EthicalGEO and Benchmark Initiative, which promotes responsible practice in the use of location data across all sectors including public, private, educational, and not-for-profit contexts.

UNICEF ethics guide: [] This paper is concerned with geospatial technologies and how they have transformed the way we visualize and understand social phenomena and physical environments, with a focus on ethical dilemmas such as privacy and security concerns as well as the potential for stigma and discrimination resulting from being associated with particular locations. The paper states that the use of geospatial technologies and resulting data needs to be critically assessed through an ethical lens prior to implementation of programmes, analyses or partnerships. This paper examines the benefits, risks and ethical considerations when undertaking evidence generation using geospatial technologies, supplemented by a checklist that may be used as a practical tool to support reflection on the ethical use of geospatial technologies.

I encourage you to investigate these resources and use them in your own instruction and research.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Update on Energy Geospatial Data

Awhile back, we wrote about a source for electrical lines data, here, but because I keep seeing inquiries about this type of data on listserves, LinkedIn, and elsewhere, I thought an update was warranted. In addition to the source we identified in the above post, the Energy Atlas is a good source. While just for the USA, the energy atlas is an excellent example of the “modern” way to serve up geospatial data that we have been highlighting in this blog of late. Accessing its data pulls up an ArcGIS Hub site which serves the data efficiently and quickly. This data includes information on fossil fuels, nuclear, electricity, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower, including storage, and transmission. But, keeping in mind the sensitive nature and security issues surrounding this kind of data, your need for detail might exceed the resolution provided here. Even so, a great deal of information exists on the Atlas.

The Atlas also includes unexpected information that I was grateful to see on past natural hazards, which could be used to assess risk to the current energy infrastructure; as, for example, what occurred from a series of frigid days in early 2021 that caused massive power outages in Texas USA. The Hub site allows for multiple formats to be downloaded or streamed, such as shapefiles, KMLs, GeoJSON, file geodatabase, and CSV. Feature services as well as feature layers are offered, which means some of the data can be streamed instead of downloaded, and you can preview everything in the online interactive map viewer.

The metadata is rich, and one of the most useful pages is this one, providing metadata information for interactive state maps, an example of which is shown below.

Part of the US Energy Atlas.

One of the useful metadata pages on the energy atlas.

I invite you to explore and to suggest your own sources for energy related data for selected places in the world.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Societal Implications of Crowdsource Reporting: A Smoking Case Study

April 25, 2022 Leave a comment

A recent report about a mapping and crowdsourcing tool being used effectively in supporting smoke and tobacco free policies on college campuses ( (and published in October 2021 in the Oxford University Press journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research) is a fascinating use of geotechnologies to influence behavior. At the same time, it raises some privacy and ethics concerns. In this case, Survey123 and ArcGIS was used to create a Tobacco Tracker tool, and the effort resulted in over 1,000 people participating in the study. The above report stated, “While (Smoke and Tobacco Free) STF policies are necessary to reduce tobacco-related problems, they are not sufficient without effective enforcement. Reliance on social enforcement by most colleges makes increasing campus-level engagement with these policies a critical, unmet need to accelerate the impact of tobacco control policy.” I salute the innovative researcher involved in this effort and the positive impact it has had. This type of collection and reporting touches on the evolution of volunteered geographic information / crowdsourcing using mapping applications and field data collection tools that goes back nearly a decade now, as we have reported numerous times in this blog. The combination of these tools has led to a plethora of amazing applications such as this one. And one key attraction that drew most of us into the field of geotechnologies is the potential of geotechnologies to enable positive change on our planet, and in our communities.

However, with this or any similar project where people are asked to report on behaviors or activities using these tools, the following questions should be asked:

  • What type of data is recorded?
    • Are the participants being asked to include people’s photos? If so, are the participants required to obtain permission from the people they are photographing?
    • Is the name of the submitter of the data point being asked, and/or the name of the person they are reporting on?
  • Who sees the data?
    • Is the map is for the project administrators or researchers only, or for the general public?
    • If the map and data are shared, many ways exist to avoid sharing exact locations, such as interpolated surfaces or density maps. Are such techniques being used?
  • How is the data being used?
    • Is it being used to make informed decisions, or to punish?
    • If the project is being used to influence a policy, location can be a valuable tool to make decisions. If it is being used to punish, it can be an invasion of privacy.

To be honest, I like it when I am on work travel and am visiting smoke-free campuses. I have also created many videos where I have in dismay stood by piles of litter over the years on other GIS education work trips. I also would rejoice if everyone would follow the rules about littering, smoking, traffic, and other everyday rules. But the idea of people taking photos of other people engaged in specific behavior that we may not like, and then reporting on it makes me uncomfortable, however noble the cause. Is my discomfort warranted? What are your thoughts?

Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Case Studies in Geo-Ethics

April 11, 2022 6 comments

Ethics and GIS have long been intertwined, and for good reason: As humans, our activities and movements are tied to space and place, both of which are increasingly studied and tracked. It is only over the past few years, however, that more attention has been given to these linkages in education and in the workplace. We have written many articles in Spatial Reserves about ethics, ranging from data quality issues, using copyrighted images, how to teach about ethics, and a recent webinar series, in an attempt to provide the community with concrete resources to keep this important conversation going.

One of the best ways to start a conversation with co-workers or students about ethics is to use real-world case studies. One of the best compendiums exists at Penn State, and is here: []. This compendium, compiled by my colleague David DiBiase, includes such thought-provoking scenarios such as: “A GIS analyst is asked to exclude pertinent data from maps prepared for a public hearing”, “Researchers track mobile phone users’ movements to derive predictive models of human mobility”, “A governmental agency’s need to recoup user fees conflicts with a public records law”, “A scope of work statement and established mapping procedures prevent a GIS analyst from adding wetlands to a conservation database”, and more. Each clearly presents the situation, along with supportive maps and references, in brief but pointed ways.

Case studies on GIS and Ethics.

Have you used these case studies in your work? If so, how? If not, I encourage you to do so. Either way, I invite your comments below.

Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Key Federal Geospatial Data now in the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World

March 28, 2022 1 comment

Working with US federal agencies, in 2021 Esri began to serve in the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, many high-priority, high-demand national data layers, often referred to as A-16 data. These include cartographic boundary files and demographic data from the US Census Bureau; National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA); the National Inventory of Dams (NID) database, managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and many others. These layers are high-priority, high-demand national geospatial data layers included in the National Geospatial Data Asset Portfolio (NGDA).

We have been writing about the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World many times over the years, beginning here, and recommend it as the first stop in your data quests for many reasons.

As an educator I was glad to see ecoregions, primary and secondary school districts, and landmark structures in the collection, but dozens of other layers exist and are being added to on a continual basis. The collection can be accessed here. In my opinion one of the best ways to view the collection is in this gallery. For more details, see this essay.

The Monitoring Trends in Burned Areas Layer, part of the collection described in this essay.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

Improving election data: NSGIC’s Geo-Enabled Elections project

March 14, 2022 Leave a comment

With thanks to Jamie Chesser, project lead, the Geo-Enabled Elections project, NSGIC, for this post.

The use of spatial data results in real-world consequences that help shape societal outcomes; elections perhaps most concretely so. Elections are, fundamentally, about maps, as districts determine what races voters can vote in and candidates vie for. In the last four years, a project by the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) has worked with states and counties across the nation to improve the processes and refine the data sets that are used in elections. [Note: We have written about NSGIC before in this blog; see these posts].

Their main tenet: Geospatial data and GIS processes, when integrated into elections systems, make those elections more accurate, more efficient, and provide the ability to also make them more transparent.

As part of that process, data sets from other realms than elections are being deployed to audit or enhance voter rolls, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the right voters are allowed to vote and that ballots and election information can be sent to voters, without being returned to sender. 

The National Address Database, compiled and managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is one such example. []

Also, states such as Montana have or are working on creating and validating their own state-wide address layer. In Montana’s case, the information will serve both elections and the state’s Next Generation 9-1-1 emergency call routing system. A third example of a data source are tax assessor offices since they typically track a site address for each parcel.

In December 2021, NSGIC surveyed election directors in US states and territories, and Washington D.C., to establish – among other things – whether most election directors have access to such an address resource within their state. Their answer was, essentially, “not yet.” About two-thirds of respondents, representing 53% of US states and Washington D.C., stated they don’t have, or don’t know if they have, access to such a universal address list. Read more here: [] 

Flipping this equation on its head, some states have enshrined the use of GIS data in elections processes into state statute. Doing so supports the collaboration between GIS experts and elections division staff within a state; it can also be a way to secure funding. When statutory language is drafted, states are able to include different provisions. One such provision could be that when boundaries are set, they must be made publicly available in a spatial data format. These data help campaigns and NGOs be better informed and engage in productive dialogue, and – in the current climate of election scrutiny – they can also promote transparency, allowing organizations and individuals to verify aspects of data and processes in order to build trust.

NSGIC in 2021 released model statute language for states interested in pursuing this route; this can be found here: []

Other helpful resources for election offices and others include Best Practices Guidance for how to geo-enable elections and Tools for Election Directors, both available on the NSGIC elections website. One of the best practices, number four, deals with the use of contextual map layers: []

GIS is a vital part of improving election integrity, and NSGIC is leading this effort.
Categories: Public Domain Data Tags:

Concept Review Module on Geospatial Ethics from the GeoTech Center

February 28, 2022 Leave a comment

We have written extensively about ethics in this blog over the years, and for good reason–ethics is intertwined with location-based decisions, mapping is a powerful means of communications, and location is inherently a very personal issue. Another key resource is the ethics concept review module from the GeoTech Center, an initiative I have been supporting for nearly 20 years. GeoTech Center’s mission is to foster and support the use of geospatial technology in community colleges, but in my opinion their resources can be used in other educational contexts and even outside education. My colleague Ann Johnson has created a set of slides and a video that delves into key aspects of why and how ethics is important in GIS.

Ann begins with defining ethics as a “multidimensional conundrum”, including such thought-provoking questions of “is it doing good and not doing bad?”, “is it unethical to ignore an issue that you judge to be bad?”, “would all cultures agree on what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviors?”, “does the act have to be illegal to qualify as unethical”?, “are ethics the same for an individual, an organization, a government or a society?”, among other questions. Ann then discusses how ethics have been enforced, the impact that digital mapping as had on ethics, the impacts of professional technology as a profession, oaths vs licenses vs codes vs personal standards, and numerous useful links to such thoughtful resources as a proposed hippocratic oath for scientists. In this oath are rigor, respect, responsibility, and transparency (be honest and admit if you don’t know the answers). Ann then discusses certification programs in GIS and some ways ethics can and should be threaded into a geospatial curriculum.

One of my favorite components are the case study questions. These are excellent ways to introduce why ethics matters in geospatial technology and education and could foster good discussion with colleagues or among students. These include “A GIS analyst is asked to exclude pertinent data from maps prepared for a public hearing”, “researchers track mobile phone users’ movements to derive predictive models of human mobility”, “too few software licenses are available in the aftermath of a tsunami”, and others from this Penn State study. Ann also discusses data–permission, source, citing, availability, and sharing–topics germane to this Spatial Reserves data blog, our book, and visualization techniques, output formats, and other topics that touch on ethics.

I invite you to use this resource in your organization or in your instruction and invite your comments below.

Part of the ethics concept review module from the GeoTech Center.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

AirTags: Update

February 21, 2022 Leave a comment

Last year we reviewed Apple’s new AirTags and some of the concerns that had been raised with respect to personal location tracking. The consensus then was although these new devices were easy to use and worked well, there wasn’t enough detailed information available describing how AirTags worked or sufficient transparency in how personal location information could be used.

Fast forward to January 2022 and Apple have now released The Personal User Safety Guide, which includes a section on how to stay safe with AirTags. Providing the device with the Find My application (phone or iPad) is running iOS or iPadOS 14.5 or later, the device will notify the owner if another device has been detected moving in sync.

Apple AirTag detected alert

Apple have also published an additional set of instructions describing what to do if you get such as an alert and, if necessary, how to disable the locations services on the various supported devices. A new tracker detect app for Android phones has also been released.

Although the additional information and device identification resources available now are good to see, some concerns remain as to whether devices such as AirTags should still be available in their current form if there is still the possibility of unwanted tracking. Instead of unknown devices being allowed to follow by default, why not turn that around and block all unknown devices unless permission is granted?

Can data sharing enhance your career?

February 14, 2022 Leave a comment

Sharing data in the form of spatial databases, maps, and layers has been a frequent topic in this blog. There is good reason for our writing about this–to solve 21st Century issues will require researchers and developers collaborating from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives: Sharing data about people and about our planet is an integral part of that. An interesting article in Nature Magazine explored the ways that sharing data could go beyond these benefits to a personal level by enhancing your career. The article made the case that “open science can lead to greater collaboration, increased confidence in findings and goodwill between researchers.”

The article begins by chronicling the efforts of ecologist Thomas Crowther to obtain data about forests during the 1990s. While some research colleagues of his would not share their data, he was in large part successful; the results of his efforts are now hosted by the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative, an international research collaboration, that contains data on more than 1 million locations. The article then provides a brief status of the landscape of data sharing, including the encouragement and funding of private organizations and governmetn agencies for researchers to share their information along with their research results.

The article then discusses what I thought was an interesting take on data sharing–that it can enhance one’s career: “It can catalyse new collaborations, increase confidence in findings and generate goodwill among researchers. ” Admittedly, I work in fields (geography, environmental science, GIScience) where the community has traditionally been very keen on sharing, even in the days when technology threw many barriers in the way of sharing data, models, and methods. In fact, a study cited in the article confirmed my warm fuzzy feeling about the sharing mentality of the geo-community: “Up to 96% of environmental scientists and ecologists say that they are “willing” to share data, University of Tennessee Knoxville Professor Tenopir [found]. By contrast, psychologists and educational researchers share their data less often, although more than half say that they are willing to make at least some of their data available.” But the reality may not be as rosy: Tenopir found that “fewer than half of the scientists surveyed actually deposit data in open-access repositories.”

The article also includes some sites that provide tools, information and training regarding requirements and practices for open data. One of these in particular caught my attention: Jupyter Notebooks, because these notebooks can be integrated with ArcGIS Pro and even ArcGIS Online. I would also add that ArcGIS Online has become, along with the Living Atlas of the World, a viable and wonderful way for people to share geospatial data, along with ArcGIS Hub technology that greatly eases the process for an organization to set up a data sharing portal.

As with other articles I have long respected in Nature, this one recognized the real challenges that exist in “what sounds like a good idea” with real examples. The article also recognized that “for the open-data movement to progress, institutions must recognize and reward the production of data by considering it when hiring, offering tenure to and promoting researchers, say advocates for open science. “

This article gives good food for thought.

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data

A review of the new Landsat Look Data Portal

January 31, 2022 Leave a comment

Awhile back, we reviewed the Landsat Look data portal. I then wrote an update to the original post stating that I did not recommend using it any longer. But, given the rapidly evolving nature of GIS, imagery, and data, good news! – the Landsat Look data portal ( has been revised, warranting a new review.

LandsatLook 2.0 is a tool that allows rapid online viewing and access to the USGS Landsat Collection 2 data. LandsatLook 2.0 leverages resources available via a commercial cloud environment including Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF (COG) and Spatio Temporal Asset Catalog (STAC) metadata. LandsatLook 2.0 replaces the legacy LandsatLook viewer (now known as LandLook, which I reviewed above), which provides access to Landsat Collection 1 scene-based images. The Sentinel2Look Viewer remains available for access to Sentinel-2 images in the USGS archive.

LandsatLook 2.0 allows you to do many useful things, including filtering scenes by querying the Landsat archive by area of interest, sensor, acquisition date or cloud cover, visualizing dynamic mosaics in user-defined three-band composites or in select spectral indicesFilter out cloud contaminated pixels, exporting an image mosaic in a Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format, viewing metadata of source scenesDownload individual band files of source scenes, and searching by address or placename, or panning/zooming to a point on the base mapZoom to a location using the locator functionality from a web browser. You can also overlay the Landsat Collection 2 (C2) Worldwide Reference System 2 (WRS-2) grids on the base map for added spatial awareness, and generate and download a video animation mosaic time-lapse showing how the dynamic mosaic changes over time (which I recommend is a wonderful tool for showing change-over-time in your courses or for your research project).

In my opinion this site sits midway between one that does not require you to watch or read any tutorials and one that requires extensive training. With a fairly quick review of the videos and help documentation, including this video narrated by “cloudguy“, I was able to get up to speed with using the site. Yes, you do need to be signed in to your USGS Eros Data Center registration to download the imagery. I have registered for this account numerous times over the past 20 years but for some reason had to register again to access my account, but once done, I could filter on band, cloud cover, and date, substitute pixels from one scene to another, and download the areas and bands and sensor data that I was seeking. I could not find a way to stream the data into a web GIS, but overall I was pleased to see this resource, found that it is user friendly, and I salute all those at USGS who were involved in making this a success.

Landsat Look – updated data portal – view.
Downloading the data.

I encourage you to give this resource a try!

–Joseph Kerski

Categories: Public Domain Data