Home > Public Domain Data > An introduction to Ethics in GIS

An introduction to Ethics in GIS

One of the objectives of this blog and our book is to not only help you gain technical knowledge about GIS and data, but also to help you understand the societal issues surrounding data.  Ethics is central to many of these societal issues.  We have written about ethics in geospatial decision making, ethics in using images in mapping projects, company ethics vs. technical reputation, and ethics surrounding data quality issues.  But here let us discuss one way of introducing ethics to co-workers and to students with an example of how I have integrated ethics into one of my own courses on cartography and geo-visualization.  The following is the actual text and readings that I use in this course.  I look forward to your reactions.

Ethics in GIS.  Ethics in science is an expansive topic; it is introduced here, but you will have the opportunity to explore it further later in this course.  Ethics matter in GIS because:  (1) Knowing that maps are powerful means of communication, you should take that responsibility as map author seriously.  (2) Knowing from our brief discussion on crowdsourcing and citizen science that everyone is now a potential map producer, and no longer just a map consumer, there are more maps in existence than ever before–with a wide variety of quality and purposes–some well documented, some not so.  That said, maps still have an aura of authenticity–they tend to be believed.  Again, take that responsibility seriously, and do not intentionally mislead your audience.

The Social implications for GIS began to be examined during the mid-1990s with books such as Ground Truth.  (Links to an external site.) Another oft-cited book on this topic is How to Lie with Maps (Links to an external site.) by geographer Mark Monmonier, which examined the ways that maps are distortions–intentionally and unintentionally–of reality.

Code of Ethics.  There are several key items that are generally thought to be included in a code of ethics for people working in the field of GIS.  The first is to have a straightforward agenda, ensuring that the purpose of your map is evident to the map reader.  It should not be deceiving or confusing, but rather, transparent in its purpose.  The second code is to get to know your intended audience as much as you can, so you can effectively communicate through maps.  The third code is to not intentionally lie with data–do not symbolize or classify the data with the intent to deceive.  The fourth code is that a map should show all relevant data as completely as possible–do not intentionally leave things or context out that could help the reader understand the phenomenon, again, balancing this with the guidelines about abstracting and generalizing.

The fifth code is that a map should not discard contrary data just because it is contrary.  Rather, your map should be as much as possible a neutral representation of reality, just as your research often should be.   The sixth code is that the map should strive for an accurate portrayal of the data, where the data is not diminished or exaggerated.  The seventh code is to avoid plagiarizing.  Just like your research, you should always properly cite your sources of information. You can cite sources via the map’s metadata.  The eighth code is to select symbols that will not bias the map. The symbols should be neutral representation of features.  The classification and projection, too, should be chosen so that potential bias is minimized.  Code nine is that the map should be repeatable, such that another GIS professional should be able to independently create a similar map using the same data and focusing on the same message.  Code 10 is to be sensitive to different cultural values and principles when making your map, such as color and symbols.  In summary, when creating a map, you should strive to provide a truthful, neutral representation of reality targeted specifically for your audiences’ level of knowledge so that your map can effectively convey your intended message.

(Source:  www.spatialquerylab.com (Links to an external site.) for the 10 cartographer’s codes of ethics in this document, with modifications by Joseph Kerski).

For more on geospatial ethics, (1) see the GIS Certification Institute’s Code of Ethics:  https://www.gisci.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics.aspx and (2) see these articles:

(1) http://lazarus.elte.hu/cet/academic/icc2009/dibiase.pdf (Links to an external site.)  – The GIS Professional Ethics Project:  Practical Ethics Education for GIS Pros.  by David DiBase et al. 2009).

(2) A new National Academy of Sciences report:  National Academy of Sciences.  2018.  Data Matters.  Ethics, Data, and International Research Collaboration in a Changing World: Proceedings of a Workshop.  https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25214/data-matters-ethics-data-and-international-research-collaboration-in-a (Links to an external site.)

Joseph Kerski


–Photograph by Joseph Kerski at a high school that is active in preparing students for business careers.   It is my hope that ethics are included in the discussion here and in all other science, business, GIS, and all other academic programs.

Categories: Public Domain Data Tags: ,
  1. Trish Long
    November 12, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks, Joe. This is very helpful and timely for me. I will use some of your material in my Intro to GIS class soon… we’ll be talking about ethics in a few weeks. And I’m glad to say, we’ve already covered some things you have mentioned. Thanks again!

    • josephkerski
      December 18, 2019 at 2:00 pm

      So glad to hear this, Trish! Map on.

  2. May 4, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    This is very helpful. We cover ethics in more than one of my classes, especially GIS for Decision Makers and Data Acquisition and Analysis. These resources will allow me to expand on the ethics. Debbie Stevens

    • josephkerski
      May 4, 2021 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks so much – very glad it is helpful. So happy you are teaching these courses! –Joseph K

  1. November 14, 2019 at 5:22 pm
  2. April 23, 2020 at 8:03 pm
  3. May 25, 2021 at 5:56 pm

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