Association of American Geographers (AAG)
Annual Meeting

Tues., March 24, 2009
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
8:00-11:50 a.m., Riviera Hotel, Skybox 208

Francis Harvey (U. of Minnesota)
Dawn Wright (Oregon State U.)

Images to left courtesy of Las Vegas Tourism Bureau. Reload page to see another.

Ethical engagements with the multitude of GIS applications and uses, whether surreptitious or overt, have marked recent developments in the field. Indeed, the variety of applications of geographic information science & technology (GIS&T) has led the U.S. Department of Labor to highlight "geographic technology" as the third largest high-growth job field for the 21st century. While the potential benefits and risks of geographic technologies are becoming well known, the ethical issues are less widely engaged. For instance:
  • Geographic technologies are surveillance technologies. The data they produce may be used to invade the privacy, and even the autonomy, of individuals and groups.
  • Data gathered using geographic technologies are used to make policy decisions. Erroneous, inadequately documented, or inappropriate data can have grave consequences for individuals and the environment.
  • Geographic technologies have the potential to exacerbate inequities in society, insofar as large organizations enjoy greater access to technology, data, and technological expertise than smaller organizations and individuals.
Papers in this session engaged with the above issues in relationship to GIScience, including such topics as:
  • case studies, curriculum development, or the pedagogy of teaching GIS ethical issues;
  • issues of privacy, surveillance, inequity, erroneous or inappropriate data concerning geographic technologies;
  • codes of ethics and conduct of professional organizations;
  • GIS professional development;
  • reflections on the changing nature of ethical issues in GIS&T
Discussions also connected to the ongoing NSF Ethics Education in Science and Engineering project, "Graduate Ethics Seminars for Future Geospatial Technology Professionals," where the goal is to develop course materials and other resources on applied ethical issues for the broader GIScience community.

These sessions were co-sponsored by the AAG GI Systems & Science and Ethics, Justice, and Human Rights Specialty Groups.

Paper Session | Discussion Panel & Resources | Contacts

Paper Session

Session Chair: Dawn Wright, Oregon State

Presenter 1: Francis Harvey, U. of Minnesota, Reflections on Experiences Teaching GIS Professional Ethics
[Presentation file]

Abstract. This presentation discusses a course designed to teach GIS ethics offered in Fall 2008 at the University of Minnesota. Beginning with a brief presentation of students in the professional master's degree program in GIScience, the talk moves on to summarize the syllabus, which was divided into three parts, the concepts, and key points from discussions. The presentation will largely focus on reflections on each of these parts. Above all, the presentation asks the question "how does professional ethics matter to students?" rather than the question "why does professional ethics matter for students?" that academics in geography seem more prone to ask. Applied ethics offers concepts to think about the pedagogical as well as theoretical challenges.
Presenter 2: Nancy Obermeyer, Indiana State, Applying Virtue Ethics in the GIS Community [Presentation file]

Abstract. The coalescence of the GIS profession in the U.S. became a reality with the formalization of a code of ethics and rules of conduct by the GIS Certification Institute.  This paper recommends that one more element be added to the ethics suite for GIS professionals: virtue ethics.  The presentation develops the idea of virtue ethics for GIS professionals, advocates a formal integration of virtue ethics in the education of GIS professionals, and proposes specific strategies for implementation of these recommendations.
Presenter 3: Yvan Bedard, Laval U., Professional Ethics, System Design Methods and Geospatial Data Quality [Presentation file]

Abstract. We are entering an era of ubiquitous geospatial information and massive amounts of heterogeneous data. Typical users take digital data for granted, assuming their quality is high and fits the intended usage. This attitude increasingly leads to mistakes since digital data contain uncertainty, their characteristics vary geographically and the needs differ. Many subtleties in spatial referencing methods, measurement techniques, technologies and database design end up being hidden in the data and may lead to results not fitting the intended uses. The common practice of providing metadata has proven to be insufficient. As a result of the increasing number of accidents and Court decisions regarding spatial data quality problems, our Society becomes more sensitive to properly warn users about the quality of spatial data with regards to their usages. This paper presents an approach to reduce the risks of misuse of geospatial data by improving database design methods with a risk management strategy. It integrates concepts from geomatics engineering, software engineering, risk management, professional ethics and quality-related standards such as ISO 191XX, ISO 3864-2, ANSI X535.4. This paper also presents how this works fits within a more global project funded by GEOIDE in Canada which involves engineers, geographers and lawyers from academia, industry and key government agencies from Canada and abroad. Finally, an overview of the impacts on education and regular courses is also given.
Presenter 4: Teresa Scassa, U. of Ottawa, Privacy in Public Space: Google Latitude, Location-Based Applications, and the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy [Presentation file]

Abstract. The use of geographic information systems can raise privacy issues in three broad categories of activity: location, tracking and surveillance. Privacy rights typically pit the interests of autonomous individuals against those of the state. As a result, existing privacy paradigms rely on distinctions between public and private spheres. The tension between public and private interests in the privacy paradigm has given rise to the classic balancing mechanism, the "reasonable expectation of privacy," articulated in the decision of the United States Supreme Court in U.S. v. Katz. This paper examines the concept of the "reasonable expectation of privacy" in the context of geographical information systems. Based on an analysis of relevant legislation and court decisions in the United States, Canada and Europe, the author considers the following issues: Is there a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in public spaces? Is location data essentially public in character? Does the public nature of geographical information outweigh any private interests, and in what circumstances? Do any privacy interests in geospatial data vary depending on the identity of the party who collects the information and the uses to which it is put? The author concludes that the answers are, to some extent, culturally contingent, and increasingly influenced by the rhetoric of national security. The paper is part of a larger project funded by GEOIDE in Canada and which involves engineers, geographers and lawyers from academia, industry and key government agencies in Canada and abroad.
Presenter 5: Paul Zandbergen, U. of New Mexico, Reverse Geocoding and Implications for Geospatial Privacy [Presentation file]

Abstract. The widespread availability of powerful geocoding tools and the interest in spatial analysis at the individual level have made address geocoding a widely employed technique in many different fields. However, when locations of individuals and/or households are made public as published maps the addresses associated with these locations can be determined using a technique known as "reverse geocoding." Techniques to preserve geospatial privacy exist and are collectively referred to as "geographic masking." To better inform decisions on the nature of masking necessary to effectively preserve geospatial privacy, a better understanding of the robustness of reverse geocoding is necessary. A framework for analyzing geospatial privacy concerns will be presented based on the concept of "probability of discovery." Results will be presented of an empirical study that characterizes the capabilities of reverse geocoding using a range of different methods. Findings suggest that the ability of reverse geocoding varies greatly with the density of the study area as well as with the nature of the original geocoding methods. Knowledge of the original geocoding method greatly increases the probability of discovery and presents the highest risk for a breach of privacy. Implications for protecting geospatial privacy using masking and cloaking techniques will be presented.
Presenter 6: John Cloud, NOAA, The Earth through a Keyhole [Presentation file]

Abstract. We can now assay the Earth through Google Earth. The new convergence of relatively high resolution digital remotely-sensed imagery, superbly geo-positioned, web-accessible (and hence virtually free), and provided by nominally civilian enterprises, has transformed the geographic sciences and their practitioners. But at what cost?
     Google Earth was realized through Google's acquisition of Keyhole Corporation, a nominally private enterprise which was financed by In- Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Intelligence Community. Google has now negotiated an exclusive contract as a purveyor of mapping search engine data with GeoEye Corporation, for first access to imagery from the satellite sensor GeoEye-1. But half the half- billion dollars' cost of GeoEye-1 was paid by the National Reconnaissance Office. So in what sense are Google and GeoEye private corporations? What imagery produced by this nexus can we access? And what can we not access? And what are the scientific and ethic consequences of this?
     This paper situates the current nexus typified by Google Earth/ GeoEye in a longer and larger context that begins with the formation of what the great social theoretician Dwight Eisenhower identified as the Military-Industrial-Complex. That complex has always featured a complex ethnography of exchanges between nominally civilian and classified clans, mediated by generally secret, and often interesting, committees and programs. The evolved compromise in this ethnography has been to purvey data into civilian applications by stripping it of provenance, as it passes through the Keyhole. The scientific and ethical implications of this are both subtle, and enormous.

Back to Top

Discussion Panel & Resources

The paper session was immediately followed by a concluding panel of invited scholars to engage us in forward-looking discussions about the challenges of teaching GIS ethical issues, and also on issues that the AAG as an organization might consider in the professional development of its members.

Session Chair: Francis Harvey, U. of Minnesota

  • Dawn Wright, Oregon State
  • Barbara Poore, USGS
  • Rina Ghose, U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Kirk Goldsbery, Michigan Sate
  • Jeremy Crampton, Georgia State
  • Geney Terrey, Chair of GIS Certification Institute Ethics Committee

Preparatory Notes

Panel Discussion Notes
Oregon State U. Ethics Course

Background on AGS Bowman Controversy
AAG Council Resolution on Ethics Task Force (March 2009)
: "Baerwald moved that the executive committee appoint a task force, to be approved by council, to examine the AAG Ethics Statement and make recommendations for modifications to the AAG Ethics Statement to Council for consideration at its fall 2009 meeting. Seconded by Agnew. Passed unanimously."

Recent Geocoding Controversy with LAPD (pdf, contributed by John Cloud)

Ethical Guidance for Pervasive and Autonomous IT (Ken Pimple, Indiana University)

On Being a Scientist Video

Practical Ethics in PGIS/PPGIS Practice

Back to Top


Session organizers:

  • Dawn Wright, Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University,
  • Francis Harvey, Department of Geography, University of Minnesota,