Association of American Geographers (AAG)
Annual Meeting

Sun., April 18, 2010
Washington, DC, USA
2:00-3:40 p.m., Marriott Hotel, Virginia Suite B

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

Following last year's successful sessions at the 2009 AAG meeting on ethics and GIScience, we organized a session to continue and expand discussions of this important topic. One year later, we still find that 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 again 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.

This session was co-sponsored by the AAG GI Systems & Science and Ethics, Justice, and Human Rights Specialty Groups.

Paper Session | Contacts

Paper Session

Presenter 1: Michael B. Dwyer, UC-Berkeley, Technical Matters: The Practice and Politics of Geo-referencing [Presentation file] | Additional Info.

Abstract. While GIS is often treated as a creature of the digital realm, one of its revolutionary potentials is its capacity to bring paper maps into conversation with each other through the practice of geo-referencing. Blurring the line between digital and paper, the geo-referencing of paper maps can have profound effects on the ways in which paper maps are used (or neglected). Drawing on dissertation research in Laos, my talk will focus on the relationship between geo-referencing, regulatory practice and agrarian entitlements to farm- and forestland. Specifically, I will show how the question of whether or not to piece together a set of rural zoning maps forces a choice, whether implicitly or explicitly, about how one deals with state authority (whether from within or without). Reconstructing a legal landscape from distinct zoning maps - maps which exist not only separately (and often in different locations), but also at different scales – creates the potential to overlay legal land use zones with current agrarian land uses, but also with proposed agribusiness investment projects. In other words, the geo-referencing of "old" zoning maps creates new surveillance and regulatory potential simultaneously. This has ethical implications not only for government technicians, but also for non-state actors (NGOs, donors and academics) who choose to work with government agencies. More broadly, the case highlights the impossibility of separating technical mapping work from the politics of citizenship (and its associated entitlements), and bolsters calls for a more nuanced engagement with technology and politics by scholars and development practitioners.
Presenter 2: Daniel Griffith, University of Texas-Dallas, Existing and Potential Ethics Controversies Involving Geospatial Technologies [Presentation file]

Abstract. Two recent projects, which have become high profile, raise research ethics concerns about the use of geospatial technologies: the American Geographical Society's "Bowman Expedition" to Oaxaca, Mexico; and, the Gillespie et al. 2009 MIT International Review article. They illustrate that a wide range of geospatial technologies currently used in geographical research and publication, including the following ones, introduce special challenges with regard to ethical considerations:
  1. Movement tracking of an individual via a GPS in a mobile phone or in a vehicle;
  2. Monitoring locations (e.g., movement tracking, presence detection, proximity detection, situated voting, and implicit interactions) of an individual via bluetooth sensors that detect bluetooth-enabled devices (e.g., mobile phones, computers): obtain an ID (which is arbitrary), a spatial position and a timestamp;
  3. Identifying place with high-resolution remotely sensed data;
  4. Identifying place with address matching;
  5. Public web cams;
  6. Site selection via GIS spatial analysis: proprietary and possibly encrypted georeferenced data; and,
  7. Combinations of GIS and web technologies for search purposes.
This paper addresses the use of these specific technologies in terms of the following guiding principles:
  1. respect for persons;
  2. justice; and,
  3. beneficence.
Implications of the assessment summarized here shed light on other ethical issues facing geographers, such as the increasing problem of cyberbullying, and research project finding reports such as Jared Diamond's 2008 New Yorker essay.
Presenter 3: Alexandra Serio-Younica, King's College, Willkes-Barre, PA, GIS and Ethics in the Undergraduate Classroom [Presentation file]

Abstract. In the college classroom environment, geographic information systems (GIS) studies bring together a variety of student backgrounds and interests. One of the more fascinating aspects of engaging students with the material is providing an arena for students to research, design and deliver individual projects of voluntary selection. While the academic backgrounds range broadly from environmental sciences to information technology to criminal justice, each class delivers an example of ethical matters with GIS data. Concerns include distribution of real personal data, data lacking quality assurance and quality control, as well as presentation of topically sensitive subject matter such as sex offenders and hate groups. The publication of this data either for the classroom or larger public audiences, should ensure the technology and its facility is emphasized, not the specifics of the data itself. This paper aims to explore the common topics which have volunteered themselves in the classroom environment and how they are woven into the curriculum.
Presenter 4: Ker-Hsuan Chien, National Taiwan U., The Contradiction and Limitation of PPGIS as a Mediation of Public Sphere - A Case Study in Rural Taiwan [Presentation file] | Related PPGIS Link ]

Abstract. Public participatory geographic information system (PPGIS) was proposed to improve a more democratic GIS and empower the local community. However, the concept of the "public" in PPGIS is still remaining ambiguous and should be discussed systematically. For this consideration, the purpose of this paper aims to examine the concept of 'public' that embedded in the basic theoretical foundation of PPGIS and discuss the role of PPGIS in public sphere. This research reveals the vague implication of public concept inherent in PPGIS by an empirical case study observation.
Two parts construct this paper: first, we review the theories of public sphere and rebuild the theoretical foundation of PPGIS. Our main argument is that PPGIS should be defined as a mediation which bridge local issues into the mainstream discussion. Second, we performed a case study to apply PPGIS for an anti-pollution movement in Gouzao neighborhood, a small town in rural Taiwan. According to the result, we characterized the role of PPGIS and evaluated them as the proof of our arguments. In conclusion, this study showed that PPGIS is not only inherited the critics toward the public sphere theories, but also conveyed merely a fraction of public sphere. In addition, whenever experts operate PPGIS in fields, they should be aware of the limited conditions of PPGIS and the actual role that PPGIS plays in public sphere.
Presenter 5: Mark Parsons, U. of Colorado-Boulder, Creating a Polar Information Commons [Presentation file]

Abstract. Ensuring the accessibility and preservation of a diverse range of polar data and information is essential not only to advance scientific understanding of the polar regions, and global-scale changes more broadly, but also to support wise management of resources, improved decision support, and effective international cooperation on resource and geopolitical issues. The Polar Information Commons (PIC) is envisioned as an open, virtual repository for polar data and related information and resources, providing a community-based cyberinfrastructure fostering innovation, improving scientific efficiency, and encouraging participation in polar research, education, planning, and management. The PIC is being developed by an international network of scientific and data management organizations concerned with the scientific quality, integrity, and stewardship of data about the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth. The PIC utilizes the Science Commons Protocol for Implementing Open Access Data, including establishment of community norms to encourage appropriate contributions to and use of PIC content. This paper will review the ethical and legal basis for sharing polar data and information and present a draft set of community norms. A particular concern is how to construct these norms in a way that is *responsive* to the needs of both contributors and users of polar data and information, *compatible* with the perspectives and practices of a wide variety of natural, social, health, and engineering disciplines, *understandable* to a broad international audience of both scientists and non-scientists, and *effective* in encouraging long-term data stewardship and access through the PIC.

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Session Organizer and Session Chair:

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