Some ethical issues

As with any discipline, it is necessary to note that there are ethical and moral considerations in GIS. As the systems cover a large number of functions, there are considerations at every level.

Data Collection

In data collection, the integrity of the data is established. Informal compilation of data, or the use of manual methods of measurement, may reduce accuracy. Metadata must reflect the truth about data collection, including comment on the purpose of collection and the scale at which the data were captured (Foote and Huebner, 2006).

In addition to openness about precision and accuracy, there are questions that might be asked, such as whether private property should be surveyed, and whether data is collected in a biased quantity or quality according to locations where survey is more financially profitable. How much control do private individuals have over the use of data once they have (if they have) given permission for the data to be collected?

Data Management and Display

It is important that anyone managing a database (or editing spatial data or attribute data in any way) does not manipulate the data such that it no longer represents a true and reliable. In addition, the display of data must not be such that it overemphasises a phenomenon beyond its true significance, or understates the same. There is pressure upon people who are employed to work with GIS to produce what the employer or client wants, and this may influence the outcome of analyses. It is important that data integrity is maintained and final display or output must not be a place for a last-minute loss of representativity.

This is a real risk in GIS – the fact that the system produced data which is most likely for use in decision-making or for use in further analysis. The outputs of GIS therefore have real implications, and it is therefore important not only to monitor the software and hardware, but the liveware too. It is possible for a GIS technician to forget the real-world implications of data once he/she has become used to working with the data on a computer screen. Steps taken to remind data officers that the symbols have real-world referents.

Use of outputs

A final ethical consideration has already been hinted at, and that is the use of GIS outputs. It matters who the decision-makers are, and who their decisions affects – whether they effect willing members of the same organisation/society, or unwilling members of an opposition organisation/society (and all possible groups between).

These are important questions to consider, and are quite theoretical until applied to a specific case. If we consider a case study of emergency services, we can see the importance of reliable data (Farralon Geographics, 2009). If emergency services like this relied on data that had missing or untruthful metadata, there would be immediate consequences for people’s lives in a fire situation. If software produced errors at crucial points in time, there would be serious problems. These issues point to a necessary caution and scrutiny of data – if we are going to rely on GIS technologies for emergency services, then the GIS technologies (including data and software and hardware and liveware) need to be reliable.

Farralon Geographics. 2009. Case Study: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for Emergency Response. [Online], Available: [06/08/09].

Foote, K.E. And Huebner, D.J. 2006. Error, Accuracy, and Precision. [Online], Available: [06/08/09].


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