EthicalGEO: A Year in Review

The new year provides us all a time to reflect on the past and set goals for the year to come. The past year has been one for the books for geospatial technology. The New York Times released studies on location tracking in December 2018 and December 2019 that changed the way we think about our phones. Google Maps captured 10 million miles of Street View imagery. Governments from China to London tracked location and increased surveillance of their populations.

As geospatial technology, data collection, and location-tracking services continued proliferating, discussions around the ethical implications associated with new technology did not. The silence became deafening, and the American Geographical Society (AGS), with support from the Omidyar Network, decided it was time to take action. 

In July, we launched the EthicalGEO Initiative and issued a call to action for the geospatial science and technology community across North America. We encouraged researchers to engage with topics including geoprivacy, location data-tracking, and equitable mapping to prompt a larger conversation on responsible use of geospatial technology and data services. We received over 50 video submissions with projects across a wide array of themes impacting many different communities.

Seven EthicalGEO Fellows were selected to pursue projects ranging from implementing high-tech survey tools to empower informal land rights activists in Tanzania, providing low-tech training for communities experiencing environmental injustice across the United States, evaluating the individual’s conception of privacy, and providing educators with the resources they need to teach students geodata collection and dissemination in a modern age of geolocation. 

The inaugural class of EthicalGEO Fellows, from left to right: Dr. Dara Seidl, Dr. David Padgett, Fr. Michael Rozier, Ms. Erica Hagen, Dr. Alfredo Giron-Nava, Mr. Greg Babinski, and Mr. William Perry Evans.

In November, our Fellows shared their projects with AGS’s community of leaders in geospatial industry, government, non-profit, and academia at Geography 2050: Borders and a Borderless World, our annual symposium held at Columbia University in New York City. The EthicalGEO Fellows solicited input and made connections from the broader geography community, met with leaders of organizations advancing geospatial technology, and learned of channels through which they can share the results of their projects and reach wider audiences.

AGS President Marie Price and AGS Chairman Chris Tucker introduce the EthicalGEO Initiative at Geography 2050: Borders and a Borderless World at Columbia University in New York City.
EthicalGEO Fellows Drs. David Padgett and Dara Seidl discuss their projects with a student from Morgan State University at Geography 2050.
EthicalGEO Fellow Mr. William Perry Evans shared the details of his project with leaders of the geospatial technology community.
EthicalGEO Fellow Ms. Erica Hagen shares her work with AGS Teacher Fellows during a workshop on OpenStreetMap.

We launched our blog and Twitter account to spur conversation around our work. People got excited, and started talking. We formed partnerships and explored the work of other thought leaders in the community. And we’ve only laid the groundwork. 

2019 was just the beginning for EthicalGEO. In 2020, our inaugural class of EthicalGEO Fellows will complete their research and share their results with the geospatial community. We will convene thought leaders across our community to discuss EthicalGEO at conferences, on our blog, and across social media. We will continue to develop a platform where anyone interested in responsible data use can browse and learn from the experts. As we ramp up for the new year, we are keeping an eye on industry trends, sharing cutting edge research, and elevating the voices of thought leaders at the intersection of ethics and geospatial sciences and technology. Follow our journey and become part of the conversation.