Geospatial Ethics: Beg, Borrow, and Steal

I often wonder whether the author of Ecclesiastes was right when writing, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It seems like a question that the real geographers among us could best answer, but I also think the question is relevant to those of us working in the area of geospatial ethics. More specifically, I wonder the degree to which geospatial ethics requires new principles and frameworks and the degree to which we can borrow and adapt ideas from other areas of applied ethics.

For example, the ethics of genetic technology often considers the difference between what can be done and what should be done. The field also explores how to negotiate ethical questions when some things are known but there is lot that is unknown about how the technology will be used. The rapid increase in our ability to map and track offers interesting parallels that probably don’t require entirely new ethical considerations.

Health care ethics also has areas from which we might be able to borrow. There’s probably no other field that has made the practical aspects of the issue of privacy so clear. And for those in health care, the professional codes of ethics are often used in judging appropriate behavior  – something URISA has put together for GIS professionals. 

There’s recently been a lot of attention related to the way bias influences artificial intelligence. Geospatial technology faces similar challenges as tasks are automated and the implicit bias of the designers get embedded in the systems themselves.

There are plenty of other areas from which we can draw. For example, we need to be aware of cultural differences in value systems, the need for new data governance, and unintended consequences of good intentions. Much of this work has been done in other fields of ethics and geospatial ethics should borrow and adapt as much as possible. But there could be other challenges, such as geoslavery, that may require new principles or frameworks. The emerging EthicalGeo community will need to cast a wide net to gather existing wisdom, determining what is applicable to geospatial technology, and where we need to search for something new under the sun.

Michael Rozier is a Jesuit priest and faculty member in health management and policy at Saint Louis University. His own life is fairly boring, but he likes living vicariously through others’ geolocations. Twitter: @RozierSJ