Teaching Ethics with GIS

Maps and the GIS behind those maps are powerful tools for informing the present and making plans for the future.  How can ethics be effectively taught in geography, GIS, health, planning, engineering, business, and other courses in which the “where” question is being asked?  I believe that the very same GIS tools that present ethical dilemmas can be used to teach and foster discussions around ethics in practical, memorable ways to guide students as they graduate and enter the workforce.

Sample of images used in the teaching resources described in this article.   Teaching ethics in GIS and other courses can be effectively and engagingly done using these guidelines.

Maps are powerful sources of information but can intentionally or unintentionally mislead.  Furthermore, in the modern SaaS-based GIS times in which we find ourselves, everyone is not only a map consumer but a map producer, able to create and share maps with the entire world in a matter of minutes.  Despite the plethora of maps in our world, maps still have an aura of authenticity–they tend to be believed.  I encourage students to take the responsibility of creating maps seriously, without intentionally or unintentionally misleading your audience.  

I believe that ethics can be effectively threaded throughout GIS courses in interesting and practical ways through examining data through short hands-on activities, followed by reflections, discussions, and short presentations.   I agree with Diana Sinton’s view that ethics is too important to be relegated to something covered at the end of a course.  I also believe that these same activities and discussions should be included in any course in which a key element is on the “where”—data science, supply chain management, epidemiology, sociology, criminal justice, geography, geology, environmental science, history, and mathematics.   Lastly, selected activities can be used outside of academia for a wide spectrum of citizens and community leaders.

How can this be accomplished?  One way I have for many years taught about ethical concerns is through an ongoing series of essays about being critical of mapped data—always ask about the class breaks, symbology, projection, source, curation, lineage, and other metadata with maps you create, and examine these elements in maps you consume (including those that you retweet about!).  Are maps unethical that show the favorite food of residents of each state, where there is no mention of how high (or low) the sample size?  Or do we just brush these maps off as fun?  How should we treat a map of a more serious issue where the N value is very low, but unstated?  One of the most effective ways of teaching these topics is to use examples of bad maps, such as my set here:  Yes, bad maps bound, and even live data feeds can be in error! 

Imagery must also be viewed critically—it could be intentionally offset from vectors or selectively remove items, such as moving vehicles.  

Sometimes, important information left out of the metadata can only be resolved by talking to the data creator with an old fashioned phone call (or Skype or Zoom session), as was the case when I was revising my Lyme disease map of Rhode Island.  Another effective teaching technique is to make clear that even when you are mapping your own data, data quality and ethical decisions frequently arise, as I point out in these examples from the field.  

When creating multimedia dashboards, infographics, or storymaps, I pose the question:  “Can you use that picture?” as an introduction to terms, laws, and ethics for using copyrighted images.  This fosters discussion about best practice aided by my favorite decision-making graphic on this topic.  I then introduce the question, “Should you use that picture?”   Potential harm can occur to natural spaces, for example, from geotagged photographs from tourists that result in a place being “over-loved” or to rare and endangered species.

Another aspect to ethics is the rise of company reputation as a major influence on behavior and decision making, in which I use discussion points that I and my colleague Jill Clark raise here and here.  Useful  reading is an article by Gloria Origgi , philosopher and senior researcher, who states that “We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today.”  How can we trust a geospatial data set?  Do we determine its “fitness for use” by the reputation of its author or organization and its metadata, or is it increasingly on the number of views that data has? 

Another way of teaching ethics is to foster a debate using the GIS Certification Institute’s Code of Ethics.  Pose a few scenarios and under each scenario, ask the students, “when does the obligation to society outweigh the obligation to the employer, funder, or colleagues?”   I also find it valuable to present practical problems through a series of cases to students, followed by groups tackling the problems, and presenting to the entire class their solutions.  Several cases can be found in DiBiase et al.’s GIS Professional Ethics Project document.

The COVID-19 situation that we are immersed in at present is an unprecedented opportunity to teach with and about GIS, but also presents its own privacy and ethical concerns.   Finally, consider bringing up fun but instructive illustrations, such as the story of the SS Warrimoo that supposedly was simultaneously in two different days, months, years, seasons, and centuries.  Was it really?  These types of articles are interesting but need to be viewed critically as more “serious” articles are.  Or, consider another fun story:   The recent account of a person wheeling 100 phones in a little red wagon, all submitting their over-land speed to a mapping service, causing Google Maps to show traffic jams in the area.  Was the wagon information “fake data”, was the mapping service doing what it was designed to do, or both?