The Ethics of Geospatial Data Collection – Never Neutral

Collecting data is rarely a neutral exercise—and collecting geospatial data about informal settlements is never a neutral exercise. That is why upon becoming an EthicalGEO Fellow, and preparing to conduct a pilot project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I feel it is incumbent on myself to start first with the ethical dimensions of geospatial data collection.

Why is this even an issue to begin with? First of all, across the developing world there are a billion people living without legal title to their land. If you are reading this blog, you may very well be one of those privileged people who never has to think about the security of your land rights—you’re either a landlord, or a tenant. In either case, you likely have a secure roof over your head.

A mural in Cairo, Egypt, reading “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.” The artwork casts a spotlight on one of the largest slums in the world; Manshiyat Nasser is an especially vulnerable community.  Photo by David Degner for The New York Times.

For the majority of the world’s poor, secure property rights are a luxury. The World Bank reports that 70% of the world’s population does not have a legally registered title to their land. The people in these settlements face difficult conditions, some fear being forcibly moved elsewhere, and they are significantly more at risk to hazards, be they an epidemic or a flood.

Recognizing this, there are many who want to provide land rights to these people, and to plan for healthier, more resilient communities. Yet, a number of barriers stand in the way: 1) The sheer magnitude of the problem is enormous 2) There are few issues as contentious as land ownership, and as a result of this the bureaucracy of many developing countries is labyrinthine and finally 3) The cost of surveying is unreasonably high for low-income families.

My EthicalGEO project seeks to address each of these in turn, by focusing on one community in a sub-ward of Dar es Salaam, working closely with the government and community members to ensure their collaboration, and using the latest low-cost, high-accuracy tools for surveying with a local team of surveyors. Even with these barriers overcome, it is essential to carry out the project according to the highest ethical standards, applying the principle ‘Do no harm’ at each stage. 

In order to do this, the project will first adopt an Ethical Protocol, which should be part and parcel of any geospatial data collection. Second, under the guidance of a Tanzanian NGO partner, we will reach out to the proper authorities for gaining permissions. Third, before beginning, we will host a community meeting in which we can share the goals of the project with the residents, and explore the potential good and bad that can come of it. 

The importance of this ethical approach should not be underestimated. The project is not simply about the product, but also about the process. As the Scottish Historian Andro Linklater wrote,”The way you own the earth requires the agreement of your neighbors, the society you live in, and the government of your country. In a very fundamental way, it is the glue that holds a community together.”

Mr. Evans, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a Project Manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team. Mr. Evans plans to use the resources from the fellowship to carry out a pilot project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania using a dual frequency GPS sensor to create highly accurate surveys in an informal settlement. This will empower a local community in Tanzania, but also could be a pathway for people around the world without legal titles to their land. At the same time, he hopes to spark the conversation about the ethical issues involved in using geospatial technology, with a specific focus on land administration. Three issues he hopes to explore are how land rights can protect citizens against expulsion, how they can give residents the ability to access credit, and how this connects with governance as it can be a primary means of taxation.