The Practical Application of the GIS Code of Ethics – A Case Study

For those who live in the Seattle area or for those who visit Seattle, SeaTac is a curious name but also the most frequent gateway to the Pacific Northwest. A few years ago it was also the location of an interesting case in the practical application of the GIS Code of Ethics.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport and the City of SeaTac, with Mount Rainier in the Distance
By Bernstea – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The ethical use of geographic data and geospatial technology is a primary concern of GIS professionals. I have been an active member of URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association) and its local chapters for more than 30 years. About the time I moved to Seattle, URISA launched a task force to determine if the GIS profession needed a code of ethics, and if so to propose such a code. In April 2003, the URISA Board unanimously approved the GIS Code of Ethics. It includes guidance ethic obligations in four key areas:
• Obligations to society
• Obligations to employers and funders
• Obligations to colleagues and the profession
• Obligations to individuals in society

URISA members are required to adhere to the GIS Code of Ethics, as are those who are certified as GIS Professionals (GISPs) by the GIS Certification Institute. However, the practical application of the GIS Code of Ethics is somewhat abstract for many GIS professionals. Most GIS professionals will rarely need to make an active decision based on a situation covered by the Code. When a GIS professional is confronted with a request to do something that might violate the GIS Code of Ethics, how do we respond? Are we prepared to respond?

An article on the Professional and Practical Ethics of GIS&T in the GIS&T Body of Knowledge (DiBiase 2017) suggests that a GIS practitioner might respond ‘…based on a combination of “ordinary morality,” institutional ethics policies, and professional ethics codes.’ A moral reasoning process is suggested, to serve as a model for GIS professionals to apply when confronted with an ethical dilemma. Suggested steps include: 1) state the problem, 2) check facts, 3) identify relevant factors, 4) develop a list of options, 5) test the options, and 6) make a choice based on 1-5.
A seventh step is to reassess the response after the situation has resolved itself. I believe that GIS professionals should share real-life situations related to GIS Code of Ethics dilemmas.

In 2007 the National Science Foundation funded the development of educational material related to GIS ethics in support of graduate seminars at Penn State, Oregon State, and the University of Minnesota. Ethics Education for Geospatial Professionals at the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State provides many useful resources. These include syllabi for teaching GIS ethics, links to the GISCI Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct, as well as the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing Code of Ethics. This resource also includes a list of 17 hypothetical case studies to help students and GIS professionals explore ethical dilemmas and develop moral reasoning skills.

Here is a real case study for GIS professionals to consider.
The name SeaTac is derived from the largest landowner and biggest employer in the city, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The origins of the airport go back to World War II, when the US military requisitioned Boeing Field in Seattle. The Port of Seattle received $1million from the US military and $100,000 from the City of Tacoma to build a new civilian airport in an unincorporated rural area midway between the two largest Puget Sound cities. Named for both Seattle and Tacoma, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opened in 1947. Today it is the eighth busiest airport in the US, and the 28th busiest in the world.

Geographic factors influenced the location for the airport, and once it went into operation, geographic factors stimulated urban development in the immediate area. In 1989 local residents voted to incorporate and in 1990 the City of SeaTac was established. I moved to Washington State in 1998 to begin my work with the King County GIS Center in Seattle. In 2016, SeaTac was a city of more than 25,000 residents with a little GIS department, headed by a GIS Coordinator who is a GISP (Certified GIS Professional). Today SeaTac’s population is almost 29,000 with one third of residents White and large Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations.

In 2015 SeaTac residents elected four new members to its City Council who campaigned as a group with a pledge to bring change to City Hall. Almost immediately they fired the current City Manager and hired a new interim City Manager who had been recommended by the new Mayor. The new interim City Manager’s professional background was in the U.S. Army. He had no experience in city government.

Within a month of his hiring, the City Manager met with the GIS Coordinator and asked if the City had the data and the capability to map the location where city residents of certain designated religions lived. In particular, he wanted to know to the neighborhood and household level where Sunni and Shiite Muslims in SeaTac lived.

He described his desire to have ‘tactical maps’ of city neighborhoods, so that he could ‘make the peace’ if needed. The City Manager described his goal for this GIS mapping request to others in the City as related to the Somali and Eritrean communities within SeaTac and his fears of ‘radicalized’ Muslims. Later the request was expanded to include mapping individual Christians (Protestant and Catholic) as well as individuals by gender and age group. One of the goals for the project was also to identify the location of ‘Americans who had not adopted American ways.’

How did the SeaTac GIS Coordinator respond to this request? First, because she felt uncomfortable and confused, she put her meeting notes in writing and emailed them to the City Manager, asking him to confirm his request. She told the City Manager that it might be illegal to collect and publish a map for the City with such personal and private data. Then she spoke to the City Attorney and her manager about the request. While she consulted with other city staff, she did research into data sources. She determined that US Census data could not provide the type of data desired by the City Manager, but she identified other possible non-Census data sources for information about religious congregations.

What was the GIS Coordinator’s dilemma? She might lose her job if she did not comply with this request! But she faced other dilemmas. The GIS Code of Ethics refers to obligations to society, to employers and funders, and to individuals in society.

The GIS Coordinator’s obligations to society include being objective, practicing integrity (don’t be unduly swayed by the demands of others), and strive to do what is right, not just what is legal. She had obligations to her employer, the City of SeaTac. This included identifying risks and potential means to reduce them, suggesting alternatives, striving to resolve differences, and being open about any limitations of data. Her obligations to individuals in society focused on understanding the potential impact of her work on individuals. They include respecting privacy, especially about sensitive information, and to treat all individuals equally, without regard to race, gender or other personal characteristics, including religion.

How was the situation resolved for the GIS Coordinator? Because the City Manager had serious conflicts with other key city staff, from department directors to individual staff, he resigned his position in April, just 11 weeks after he was hired. Eventually the story of the City Manager’s request to create a tactical map showing the location of Muslims in SeaTac made front page news in the Seattle Times, the same day that the 2016 Washington GIS Conference opened in nearby Tacoma.

Rarely does news about GIS make the front page of any newspaper. I admire the GIS Coordinator for recognizing the issues related to the City Manager’s request and how she worked within the system to resolve the situation.

However, had the SeaTac City Manager stayed in his position, his request for mapping the location of individuals based on their religious affiliation would have remained. Every GIS professional needs to think about how they would react in a similar situation.

I encourage you to share your thoughts about GIS ethics in general and the SeaTac GIS Coordinator’s ethical dilemma in the comments section below.