Ethics in GIS

Mark Altaweel


Ethics has become an increasingly important topic in the wider sciences, as personal data and the effects of science on society are considered. For GIS, maps and data can also make communities or individuals vulnerable to a variety of abuse or misuse. Based on this, ethics has evolved to be an important topic of discussion for GIS practitioners

Ethics for GIS has been around for many organizations for decades now. Organizations, such as the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), have long developed ethical guidelines and standards that make it clear how practitioners should collect and apply data.[1] 

One thing to consider is that maps are communication devices, which can mean maps display individual data. However, ethical statements and guidelines in some cases may need updating, particularly as new methods for data gathering and GIS analysis are developed.

For instance, data gathering and analysis are no longer the purview of individual researchers or analysts but crowdsourcing has become common for data gathering. This means that data have to be filtered or at least securely handled so that private information is not accidentally or purposely shared.

There is a fine line between private data and data about individuals that might be useful for consumers or research. Particularly for sensitive data that affects security, ethical procedures may need to be separately developed for data gatherers and analysts when dealing with crowdsourced and data obtained by others applied as part of GIS data.[2]

Ethics can be an important consideration for major organizations that work around the world, particularly where geospatial data are increasingly used to make decisions and shape policies. For instance, when geospatial data are used for disaster planning or post-disaster assistance.

Guidelines on the Use of GIS Data and Geospatial Technologies

UNICEF has, as an example, published guidelines on the use of spatial data and geospatial technologies, including how to focus the use of technologies so that vulnerable individuals are protected. As the report highlights, particularly during crises and humanitarian disasters, it is important that spatial technologies, such as UAVs, are not used to gather data on individuals that can then be used to harm or be used well outside of the purpose of the intended or agreed upon service.

Data gathered needs to also be secured and be used for specific purposes, particularly focused on the main task such as assistance during or after a disaster. Organizations also should be careful to not indirectly collect or use data that may enable others to gain information that could go outside of the scope of work or used without permission of individuals where the data are obtained from.[3]

Ten Key Attributes for Ethical GIS Data

Others have attempted to update and list current traits that ethical guidelines should have today. This is particularly the case when it comes to mapping data. Spatial Reserves, which provides guidance on public domain spatial data, has listed ethical codes, listing ten key attributes data should contain for GIS mapping.

The first is maps should be evident to the map reader and not deceive or confuse. The second is GIS specialists should know their audience so you can effectively communicate. The third is do not lie with data, such as one might with classifying or symbolizing information on a map. The fourth is all relevant data should be shown as completely as possible, being careful not to leave out contextual data to your audience. The fifth code is do not discard contradictory data; the researcher or analyst should aim to be neutral. The sixth is the data should be accurately portrayed, being careful not to diminish or exaggerate information. The seventh is do not plagiarize data, being sure to carefully cite information where appropriate. For the eight code, one should chose appropriate symbols that are neutral. Code nine is the work should be repeatable and one can replicate the processes involved. Finally, one should also be sure that there is sensitivity to different cultural values and beliefs of others when creating maps.[4]  

With more ways to gather geospatial data and share that information, ethics has become even more important to consider. The lessons are that we should also update ethical guidelines as technologies and methods develop. In fact, it has become far easier to misuse data for purposes well outside the intent of the initial data gathering as our technologies develop.

Ethical guidelines, fortunately, are often developed by large organizations to parametrize or disclose how information is to be used. However, it is also clear that there are no clear, universal standards, leaving some GIS efforts potentially vulnerable for abuse. As practitioners, the onerous is on us to be sure to use appropriate ethical guidelines and to be sure data we use applied relevant ethical guidelines in how that data were procured. 


[1]    For more on URISA’s ethical statement, see:

[2]    For more ethics related to GIS crowdsourcing data, see:  Papapesios N, Ellul C, Shakir A, Hart G. Exploring the use of crowdsourced geographic information in defence: challenges and opportunities. J Geogr Syst. 2019 Mar;21(1):133–60. 

[3]    For more on UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on geospatial data, see:

[4]    For more on the ethics code by Spatial Reserves, see:


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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