The Need For Ethics in GIS

Mark Altaweel


We don’t often think that GIS could have specific ethical issues as an application of objective study or simply for use to understand our world around us. However, critical elements emerge when developing and deploying GIS. For Crampton (1995), GIS should be evaluated based on how information is commoditized or it is used for surveillance activities that may monitor individuals or others unknowingly.[1] The use of GIS should be reviewed within a broader ethical evaluation for a project or scheme where GIS is employed.

In critical GIS perspectives, ethics are placed as a central component that argues social theory should shape how GIS is used, as improper use of a technology could cross ethical guidelines. In effect, the access to technology tempts people to use that technology, particularly as GIS is generally detached from interaction with people, in a way that could threaten someone’s individual liberties or even private information.[2] Since the time of those early works on ethics and GIS, smart phones and other mobile technologies that can store, access, or apply spatial data have made it easier to acquire potentially sensitive data. Increasingly, courses on GIS at university level apply these technologies; however, the ethics of application have been mostly overlooked or have not been emphasized.[3]

GIS certification (such as the GISP) have incorporated ethics; however, often this is a simple signature that promises to abide by ethical guidelines, rather than any formal education on the use of GIS within ethical limits.[4]

The use of public participatory (or crowdsourced) GIS, which applies people from the public to help in developing GIS-led planning, policies, or other social action, is another area where GIS has expanded.[5] However, as the public is brought into larger studies or participation, ethical guidelines are needed so that participants are aware of how their data are used and what steps are taken to, for instance, anonymize information or make it difficult to access any individual’s specific, private details.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

In effect, with the spread of GIS, ethical integration will need to be increasingly adjusted so that it can be adapted to new technologies and applications within GIS.

Definition of ethics. Source: The Concise Oxford English Dictionary..
Definition of ethics. Source: The Concise Oxford English Dictionary..


[1] For more on GIS and ethical review, see:  Crampton, J. (1995) The Ethics of GIS. Cartography and Geographic Information Science. [Online] 22 (1), 84–89. Available from: doi:10.1559/152304095782540546.

[2] For more on critical theory and its link to ethics in GIS, see: Sheppard, E. (2005) Knowledge Production through Critical GIS: Genealogy and Prospects. Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization. [Online] 40 (4), 5–21. Available from: doi:10.3138/GH27-1847-QP71-7TP7.

[3] For more on ethics taught within university courses on GIS, see:  Scull, P., Burnett, A., Dolfi, E., Goldfarb, A., et al. (2016) Privacy and Ethics in Undergraduate GIS Curricula. Journal of Geography. [Online] 115 (1), 24–34. Available from: doi:10.1080/00221341.2015.1017517.

[4] For more on ethics certification in GIS, see:  Mathews, A.J. & Wikle, T.A. (2016) Assessing professional benefits of GIS certification. Cartography and Geographic Information Science. [Online] 1–11. Available from: doi:10.1080/15230406.2016.1185742.

[5] For more on public participatory GIS, see:  Radil, S.M. & Jiao, J. (2016) Public Participatory GIS and the Geography of Inclusion. The Professional Geographer. [Online] 68 (2), 202–210. Available from: doi:10.1080/00330124.2015.1054750.


Photo of author
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.