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Geographers Address Ethics of GIS&T

By Dawn Wright
Oregon State University

This article originally appeared in The AAG Newsletter (Volume 43, No. 5).

What are the ethical implications of an in-car navigation system that tracks individuals without their knowledge? How should you respond if your supervisor tells you not to include a key layer of data in your final GIS map? Does a police department’s desire to map Muslim neighborhoods have ethical consequences? Do GIS professionals have any responsibility for how the works they create are interpreted?

These were some of the scenarios discussed at a recent workshop convened by geographers David Dibiase of Penn State University, Dawn Wright of Oregon State University, Francis Harvey of the University of Minnesota, and Michael Solem of the AAG. The workshop was part of the two-year project “Graduate Ethics Seminars for Future Geospatial Technology Professionals,” funded by the NSF Ethics Education in Science and Engineering program.

The PIs for this project met recently at the famed Cosmos Club in Washington, DC (founded by John Wesley Powell in 1878 and also the birthplace of the National Geographic Society in 1888). The purpose of the meeting was to develop a model curriculum for graduate seminars that will lead students to recognize and anticipate ethical issues posed by applications of geospatial technologies, while emphasizing students’ engagement with practicing geographic information science and technology (GIS&T) professionals. Plans were also made for developing digital courseware embodying the model curriculum in such a way that it might be readily shared and implemented within institutional learning management systems nationwide.

The first in a series of GIS ethics seminars for graduate credit will be offered in the fall of 2008 by Penn State’s John A. Dutton e- Education Institute as part of the online Professional Certificate in GIS, and also in a more traditional face-to-face mode by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography. During the winter of 2008, the seminar will be offered by the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University.

A consulting team of applied ethicists provided helpful advice and critique during the workshop: Michael Davis, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions and Professor of Philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology; Chuck Huff, Professor of Psychology and specialist in computing ethics at St. Olaf College, Minnesota; and Matthew Keefer, Chair of the Division of Educational Psychology, Research and Evaluation at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Activities centered on generating ethical case scenarios; devising the structure of the graduate seminars to be offered at Penn State, Minnesota, and Oregon State; finalizing the protocol for face-to-face interviews that students will conduct with local GIS professionals; and discussing the implications of the curriculum for the broader GIScience community at large, as well as the Geographic Information Systems Certification Institute (GISCI). Society will rely upon future leaders of GIS&T professions to ensure awareness of ethical issues and compliance with codes of ethics and conduct, such as those established by the GISCI and other organizations.

The group thanks AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson for securing the Cosmos Club as a venue for the workshop, and AAG Deputy Director Rachel Franklin for contributing to fruitful discussions.

For more information on the Graduate Ethics Seminar Project please see: www.e-education.psu.edu/research/projects/gisethics.