Quick Start Guide to Integrate the Ethics of Locational Information into Your College and University Courses and Programs

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Authors (in alphabetical order) 

Jeremy Crampton (University of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.), Coline C. Dony (American Association of Geographers), Victoria Fast (University of Calgary), Peter Kedron (Arizona State University), Joseph Kerski (Environmental Systems Research Institute, University of Denver), Julaiti Nilupaer (American Association of Geographers), Clancy Wilmott (University of California, Berkeley) 

Sharing where you are and where you have been, can be as deeply personal and as revealing as sharing your health or financial information. Yet, we enable location tracking on our devices (phone, wearables, cars) either out of convenience or without realizing it, and do so without scrutinizing whether our information will be used for commercial, public, or other purposes, nor whether it will be further shared or sold. This lack of awareness and complacency raises questions around the social and ethical implications of location information and geotechnologies (which we will refer to as “geoethics,” for short), and how people are differently affected by, subject to, or able to use these technologies for positive change. 

Educators at colleges and universities, particularly those teaching at least one subject that involves the use or applications of locational information or geotechnologies, have a vital role to play in developing that awareness around geoethics. At a recent Summit on Locational Information and the Public Interest, participants were brought together by a common concern for the uneven ethical, legal, and social implications of locational information. As a subset of the Summit participants, we (the authors of this article and educators ourselves) largely discussed educational materials and training goals that are deemed newly essential for students. We recognized that teaching geoethics cannot be reduced to a checklist or a code, and that it should not be relegated to a single class period at the end of a course or reserved for an upper-level course at the end of a specialized program.  

We recommend embedding geoethics throughout a course (and at all levels of a program) to help students develop a habit of considering the ongoing, situated, and critical appreciation of the context in which locational information is collected, analyzed, visualized, and acted upon. We recognize, however, that geotechnologies evolve so rapidly, that it can be challenging to decide what to teach and which examples to cover, or to know what ethical responsibilities we each have (whether in daily life or at work) and demonstrate to students how to apply or practice these responsibilities. 

If you are teaching a subject that involves the use or applications of locational information or geotechnologies (at any level), this guide is to empower you to start (or continue) embedding geoethics throughout your course(s). We provide 2 simple examples of what “experiential learning” of geoethics can look like, which does not require extensive background in GIS or programming. Experiential learning (Kolb, 2014) is a teaching strategy where students “learn by doing” and then reflect on the experience. It typically follows a four-stage cycle (1. Concrete Example, 2. Reflective Observation, 3. Abstract Conceptualization, and 4. Active Experimentation), which helps students better understand and remember the concepts taught. We also invite anyone to share additional learning activity ideas or examples you have already embedded in your course (more information on how to share your examples further down). 

Experiential Learning Activity 1 – Location Privacy Checkup

This activity would be fitting for any introductory-level geography or any course dealing with data. The learning outcomes of this activity are for students to do a deeper dive into the “location enabled” settings in their phone, to evaluate their own location sharing practices, and to understand and discuss how and why location is being used. This can be done in a lecture or as a take home/online mini or participation assignment. 

Concrete Experience: Ask your students to count how many apps they have on their phone or tablet, and how many of these apps have access to one or more of the following 3 hardware components on their phone: (1) GPS or location, (2) camera, and/or (3) microphone. Make sure you show how they can find this information on their phone. Let them pick 1 or 2 apps that have access to at least one of the 3 hardware (GPS, camera, and/or microphone), and ask them to read the terms of use and privacy policy for each app. Then, have them share what they found either in a written summary or discussion with classmates. 

Reflective Experience: Engage your class in a larger reflection and class discussion on what they found and their level of comfort with the data they are sharing through their phone (e.g., comfort about the amount, about the type, about how it will or could be used, etc.). Spoiler alert: students are shocked to learn how much information they are sharing. 

Active Experimentation: Ask your students to login to their Google account if they have one, and have them go to Google Maps. Have them check their privacy and location sharing settings. To spark discussion, have them zoom into an area and have them compare with a peer which points of interest (POIs, such as stores, parks, etc.) show up on their basemap. They may be different since they are based on past searches and visits. You can also have them explore the location data that is stored in their Google “Timeline”. 

Abstract Conceptualization: Assign one or more of the following readings to have a more advanced discussion during the next class. To help them prepare for the discussion and begin to conceptualize these implications in a more abstract way, ask them to formulate how they might change their behavior with this new awareness, how they might facilitate conversations with others, or – if you covered any ethical framework(s) in class, have them place their experience within the ethical framework(s). 

Experiential Learning Activity 2 – The Truth behind Satellite Imagery

This activity would be fitting in an upper-level geography, GIS, or related course. The learning outcomes of this activity are to understand that imagery from aircraft, UAVs, or satellites are cast onto the Earth, which comes with loss of accuracy, distortions, and other limitations, and to understand that these images through additional manipulations (extensive at times) that can have important ethical implications. While these images are increasingly viewed critically, and rightly so, they are still too often viewed as “truth” and assumed not to have been subjected to manipulation or edit. This activity helps students develop a practice to view these images, like any geo-information, with a critical eye in terms of their content and intent, their resolution, the manipulations they went through, the band(s) of the electromagnetic spectrum that is(are) being examined, and much more. 

Concrete Examples: In the 3 blog posts linked below, you will find a handful of satellite image comparisons. Use all examples (or select a few) to present to your students: 

Reflective Observation: When you present each example, give your students some time to examine each one so they can start identifying differences. Then, ask them to share with each other what differences they see and why they suspect these differences are there. After their discussions, provide more context about some of the reasons behind those differences or have them read through the blog post(s). Then, depending on which examples you covered, have them reflect on the importance of the imagery or basemap we choose, about how satellite images are represented, and/or about the use of algorithms to manipulate satellite imagery. 

Active Experimentation: If you want to keep experimenting with “imagery offset,” have your students get coordinates of a place they know and have them map those coordinates on different mapping services they use. If you want to keep experimenting with representation of satellite imagery, you can ask your students to take a satellite image (or have them take a screenshot of one) and apply filters to the image. Filters are widely available on many apps now or on free web-based photo editors. Have them test different filters to over- or under-emphasize certain aspects in the image. 

Abstract Conceptualization: Assign one or more of the following readings to have a more advanced discussion during the next class. Engage your class in a larger reflection and discussion about the ethical implications of the manipulation (algorithmic or other) of satellite images. 

Share Your Learning Activity with Us

By design, this ‘quick start guide’ presents what we feel are some of the key ideas yet practical steps to integrating discussions of the ethics of location information into geography education. The field of Geoethics is far richer than what we intended to present here and cannot be captured in a small number of example exercises. You can read a more complete set of our thoughts on and recommendations for education and the ethics of location information in our White Paper on Locational Information and the Public Interest. We also invite anyone to share additional learning activity ideas or examples you have already embedded in your course(s). 

  • Email us any activity or resource you are using in your class(es) at jnilupaer@aag.org, addressing a few questions below: 
    • “Brief introduction of yourself (affiliation, department and program, position/title, etc.)” 
    • “Title of the activity/resource” 
    • “(if any) Link to the activity/resource” 
    • “Which class(es), how to apply the activity/resource in your classroom, and why it’s recommended” 

We are especially interested in examples that help students engage with location privacy, open data, sharing results, the benefits and constraints of geotechnologies, and workflows for representing geospatial data (projections, symbology, classification, generalization), but we welcome any ideas and examples that can work in on or more courses across the geography curriculum (from world geography all the way to that upper level “geoethics” course), and coming from educators teaching any level and in any institution of higher education (from post-docs and visiting lecturers to long-time professors). 

Further Readings

Read more about “experiential learning”: Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Second Edition.  FT press. Available for Download at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315793484_Experiential_Learning_Experience_as_the_source_of_Learning_and_Development_Second_Edition 

There are many more resources and relevant examples to support the integration of geoethics into the curriculum. The list of resources below can help you incorporate additional ways to address the use of locational information and ethics in your course(s). 

  • What Do We Teach When We Teach Tech Ethics? A Syllabi Analysis (SIGCSE 2020): This resource provides a qualitative analysis on 115 syllabi of ethics courses in higher education and recommendations on integrating this content across curriculum.
    Fiesler, C., Garrett, N., & Beard, N. (2020, February). What do we teach when we teach tech ethics? a syllabi analysis. In Proceedings of the 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 289-295). https://doi.org/10.1145/3328778.3366825  
  • Teaching Geoethics (E.U. Erasmus+ Programme): This resource provides an approach to teaching geoethics with the aim of building a socially responsible and ethically committed geoscientific community. From designing the syllabus, to issues of geoscience communication, to the analysis of specific cases within the diverse domains of the geosciences. 
  • Teaching and Learning about Geo-ethics with the Geoprivacy Video Series (AGS’ EthicalGEO): This resource by the American Geographical Society provides an eight-part series of educational videos (each 5 min. or less) that come with an educational resource (PDF) providing suggested activities, articles, and discussions to learn about teaching ethical issues related to location data collection. Topics range from false identification of crime suspects using GPS data to the use of location tracking to vet job applicants. 
  • GISEthics Case Studies (UPenn): This resource by the University of Pennsylvania provides a collection of videos showcasing real-world case studies videos published by Pennsylvania State University, posing a range of ethical challenges faced by geospatial professionals and relevant resources, and supporting you to apply these case studies in your teaching. 
  • Teaching Ethics with GIS (AGS’ Ethical GEO): This blog post by the American Geographical Society provides links to different examples or resources you can use to teach ethics with GIS. 
  • GIS&T Body of Knowledge (UCGIS): The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) outlines important areas of knowledge in GI&T including a few related to ethics. Their entries on these topics cover important definitions, background, and recommendations for professionals, or for teaching and learning. 
  • The Spatial Reserves book and blog: This collection of over 400 essays is focused on three things: (1) how to find geospatial data, (2) how to assess its quality (is it any good? Does it meet my needs?) and (3) societal issues including accuracy and precision, fee vs free (charging for data vs. opening it up to everyone), location privacy, ethics, copyright, and other issues. 
  • The International Association for Promoting GeoEthics: This international, scientific, multidisciplinary association provides a community focused on geoethics and contains a list of tools, publications and events that can already be useful. 
  • The Turing Way Handbook (The Alan Turing Institute): An open-source and community-led handbook for reproducible, ethical, and collaborative data science, supporting a diverse community of contributors to make data science accessible, comprehensible and effective for all. In particular, this handbook includes a section on ethical issues, based on responsible research and innovation, and provides related laws, policies and knowledge for you on how to conduct ethical research. 
  • The Benchmark Initiative (Ordnance Survey, UK): created by Omidyar Network and Ordnance Survey to increase awareness of the many potential risks of using location data, to identify ethical principles, and to promote good practice. Developed the “Locus Charter” to develop international principles of good location practice. 
  • The ABC of ethical use (The U.K. Geospatial Commission): a policy paper on building public confidence in location data, and how to unlock value from location data while mitigating ethical and privacy risks, ensuring compliance with legal principles and retaining the trust of citizens. 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0114