GIS Code of Ethics


On April 9, 2003, the URISA Board of Directors unanimously approved the “GIS Code of Ethics” proposed by the URISA Ethics Task Force.

The Code of Ethics is intended to provide guidelines for GIS professionals. It should help professionals make appropriate and ethical choices. It should provide a basis for evaluating their work from an ethical point of view.  By heeding this code, GIS professionals will help to preserve and enhance public trust in the discipline.

The text of this code draws on the work of many professional societies. A few of the guidelines that are unique to the GIS profession include the encouragement to make data and findings widely available, to document data and products, to be actively involved in data retention and security, to show respect for copyright and other intellectual property rights, and to display concern for the sensitive data about individuals discovered through geospatial or database manipulations.

The Code of Ethics document is the result of extensive public review. Dozens of people provided useful feedback and suggestions during two periods of open public comment in 2002.  All comments were reviewed and considered carefully. 

The Code consists of these four primary categories:

I.   Obligations to Society
II.  Obligations to Employers and Funders
III. Obligations to Colleagues and the Profession
IV. Obligations to Individuals in Society

Will Craig, University of Minnesota and Chair of the Task Force feels it is important for a profession to have a Code of Ethics.  “It's not that we expect the Code will be a front-line of defense against wrong-doing.  Instead, the Code provides a touchstone for members to identify and resolve ethical dilemmas that they encounter in their work.”

The Code of Ethics Task Force was a subcommittee of URISA’s Certification Committee which developed the GISCI Certification Program. Individuals seeking certification must also certify that he or she has read and agrees to conduct professional activities in conformance with the professional Code of Ethics. Thus, conducting professional activities in an ethical manner is part and parcel of the GIS Certification Program.


GIS Code of Ethics

This Code of Ethics¹ is intended to provide guidelines for GIS (geographic information system) professionals.  It should help professionals make appropriate and ethical choices.  It should provide a basis for evaluating their work from an ethical point of view.  By heeding this code, GIS professionals will help to preserve and enhance public trust in the discipline.

This code is based on the ethical principle of always treating others with respect and never merely as means to an end: i.e., deontology.  It requires us to consider the impact of our actions on other persons and to modify our actions to reflect the respect and concern we have for them.  It emphasizes our obligations to other persons, to our colleagues and the profession, to our employers, and to society as a whole.  Those obligations provide the organizing structure for these guidelines.

The text of this code draws on the work of many professional societies.  It is not surprising that many codes of ethics have a similar structure and provide similar guidelines to their professionals, because they are based upon a similar concept of morality.  A few of the guidelines that are unique to the GIS profession include the encouragement to make data and findings widely available, to document data and products, to be actively involved in data retention and security, to show respect for copyright and other intellectual property rights, and to display concern for the sensitive data about individuals discovered through geospatial or database manipulations.  Longer statements expand on or provide examples for the GIS profession.

A positive tone is taken throughout the text of this code.  GIS professionals commit themselves to ethical behavior rather than merely seeking to avoid specific acts.  The problems with listing acts to be avoided are: 1) there are usually reasonable exceptions to any avoidance rule and 2) there is implicit approval of any act not on the list.  Instead, this code provides a list of many positive actions.  These explicit actions illustrate respect for others and help strengthen both an understanding of this ethos and a commitment to it.

This code is not expected to provide guidelines for all situations.  Ambiguities will occur and personal judgment will be required.  Sometimes a GIS professional becomes stuck in a dilemma where two right actions are in conflict with each other or any course of action violates some aspect of this code.  Help might come from talking with colleagues or reading relevant works such as those listed in the bibliography.  Ultimately, a professional must reflect carefully on such situations before making the tough decision.  Contemplating the values and goals of alternative ethical paradigms may be useful in reaching a decision.²

  • View persons who exemplify morality as your own guide (Virtue Ethics)
  • Attempt to maximize the happiness of everyone affected (Utilitarianism)
  • Only follow maxims of conduct that everyone else could adopt (Kantianism)
  • Always treat other persons as ends, never merely as means (Deontology)


I.    Obligations to Society

The GIS professional recognizes the impact of his or her work on society as a whole, on subgroups of society including geographic or demographic minorities, on future generations, and inclusive of social, economic, environmental, or technical fields of endeavor.  Obligations to society shall be paramount when there is conflict with other obligations.  Therefore, the GIS professional will:

1.    Do the Best Work Possible

  • Be objective, use due care, and make full use of education and skills.
  • Practice integrity and not be unduly swayed by the demands of others.
  • Provide full, clear, and accurate information.
  • Be aware of consequences, good and bad.
  • Strive to do what is right, not just what is legal.

2.    Contribute to the Community to the Extent Possible, Feasible, and Advisable

  • Make data and findings widely available.
  • Strive for broad citizen involvement in problem definition, data identification, analysis, and decision-making.
  • Donate services to the community.

3.    Speak Out About Issues

  • Call attention to emerging public issues and identify appropriate responses based on personal expertise.
  • Call attention to the unprofessional work of others.  First take concerns to those persons; if satisfaction is not gained and the problems warrant, then additional people and organizations should be notified.
  • Admit when a mistake has been made and make corrections where possible.

II.    Obligations to Employers and Funders

The GIS professional recognizes that he or she has been hired to deliver needed products and services.  The employer (or funder) expects quality work and professional conduct.  Therefore the GIS professional will:

1.    Deliver Quality Work

  • Be qualified for the tasks accepted.
  • Keep current in the field through readings and professional development.
  • Identify risks and the potential means to reduce them.
  • Define alternative strategies to reach employer/funder goals, if possible, and the implications of each.
  • Document work so that others can use it.  This includes metadata and program documentation.

2.    Have a Professional Relationship

  • Hold information confidential unless authorized to release it.
  • Avoid all conflicts of interest with clients and employers if possible, but when they are unavoidable, disclose that conflict.
  • Avoid soliciting, accepting, or offering any gratuity or inappropriate benefit connected to a potential or existing business or working relationship.
  • Accept work reviews as a means to improve performance.
  • Honor contracts and assigned responsibilities.
  • Accept decisions of employers and clients, unless they are illegal or unethical.
  • Help develop security, backup, retention, recovery, and disposal rules.
  • Acknowledge and accept rules about the personal use of employer resources.  This includes computers, data, telecommunication equipment, and other resources.
  • Strive to resolve differences.

3.    Be Honest in Representations

  • State professional qualifications truthfully.
  • Make honest proposals that allow the work to be completed for the resources requested.
  • Deliver an hour’s work for an hour’s pay.
  • Describe products and services fully.
  • Be forthcoming about any limitations of data, software, assumptions, models, methods, and analysis.

III.    Obligations to Colleagues and the Profession

The GIS professional recognizes the value of being part of a community of other professionals.  Together, we support each other and add to the stature of the field.  Therefore, the GIS professional will:

1.    Respect the Work of Others.

  • Cite the work of others whenever possible and appropriate.
  • Honor the intellectual property rights of others.  This includes their rights in software and data.
  • Accept and provide fair critical comments on professional work.
  • Recognize the limitations of one’s own knowledge and skills and recognize and use the skills of other professionals as needed.  This includes both those in other disciplines and GIS professionals with deeper skills in critical sub-areas of the field.
  • Work respectfully and capably with others in GIS and other disciplines.
  • Respect existing working relationships between others, including employer/employee and contractor/client relationships.
  • Deal honestly and fairly with prospective employees, contractors, and vendors.

2.    Contribute to the Discipline to the Extent Possible

  • Publish results so others can learn about them.
  • Volunteer time to professional educational and organizational efforts: local, national, or global.
  • Support individual colleagues in their professional development. Special attention should be given to underrepresented groups whose diverse backgrounds will add to the strength of the profession.

IV.    Obligations to Individuals in Society

The GIS professional recognizes the impact of his or her work on individual people and will strive to avoid harm to them.  Therefore, the GIS professional will:

1.    Respect Privacy

  • Protect individual privacy, especially about sensitive information.
  • Be especially careful with new information discovered about an individual through GIS-based manipulations (such as geocoding) or the combination of two or more databases.

2.    Respect Individuals

  • Encourage individual autonomy.  For example, allow individuals to withhold consent from being added to a database, correct information about themselves in a database, and remove themselves from a database.
  • Avoid undue intrusions into the lives of individuals.
  • Be truthful when disclosing information about an individual.
  • Treat all individuals equally, without regard to race, gender, or other personal characteristic not related to the task at hand.

Bibliography

  • American Institute of Certified Planners. 1991. AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, 
  • ASPRS. 2001. Code of Ethics of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, 
  • Association for Computing Machinery. 1992. ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, 
  • Craig, William J. 1993. A GIS Code of Ethics: What Can We Learn from Other Organizations? Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, 5(2): 13-16. 
  • Edson, Curtis, Brian Garcia, Jordan Hantman, Nicole Hartz, Hannah Jensen, Jill Leale, Kelley Lewelling, John Marks, Jeff Maxted, Bruce Moore, Brendan Vierk Rivera, Anna Weitzel. 2001. “Code of Ethics for GIS Professionals,” paper for IES 400, GIS and Society, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
  • Kidder, Rushworth M. 1995. How Good People Make Tough Choices, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
  • Olson, Andrew. 1998. Authoring a Code: Observations on Process and Organization,Center for Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology.
  • Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, 1998.  Manual of Practice for Professional Land Surveyors in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
  • Rachels, James. 1999. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Boston: McGraw-Hill College.

Footnotes

1  URISA’s Ethics Task Force consisted of William J. Craig, chair, Al Butler, Tim Case, and Rebecca Somers.  Craig authored the first draft with significant input from James H. Fetzer and Harlan Onsrud.  Somers and Judy M. Olson provided comments in numerous significant areas on subsequent revisions. This document is the result of extensive public review.  Dozens of people provided useful feedback and suggestions during two periods of open public comment in 2002.  All comments were reviewed and considered carefully.  Changes were made to the code where appropriate within the basic deontological framework. 

2  This approach is recommended by Kidder (1995).  For a thorough discussion of moral theories, see Rachels (1999).

Downloadable GIS Code of Ethics

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