Ethics and Professionalism

This panel examined how geospatial ethics are taught in academia and practiced in government and industry


A side effect of COVID-19 has been the global increase in attention to geography, geospatial technology, and GEOINT. The tracking, revising, and presenting of spatial information related to the spread of COVID-19 has greatly increased traffic to county, state, national, and global websites. As some of these groups and organizations use geospatial intelligence to make decisions or take actions, a number of their decisions and actions have been criticized. Organizations have been accused of holding back data or changing the data to deceive the public.

When collected geospatial information provides insight that is not widely shared, it presents ethical challenges for the analysts and organizations who create and manage the data. As GEOINT is currently a profession without a formal code of ethics, this panel, moderated by Jack O’Connor, Johns Hopkins University, examined the ethical responsibilities of geospatial analysts, how they are taught in academia, how they are trained in government and business organizations, and how they are reviewed in government and industry.

In response to COVID-19, the American Geographical Society (AGS) and its EthicalGEO Initiative’s Location Tech Task Force convened a series of Blue-Ribbon Panels and Leadership Spotlights to examine the ethical implications of mobile location technology in the era of COVID-19 and beyond. The panels and spotlights touch upon a variety of topics, such as human rights, technology, and governance during COVID-19; digital contact-tracing tools, technology, and LGBT+ location privacy during COVID-19; and data quality—false negatives, false positives, and policing/surveillance.

“The freedom and the civil liberties that we enjoy in this country have, to some degree, prevented us from using mobile location technology to deal with this virus. I don’t have a solution or recommendation for this, but I certainly think … these are issues that we will have to look toward in the future, and we have to figure out how we are going to deal with it in this country,” said John Konarski CEO, AGS.

David DiBiase, educator, Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), believes education has an equally important role to play in ethics and professionalism. He has been dismayed by the multitude enabled by social media vandalizing democracy by disregarding expertise, disputing facts, and conjuring conspiracy theories.

“As an educator, I am inclined to believe that education is part of the solution,” DiBiase said. “At Penn State, formal ethics training is required for all ethics graduate students.”

Penn State’s online GEOINT program offers professionalism and ethics courses such as GIS Professionalism, which prepares current and aspiring professionals to recognize, analyze, and address legal and ethical issues in the geospatial field.

Michael Rozier, assistant professor at Saint Louis University and an EthicalGEO fellow, has a less instrumental view of education. He believes it should contribute to who you are as a person and as a professional. He also believes the ethical component of geospatial education should ask important conceptual questions like, “What is the nature of data?” This includes representation in the data, how the data should be treated, and if that data is universal.

“Ethics should also be somewhat aspirational. It should call us to something greater, and help us imagine the kind of world we want to construct,” Rozier said.

As a lawyer, Kevin Pomfret, partner, Williams Mullen, has a different perspective of ethics. He said if there had been a legal framework in place around the use of location-type data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing would be much more successful across the United States.

“[This] is a challenge that we will continue to face. You need to balance what is ethical and what is legal. As a lawyer, when I’m advising clients on these technologies, I’m less interested in ethics and more interested in what the law provides. And if the law is unclear, I’m more likely to say no,” Pomfret said.

According to Pomfret, ethics is inherently inward-looking. “It is a community looking at itself as to what it should and shouldn’t do. And I think that raises some challenges for the geospatial community,” he said.

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