The Ethics of Geospatial Technology – Part 2

EthicalGEO Fellows discuss how location data and geospatial technology can be used for social justice


From geocoded data to space-based remote sensing, geospatial technology is exploding. But with these technological developments, ethical questions are bound to arise.

“All of us use this technology on a daily basis—be it to find a location using our phones, analyze data in our jobs, or better understand leading headlines in the media,” said Dr. John Konarski, chief executive officer of the American Geographical Society (AGS), in a press release. “Our use of this technology and data raises serious ethical questions—privacy, ownership of data, use of data—this list is long and growing.”

To address ethical concerns in the use of geospatial tools and technology, AGS launched EthicalGEO, an initiative endorsed by the Omidyar Network, a global network of innovators, investors, and organizations committed to addressing the most critical economic, technological, and societal issues of today. Seven individuals were awarded a one-year, $7,500 fellowship to advance and amplify their ideas.

“We are very pleased to have this first group of EthicalGEO Fellows lead the way to help us make better decisions as we rely more and more on geospatial tools and data to live our lives,” Konarski said.

Among the ideas being explored is how location data and geospatial technology can be used for social justice, and how to empower people to take control of their data to improve their communities.

A Geoprivacy Toolbox for Educators

Dr. Dara Seidl discusses Geoprivacy in this video and explores who is collecting location data, for what uses, and by what means. Credit: AGS & Dr. Dara Seidl

Dr. Dara Seidl, an independent researcher and recent Ph.D. graduate from San Diego University-UC Santa Barbara, proposed a Geoprivacy video toolbox for educators.

Dr. Dara Seidl

“I am absolutely thrilled to be a part of a group promoting and participating in the ethical use of geospatial technology,” Seidl said.

The video toolbox aims to improve the ethical landscape in the geospatial arena by helping to build a base level of Geoprivacy education among high school and college students. It acts as a springboard for discussion of privacy issues related to modern location-capture technologies.

“The toolbox equips students with the critical thinking skills to recognize what constitutes ethical collection and use of location data, as well as the consequences of unchecked personal location sharing,” Seidl said. “These skills, as part of broader ethical geography training, help to build a more privacy-aware geospatial workforce.”

Location-Based Identity

Rev. Michael Rozier researches to what degree we consider our location-connected data as part of our self-identity. Credit: AGS & Rev. Michael Rozier

Rev. Michael Rozier

Rev. Michael Rozier, assistant professor at the Department of Health Management and Policy at St. Louis University, proposed to conduct surveys to consider to what degree location-connected data is part of our self-identity.

Rozier’s survey aims to gather public opinion on the use and misuse of geolocation data that reveals information about our health and health behaviors.

“The survey will help explain what kind of health-related location data people believe is most private and should be most protected,” Rozier said.

In an era of persistent data collection, he explained, we need a public conversation that is informed both by technology—asking what can be done—and by ethics— asking what should be done.

Mapping For All

Erica Hagen shares how her work is engaging vulnerable communities with location data and mapping. Credit: AGS & Erica Hagen

Erica Hagen

Erica Hagen, co-founder and board member of Map Kibera Trust, proposed to create and publish ethical mapping guidelines focused on communities who traditionally have limited access to maps and mapping tools.

Guidelines will include discussions with several experts living in and working with digital mapping in low income countries, informal settlements, remote rural areas, refugee camps, and others often left out of mapping exercises, in which resulting maps are the source for key decision-making and planning, according to Hagen.

“Open maps and mapmaking processes are not accessible by those who are perhaps most affected by what is revealed by those tools,” Hagen said. “It is very important that we do not leave people out of the new revolution in data, technology, and geographic tools, which is making those tools accessible widely, but not reaching the ‘last mile’ of users so they can benefit themselves.”

The Cyber Seafloor

Explore Internet infrastructure with this interactive map from TeleGeography

Geotagging Cities

Studying dynamics of a city by analyzing social media

Video: Earth Illuminated

From high above the Earth, the International Space Station provides a unique vantage point to view our home planet