In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics of GIS

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Texts

Geography Ethics of GIS
Jim Thatcher, Craig M. Dalton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0284


In a field as topically diverse and complex as Geographic Information Science/Systems (GIS), discussions of ethics are both inevitable and highly contextual. Over the decades since the formalization and valorization of GIS within the academy, discussions around ethics for GIS and the ethical practice of GIS have spanned the discipline and involved topics ranging from the exploitation of Indigenous peoples to creating inclusive maps of queer spaces. While these conversations too often arose in response to existing questionable practices, there is also a strong tradition of scholars and practitioners seeking to build an ethics of GIS based in ethical practice, one to inform future and current actions as much as it might critique existing initiatives. Discussions of ethics in GIS have traditionally remained somewhat distinct from larger philosophical works in the area and have tended to center around the application of ethical frameworks to specific GIS practices. For example, Nancy Obermeyer Obermeyer 2009, cited under the Limits Formal Ethics Codes: Scandal and New Approaches) has written “Virtue Ethics for GIS Professionals” Maria Styblińska (Styblińska 2008, cited under Introductory Texts) applied deontological approaches in “The Ethical Concerns about GIS,” and Renee Sieber (Sieber 2006, cited under Ethical GIS and Mapping Practice) provides a framework for considering some of these approaches in an article titled “Public Participation Geographic Information Systems: A Literature Review and Framework.” The present article is divided into three larger sections that approach existing scholarship on ethics and GIS from different directions as follows: The first, introductory section introduces the ethical debates around GIS by highlighting its potential for good and ill. Echoing the article by J. B. Harley (Harley 1991, cited under Introductory Texts), “Can There Be a Cartographic Ethics?,” these introductory pieces demonstrate that “ethics cannot be divorced from questions of social justice” (p. 15). The second section puts conversations around ethics and GIS in roughly chronological historical context. Beginning in the mid-20th century with some of the consequences of spatial science and GIS practiced with minimal ethical questioning, it moves through the emergence of ethically based criticisms to GIS in the late 1980s and the development of formal ethical codes by professional organizations, before finally highlighting newer critiques and deficiencies in ethical practices around GIS and spatial science. The subsection includes a major ethical scandal involving US researchers and participatory mapping in Mexico as well as attempts to formulate ethics in GIS through new kinds of reflective, self-conscious practice. The third section is thematic in structure. First, three subsections engage specific debates in GIS and mapping involving ethical questions and their implications: the epistemological and ontological foundations of maps and GIS; the nature of geographic data; and the economic aspects of GIS, geospatial data, and location surveillance. The last two sections focus on ethical GIS in practice, including both the long history of social justice work in critical approaches, like counter-mapping, and more recent moves by mainstream GIS practitioners to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The penultimate subsection focuses on teaching, including ways of engaging with ethics through actual GIS projects rather than abstract code. The final subsection provides examples of GIS projects conducted with ethics and justice explicitly in mind.

Introductory Texts

While there are many introductory GIS textbooks that can serve as practical and conceptual introductions to the field, there are none that take as their central conceit the ethics of GIS. Elwood and Wilson 2017, cited in Teaching Ethics for GIS, refers to this shortcoming as the “Week 10: Ethics” approach to teaching GIS; the idea that everything concerning ethical questions of GIS and society can be neatly packaged into a single, discrete week of curriculum, thereby leaving time for “more important” topics (and technological instruction). Moreover, much of what constitutes Critical GIS, with the broad debates about power and value (see Oxford Bibliographies in Geography article “Critical GIS”) end up similarly reduced to the reductive fig leaf of “ethics.” In this section, we introduce a series of texts that present ethical questions as foundational to the study and practice of GIS as both a set of technologies and a scientific endeavor. These works are often framed around the question J.B. Harley asked: if it is possible to have a cartographic ethics and, if so, what might it look like? (This is a question central to many of the texts in this section). Following on that Lally 2022 asks bluntly what GIS can do (and, implicitly, what it can’t and shouldn’t). These questions, as well as the other works in this section, help escape the Week 10 box, situating GIS as always within larger contingent social and cultural contexts that, in turn, are always already subject to ethical considerations. Pavlovskaya 2018 addresses GIS as a tool of social change, while Pickles’s famous edited volume, Ground Truth (Pickles 1995), contains a series of entries that examine the disjunctures between GISystems, GIScience, and the social and cultural milieus in which they exist and function. Responding to Ground Truth and other works in Critical GIS, Thatcher, et al. 2016 asks important questions that include what exactly can be ethical in GIS in light of new technological advancements, such as big (spatial) data.

  • Crampton, J. W. Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

    This book provides an introductory overview to how power is inherently part of the conceptual foundation, practice, and data of mapping and geographic information systems. This relationship between power and knowledge provides a basis for the productive and creative powers of GIS and mapping technologies throughout society.

  • Harley, J. B. “Can There Be a Cartographic Ethics?” Cartographic Perspectives 19.3 (1991): 9–16.

    DOI: 10.14714/CP10.1053

    Harley’s writings helped spark the modern debate on ethics in mapping and, subsequently, GIS. He made the case that too much of the work on ethics in mapping and GIS were myopic in their focus on technical precision and professional codes, thereby missing or ignoring or silencing broader social issues and problems, even those caused by map technologies. “Ethics cannot be divorced from questions of social justice” (p. 15).

  • Lally, N. “What Can GIS Do?” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 21.4 (2022): 337–345.

    This conceptual article makes the case for approaching GIS, and therein ethics and Critical GIS, as a situated set of practices and open to and self-consciously reflexive about new possibilities rather than preconceived, generalized, or technologically defined conceptions of GIS. In doing so, GIS initiatives may assist new, empowering, or liberatory opportunities while also, through careful reflection, avoid ethical missteps or systemic blind spots.

  • Pavlovskaya, M. “Critical GIS as a Tool for Social Transformation.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 62.1 (2018): 40–54.

    DOI: 10.1111/cag.12438

    This article builds on decades of work on GIS, ethics, and epistemology to make the case that GIS with a critical orientation can open possibilities for empowering, liberatory scholarship, and social work. This involves not just better maps but better social possibilities and solidarities and pedagogies.

  • Pickles, J., ed. Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

    This collected volume was one of the first to highlight a variety of ethical and conceptual problems in GIS theory and practice at the time, many of which continue as points of debate today. Prominent examples include ethics, privacy, and the role of positivist thought.

  • Styblińska, M. “The Ethical Concerns about GIS.” Annals of Geomatics 6.2 (2008): 87–94.

    This short paper provides a basic primer on different forms and definitions of “ethics” and how they may be applied in the context of GIS. It introduces virtue, utilitarian, rights, fairness, and common good approaches to ethics and connects them to GIS through aspects of professional practice: social implications, professional integrity, competency and professional development, professional relations, and professional responsibility.

  • Thatcher, J., L. Bergmann, B. Ricker, et al. “Revisiting Critical GIS.” Environment and Planning A 48.5 (2016): 815–824.

    DOI: 10.1177/0308518X15622208

    This commentary with thirty-one authors provides a broad statement about critical approaches to GIS at the time including questions of social justice and ethics, enriched through critical quantification, digital humanities, and political economy.

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