Applying Geospatial Technology to Global Design: Ethical Considerations

Geospatial technologies are immensely important in helping us visualize physical and anthropogenic changes to earth’s climate and related systems, but ultimately their most valuable contribution lies in analyzing that change and supporting decision-making to help shape and design the future of earth systems in ways that are sustainable while still serving the purposes of humanity.  The principal goal of this blog post is to encourage a dialog on development of simple and actionable guidelines for ethical application of geospatial technologies for the purpose of analyzing, designing, and ultimately implementing purposeful changes to earth systems.

Before proposing a set of ethical guidelines for the application of geospatial technologies for supporting global design, it is helpful to look at some examples.  The review below presents some interesting and useful examples, but is in no way meant to be comprehensive.

A Note on Climate Change Ethics

Numerous papers and articles have been written about the “ethics of climate change,” their focus being primarily on humanity’s responsibility to the environment.  While such ethical considerations are important to communicate and debate, the focus of this blog post is not that humanity should be doing something to counter climate change but rather we need guidelines focused on the responsible and ethical use of technology in the shaping of decision making related to climate change.

Asmiov’s Laws of Robotics

In his 1942 short story “Runaround” in the book I, Robot, Isaac Asimov proposed his well-known three laws of robotics:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov 1942)

Asimov later abstracted these same concepts and developed a second set of laws governing the design and use of tools more generally:

  • A tool must be safe to use.
  • A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
  • A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety.  (Asimov 2001)

Asimov’s laws transcended the realm of science fiction.  While we can apply some of what we learn from Asimov to the development of ethical guidelines for the use of geospatial technology in global design, the overriding theme throughout Asimov’s laws pertaining to both robotics specifically and tools generally is a focus on human safety without explicitly taking things like sustainability and the health of our planet into consideration.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Taking the first part of its title from a Richard Brautigan poem in which Brautigan envisioned a future where nature and technology are inextricably linked in a mutually beneficial relationship, Adam Greenfield’s essay on ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings provides a useful example of principals that meet the dual requirement of being both useful and humane (Greenfield 2004; Brautigan 1967).  Greenfield’s five principles are:

  • Default to harmlessness.
  • Be self-disclosing.
  • Be conservative of face.
  • Be conservative of time.
  • Be deniable.  (Greenfield 2004)

Similar to Asimov’s laws regarding tools in general and robotics in particular, Greenfield’s focus is weighted towards doing no harm to humans, but still presents us with such useful concepts as transparency and reversibility.

GISP Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct

The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) has established a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) certification program for GIS practitioners who have met minimum standards for ethical conduct and professional practice.  The GISP Code of Ethics details a number of standards for obligations to society, employers and funders, colleagues and the profession, and individuals in society (GISCI ND a).  Their companion Rules of Conduct for Certified GIS Professionals is “a set of implementing laws of professional practice that seek to express the primary examples of ethical behavior consistent with the Code of Ethics.” (GISCI ND b)

GISCI ‘s GISP Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct present a set of detailed, comprehensive, and GIS-centric guidelines on the moral and ethical responsibilities of geospatial practitioners.  Responsibility for and to the health and welfare of natural systems is not explicitly stated by GISCI, but should be clearly affirmed in any guidelines for the use of GIS in climate change modeling and global design.

Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Application of Geospatial Technology to Global Design

As the application of GIS technology as a cornerstone of a climate change modeling and global design framework becomes increasingly more obvious, what we need is a set of guidelines that meld the nature-centric ethics of climate change with other ethical systems focused on ensuring the health and safety of humanity.  The following proposed guidelines should be carefully debated in the geospatial and scientific communities; they should be considered a starting point for a long, important conversation.

  • Actions should minimize harm to both humans and natural systems. Harmlessness, or what some ethicists refer to as the “harm test,” is the common denominator across multiple ethical systems, demanding that actions preclude any type of harm to human beings.  This is a bone of contention with those at the far end of the spectrum in the climate change debate, who some might say seemingly value nature more than human life.  Even if the goal is sustainability while still serving the purpose of humanity, it’s difficult to imagine actions which in all cases would be mutually beneficial to both nature and humans.  But one major benefit of a GIS-based framework for climate change modeling and global design is that it provides the power to analyze multiple scenarios and design the best possible future, supporting the principle that actions should minimize harm to both humans and natural systems.
  • Analysis should be complete and comprehensive. Climate change issues are complex and demand an all-inclusive and wide-ranging examination.  All relevant aspects of physical, biological, and social systems need to be considered and represented.  Multiple data layers describing the intricacies of each relevant system, an array of sophisticated domain-specific models, and use of a GIS-based framework to tie everything together and evaluate multiple future options will insure that the analysis is both complete and comprehensive.
  • Actions should be transparent and defensible. Climate change issues are often ideologically and politically charged, and global design recommendations resulting from spatial analysis and modeling could have massive positive or negative consequences on human health and welfare and earth systems.  All research, analysis, and modeling needs to be objective, keeping with high standards of scientific integrity and following the scientific method.  Results—and the methods used to obtain them—need to be clearly communicated.  (GISCI ND).   All efforts should be taken to insure that the process is transparent, and the resulting recommendations are defensible.
  • Actions should be adaptable and reversible. Adaptive systems feature feedback loops for sensing and responding to environmental changes.   (Kosko  1993)  Allenby states that “…because the potential outcomes of each action become clear only as the system adjusts, the engineer is behaving unethically if she or he doesn’t monitor the results of the chosen action, and modify them accordingly.”  (Allenby 2005).  And while the goal of using a GIS-based framework for earth systems modeling and global design is to get the most comprehensive and complete picture as possible with current technology, it would be irresponsible to assume we know everything and lock in to an option from which there is no exit should things go horribly awry.  Therefore, all actions should be adaptable and reversible.


Allenby, Brad, 2005.   Micro and Macro Ethics for an Anthropogenic Earth.   Professional Ethics Report.  Volume XVIII, Number 2, Spring 2005.

Asimov, Isaac, 1942.  “Runaround”.  In I, Robot.

Asimov, Issac, 2001. Robot Visions.  12 April 2001.

Brautigan, Richard, 1967.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

EDCC ND.  White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.

GISCI ND a.  A GIS Code of Ethics.  GIS Certification Institute.

GISCI ND b.  Rules of Conduct for Certified GIS Professionals (GISPs).   GIS Certification Institute.

Greenfield, Adam, 2004.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Some Ethical Guidelines for User Experience in Ubiquitous-Computing Settings.  Boxes and Arrows, December 2004.

Kosko, Bart, 1993. Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic.