Ethics in GIS

Because people make critical decisions based on information communicated through GIS, the choices that GIS professionals make can have dramatic effects on the lives of people in the community. Within this social context, subtle and, often, hidden questions of right and wrong lurk beneath the nominally objective technologies and quantitative data sets.

Professional ethics are "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group" (Merriam-Webster 2020). While question of what is right and wrong is a highly-subjective topic has occupied philosophers and theologians for millennia, professional societies commonly promulgate codes of ethics that more-specifically define what is right and wrong within the norms of a particular business or field of study. While these codes cannot anticipate every scenario or provide easy answers in morally-ambiguous situations, they are a helpful guide for dealing with complex ethical challenges.

This tutorial will cover a code of ethics commonly cited in GIS, as well as a seven-step procedure that can help guide GIS professionals in making ethical decisions

The GIS Code of Ethics

The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) is "a nonprofit association that provides education and training, a vibrant and connected community, advocacy for geospatial challenges and issues, and essential resources for GIS professionals throughout their careers" (URISA 2020).

On April 9, 2003, the URISA Board of Directors unanimously approved the following widely cited GIS Code of Ethics proposed by the URISA Ethics Task Force. The code is derived from similar codes uses by related professional societies, and incorporates comments from an extended period of public review. (URISA 2003). URISA notes:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ethics Procedures

In 2009, DiBiase et al. proposed a seven-step procedure for ethical assessment that can be used to guide ethical decision-making.

Case Study

Rebekah Jones (GISP), a geographic information systems manager at the Florida Department of Health, was tasked in May of 2020 with building a web dashboard to show county-level COVID data in the state. Her original dashboard showed that the state's positivity rating was around 18%, and that only two of the state's 67 counties met the state's criteria for easing pandemic lockdown restrictions. Her supervisor asked her to modify the calculations to change the positivity rate to the 10% needed to support reopening. (Wamsley 2020; Melendez 2020).

Step 1: State the Problem

Jones was asked to modify calculations that would display what Jones felt would be an inaccurate representation of the risks of reopening the state.

Step 2: Check the Facts

Jones' task was to create a dashboard with county-by-county report cards on the COVID test results.

The test results showed only two of the states 67 counties were safe to reopen under the state's own criteria.

Jones' supervisor asked her to modify the calculations so the state would appear to be ready to reopen.

Jones did not have enough information to ascertain whether the supervisor was acting on their own or, more likely, under implied pressure from above.

Step 4: Identify Relevant Factors

The most obvious relevant criteria are from the Obligations to Society category of the GIS Code of Ethics:

However, there are, arguably, conflicting Obligations to Employers and Funders:

Step 4: Develop a List of Options

Jones could do as directed and modify the dashboard calculations.

Jones could refuse to modify the calculations, resulting in an escalation of the conflict that could result in negative professional consequences.

Jones could alert the media to the modified calculations.

Step 5: Mentally Test the Options

Harm test:

Publicity test:

Defensibility test:

Reversibility test:

Colleague test:

Professional test:

Organization test:

Step 6: Make a Choice Based on Steps 1-5

In the absence of an effective alternative, the safest option is to just make the requested changes.

Step 7: Review Steps 1-6 to Find Ways of Avoiding This Situation in the Future

Given the novel characteristics of the pandemic and the political peculiarities of Florida, it is difficult to imagine how Jones could have avoided this situation.


Jones ultimately refused to make the changes and was fired when she attempted to file a whistleblower complaint. The requested changes were made by another analyst. Jones went on to create her own website to display the data, but her home was subsequently raided by state police during an investigation into (possibly unrelated) unauthorized access to the department servers (Wamsley 2020; Melendez 2020).