Onsrud, H.J., Ethical Issues in the Use and Development of GIS, Proceedings of GIS/LIS ‘97


Harlan J. Onsrud

Department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering and

National Center for Geographic Information & Analysis

University of Maine

Orono, Maine 04469-5711




Users of geographic information are faced with ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. Choosing between "right behavior" and "wrong behavior" doesn’t typically create a dilemma for us. We know which action to take. Ethical dilemmas are created when we must choose between actions that are both arguably correct actions but any action we take will cause harm to someone. This is sometimes referred to as the "right" versus "right" dilemma. We might want to "do the right thing" but we are uncertain of what is the right thing to do. For using detailed geographic databases for marketing purposes is good for society because it allows a more efficient marketplace and large segments of society benefit by having a more efficient marketplace. Yet using detailed geographic datasets in conduction with other data for profiling consumer preferences is found by many individuals in society to be overly intrusive on their personal privacy and damaging to the long term interests of society because the ability to construct computerized dossiers on individuals will eventually restrict the freedom of individuals to think and act in contradiction of societal norms. By which course of action does the geographic information system user "do the right thing"? The geographic information scientist is faced with similar dilemmas. Should researchers put their time and effort into expanding the knowledge base that will help advance systems for allowing stricter control over digital information or should scientists put their efforts into expanding the knowledge base for systems that will allow greater access to information by larger segments of society? Moral stances may be taken in support of either of these as well as many other propositions. How may these ethical dilemmas be resolved?

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