Written by Erin Miller
In the age of ever expanding Internet use, data collection (open source or private) and subsequent map visualizations via Internet mapping technologies, such as Google, the concept of ethics in web mapping applications becomes vitally important in protecting the integrity of online cartography. A good starting point for this discussion is the Code of Ethics provided by the GIS Certification Institute (1). This document describes some basic ethical guidelines to consider as a GIS professional. The most important of which is the understanding of how our map products may directly impact society and individuals. Large scale Internet use allows maps and data to spread like wildfire across the entire world in a matter of seconds. A poorly designed online map, or one that intentionally or unintentionally leaves out data, made public can have unintended consequences if misinterpreted or misused.
A new dilemma arises from the proliferation of online mapping platforms, especially open source, where cartographic novices can add to the wealth of information on the web. OpenStreetMap allowed anyone in the world to add their local spatial information. The ethical question involved with this is who is responsible for the resulting map product (2)? How is the map going to be used? What are the motivations of the users adding (or subtracting) data to these open source maps?
A final consideration in the use of interactive web mapping is the addition of non-spatial data to online maps. When using Google Earth or Google Maps online users can input photos and comments directly into their maps. The ethical concern with this deals with copyright protection and the quality of the comments being added as information to the maps (3). Another concern involves the identification information displayed in Street View within Google Earth. An unsuspecting person photographed as the Google team drives by is now identified and their privacy unprotected. As useful and convenient as Google Maps and Google Earth is, are we unintentionally giving up some of our basic rights as a society? How much information is too much information?
My own thoughts on the subject deal mostly with the implications of online mapping on societies and how the information presented in online maps can be grossly misused by corporations, governments, and others. Once we publish a map online we don’t really have much control in how it is interpreted by other users of the map (or subsequently manipulated for other purposes). If at some point we end up working for a corporation that utilizes online web mapping technologies, are we providing skewed visualizations that favor a particular viewpoint. I feel as future GIS professionals we have an obligation to really consider and think about our online maps (or any GIS product for that matter) and maintain as much professional integrity in our final products as we can.