GeoEthics:  The call for good

By Dr. Jason E. VanHorn and Dr. Joseph Kerski


Ethical conversations have expanded in the last 30 years to include both standards of conduct and the emergence of virtue-centered approaches. In this paper, we focus on Geoethics:  Ethics for teaching and learning in geography, environmental science, and Geographic Information Sciences, and introduce the idea of GIS for good. What do geoethics encompass, and how can instructors teach foundations of geoethics? What happens when you are asked to engage in GIS projects that sit on the edge of ethical dilemmas? We argue that the implementation of virtue ethics provides a firm foundation for GIS practitioners to elevate GIS for good and expand personal and community wellness in the everyday life of GIS work. We also provide engaging activities to aid instructors in teaching ethics through GIS.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines Ethics as – “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group” and defines Virtues as – “conformity to a standard of right” and “a particular moral excellence.” The focus on virtue gives the GIS professional the ability to match governing conduct with that of rightness, which Plato and Aristotle originated and which developed over the centuries with philosophers across many different geographies. Virtues like wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice often form the initial basis for virtues. Considering the variety of virtues that share commonality with different historical, cultural, and even theological traditions, an expanded set of virtues could contain diligence, patience, honesty, charity, creativity, empathy, stewardship, humility, compassion, faith, and hope. Virtue ethics can guide GIS professionals when faced with specific ethical challenges. Beyond that, they form a basis for flourishing and life, with potential to improve both the GIS practitioner and the GIS community.

Societal, Technological, and Educational Forces

Several societal, technological, and educational forces are combining to bring ethics to the fore in science, education, and GISThere is rising awareness of the serious and complex problems faced by the 21st Century world combined with an awareness that the “where” question, and hence, maps, matter.  There is an increasing use of geotechnologies outside of their traditional homeland of environmental science, geography, and GIScience in the fields of business, sociology, history, fine arts, civil engineering, data science, and many other fields.  Coupled with the above trends is an increasing concern about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its linkages to mapping

Initiatives: GIS for Good and Codes of Ethics

From such awareness and trends has come two sets of initiatives:  GIS for Good, and codes of ethics. First, Esri’s “GIS for Good” initiative focusing on GIS as “helping organizations maximize impact for people, planet, prosperity, and peace” to Google’s “GEO for Good” annual summit, which invites “changemakers who want to leverage technology and use [Google] mapping tools for positive impact in the world.” GIS for good is a concept that continues to evolve and grow and fits well within the many GIS professional conduct frameworks today. Second, codes of ethics have recently appeared, but are already increasingly listed in requirements for certifications and other measures of achievement in GIS.

Standards and Guidelines

Standards for GIS professional conduct are established through different professional certification organizations, professional societies, and organizations.The GIS Certification Institute’s GIS code of ethics must be read, understood, and signed by all who seek the GISP certification. The GIS&T Body of Knowledge provides a brief synopsis on some of this discussion. The GS-12 section gives a framework to understand the ongoing conversation to develop standards for proficiency and ethics in GIS. In this section, ethics are combined with virtue.

“While a code of ethics and rules of conduct provide specific directions to professionals on a core set of principles, they cannot provide guidance for each and every challenge that a professional faces …. In order to address specific ethical challenges, professionals (including GIS professionals) must also recognize the importance of virtue ethics, including practical ethics, as a complement to professional codes of ethics and rules of conduct .”

(Bright et al. 2006; Chun 2005; Arjoon 2000; Harvey 2014)

The MapMaker’s Mantra from several Esri cartographers was created with the intention of reinforcing ethical behavior in mapmaking. The mantra includes these statements: Be Honest and Accurate, Be Transparent and Accountable, Minimize Harm and Seek to Provide Value, and Be Humble and Courageous. Another excellent resource for reference and instruction is the IMIA Statement on Ethics for the Map Industry. It summarizes the body of knowledge report on “Ethics in Cartography Resource” compiled by the International Map Industry Association and partners, the International Cartographic Association, the British Cartographic Society and the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.

Altruistic approaches to GIS and mapping are something most of us can get behind, but what about everyday GIS at the office? Today’s open-source, map app ready world nearly means that anyone can be a mapmaker, but not everyone is a cartographer. What do we do when we see presentations from colleagues that feature poorly created maps? How should we govern reaction to data misrepresentation in maps with design flaws? What about mapping requests from colleagues who ask to alter the visualization that results in questionable data visualization?

In our own instruction, we have noted a rising awareness in students who are seeking to make a positive difference in society with their use of GIS, which fits squarely into the notion of GIS enabling wise decision making that benefits people and the planet. We encourage students to consider the THINK tenets when making their maps—is your map True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind?

Whatever good framework you subscribe to, action is still necessary. Once a map project is formed, ask how the project connects with ethics? Write down your thoughts. At the end of the project, repeat the exercise. Were anticipated connections to ethics fulfilled? What virtuous outcomes were achieved?

Teaching Resources

How can faculty teach about geoethics?  We argue that the fostering of ethical awareness and thoughtful practice should be taught throughout the educational curriculum, from primary to university level. We also argue that the very same geotechnology tools and spatial data sets that present ethical choices and dilemmas can be effectively used in fostering thoughtful and ethical behavior and decisions. One library of teaching resources is the short essays on the Spatial Reserves data blog (, where a common theme is to develop a healthy critical view of data, and always check your sources. A related theme is that maps, images, and even GIS tools (such as the ability to divide any variable x by variable y, even when inappropriate to do so, and the ability to make it “snow” on hot desert environments) can unintentionally mislead your audience. These essays include how to teach with Penn State’s set of ethical conundrums via their Professional Ethics Project, a set of GeoPrivacy videos, and a set of manipulated images.

Another set of teaching resources are modeled in this story map,, including teaching with Gigapixel images, using a set of geoprivacy video interviews, and the 4 C’s of data quality. 

For further exploration: 

The American Geographical Society’s EthicalGEO column that includes articles from Kerski and others is a good starting point for definitions, reflections, and the Locus Charter set of principles: