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University of Texas University of Texas Libraries

Ethics & Applications of Geospatial Technologies

Geospatial Data

There are a number of ethical and legal considerations that should be made when utilizing geospatial data in research.  Below is a summary of some of the most critical things to think through when developing a research plan to ensure that your work is both ethically sound and in compliance with all laws, professional guidelines, and university regulations.  It is recommended that researchers thoroughly check to ensure that their planned research methods do not violate federal, state, or local regulations and that any research involving human participants be approved by the UT Institutional Review Board (IRB) prior to the commencement of active work on their project.
Important Considerations When Working with Geospatial Data

Protection of personal privacy is a significant concern when working with geospatial data. This is because many geospatial datasets include name and address information that individuals do not want to be made widely available. When working with data that contains personal address information it is recommended that researchers thoroughly acquaint themselves with laws that may govern acceptable use of the data. There are, for instance, strict legal guidelines that regulate the use of medical data pertaining to individuals. Consequently, it would not be ethical or legally acceptable to publish a map showing the addresses of individuals based on medical records.

Data Ownership, Licensing, and Credit

There are, now more than ever, a great many sources of open geospatial data that are made freely available to the public by cities, counties, governments, non-profits, and other organizations. While use of these open datasets is unrestricted, not all geospatial datasets come with such terms. Data that is non-public may be shared with researchers by various government agencies or organizations with certain explicit or implied terms of use (data must not be shared with others outside the research group or made publicly available, results of data analysis must be shared back with the organization providing the data, etc.). In some cases there may be laws that require compliance with specific terms while in other cases failure to follow terms of use may not have legal repercussions but may result in harm to a researchers reputation, ending of data sharing agreements, and other negative consequences. Geospatial data that is purchased from a company is likely to come with licensing restrictions that allow the company to retain ownership of the data while providing researchers who purchase datasets with a limited license to use the data in particular ways. One of the key provisions of most licensing agreements is a stipulation that data must be not be shared with others who are not directly affiliated with the purchaser. This is to ensure that a market for the company's data products continues to exist and that it is not competing against a freely shared version of its own product. Additionally, licensing terms may require that researchers who publish work that includes or is based on data purchased or borrowed from an outside give credit to that source. In any case, even if giving credit for the data to the person, company, or organization that developed it is not legally required, there is an ethical obligation to give credit where credit is due and furthermore to document the source of the information that was used in any scientific research effort.




Carolyn Cunningham, Librarian for Sociocultural Geography

Michael Shensky, GIS and Geospatial Data Coordinator

Looking for Geospatial Data Online?

If you are looking for geospatial data that you can download and work with in GIS software, follow the link below to the Finding Geospatial Data Online LibGuide which provides links to major open data portals and recommendations that will help guide you through the process of searching or browsing for geospatial data.

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