The Role Of Ethics

All academic research should be ethical, guidance comes from the research councils and, generally, from individual departments and faculty ethics boards. Unfortunately the responsibly produce ethical research is on the individual researcher, not with boards and faculty. When I took my first year viva, in it contained some analysis to counter some questions on data and what is possible, knowing it would be a consideration.

In it I produced a time series analysis of the 2010 Egyptian elections with the data from U-Shaid an Ushahidi instance. This hadn’t gone to an ethics board, it had only been seen by my supervision team to allay fears on whether data could be found and analysed (The question on how useful the data is for my research is still being answered). On the day the viva went well with a few discussion points on the data and what it means for future analysis – At this juncture, I’d like to point out that this isn’t a mea culpa of saying I do unethical research!

Because I have decided to use an ‘ethnographically informed’ methodology/action research a lot of the research is based upon my experiences and personal narrative. This then is supported by interviews with experts or people working within the domain. This part of the research isn’t controversial, the ethics around interviews and ethnography are well structured, with clear pathways, dos and don’ts. Fixing these ethics seemingly is based around not doing harm and ensuring informed consent; this being where the subject is being made fully aware of the aims and goals of the experiment before participating. This isn’t cast in stone, especially when trust/deception are part of the experiment, but considerations need to be made. Effectively don’t do the Milgram Experiment, or kill anyone.

At first glance it doesn’t appear that any of that has anything to do with my research. As I’m revolving around community mapping, public participatory GIS (PPGIS), volunteered geographic information (VGI) the ethics are a lot more obfuscated. Something as simple as data collection and its nature can be questioned. Primarily I will use Open Street Map as my VGI source, following Muki Haklay’s work on comparing VGI with an authoritative one, to potentially answer a question around data quality in slum mapping. Informed consent here for mapping parties or the mapping process shouldn’t be too difficult, but what about the pre-existing data?

It’s not realistic to get consent from every person that has contributed to the map. When OSM started blank spots were common, not just in developing nations but in developed nations also. Due to satellite imagery and organisations like HOT (Humanitarian Open street map Team), mappers have also been tracing satellite imagery when a physical survey was impractical. As we want to analyse this information how do we gain consent? Should a clause be put into OSM’s licence (this is bad idea)? Is there a differentiation between mappers which trace and those that physically survey, are all maps created equal?

There is scant research out there, namely “Research Ethics for Studying Open Source Projects” and “Internet Research: Privacy, Ethics and Alienation – An Open Source Approach”. Specifically relating to geospatial data and OSM there is none. The only mention relating to OSM is SK53’s post on research relating to OSM being behind a paywall, which is a fair point but still doesn’t answer whether we should be using data without consent. I sense a PhD chapter forming.

Written and submitted from the Nottingham Geospatial Building (52.953, -1.18405)


Author: Mark Iliffe

Traveller, Programmer, Geospatialist and Motorcyclist

1 thought on “The Role Of Ethics”

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