Assessing Legal And Ethical Issues With Gis Basemap Usage

Understanding GIS Basemaps and Their Legal Restrictions

Geographic Information System (GIS) basemaps are foundational maps consisting of reference features such as roads, landmarks, and political boundaries used to provide context for overlaying spatial data layers. Basemaps utilize data sourced from satellite imagery, GPS devices, digitized maps, government agencies, and field observations. Sources of basemap data include both commercial companies and open data platforms. While basemaps provide critical locational frameworks for GIS analysis, their use and distribution are subject to legal restrictions based on licensing agreements and attribution requirements.

Defining Basemaps and Common Sources

GIS basemaps serve as reference layers upon which additional data can be integrated, analyzed and visualized. They provide real-world geographic contexts for overlaying demographic, environmental, infrastructure and other spatial data. Some common types of basemap data include:

  • Political boundaries – international borders, state/provincial borders, county lines
  • Transportation networks – roads, railways, cycling paths
  • Hydrology – rivers, lakes, oceans
  • Topography and terrain – elevation, hillshade
  • Imagery – aerial/satellite imagery, LIDAR scans
  • Points of Interest – public facilities, restaurants, parks

Leading sources for basemap data include commercial providers like Esri, Google, Mapbox and OpenStreetMap as well as government open data portals. Data may be sourced through satellite imagery, GPS devices, digitization of existing analog maps, public surveys and crowdsourcing.

Licensing Restrictions on Use and Distribution

The licensing terms under which GIS basemaps are accessed and distributed can vary widely depending on the data provider. Proprietary basemaps from commercial vendors are generally subject to restrictions prohibiting redistribution, limiting storage durations and governing use cases. For example, the ArcGIS Online World Imagery basemap prohibits bulk downloading, permanent storage or sharing with third parties. Government open data is more permissively licensed but may carry stipulations regarding attribution or restrictions on commercial use. Understanding the license terms is critical for legally utilizing basemaps.

Attribution Requirements for Basemaps

Most basemap data mandates proper attribution indicating the source of the original data and conveying relevant copyright details. Attributions are typically required to be visible on maps, layouts and publicly shared deliverables containing basemap data. Many basemap platforms provide ready-made text attributions covering copyright notices, data sources and license details which users can place on maps. Providing complete, accurate attributions as stipulated by basemap terms of use is crucial from both an ethical and legal perspective.

Evaluating the Ethics of Basemap Use

In addition to navigating legal considerations, GIS professionals must evaluate ethical issues regarding privacy, environmental impacts and open access when working with basemaps. While basemaps provide invaluable geographic context, their origins and applications warrant ethical assessments.

Respecting Data Privacy and Sensitivity

High resolution aerial/satellite imagery utilized in basemaps has raised privacy concerns regarding identifiable houses, vehicles and people. Geocoded address data integrated into certain basemaps also represents sensitive information meriting safeguards. GIS professionals should enact ethical precautions such as blurring/masking identifiable imagery, anonymizing household level data and restricting access to sensitive basemaps.

Considering Environmental Impacts of Basemap Creation

The process of capturing geospatial data via satellite imagery, aerial photography and ground surveys contributes to fossil fuel emissions and environmental impacts. Rapidly updating basemaps to provide increasingly current maps also takes substantial computing resources. GIS professionals should consider mission criticality when requesting new basemap data and evaluate options such as leveraging archival imagery vs capturing new photography. Environmental sustainability principles should help guide basemap sourcing and refresh decisions.

Promoting Open Access to Geographic Data

Making basemaps and other GIS data layers freely accessible and usable advances public education, transparency and democratization of information. Governments opening previously proprietary basemap resources have enabled breakthroughs for researchers, journalists and social justice causes. GIS professionals should advocate for government, academic and non-profit open data initiatives. Where possible, contributing data back to OpenStreetMap and other crowdsourced geographic databases also furthers open mapping advances.

Developing Ethical Policies for Your Organization

Organizations utilizing GIS basemaps should establish policies and guidelines addressing legal compliance, ethical data usage and attribution standards tailored to their risk profile and use cases.

Documenting Allowed and Prohibited Uses for Basemaps

Clear documentation of permissible vs prohibited data actions provides basemap guidance for an organization’s staff. Legal terms barring basemap redistribution or commercial use should be highlighted along with established blurring thresholds for managing privacy sensitivity. Example: “Esri Community Maps may not be shared with non-employees or stored permanently for reuse without refreshing after 365 days.”

Educating Staff on License Terms and Data Sensitivity

Through both formal training and informal guidelines, GIS teams should be well-versed in relevant basemap license terms so legal violations and ethical missteps are avoided. Education on why attributes like household addresses warrant confidentiality precautions further encourages thoughtful data “hygiene” practices. Sample training topics could cover high risk basemap uses, refresh policies and anonymization techniques.

Establishing Guidelines for Attribution and Citations

Documenting basemap attribution conventions, text citations and map credits best practices provides consistency and quality assurance for appropriately acknowledging data sources. Template attribution statements for commonly used basemaps, standards for map layout citations and examples of well-formatted credits should be shared with staff as reference material and training content.

Adopting Best Practices for Basemap Projects

On an individual basemap project level, GIS practitioners should select appropriately licensed data sources, provide accurate attributions and utilize the maps ethically by considering sensitivity concerns and environmental externalities.

Selecting Appropriately Licensed Basemaps for Your Needs

The licensing terms and use constraints vary widely across basemap data providers. Assessing project requirements around data sensitivity, commercial usage, redistribution rights and update frequencies helps identify ideal basemap sources. Seeking freely available government data or validated commercial platforms aligned to use cases encourages legal and ethical usage.

Providing Proper Citations and Attributions

Attributing the specific basemap layer utilized along with the relevant version, access date and precise publisher/data source demonstrates ethical data transparency. Providing complete map credits also acknowledges intellectual property rights of creators. Following publisher guidance such as Esri’s table of sample attribution statements ensures correct, succinct attribution language.

Using Basemaps Ethically and Responsibly

Beyond legal compliance, basemap integration warrants considerations around privacy, stereotyping, security and sustainability. Evaluating whether to generalize or mask sensitive features, profile communities respectfully and leverage archival vs new imagery represents responsible basemap adoption. Just as medical ethics govern health data, GIS basemap usage merits ethical data principles.

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