Developing Ethical Guidelines and Best Practices for the Use of Volunteered Geographic Information and Remotely Sensed Imagery in Crisis Situations

The Program has been awarded a 18-month grant of $229,952 from the US National Science Foundation (NSF Award No. 1560948).

Project Updates

This compilation highlights the variety of applications of remote sensing and VGI in crisis situations. Suggestions for additions to the compilation? Please leave a comment below.  Download the compilation here. 

Project Description

This project will develop ethical principles and guidelines, as well as draft best practices for the use of remote sensing and volunteered geographic information (VGI) in crisis situations. Since there are no existing guidelines or best practices to guide such research, the results of the project will be transformative for researchers and collaborators in the field. Moreover, it will have a ripple effect through development of educational materials to prepare future researchers to understand and give priority to their responsibilities when conducting collaborative research with non-scientists. Remote sensing and VGI generate geolocated data used not just by scientists, but also by practitioners with little scientific training seeking to intervene in crisis situations, which often unfold in remote and dangerous locations inhabited by vulnerable populations and may involve human rights abuses, humanitarian and disaster responses, and threats to cultural heritage during conflict. Hence, the project will not only promote the ethical and rigorous use of these techniques for researchers, it will also guide the work of stakeholders outside academia, a crucial step to reducing risks to populations. Given the global settings in which crises emerge, this project reaches beyond traditional scholarly audiences to disseminate research findings and approaches. It will include non-scientist users and the voices of under-represented groups, such as people in the developing world and women, in order to diversify discussions on the best ways to protect on-the-ground researchers, the volunteers of information, and those threatened by the misuse or careless distribution of geolocated information.

Geographers are well-positioned to develop and apply remote sensing and VGI approaches to socially important issues. Nevertheless, methodological lapses may impede further progress. Some methodological issues addressed by this project include: data provenance; quality control in data collection and analysis; representativeness of the collected data; and potential data gaps due to factors such as gender and access to technology. These are core matters for how a professional discipline establishes standards for assessing the rigor and accuracy of its methods and instrumentation, and how it applies those methods in an ethically acceptable manner. While such matters fall into the domain of the profession, they cannot be understood fully in the present day social context without dialogue with non-scientist users. Two key research questions explored by this study include:

  1. What standards are needed for the collection, analysis, use and dissemination of geolocated data during crisis situations? Operating without standards endangers the safety and security of people on the ground and complicates efforts to identify appropriate policy and interventions to protect and assist populations.
  2. What are the best means for engaging a diverse set of geographers and users in developing and disseminating those standards - ethical principles and guidelines and best practices - so they are accepted and implemented in studies that use geolocated data in crisis situations?

These and other questions will be addressed through a series of invitational workshops and solicitations of feedback from stakeholder communities. Participants will be drawn from the international academic, humanitarian, cultural heritage, crisis mapping, disaster, and human rights communities.