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Ethical issues concerning the use of geographic information systems technology with indigenous communities

Turk, A. and Trees, K. (1999) Ethical issues concerning the use of geographic information systems technology with indigenous communities. In: 1st International Conference of the Australian Institute of Computer Ethics (AICE) 1999, 14 - 16 July 1999, Melbourne, Australia


This paper discusses the ethical issues involved in the participative development of cultural heritage information systems for indigenous people, based on geographic information systems (GIS) technology. Threats arising from the use of GIS in this context are examined through a detailed analysis of the issues raised by Rundstrom (1995), Miller (1995) and Prickles (1995). A set of indigenous GIS projects reported in the literature are reviewed. A project being carried out by the author with indigenous communities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is used as an example to explain the practical implications of such ethical issues.

GIS are combinations of hardware, software, data, procedures and people assembled for the capture, storage, retrieval, analysis and display of spatially and temporally referenced information. Miller (1995) and Prickles (1995) highlight the need to address social and ethical questions in relation to GIS.

Kling (1996) summarises the key ethical issues for information systems practitioners and reviews some approaches for dealing with them. Ethical considerations are especially important where the system users may be vulnerable to exploitation, breaches of confidentiality and misrepresentation of concepts (e.g. GIS for indigenous communities). The use of a highly participative system development methodology is critical in such circumstances, however this will not guarantee that all relevant ethical issues are appropriately addressed.

Rundstrom (1995) discusses a large number of ethical issues for cartographyand GIS related to indigenous peoples. He highlights so many potential pitfalls and ethical dilemmas that one could infer that such projects should never be attempted. However, there are strong reasons why at least some indigenous people want to use GIS. This paper examines the issues raised by Rundstrom in some detail.

The author is working with co-researcher Kathryn Trees and the indigenous community at Ieramugadu (Roebourne) Western Australia to develop an information system (ICIS) for the storage of the Ngaluma, Injibandi and Banjima peoples heritage information (Trees and Turk, in press - a; b; Turk and Trees, 1998 - a; b; c). The project seeks to aid in empowerment of indigenous communities through highly participative, culturally appropriate information systems design and implementation.

Because the most fundamental thing in indigenous culture is land (a person's "country"), ICIS must incorporate spatial aspects (Turk and Mackaness, 1995). This is being achieved through the linking of GIS software to multimedia and database elements. Using the government topographic mapping as a spatial base, new maps are being created which use the traditional names and show places of cultural significance. Multimedia elements (such as images, sounds and video sequences) can then be associated with particular locations to help convey the connection between place and traditional law.

This project addresses key ethical issues in the context of post-colonial practice, critical ethnography and visual anthropology. Culturally appropriate technology developments must complement existing oral traditions. They must also engage with specific cultural practices such as naming taboo - the prohibition on using a person's name after death. With the use of photography, film and multimedia in indigenous communities the naming taboo has been redefined to take into account the use of images (Michaels, 1990).

References: Kling, R. (1996) Beyond outlaws, hackers, and pirates: Ethical issues in the work of information and computer science professionals. In: Kling, R. (Ed.) Computerisation and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices (Second Edition). Academic Press.

Michaels, E. (1990) Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons. Allen & Unwin.

Miller, R. P. (1995) Beyond method, beyond ethics: Integrating social theory into GIS and GIS into social theory. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 98-103.

Prickles, J. (ed) (1995) Ground Truth. Guilford Press

Rundstrom, R. A. (1995) GIS, Indigenous Peoples, and Epistemological Diversity. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 45-57.

Trees, K., and Turk, A.G. (in press - a) Reconciling Space: Negotiating Connection to an Indigenous Immemorial Past. In: Barcan, R., and Buchanan, I. (eds) Spaciographies: Essays in Australian Space. University of Sydney Press.

Trees, K. A. and Turk, A. G. (in press - b) Culture, Collaboration and Communication: Participative Development of the Ieramugadu Cultural Heritage Information System (ICIS). Critical Arts Journal . Vol 12, No. 1 & 2.

Turk, A.G. and Mackaness, W.A. (1995) Design considerations for spatial information systems and maps to support native title negotiation and arbitration. Cartography . Vol. 24, No. 2, pp.17-28.

Turk, A.G. and Trees, K. A. (1998-a) The Role of Information Systems in Sustaining Indigenous Communities: The Ieramugadu Cultural Project. Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference of the International Society for System Sciences, Atlanta, USA. - CD-ROM - 11 pages.

Turk, A.G. and Trees, K. A. (1998-b) Ethical Issues Concerning the Development of an Indigenous Cultural Heritage Information System. Proceedings: Second Symposium and Workshop on Philosophical Aspects of Information Systems: Methodology, Theory, Practice and Critique - PAIS II, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. - 11 pages.

Turk, A.G. and Trees, K. A. (1998-c) Culture and Participation in Development of CMC: Indigenous Cultural Information System Case Study. In: C. Ess and F. Sudweeks (eds), Proceedings International Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication - CATaC'98, Science Museum, London, UK (Published by University of Sydney, Australia), pp. 263-267.

Item Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Media, Communication and Culture
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