Geoweb, crowdsourcing, liability and moral responsibility

Yesterday, Tenille Brown led a Twitter discussion as part of the Geothink consortium. Tenille opened with a question about liability and wrongful acts that can harm others

If you follow the discussion (search in Twitter for #geothink) you can see how it evolved and which issues were covered.

At one point, I have asked the question:

It is always intriguing and frustrating, at the same time, when a discussion on Twitter is taking its own life and many times move away from the context in which a topic was brought up originally. At the same time, this is the nature of the medium. Here are the answers that came up to this question:

You can see that the only legal expert around said that it’s a tough question, but of course, everyone else shared their (lay) view on the basis of moral judgement and their own worldview and not on legality, and that’s also valuable. The reason I brought the question was that during the discussion, we started exploring the duality in the digital technology area to ownership and responsibility – or rights and obligations. It seem that technology companies are very quick to emphasise ownership (expressed in strong intellectual property right arguments) without responsibility over the consequences of technology use (as expressed in EULAs and the general attitude towards the users). So the nub of the issue for me was about agency. Software does have agency on its own but that doesn’t mean that it absolved the human agents from responsibility over what it is doing (be it software developers or the companies).

In ethics discussions with engineering students, the cases of Ford Pinto or the Thiokol O-rings in the Discovery Shuttle disaster come up as useful examples to explore the responsibility of engineers towards their end users. Ethics exist for GIS – e.g. the code of ethics of URISA, or the material online about ethics for GIS professional and in Esri publication. Somehow, the growth of the geoweb took us backward. The degree to which awareness of ethics is internalised within a discourse of ‘move fast and break things‘, software / hardware development culture of perpetual beta, lack of duty of care, and a search for fast ‘exit’ (and therefore IBG-YBG) make me wonder about which mechanisms we need to put in place to ensure the reintroduction of strong ethical notions into the geoweb. As some of the responses to my question demonstrate, people will accept the changes in societal behaviour and view them as normal…

Update: Tenille posted a detailed answer to this post at http://geothink.ca/torts-of-the-geoweb-or-the-liability-question-part-i/

Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

One thought on “Geoweb, crowdsourcing, liability and moral responsibility”

  1. Thanks Muki for posting this conversation.
    Posing the question in a legal framework rather blunts your ethical question. Of course the legal solution is to sue everyone vaguely involved. Deeper pockets first.
    The ethical question deals with responsibility and duties of care. Perhaps a manufacturer of driverless vehicles should be aware that the data sources are incomplete and of variable accuracy. Perhaps a part of navigation algorithms should involve not just the data but the reliability of the data. Routes should stick to well-established reliable data.
    Then there is the risk tolerance of the public, riders and pedestrians. Somehow we allow all manner of people to drive huge piles of steel and plastic, and we wave vague notions of insurance around to assuage the risk. We ask the question when these piles of steel and plastic are managed by software and sensors.
    Nick Chrisman

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