Ethical issues: GIS and SoDIS – a Tongan affair

Simon Dacey, Catherine Snell-Siddle


Technologies that are being developed according to the needs of a particular society depend largely on the level of skills, available materials, economy, requirements and cultural traits of that society. If such technologies are proved to work successfully within a given society, cultural differences may not allow those technologies to operate effectively in other societies. Therefore, when transferring a new technology cross-culturally, several factors must be considered so that it is beneficial to the receiving societies.

The development of any new technology forces people to deal with completely new rights and responsibilities in their use of information and to consider ethical standards of conduct. The good achieved by the technology must outweigh the harm or risk. Those affected by the technology should understand and accept the risks. Those who benefit from the technology should bear their fair share of the risks, and those who do not benefit should not suffer a significant increase in risk.

The authors have been asked to develop a geographical information system (GIS) application to assist Tonga’s Estate Holders (Nobles) in managing the country’s land under their care. Some of the land is under the conventional freehold land tenure system while the rest is under customary land tenure. Customary land tenure is a system of holding rights to land which derives from the operations of the traditions and customs of the people affected. For example all land in Tonga belongs to the Crown and the sale of land by anyone, even the King is prohibited. The new application will store land occupancy information of a sensitive nature that could give the Estate holder power over the land-occupiers that may be misused. Geographical Information Systems have been developed to serve the growing needs of developed societies for complete, current and reliable information in a timely fashion. They are also engaged to evaluate long-term policies on land management combining economic, social and environmental issues.

When developing a GIS application there is a need for balance between effective access and preservation of privacy. The power of information technology to store and retrieve information can have a negative effect on the right to privacy of every individual. There is a need to preserve traditional rights and maintain traditional responsibilities as new technologies create fundamental differences in how information is treated. There are issues such as accessibility – what information should others have access to – with or without the individual’s permission, and what safeguards exist for their protection? What information does a person or an organisation have a right to obtain, under what conditions and with what safeguards? Accuracy is another issue to be considered – who will be responsible for the reliability and accuracy of information and who will be accountable for errors? Ownership of the information is also a factor, eg. who owns information and the channels of distribution, and how should they be regulated?

It is useful to use an established framework to ensure that all factors are considered during the planning of a software development project. The software development impact statement (SoDIS) is an ethics-based process that examines potential software development risk from the perspective of an extended set of stakeholders. A primary goal of this process is to reduce potential software development project failure and prevent unintended harm from occurring to stakeholders. The authors endeavoured to identify all of the potential stakeholders that would be affected by the GIS application. The authors then explored the capability of SoDIS in addressing the risks associated with introducing unfamiliar technology to stakeholders who, in this instance, include indigenous communities.

This paper identifies and addresses the ethical issues that are prevalent in the development of a GIS. It takes into account the socio-economic and cultural realities of traditional societies and applies these to the development of a GIS for Tongan Estate Holders.