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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Risks in Mapping

Risk Management in GIS/cartography

Risk Management is about identifying, assessing, avoiding and mitigating risks (Business Dictionary, 2012). In the context of the GIS and cartographic industry, there are various risks found in compilation, presentation and the usage of the data. A GIS analyst and/or cartographer produces maps from compilation of various data sources, perform analysis and presenting the maps in accordance of intended purpose. Unlike in surveying (the focus is more on measurement science), the risks in managing GIS and cartographic products has lot to do with data compilation and the presentation of maps. The strategic risks found in a GIS/ cartographic works or projects are listed below (Express Insurance, 2012, Kraak & Ormelling, 2010, Caprioli & Tarantino, 2003):
  •         Errors in compilation of data, accuracy and completeness of data
  •         Misleading maps and data
  •         Unintentional or intentional misuse of maps
  •         Copyright issues

With the risks listed above, GIS professionals/cartographers could face product, contract and/or negligent liability if risk management is not taken into consideration (Indiana State University).


  The first major strategic risk in a GIS/cartographic work would be the errors in compilation of data and accuracy of the data. It is said that acquiring (or compiling) data for GIS is the most important and the most expensive component of the GIS project (Caprioli & Tarantino, 2003). The public and clients has a high expectation on the maps or GIS products to be 100% accurate, similar to the expectations towards cadastral surveyor. In today’s world, a GIS professional is liable for any uncorrected mistakes found on their databases or products which are sold or in public display (Drake, 2000). In United States, a government department wouldn’t be liable if they distribute incorrect GIS data files under their legal obligation (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). However, if the department actively market the incorrect files (public usually trust the government products’ data quality), government would be liable and answerable for any subsequent damages of the data mistakes (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). In United States, errors and omissions of data would be one of the two reasons of liability in the geospatial area (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). For example, in 1968, a plane crashed a TV Tower in U.S. due to incorrect location of the broadcasting tower on the aeronautical chart (Washington State Department of Transport, 2012). The federal government was found negligent in locating the tower (Washington State Department of Transport, 2012).

  The second major risk in GIS would be misleading maps and data. This largely caused by graphic misrepresentation (issue of cartography) or incorrect analysis. Geographic data can arise in unexpected ways which could lead to false representation of error-free data (Drake, 2000). For example, in the 80s, a fatal air crash was attributed to misleading vertical and horizontal profile landing approach in an American Airport (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). The aeronautical chart showed the vertical and horizontal profile of the runway at the same scale (though scale factor of horizontal was 5 times of vertical profile of the runway) (University of Colorado, 2012). Faulty GIS analysis with faulty data creates poorly designed or flawed regulations in which the government or geospatial bodies are liable of (Drake, 2000). Legal decisions could be brought up against these faulty planning decision/regulations and the GIS which underpins these decisions (Drake, 2000).

 The third major risk would be unintentional/intentional use of the data and maps. GIS analysts or cartographers cannot control the potential misuse of their products. Although the maps have the correct data and analysis, users could use the data on wrong objectives which leads to wrong conclusions (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). In Wisconsin, United States, the state used a contour line (threshold of Ordinary High Water Mark of a lake) in a topographic map to demarcate the state land ownership and the state claimed a section of private farm (University of Colorado, 2012). Subsequently, the landowner sued the state and state was held liable of misusing the intended definition of the contours in the maps (University of Colorado, 2012).

 The fourth major risk would be the copyright issue. Copyright is defined as ‘the exclusive right of author or producer of literacy, scientific or artistic work (including maps) to publish or reproduce it’ (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010, pg.182). In the cartographic realm, copyright is applicable to original visualization of the product, not the content of the products (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). In an effort to win lawsuit cases, some map producers intentionally introduce errors so that future outside copier could be caught easily for copyright infringement (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). Despite the retention of copyrights, government and its agencies have the requirement to disclose GIS data to the public (may not be free) under the Freedom of Information Act (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010).

Strategies to Mitigate Risks

  One of the ways to mitigate these risks is to understand the requirements of the project. If the project is impacting government or company’s asset decision, the GIS professional or cartographers needs to assess the level of accuracy is needed. This includes putting threshold on error tolerances (referential, topological, relative and attribute) and assessing the metadata of the datasets employed. GIS analysts should have careful planning in order to avoid a mismatch between system’s capacities and the needs of users-which would be very costly (Caprioli & Tarantino, 2003). In the process of compilation of data, geospatial sector needs to be aware of the standards they apply for data transfer and metadata characteristics. For example in United States, National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) to layout a foundational framework for future data collection, assessing thematic data quality and setting standards for data transfers (Caprioli & Tarantino, 2003). To streamline data exchange, in United States, Spatial Data Transfer Standards (SDTS) requires governmental agencies to produce data quality reports on accuracy, completeness and consistency of datasets.

  To tackle the issue of unintentional/intentional of map data use, producers of geospatial products or solutions should explain clearly the intended use of the map. At the same time, GIS and cartographic products should place a disclaimer notice on them. The disclaimer notice may include information on the reliability of the original datasets; the efforts made in care for the production, no warranties on accuracy and disclaim the publisher from any liability for any misuse of the product (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). On other hand, GIS professionals need to ensure the graphic representation of their products should not be misleading and must be legible. For example, a standard set of symbols should be employed so that there can be some variation according to their various applications (Caprioli & Tarantino, 2003). GIS professionals or cartographers cannot assume the user may understand all the graphic representation of the maps-where misleading facts appear. This includes placing appropriate scales for the products, the data currency facts and metadata of the map datasets.

 On the issue of copyrights of data, GIS analysts and cartographers should take extra care of obtaining data from various sources. If where required, GIS professionals should seek a license arrangement with original data publisher in which determines who holds the copyright, ownership of data and terms of access and use (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). However, geospatial industry should be aware of exceptions of copyright applications such as copyright notice expires after 70 years of the original publication (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010). On other side, GIS professionals should know which aspects of their databases could be accessed and the protection levels of the database. For example, in European Union, 1998 law gives the right to an author of a database ‘has the exclusive right to authorize the distribution to the public or the copies thereof for a period of 15 years’ (Kraak & Ormelling, 2010, pg.185). Organization employing GIS also need to set standards in terms of use of data and associated fees.


  1. Aviation Planning, 2012, Remings vs United States, Washington state Department of Transport, viewed on 14th September 2012,
  2. Business, 2012, risk management, Business, viewed on 14th September 2012,
  3. Caprioli, M & Tarantino, E, 2003, ‘Standards and Quality in GIS Contexts’ in FIG Working Week, Paris, France, April 13-17, 2003,pp.1-13, (viewed on 16th September 2012)
  4. Drake, V,2000, GIS:Ethical and Legal Issues, Santa Monica College, viewed on 15th September 2012,
  5. GEO 447 Principles 2000, GIS, Society, Legal Issue & Context, Indiana State University, viewed on 14th September 2012,
  6. GEOG 5003, 2012 (Ken Foote), Legal and Ethical Issues, University of Colorado Boulder, viewed on 15th September 2012,
  7. Howard Veregin (University of Minnesota), 1998, Data Quality Measurement and Assessment, NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIScience, viewed on 15th September 2012,
  8. Kraak, MJ & Ormelling, F, 2010, ‘Cartography: Visualization of Spatial Data’, 3rd edn, Prentice Hall, Essex, England.
  9. Professional Indemnity, Insurance 2012, Professional Indemnity Insurance for Cartographers, Express Insurance, viewed on  14th September 2012,

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