Tag Archives: Tenille Brown

GIS in the Classroom: Geography and the Law

GIS DayBy Naomi Bloch

This Wednesday, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink will present a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. 

Tenille Brown headshot

Tenille Brown, Ph.D. candidate in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law

In the winter 2016 term, Geothink’s Tenille Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, will be teaching a new course called Law and Geography. The seminar course will be offered as a first-year elective option for J.D. students. “It’s really exciting because it will be the first law and geography course in a Faculty of Law in Canada that I am aware of,” said Brown.

The intention of the course is to introduce new law students to the emerging field of legal geography, which focuses on spatial and place-based aspects of law and legal regulation. The course description highlights several focus areas, including public and private spaces; property and the city; critical perspectives of identity, racism and the law; gender, property and the law; indigenous peoples and the environment; and globalization. “There’s a wide variety of topics,” said Brown, “and within that I have a couple of classes which will look at issues of GIS and a lot of the themes of Geothink in relation to legal geography scholarship and in relation to the law.”

Brown notes that GIS is addressed in the legal literature to some extent, but such discussion is in its nascent stages. For example, the field of technology law deals with liability issues in relation to GIS, and issues such as copyright and privacy. “And there’s a little bit of GIS analysis in relation to understanding crime, and criminality,” said Brown. “That’s a big area of research, but I think there are many, many, many GIS narratives which are not captured at all.”

All of these GIS-oriented legal issues will play a role in her course, however she’s also hoping to draw in some students who have previous practical experience with GIS technologies. “If there are students who have a particular interest in GIS or have skills in GIS, and they’re willing, then we can explore not just legal liability in relation to GIS but also, how can we use GIS to help the functioning of the legal system? So really opening it up for those skills to be brought into the classroom.”

“I’m interested in knowing how information about a place, which is maybe more than property-related, can influence how we regulate or understand a particular area of a city, for example,” Brown said. “How can we bring in different information about a city that is not captured by a property title deed, or a traditional survey that we might have? We see a lot of non-traditional information collection right now. That is, it’s non-traditional from a legal perspective — information about how people use a place. Typically the law doesn’t care about that. Typically the law just wants to know who has the title deed, and that’s it.”

Brown offers the example of First Nations groups in Canada, who are currently using GIS and GIS technologies to collect oral histories and map out their histories spatially. “There’s a big push from indigenous communities, and a willingness and a desire to engage with GIS technologies to capture these different narratives,” Brown said. “And they’re wanting to use it to support land claims. That’s their whole aim.

“So it’s important to figure out how modern information can be incorporated into a legal system which relies on historical treaties,” Brown explained. “There’s a lot of legal questions about using that information and the strength of that kind of information from an evidentiary perspective. The law has a very non-GIS approach — a non-tech approach — to adjudication. So I think one of the really important questions is, how can we get this modern GIS counter-narrative and make sure that it’s solid as evidence that is effective for the legal system?”

For Brown, encouraging students with a GIS or geography background to consider how their knowledge can contribute to the legal process is just one motivation for her course. “They’re first-year law students,” Brown said,  “so they’re just beginning to get to grips with what takes place in the Faculty of Law. They’re in shock a little bit, at this point. With this class, I’m really hoping to open it up for students that already have an undergraduate degree in something spatial-related. If there’s anyone who’s done work with GIS, that will definitely enrich the classes.”

Do you have questions about Tenille’s course or research? Contact her on Twitter at: @TenilleEBrown 
Tenille Brown is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. She is a Geothink student member, and a member of the university’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre. Her research is in the areas of legal geography, including property, spatial and citizen engagement in the Ottawa context.

For more of Geothink’s GIS Day coverage, see:

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Torts of the Geoweb: (or the liability question) Part I


Mapping Ottawa’s open data on tobogganing hills (Photo courtesy of ottawastart.com)

By Tenille Brown, PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa

Recently, on March 3rd as part of the continuing Geothink Project, I hosted a Twitter chat about tort liability with Mapping Mashups. This online forum was joined by Geothink partners and friends and the primary topic discussed was the role of tort law and how and where it fits in the context of the Geoweb, liability and moral responsibility. One active participant of this Twitter discussion was British academic Muki Haklay, a collaborator on the Geothink project more broadly, and Haklay later wrote up some highlights from this discussion, available here. I have been considering the role of tort liability in multiple contexts for some time now, both prior to the online discussion and subsequent to it. I have not been thinking of this idea so much in a typical “finding a problem” lawyerly way, but more in a “trying to understand the allocation of responsibility” kind of way. From the legal perspective, questions about how we should handle the mountains of data collected and produced by governments and citizens alike, jumps out at me. For these reasons I chose to place the focus of the Twitter chat on tort liability rather than the challenges of protecting the privacy of personal information, or copyright issues in geospatial information, which have been discussed elsewhere.

With the increase in platforms and data sources (both government and volunteered) on the geoweb, there is also an increase in opportunities for legal liability to attach to this information. With Canadian cities releasing data sets of all types of information, from proposed roadways to beach water sampling data, the liability question is not hypothetical, but of increasing importance. Of course, cities are carrying out their due-diligence by ensuring personal information does not get released, following the principles of the open government license. But still, some questions remain to be answered such as, what legal tools are in place to deal with third parties who take government information and use that information in a way that causes harm?

One example that immediately comes to mind is the use of open data to create apps for the reporting of pot-holes through cities 311 app, as happens in Toronto. A more apt example for Ottawa is the recently released information about hills open to tobogganing throughout the city, which was collated in a map here. Does liability attach to this information? If so, would information which highlights any hazards on the hill amount to a defence in a negligence action? How would we assign liability if citizenship were to take government data and create an open data app which contains outdated data?

In his write-up about the chat, I think Muki Haklay framed this problem correctly as an ethics problem. Haklay writes, 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… In fact, tort liability principles recognize that if a wrong has been committed (sometimes even without intent), then the person who committed the harm might be required to compensate the individual. The very basis of tort law is that we ought to provide remedies for those wronged. Based on this aim, the courts don’t always uphold contracts of adhesion (which seek to limit liability).

The principles of tort liability understood as a matter of ethics and responsibility, provides opportunities for the prevention of harm and the accountability of government. This has long been recognized in the New York context, where the law stipulates that should a person trip on the sidewalk (or pothole), the city is only liable if it has been reported. To ensure reporting, every year the Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Corporationmaps out the cracks, holes and potholes throughout the city (and here). For its part, Toronto reports it has filled in almost 50,000 potholes in 2015 to date and over the past years there has been a 40% increase in drivers receiving compensation from pot-hole induced damage to cars. (The same report does not detail the number of complaints that have been made by the 311 reporting service).

The twitter conversation demonstrates that legal analysis questions, such as who has standing to bring a legal claim, who bears legal responsibility for information, and which courts have jurisdiction, are only the beginning of tort legal questions. A second analysis begs that we understand data in a larger framework which takes into account duties and responsibilities. Focusing on the prevention of harm, we could argue, that there should be a larger set of core activities or areas for which liability cannot be contracted out. These core areas presumably would pertain to the health, safety and well-being of citizenship, particularly that they be tailored to protect the interests of those who cannot be expected to know the details of tortious liability, nor necessarily how to navigate geoweb activities.

Tenille Brown is a PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and a Geothink student member. Her research is in the areas of legal geography, including property, spatial and citizen engagement, in the Ottawa context.

She can be reached on twitter, @TenilleEBrown and via email, Tenille.Brown@uottawa.ca.

Crosspost: Geoweb, crowdsourcing, liability and moral responsibility

This post is cross-posted with permission from Po Ve Sham – Muki Haklay’s personal blog. Muki is a Geothink collaborator at the University College London and the co-director of ExCiteS.

By Muki Haklay

Yesterday [March 3rd, 2015], 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…

See the original post here. twitter