Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI): where are we now and where are we going

I have just been presenting the Standby Task Force at the ESRI Redlands GIS Week in California. The three day workshop on Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and Humanitarian Emergency has been simply wonderful. Lots of practitioners, lot’s of academics, students and geeky nerds.

Some of the main points that came out of this discussion I think are very interesting also in the field or crisis mapping and can be a good compass for future reflections on the problems and issues that are faced in the case of volunteers geographical information or user generated geographical information.

Some of them are:

1. Geographical information are generated in two different ways: one is voluntary. I go to OSM and voluntary update the map, or I send my geo-location to someone by using my phone. Some of other are on the other side not voluntary, like if I use Twitter automatic location with my phone which will update my status automatically, or if I use Google Longitude on Google maps. How much do we know about the geographical information we involuntary generate?

2. We are in the generation of geo-tagging systems: we geo-tag pictures on Flicker, video on You Tube, Twitter messages, Facebook status. We continuously generate geographical information but most of the time what is missing is the accuracy. How do we increase accuracy of geo-tagged information?

3. Use is the most effective verification system: wiki-maps like OSM are increasingly growing their ability to detect mistakes and variations thanks to the fact that users use the map continuously as to find very quickly mistakes. The creation of a network of trusted sources is strictly related to the opening of the system to anyone, to allow for the crowd to become the vetting system.

4. Geographical information without analysis are as useless as a camera without the film, or a phone without the SIM card. There is no way that we can make a sense out of user generated geographical content without being able to analyze correlations, overlap layers of content, identify trends and path. The ability to do this unfortunately is still related to the technical ability to use software like QuantumGIS or ArcGIS, which can be either to expensive of too difficult to use.

5. Professional GIS and user generated geographical information are not two competing fields: they are two complementary parts of the same field and as such should be treated. Free Open Source systems like Open Street Maps, or Geo Commons are incredibly valuable because they allow non-experts to contribute to the creation of geographical information in an easy way, increasing the possibility to create accurate content in a fast way when needed (see the creation of the Map of Port-o-Prince after the earthquake). Systems like QGIS and ArcGIS take the geographical information to the next level, going as far as to provide with the analysis that policy making bodies needs to take decisions based on the geographical information (like a hot spot map for example).

6. There is a gap between the professional GIS world and the field of Volunteered Geographical Information, especially in terms of knowledge of what is out there and who is doing what. Organizations, governments and even academics in the field of GIS go for the high level tech (and expensive) solutions and have no clue of what can be done with FOSS. On the other side people working with FOSS have a lot of preconceptions about the fact that Private Companies like ESRI are evil because they don’t share their codes. The world is changing, and as more people get access to knowledge and to free software this dynamic has to change too.

In conclusion I think that this is the right time to start talking about this, and that I would love to see a growing VGI community incorporating private companies, governmental bodies, volunteers and academics with the purpose of bringing VGI to the level where Crisis Mapping is now for example (even if VGI is a branch on Crisis Mapping, but extend far beyond Crisis). One of the idea at the GIS Week was to create a Ning and start from there. Watch out people, you may see some exciting things moving this year!

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