Yesterday I was in a session at the American Association of Geographers on “Convergence in the GeoWeb: Volunteered geographic information, spatial data infrastructures, and public participation”. Good talks all around and some interesting discussion in the Q&A period. Renee Sieber had a simple but prescient question “Is Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) the right term“ for describing crowdsourced projects that create geographic information like OpenStreetMap.

There was debate among the academics about why volunteered might be the wrong term 1) not all VGI is volunteered – Cloudmade paid ambassadors to organize mapping parties 2) OpenStreetMap used TIGER data for the United States so large parts of the data are not purely volunteered. While these points could spawn a debate of their own I think they missed the larger point of why VGI is not an accurate term.

There is an assumption in the term VGI that the projects it describes are part of a larger GIS construct. Even the title of the session places VGI in the lineage of Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI), Public Participation GIS (PPGIS), and Participatory GIS (PGIS). . At one point in the session a speaker stated bluntly “without SDI’s there would be no VGI”. So to follow this logic – there would be no OpenStreetMap if it were not for Inspire or the Geospatial-One-Stop? (As a side note they really should go with PGIS because PPGIS sounds like potty training for maps.)

The problem is the projects VGI aims to describe are not part of a larger GIS construct. They exist independently outside of it. Sure there are connections between them, but OpenStreetMap, Platial, Google MyMaps, GeoCommons, etc. were not built to be part of an SDI or enable PGIS. They are crowdsourced projects built on user generated content (UGC).

To give this some perspective I think it is useful to turn the acronyms into sentences to give the words appropriate context:

“Volunteering to the Geographic Information (System)”

As opposed to:

“Users Generating their own Content”

There is something a bit demeaning about “volunteering my information to the geographic information” but something empowering and independent about “generating my own geospatial content”. While the GIS establishment would like to put the up swell in crowdsourced user generated content into a neat box in their hierarchical diagram it just does fit there. It is like saying Wikipedia is supplying “Volunteered Encyclopedic Infromation” to Britannica.

My presentation for the session below:

 

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