GEOG 588
Planning GIS for Emergency Management

Emerging Theme: Volunteered Geographic Data


Volunteered Geographic Information

Spatial data has traditionally been developed by government agencies and businesses who could afford the technical and financial expenditure necessary to digitize spatial information. Recent advances in web mapping and GPS technology make it possible for tech-savvy volunteers to develop their own spatial datasets. This sort of geographic data is frequently called "Volunteered Geographic Information" or VGI for short.

The short video here shows the dramatic VGI response to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake through additions and corrections to OpenStreetMap data for the country. Haiti had previously been a poorly-mapped place, and there was an immediate need in the aftermath of the disaster to develop a much better basemap to help recovery efforts. OpenStreetMap - Project Haiti from ItoWorld on Vimeo.

One of the most effective VGI efforts can be found at OpenStreetMap has the goal of developing a basemap of roads, place names, and other common spatial features for the world, based entirely on volunteered contributions. The OpenStreetMap project aims to provide a completely free worldwide geospatial dataset without any legal or technical restrictions on its use. Most popular web mapping resources like Google Maps or Bing Maps tightly constrain how their data can be manipulated, published, or displayed. Quite a few folks take it for granted that these maps are free, but, in fact, they are only free because those companies are providing access to them right now for free. You are not allowed to re-use and repurpose those resources or download their data yourself, and if Google decided tomorrow to charge you for access to their maps, you would have no recourse to ensure you kept access for free.

In addition to basemapping efforts like OSM, other forms of VGI appear in resources like WikiMapia - a VGI effort intended to describe every place on earth.

Using VGI in Crisis Management Contexts

Next I'd like you to take a look at Ushahidi (which means "testimony" in Swahili), a web portal originally designed to encourage and re-use VGI for crisis management support in Africa (and now is used around the world). Ushahidi lets users send reports about conditions on the ground via email, phone, and web interfaces. Ushahidi is an excellent example of how VGI can be harnessed for situational awareness in a crisis situation.

You can review out a wide range of examples showing how Ushahidi has been deployed in response to violence, disasters, and other crises by browsing recent deployments here. Notice how users can easily contribute their own observations and locate them on the map. Since its original implementation focused on election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi has become a much more powerful platform, and has been deployed in recent earthquake disasters in Haiti and Japan, among many other instances.

Mashups like Ushahidi for sharing basic information are now often complemented by other forms of VGI, including privately-owned drones, as shown here in this example from the Humanitarian UAV Network.

Further Reading

If you would like to read more, I recommend you check out an excellent position paper by Michael Goodchild which provides a nice summary of VGI and its implications for GIS.

Deliverables for this week's emerging theme

  • Post a comment that describes how you think the emergence of new sources of VGI impacts GIS systems for Emergency Management. Are there future sources of VGI we should be planning for? Are current methods for providing VGI sustainable over the long term? How do you ensure that there will always be volunteers?
  • Then I'd like you to offer additional insight, critique, a counter-example, or something else constructive in response to one of your colleagues' posts.
  • Brownie points for linking to other technology demos, pictures, blog posts, etc., that you've found to enrich your posts so that we may all benefit.

Note: Post your response in the Lesson 3 Emerging Themes Discussion Forum in Canvas.