Call for papers: OpenStreetMap Studies: Research Perspectives on a Decade of OSM
Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
April 21-25, 2015
Chicago, Illinois

Alan McConchie, University of British Columbia
Muki Haklay, University College London

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

Since its founding in 2004, OpenStreetMap has grown into one of the pre-eminent open collaborative geographic knowledge projects online, growth that has been tracked closely by the emerging research domains of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and the Geospatial Web. Due to OSM’s size (now boasting well over 1 million users), and its relative accessibility (open source code, public mailing lists, freely-downloadable data), OSM has been the preferred case study for many VGI researchers. This is in contrast to arguably more successful VGI projects, such as Google Map Maker, Waze, Facebook places and others, which are closed and researchers cannot access their data easily. Recently, however, there has been growing awareness that OSM and VGI are too often conflated, and that OSM should not be taken to stand in for all VGI. To this end, Muki Haklay suggested that the breadth and complexity of research into OSM may warrant a potential subfield “OpenStreetMap Studies”

Taking the 10th birthday of OSM as a starting point, this session will survey the state of geographical research on OpenStreetMap. This session seeks research demonstrating a variety of approaches, with particular interest in papers that investigate (1) how OSM has changed over the last 10 years, (2) how OSM research has also evolved over that time and how it compares to other crowdsourced systems, and (3) how OSM research differs from VGI research.

Possible paper topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Comparisons between OSM and other open knowledge initiatives such as Wikipedia or other VGI projects like Google Map Maker.
  • Studies of data quality and completeness in OSM data, and consideration if these studies are possible in closed systems such as Google Map Maker or only possible with OSM.
  • OSM and its role in crisis mapping and disaster response and the role of other crowdsourced systems.
  • Novel applications of OSM data used in other fields, such as software algorithms, computer vision, traffic modeling, etc.
  • Social histories and social geographies of OSM and its community of contributors, and comparison to other, open or closed VGI projects.
  • Feminist and critical approaches to the societal impacts of OSM, the epistemological assumptions of its data structures, and the demographics of its community.
  • Political economic approaches to OSM, and open source software and open geodata more generally.

The session is supported by the European COST Energic (COST Action IC1203) network: European Network Exploring Research into Geospatial Information Crowdsourcing.

Please email abstracts of 250 words or less to Alan ( and Muki ( before October 31st, 2014. All accepted papers will need to register for the AAG conference at


An interesting blog post from Matt Artz in ESRI about Citizen Science and GIS. I have written about it in 2010 in ‘Geographical Citizen Science’ – and it is important that more people who are dealing with GIS at government and scientific organisations be aware of citizen science (disclosure: ESRI provided generous support to ExCiteS)

Originally posted on GIS and Science:

“Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, often by crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.”


Applications of geospatial technologies have already proven themselves invaluable for scientific research and understanding. But is there an opportunity for citizen scientists to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge and entertainment, and still make valuable contributions to society?

Citizen scientists have a strong interest in some facet of science, but pursue this interest outside of mainstream academic, research, and industrial organizations. These self-directed individuals might very well be using their own resources, working in their garages to develop “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community.

Scientists, as well as “professionals doing science,” are often the ones organizing these citizen…

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ICTs and ecosystems

16 March, 2014


An excellent critique of why ICT is not an ecosystem – although I do recall a critique on the discourse of high-tech in which it is demonstrated how, from the mid 1980s, technology companies started appropriating concepts from sociobiology and a very bad interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution to justify business practices and actions. By coincidence, probably, the first time I’ve read about sociobiology was in an IBM-sponsored magazine in the early 1980s. ..

Originally posted on Tim Unwin's Blog:

david_stoddart As a young geographer, I had the privilege of learning from the extraordinary David Stoddart, and can never forget reading the numerous books and papers on small island ecosystems that he recommended to us in the mid-1970s – and being jealous that he was able to be doing research on beautiful far-away places such as Aldabra!  Likewise, Richard Chorley and Barbara Kennedy’s Physical Geography: a Systems Approach was required reading on several courses.  Although not quite as inspirational as David Stoddart’s physical presence,  I recall being enthused by this book to go back and read some of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on General Systems Theory, and struggling to balance this with my own increasing interest in structuralism and Marxist theory.

Hence, I have always adopted a principled and historical understanding of the origins and development of the systems approach in academic discourse.  This has made me ever more infuriated by…

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An interview by Prof Anthony Costello of UCL Institute of Global Health, discussing the growth in citizen science today.

Google Trends 'Citizen Science' (July 2013)

Google Trends ‘Citizen Science’ (July 2013)

The term ‘Citizen Science’ is clearly gaining more recognition and use. It is now get mentioned in radio and television broadcasts, social media channels as well as conferences and workshops. Some of the clearer signs for the growing attention include discussion of citizen science in policy oriented conferences such as UNESCO’s World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10) review meeting discussion papers (see page ), or the Eye on Earth users conference (see the talks here) or the launch of the European Citizen Science Association in the recent EU Green Week conference.

There are more academic conferences and publications that cover citizen science, a Google Plus community dedicated to citizen science with 1400 members, a clear trend in Google searches and so on.

Another aspect of the expanding world of citizen science is the emerging questions from those who are involved in such projects or study them about the efficacy of the term. As is very common with general terms, some reflections on the accuracy of the term are coming to the fore – so Rick Bonney and colleagues suggest to use ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research‘ (significantly, Bonney was the first to use ‘Citizen Science’ in 1995); Francois Grey coined Citizen Cyberscience to describe projects that are dependent on the Internet; recently Chris Lintott discussed some doubts about the term in the context of Zooniverse;  and Katherine Mathieson asks if Citizen Science is just a passing fad. In our own group, there are also questions about the correct terminology, with Cindy Regalado suggestions to focus on ‘Publicly Initiated Scientific Research (PIScR)‘, and discussion on the meaning of ‘Extreme Citizen Science‘.

Gartner Hype Cycle

One way to  explore what is going on is to consider the evolution of the ‘hype’ around citizen science throughGartner’s Hype Cycle‘  which can be seen as a way to consider the way technologies are being adopted in a world of  rapid communication and inflated expectations from technologies. leaving aside Gartner own hype, the story that the model is trying to tell is that once a new approach (technology) emerges because it is possible or someone reconfigured existing elements and claim that it’s a new thing (e.g. Web 2.0), it will go through a rapid growth in terms of attention and publicity. This will go on until it reaches the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ where the expectations from the technology are unrealistic (e.g. that it will revolutionize the way we use our fridges). This must follow by a slump, as more and more failures come to light and the promises are not fulfilled. At this stage, the disillusionment is so deep that even the useful aspects of the technology are forgotten. However, if it passes this stage, then after the realisation of  what is possible, the technology is integrated into everyday life and practices and being used productively.

So does the hype cycle apply to citizen science?

If we look at Gartner cycle from last September, Crowdsourcing is near the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and some descriptions of citizen science as scientific crowdsourcing clearly match the same mindset.

Gartner 2012 Hype Cycle

There is a growing evidence of academic researchers entering citizen science out of opportunism, without paying attention to the commitment and work that is require to carry out such projects. With some, it seems like that they decided that they can also join in because someone around know how to make an app for smartphones or a website that will work like Galaxy Zoo (failing to notice the need all the social aspects that Arfon Smith highlights in his talks). When you look around at the emerging projects, you can start guessing which projects will succeed or fail by looking at the expertise and approach that the people behind it take.

Another cause of concern are the expectations that I noticed in the more policy oriented events about the ability of citizen science to solve all sort of issues – from raising awareness to behaviour change with limited professional involvement, or that it will reduce the resources that are needed for activities such as environmental monitoring, but without an understanding that significant sustained investment is required – community coordinator, technical support and other aspects are needed here just as much. This concern is heightened by  statements that promote citizen science as a mechanism to reduce the costs of research, creating a source of free labour etc.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the hype cycle doesn’t apply to citizen science because of history.  Citizen science existed for many years, as Caren Cooper describe in her blog posts. Therefore, conceptualising it as a new technology is wrong as there are already mechanisms, practices and institutions to support it.

In addition, and unlike the technologies that are on Gartner chart, academic projects within which citizen science happen benefit from access to what is sometime termed patient capital without expectations for quick returns on investment. Even with the increasing expectations of research funding bodies for explanations on how the research will lead to an impact on wider society, they have no expectations that the impact will be immediate (5-10 years is usually fine) and funding come in chunks that cover 3-5 years, which provides the breathing space to overcome the ‘through of disillusionment’  that is likely to happen within the technology sector regarding crowdsourcing.

And yet, I would guess that citizen science will suffer some examples of disillusionment from badly designed and executed projects – to get these projects right you need to have a combination of domain knowledge in the specific scientific discipline, science communication to tell the story in an accessible way, technical ability to build mobile and web infrastructure, understanding of user interaction and user experience to to build an engaging interfaces, community management ability to nurture and develop your communities and we can add further skills to the list (e.g. if you want gamification elements, you need experts in games and not to do it amateurishly). In short, it need to be taken seriously, with careful considerations and design. This is not a call for gatekeepers , more a realisation that the successful projects and groups are stating similar things.

Which bring us back to the issue of the definition of citizen science and terminology. I have been following terminology arguments in my own discipline for over 20 years. I have seen people arguing about a data storage format for GIS and should it be raster or vector (answer: it doesn’t matter). Or arguing if GIS is tool or science. Or unhappy with Geographic Information Science and resolutely calling it geoinformation, geoinformatics etc. Even in the minute sub-discipline that deals with participation and computerised maps that are arguments about Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) or Participatory GIS (PGIS). Most recently, we are debating the right term for mass-contribution of geographic information as volunteered geographic information (VGI), Crowdsourced geographic information or user-generated geographic information.

It’s not that terminology and precision in definition is not useful, on the contrary. However, I’ve noticed that in most cases the more inclusive and, importantly, vague and broad church definition won the day. Broad terminologies, especially when they are evocative (such as citizen science), are especially powerful. They convey a good message and are therefore useful. As long as we don’t try to force a canonical definition and allow people to decide what they include in the term and express clearly why what they are doing  is falling within citizen science, it should be fine. Some broad principles are useful and will help all those that are committed to working in this area to sail through the hype cycle safely.

CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) is the premier conference in the calendar of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) studies. While the first paper that deal with geographic technologies within this conference was presented in 1991 (it was about User Interfaces for Geographic Information Systems by Andrew Frank and presented at a special interest group meeting), geography did not received much attention from HCI researchers in general, though the growth of location-based technologies made it a growing area in recent years. As I noted elsewhere, HCI did received interest in GIScience over the years, with more attention paid to spatial cognition and fundamental aspects of knowledge representation but unfortunately less on interaction design and exploration of user studies.

This sort of loose coupling between GIScience and HCI is also reflected in personal histories.  I was aware of CHI and its importance for over 15 years, but I never managed to attend one – until now. When Brent Hecht invited me to join a CHI workshop proposal on Geographic HCI (GeoHCI), I jumped on the opportunity. The process of working together with HCI researchers on coordinating and curating a workshop led to mutual learning about priorities and practices of work of the two different research communities – in the tone and style of position papers, reviews and ways of organising a meeting. The response to the call for position papers was overwhelming and demonstrated the interest from both geography and HCI communities to find opportunities to converse and share ideas.

The workshop itself was excellent, with coverage of many topics that are being actively researched in Geography and GIScience – and the papers and presentation cover crowdsourced/volunteered geographic information, use of geographic information in crisis situations, participatory mapping and citizen science, concepts of place and space, personal memories, and of course many interactions with maps.

My own talk focused on Geography and HCI, exploring the point of view of geography when approaching computing environments to represent and communicate geographical knowledge. I have used human geography and particularly the concept of space/place to highlight the contribution that geography can make. For example in understanding the multiplicity of interpretation of place by using both David Harvey critique of spatial sciences in the understanding of place, and Doreen Massey relational geography description of places as ‘stories so far’ in ‘For Space‘ as a clear example of different conceptualisation of what they are.

One particular point that I highlighted, following the first chapter of Introducing Human Geographies in which a differentiation is made between Geography as ‘writing the Earth': looking at human-nature relationship in the wider sense, versus ‘writing the World’ : looking at society-space relationships. For HCI audience I described it by rephrasing Don Norman’s differentiation between ‘Geography in the world‘ which is about the way people interact with the physical environment around them, versus ‘Geography in the head‘ which is the cultural, personal and social understanding of the place where they are and how they want to shape their personal activities, memories and interactions. Of course, Geography in the world is easier to represent in computers then the Geography in the head, and my personal view is that too much emphasis is paid to the first type.

Another part of the presentation focused on the importance of Cartography for geographical technologies, and why issues of map scale, media and task context are very important when designing geographic applications. For example, the value of paper as a media and understanding that maps are more about context then about ‘you are here’.

My position paper is available here . My presentation is provided below

In my view, the workshop was very valuable in opening new conversations. I have now a better understanding of the context in which HCI researchers in Google, Yahoo! and Pitney-Bowes Business Insight consider geography and what problems they have. The issue of place and the need to explore platial information came up several times, and we also experienced the multi-sensory engagement with place which are difficult to capture in digital forms. Most importantly, this was an experience in understanding the language and ways of expression that can help in bridging the two communities.

I’ve been using 37Signals’ Basecamp now for over 5 years. I’m involved in many projects with people from multiple departments and organisations. In the first large project that I run in 2007 – Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – Basecamp was recommended to us by Nick Black (just before he co-founded CloudMade), so we’ve started using it. Since then, it was used for 33 projects and activities which range from coordinating writing an academic paper to running a large multidisciplinary group. In some projects it was used a lot in other it didn’t work as well. As with any other information system, the use of it depends on needs and habits of different users and not only on the tool itself.

It is generally an excellent tool to organise messages, information and documents about projects and activities and act well as a repository of project related information – but project management software is not what this post is about.

I’m sure that in the scheme of things, we are a fairly small users of Basecamp. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised to receive a card from 37Signals. 
I’m fairly passive user of Basecamp as far as 37Signals are concerned – I’m please with what it does, but I have not contacted them with requests or anything like that. So getting this hand-written card was a very nice touch from a company that could very easily wrote the code to send me an email with the same information – but that wouldn’t be the same in terms of emotional impact.

As Sherry Turkle is noting in her recent book, the human contact is valuable and appreciated. This is important and lots of times undervalued aspect of communication and interaction – the analog channels are there and can be very effective. This blog post – and praising 37Signals for making this small effort, is an example of why it is worth doing it.


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