14 August, 2014
As far as I can tell, Nelson et al. (2006) ‘Towards development of a high quality public domain global roads database‘ and Taylor & Caquard (2006) Cybercartography: Maps and Mapping in the Information Era are the first peer-reviewed papers that mention OpenStreetMap. Since then, OpenStreetMap has received plenty of academic attention. More ‘conservative’ search engines such as ScienceDirect or Scopus find 286 and 236 peer reviewed papers (respectively) that mention the project. The ACM digital library finds 461 papers in the areas that are relevant to computing and electronics, while Microsoft Academic Research finds only 112. Google Scholar lists over 9000 (!). Even with the most conservative version from Microsoft, we can see an impact on fields ranging from social science to engineering and physics. So lots to be proud of as a major contribution to knowledge beyond producing maps.
Michael Goodchild, in his 2007 paper that started the research into Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), mentioned OpenStreetMap (OSM), and since then there is a lot of conflation of OSM and VGI. In some recent papers you can find statements such as ‘OpenstreetMap is considered as one of the most successful and popular VGI projects‘ or ‘the most prominent VGI project OpenStreetMap‘ so, at some level, the boundary between the two is being blurred. I’m part of the problem – for example, with the title of my 2010 paper ‘How good is volunteered geographical information? A comparative study of OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey datasets‘. However, the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I am with this equivalence. I feel that the recent line from Neis & Zielstra (2014) is more accurate: ‘One of the most utilized, analyzed and cited VGI-platforms, with an increasing popularity over the past few years, is OpenStreetMap (OSM)‘. I’ll explain why.
Let’s look at the whole area of OpenStreetMap studies. Over the past decade, several types of research paper have emerged.
First, there is a whole set of research projects that use OSM data because it’s easy to use and free to access (in computer vision or even string theory). These studies are not part of ‘OSM studies’ or VGI, as, for them, this is just data to be used.
Third, there are studies that also look at the interactions between the contribution and the data – for example, in trying to infer trustworthiness.
[Unfortunately, due to academic practices and publication outlets, many of these papers are locked behind paywalls, but thatis another issue… ]
In short, there is a significant body of knowledge regarding the nature of the project, the implications of what it produces, and ways to understand the information that emerges from it. Clearly, we now know that OSM produces good data and are ware of the patterns of contribution. What is also clear is that many of these patterns are specific to OSM. Because of the importance of OSM to so many application areas (including illustrative maps in string theory!) these insights are very important. Some of these insights are expected to also be present in other VGI projects (hence my suggestions for assertions about VGI) but this needs to be done carefully, only when there is evidence from other projects that this is the case. In short, we should avoid conflating VGI and OSM.
9 August, 2014
Today, OpenStreetMap celebrates 10 years of operation as counted from the date of registration. I’ve heard about the project when it was in early stages, mostly because I knew Steve Coast when I was studying for my Ph.D. at UCL. As a result, I was also able to secured the first ever research grant that focused on OpenStreetMap (and hence Volunteered Geographic Information – VGI) from the Royal Geographical Society in 2005. A lot can be said about being in the right place at the right time!
Having followed the project during this decade, there is much to reflect on – such as thinking about open research questions, things that the academic literature failed to notice about OSM or the things that we do know about OSM and VGI because of the openness of the project. However, as I was preparing the talk for the INSPIRE conference, I was starting to think about the start dates of OSM (2004), TomTom Map Share (2007), Waze (2008), Google Map Maker (2008). While there are conceptual and operational differences between these projects, in terms of ‘knowledge-based peer production systems’ they are fairly similar: all rely on large number of contributors, all use both large group of contributors who contribute little, and a much smaller group of committed contributors who do the more complex work, and all are about mapping. Yet, OSM started 3 years before these other crowdsourced mapping projects, and all of them have more contributors than OSM.
Since OSM is described as ‘Wikipedia of maps‘, the analogy that I was starting to think of was that it’s a bit like a parallel history, in which in 2001, as Wikipedia starts, Encarta and Britannica look at the upstart and set up their own crowdsourcing operations so within 3 years they are up and running. By 2011, Wikipedia continues as a copyright free encyclopedia with sizable community, but Encarta and Britannica have more contributors and more visibility.
Knowing OSM closely, I felt that this is not a fair analogy. While there are some organisational and contribution practices that can be used to claim that ‘it’s the fault of the licence’ or ‘it’s because of the project’s culture’ and therefore justify this, not flattering, analogy to OSM, I sensed that there is something else that should be used to explain what is going on.
Then, during my holiday in Italy, I was enjoying the offline TripAdvisor app for Florence, using OSM for navigation (in contrast to Google Maps which are used in the online app) and an answer emerged. Within OSM community, from the start, there was some tension between the ‘map’ and ‘database’ view of the project. Is it about collecting the data so beautiful maps or is it about building a database that can be used for many applications?
Saying that OSM is about the map mean that the analogy is correct, as it is very similar to Wikipedia – you want to share knowledge, you put it online with a system that allow you to display it quickly with tools that support easy editing the information sharing. If, on the other hand, OSM is about a database, then OSM is about something that is used at the back-end of other applications, a lot like DBMS or Operating System. Although there are tools that help you to do things easily and quickly and check the information that you’ve entered (e.g. displaying the information as a map), the main goal is the building of the back-end.
Maybe a better analogy is to think of OSM as ‘Linux of maps’, which mean that it is an infrastructure project which is expected to have a lot of visibility among the professionals who need it (system managers in the case of Linux, GIS/Geoweb developers for OSM), with a strong community that support and contribute to it. The same way that some tech-savvy people know about Linux, but most people don’t, I suspect that TripAdvisor offline users don’t notice that they use OSM, they are just happy to have a map.
The problem with the Linux analogy is that OSM is more than software – it is indeed a database of information about geography from all over the world (and therefore the Wikipedia analogy has its place). Therefore, it is somewhere in between. In a way, it provide a demonstration for the common claim in GIS circles that ‘spatial is special‘. Geographical information is infrastructure in the same way that operating systems or DBMS are, but in this case it’s not enough to create an empty shell that can be filled-in for the specific instance, but there is a need for a significant amount of base information before you are able to start building your own application with additional information. This is also the philosophical difference that make the licensing issues more complex!
In short, both Linux or Wikipedia analogies are inadequate to capture what OSM is. It has been illuminating and fascinating to follow the project over its first decade, and may it continue successfully for more decades to come.
11 February, 2014
A special delight during my PhD research was to discover, at the UCL library the proceedings of the first ever symposium on GIS. Dr Tomlinson studied towards a PhD at UCL, and probably that is how the copy found its way to the library. It was fairly symbolic for me that the symposium was titled ‘environmental information systems’. See my earlier comment about the terminology: Geographic information or Environmental Information.
10 December, 2013
There is something in the physical presence of book that is pleasurable. Receiving the copy of Introducing Human Geographies was special, as I have contributed a chapter about Geographic Information Systems to the ‘cartographies’ section.
It might be a response to Ron Johnston critique of Human Geography textbooks or a decision by the editors to extend the content of the book, but the book now contains three chapters that deal with maps and GIS. The contributions are the ‘Power of maps’ by Jeremy Crampton, a chapter about ‘Geographical information systems’ by me, and ‘Counter geographies’ by Wen Lin. To some extent, we’ve coordinated the writing, as this is a textbook for undergraduates in geography and we wanted to have a coherent message.
In my chapter I have covered both the quantitative/spatial science face of GIS, as well as the critical/participatory one. As the introduction to the section describes:
“Chapter 14 focuses on the place of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) within contemporary mapping. A GIS involves the representation of geographies in digital computers. … GIS is now a widespread and varied form of mapping, both within the academy and beyond. In the chapter, he speaks to that variety by considering the use of GIS both within practices such as location planning, where it is underpinned by the intellectual paradigm of spatial science and quantitative data, and within emergent fields of ‘critical’ and ‘qualitative GIS’, where GIS could be focused on representing the experiences of marginalized groups of people, for example. Generally, Muki argues against the equation of GIS with only one sort of Human Geography, showing how it can be used as a technology within various kinds of research. More specifically, his account shows how current work is pursuing those options through careful consideration of both the wider issues of power and representation present in mapping and the detailed, technical and scientific challenges within GIS development.”
To preview the chapter on Google Book, use this link . I hope that it will be useful introduction to GIS to Geography students.
During the symposium “The Future of PGIS: Learning from Practice?” which was held at ITC-University of Twente, 26 June 2013, I gave a talk titled ‘Keeping the spirit alive’ – preservations of participatory GIS values in the Geoweb, which explored what was are the important values in participatory GIS and how they translate to the Geoweb, Volunteered Geographic Information and current interests in crowdsourcing. You can watch the talk below.
To see the rest of the presentations during the day, see https://vimeo.com/album/2475389 and details of the event are available here http://www.itc.nl/Pub/Events-Conferences/2013/2013-June/Participatory-GIS-Symposium.html
17 December, 2011
The Eye on Earth Summit took place in Abu Dhabi on the 12 to 15 December 2011, and focused on ‘the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making’. The summit was an opportunity to evaluate the development of Principle 10 from Rio declaration in 1992 as well as Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 both of which focus on environmental information and decision making. The summit’s many speakers gave inspirational talks – with an impressive list including Jane Goodall highlighting the importance of information for education; Mathis Wackernagel updating on the developments in Ecological Footprint; Rob Swan on the importance of Antarctica; Sylvia Earle on how we should protect the oceans; Mark Plotkin, Rebecca Moore and Chief Almir Surui on indigenous mapping in the Amazon and man others. The white papers that accompany the summit can be found in the Working Groups section of the website, and are very helpful updates on the development of environmental information issues over the past 20 years and emerging issues.
Interestingly, Working Group 2 on Content and User Needs is mentioning the conceptual framework of Environmental Information Systems (EIS) which I started developing in 1999 and after discussing it in the GIS and Environmental Modelling conference in 2000, I have published it as the paper ‘Public access to environmental information: past, present and future’ in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems in 2003.
Discussing environmental information for a week made me to revisit the framework and review the changes that occurred over the past decade.
First, I’ll present the conceptual framework, which is based on 6 assertions. The framework was developed on the basis of a lengthy review in early 1999 of the available information on environmental information systems (the review was published as CASA working paper 7). While synthesising all the information that I have found, some underlying assumptions started to emerge, and by articulating them and putting them together and showing how they were linked, I could make more sense of the information that I found. This helped in answering questions such as ‘Why do environmental information systems receive so much attention from policy makers?’ and ‘Why are GIS appearing in so many environmental information systems ?’. I have used the word ‘assertions’ as the underlying principles seem to be universally accepted and taken for granted. This is especially true for the 3 core assumptions (assertions 1-3 below).
- Sound knowledge, reliable information and accurate data are vital for good environmental decision making.
- Within the framework of sustainable development, all stakeholders should take part in the decision making processes. A direct result of this is a call for improved public participation in environmental decision making.
- Environmental information is exceptionally well suited to GIS (and vice versa). GIS development is closely related to developments in environmental research, and GIS output is considered to be highly advantageous in understanding and interpreting environmental data.
- (Notice that this is emerging from combining 1 and 2) To achieve public participation in environmental decision making, the public must gain access to environmental information, data and knowledge.
- (Based on 1 and 3) GIS use and output is essential for good environmental decision making.
- (Based on all the others) Public Environmental Information Systems should be based on GIS technologies. Such systems are vital for public participation in environmental decision making.
Intriguingly, the Eye on Earth White Paper notes ‘This is a very “Geospatial” centric view; however it does summarise the broader principles of Environmental Information and its use’. Yet, my intention was not to develop a ‘Geospatial’ centric view – I was synthesising what I have found, and the keywords that I have used in the search did not include GIS. Therefore, the framework should be seen as an attempt to explain the reason that GIS is so prominent.
With this framework in mind, I have noticed a change over the past decade. Throughout the summit, GIS and ‘Geospatial’ systems were central – and they were mentioned and demonstrated many times. I was somewhat surprised how prominent they were in Sha Zukang speech (He is the Undersecretary General, United Nations, and Secretary General Rio +20 Summit). They are much more central than they were when I carried out the survey, and I left the summit feeling that for many speakers, presenters and delegates, it is now expected that GIS will be at the centre of any EIS. The wide acceptance does mean that initiatives such as the ‘Eye on Earth Network’ that is based on geographic information sharing is now possible. In the past, because of the very differing data structures and conceptual frameworks, it was more difficult to suggest such integration. The use of GIS as a lingua franca for people who are dealing with environmental information is surely helpful in creating an integrative picture of the situation at a specific place, across multiple domains of knowledge.
However, I see a cause for concern for the equivalence of GIS with EIS. As the literature in GIScience discussed over the years, GIS is good at providing snapshots, but less effective in modelling processes, or interpolating in both time and space, and most importantly, is having a specific way of creating and processing information. For example, while GIS can be coupled with system dynamic modelling (which was used extensively in environmental studies – most notably in ‘Limits to Growth’) it is also possible to run such models and simulations in packages that don’t use geographic information – For example, in the STELLA package for system dynamics or in bespoke models that were created with dedicated data models and algorithms. Importantly, the issue is not about the technical issues of coupling different software packages such as STELLA or agent-based modelling with GIS. Some EIS and environmental challenge might benefit from different people thinking in different ways about various problems and solutions, and not always forced to consider how a GIS play a part in them.