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!

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

OSM Interface, 2006 (source: Nick Black)

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.

TripAdvisor FlorenceThen, 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.

Looking across the range of crowdsourced geographic information activities, some regular patterns are emerging and it might be useful to start notice them as a way to think about what is possible or not possible to do in this area. Since I don’t like the concept of ‘laws’ – as in Tobler’s first law of geography which is  stated as ‘Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.’ – I would call them assertions. There is also something nice about using the word ‘assertion’ in the context of crowdsourced geographic information, as it echos Mike Goodchild’s differentiation between asserted and authoritative information. So not laws, just assertions or even observations.

The first one, is rephrasing a famous quote:

you can be supported by a huge crowd for a very short time, or by few for a long time, but you can’t have a huge crowd all of the time (unless data collection is passive)’

So the Christmas Bird Count can have tens of thousands of participants for a short time, while the number of people who operate weather observation stations will be much smaller. Same thing is true for OpenStreetMap – for crisis mapping, which is a short term task, you can get many contributors  but for the regular updating of an area under usual conditions, there will be only few.

The exception for the assertion is the case for passive data collection, where information is collected automatically through the logging of information from a sensor – for example the recording of GPS track to improve navigation information.

OSM Haiyan

At the end of 2010, Matt Wilson (University of Kentucky) and Mark Graham(Oxford Internet Institute), started coordinating a special issue of Environment and Planning Adedicated to ‘Situating Neogeography’, asking ‘How might we situate neogeography?  What are the various assemblages, networks, ecologies, configurations, discourses, cyborgs, alliances that enable/enact these technologies?’

My response to this call is a paper titled ‘Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation’ and it is finally been accepted for publication. I am providing below an excerpt from the introduction, to provide a flavour of the discussion:

“Since the emergence of the World Wide Web (Web) in the early 1990s, claims about its democratic potential and practice are a persistent feature in the discourse about it. While awareness of the potential of ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere’ to access and use information was extolled for a long while (for an early example see Batty 1997), the emergence of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s (O’Reilly 2005) increased this notion. In the popular writing of authors such as Friedman (2006), these sentiments are amplified by highlighting the ability of anyone to ‘plug into the flat earth platform’ from anywhere and anytime.

Around the middle of the decade, the concept of neogeography appeared and the ability to communicate geographic information over the Web (in what is termed the GeoWeb) gained prominence (see Haklay et al. 2008). Neogeography increased the notion of participation and access to geographic information, now amplified through the use of the political term democratisation. The following citations provide a flavour of the discourse within academic and popular writing – for example, in Mike Goodchild’s declaration that ‘Just as the PC democratised computing, so systems like Google Earth will democratise GIS’ (quoted in Butler 2006), or Turner’s (2006) definition of neogeography as ‘Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends and visitors, helping shape context, and conveying understanding through knowledge of place’.  This definition emphasises the wide access to the technology in everyday practice. Similar and stronger statements can be found in Warf and Sui (2010) who clarify that ‘neogeography has helped to foster an unprecedented democratization of geographic knowledge’ (p. 200) and, moreover, ‘Wikification represents a significant step forward in the democratization of geographic information, shifting control over the production and use of GIS data from a handful of experts to large groups of users’ (ibid.). Even within international organisations this seems to be the accepted view as Nigel Snoad, strategy adviser for the communications and information services unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated: ‘On the technology side, Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really democratized mapping’ (cited in Lohr 2011).

However, what is the nature of this democratisation and what are its limits? To what extent do the technologies that mediate the access to, and creation of, geographic information allow and enable such democratisation?

To answer these questions, we need to explore the meaning of democratisation and, more specifically, within the context of interaction between people and technology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, democratisation is ‘the action of rendering, or process of becoming, democratic’, and democracy is defined as ‘Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege’ [emphasis added]. A more colloquial notion of democratisation, and a much weaker one, is making a process or activity that used to be restricted to an elite or privileged group available to a wider group in society and potentially to all. For example, with mobile telephony now available across the globe, the statement ‘mobile telephony has been democratised’ aims to express the fact that, merely three decades ago, only the rich and powerful members of Western society had access to this technology.

Therefore, it is accepted from the start that the notion of democratisation cited above is more about the potential of neogeography to make the ability to assemble, organise and share geographical information accessible to anyone, anywhere and anytime and for a variety of purposes than about advancing the specific concept of democracy. And yet, it will be wrong to ignore the fuller meaning of the concept. Democratisation has a deeper meaning in respect of making geographic information technologies more accessible to hitherto excluded or marginalised groups in a way that assists them to make a change in their life and environment. Democratisation evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc. (Doppelt 2006). Using this stronger interpretation of democratisation reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered as democratising.

To explore this juncture of technology and democratisation, this paper relies on Andrew Feenberg’s critical philosophy of technology, especially as explored in his Questioning Technology (1999) and Transforming Technology (2002), which is useful as he addresses issues of democratisation and technology directly. For readers who are not familiar with the main positions within philosophy of technology, a very brief overview – based on Feenberg’s interpretation (1999) – is provided. This will help to explain his specific critique and suggestion for ‘deep democratisation’ of technology.

Equipped with these concepts, attention is turned to the discussion about the democratic potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which appears in early discussions about GIS and society in the 1990s, and especially to the discussions within the literature on (Public) Participatory GIS (PPGIS/PGIS – assumed to be interchangeable here) and critical GIS. As we shall see, discussions about empowerment, marginalisation and governance are central to this literature from its inception and provide the foundations to build a deeper concept of democratisation when considering neogeographic practices.

Based on this historical understanding, the core of the paper explores why it is that neogeographic practices are assumed to be democratising and, more importantly, what the limitations are on their democratic potential. To do that, a hierarchy of ‘hacking’ – that is the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent – is suggested. Importantly, here ‘hacking’ does not mean the malicious alteration of technology or unauthorised access to computer systems, or the specific culture of technology enthusiasts (‘hacker culture’). The term is used to capture the first and second instrumentation that Feenberg (1996, 2002) describes.  As we shall see, by exploring the ability to alter systems, there is some justification in the democratisation claims of neogeography as it has, indeed, improved the outreach of geographic technologies and opened up the potential of their use in improving democratic processes, but in a much more limited scope and extent. The paper concludes with observations on the utilisation of neogeographic technologies within the participatory process that aim to increase democratisation in its deeper sense.”

The paper’s concepts are based on talk that I originally gave in 2008 as part of the World University Netowrk seminar on Neogeography. A final note is about the length of time that some ideas need from first emerging until publication – even with the current imagination of ‘fast moving technology’, there is a value in thinking through an idea over 4 years.

While Google wasn’t the first website to implement slippy maps – maps that are based on tiles, download progressively and allow fairly smooth user interaction – it does deserve the credit for popularising them. The first version of Google Maps was a giant leap in terms of public web mapping applications, as described in our paper about Web Mapping 2.0.

In terms of usability, the slippy map increased the affordability of the map with direct manipulation functionality for panning, clear zoom operating through predefined scales, the use of as much screen assets for the map as possible, and the iconic and simple search box at the top. Though the search wasn’t perfect (see the post about the British Museum test), overall it offered a huge improvement in usability. It is not surprising that it became the most popular web mapping site and the principles of the slippy map are the de facto standard for web mapping interaction.

However, in recent months I couldn’t avoid noticing that the quality of the interface has deteriorated. In an effort to cram more and more functionality (such as the visualisation of the terrain, pictures, or StreetView), ease of use has been scarificed. For example, StreetView uses the icon of a person on top of the zoom scale, which the user is supposed to drag and drop on the map. It is the only such object on the interface, and appears on the zoom scale regardless of whether it is relevant or available. When you see the whole of the UK for example, you are surely not interested in StreetView, and if you are zooming to a place that wasn’t surveyed, the icon greys out after a while. There is some blue tinge to indicate where there is some coverage, but the whole interaction with it is very confusing. It’s not difficult to learn, though.

Even more annoying is that when you zoom to street level on the map, it switches automatically to StreetView, which I found distracting and disorientating.

There are similar issues with Google Earth – compare versions 4 and 5 in terms of ease of use for novice users, and my guess is that most of them will find 4 easier to use. The navigation both above the surface and at surface level is anything but intuitive in version 5. While in version 4 it was clear how to tilt the map, this is not the case in 5.

So maybe I should qualify what I wrote previously. There seems to be a range here, so it is not universally correct to say that the new generation of geographical applications are very usable just because they belong to the class of ‘neogeography’. Maybe, as ‘neogeography’ providers are getting more experienced, they are falling into the trap of adding functionality for the sake of it, and are slowly, but surely, destroying the advantages of their easy-to-use interfaces… I hope not!

At several recent GIS industry and academic conferences, I was not very surprised to see GIS presentations in which the presenter started by talking about ‘usability enhancements’ and ‘we took usability very seriously in this application’ but failed to deliver. In contrast to such statements, the application itself was breaking basic usability guidelines such as not giving any feedback to the user about some activity of the system, or grouping related elements together in the interface, among other problems.

Then I came across a report from 1991, which talks about User-Centred Graphical User Interface for GIS and notes that ‘It is not unusual for more than 60% of the code in a complex software system to be dedicated purely to the user interface. This stands in sharp contrast to the 35% dedicated to the user interface in early GISs’. This is still true in spirit, if not in percentage. GIS applications require sophisticated data manipulation, and most of the development effort of GIS vendors or Open Source GIS projects is focused on the information itself and its manipulation. The interface is probably seen as an add-on – the ‘fun’ bit of the development that you leave to the end after cracking all the engineering challenges that make the application work.

What I would argue is that, as a result, GIS as an industry doesn’t have a ‘usability culture’. Compare that to Apple, where usability and interaction with users has been at the centre of what they are doing since they started. Or with e-commerce which also shows a ‘usability culture’ because, if you fail on usability, there is a direct link to loss of sales. These are examples of organisations and sectors who know that usability is important and commit resources to ensuring that their products are usable.

In contrast, in the GIS industry there is a feeling that usability is a ‘nice to have’ element of the development process, so there is no practice of involving usability experts in software development projects. There are relatively few examples of user-centred design in GIS, and they are mostly in research papers, very rarely in practice.

Neogeography is changing it somewhat, since parts of it are coming from companies and developers who see the value in understanding the users. Maybe the competition between the existing developers of GIS and neogeography companies will cause the former to change and they will become more serious about usability.

In the post about the Engaging Geography seminar, I’ve discussed how different levels of engagement with geography can be used to define if a person using a system should be considered a ‘public geographer’ or just a consumer of geographical information in a passive and ephemeral way.

Thinking more broadly on geotechnologies, it is appropriate to include the people who are producing many of the everyday geographical representations. Frequently, the people who are producing these representations use GIS.

When thinking about the Web, it’s clear that the vast majority of the people involved in public geographies do not have any ‘formal’ geographical background. You might think that, in the case of GIS, because of the barriers to entry, the situation will be different.
This is not so. As Dave Unwin noted in his paper in 2005, many of the people operating GIS are actually ‘accidental geographers’. When you take the number of GIS users worldwide, it is clear that only a few have gone through formal geographical education beyond basic school geography. Unwin notes that ‘accidental geographers’ have naïve conceptualisations of geography (for example that it is all about the location of factual objects in space), lack of understanding of spatial analysis and sometimes have a dismissive attitude to the academic disciplines of geography or cartography.

Neogeography is putting these accidental geographers in a new light. Some users do indeed see geography as uncomplicated and GIS as the ‘something that produces maps’. However, as a person is exposed to systems that are dealing with geography for a sustained period she is more likely to start questioning the nature of this geography and the way that it is represented. After a while, these questions will lead to a process of learning about geographical concepts – and the fact that so much information is now available on the Web will certainly help. Sometimes, the commitment to geography might lead to joining organisations such as the AGI and maybe even becoming Chartered Geographers (GIS).

So, in summary, there is a whole range of commitments and interests in geography, and both accidental geographers and neogeographers can be positioned along a continuum from ignorance to expert knowledge. I think that most will move through this continuum and enjoy the process of developing geographic knowledge.

Engaging Geography is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded seminar series, originally conceived by Duncan Fuller, who is sadly missed. The seminars are an appropriate tribute to his memory. The first seminar was held in Newcastle at the end of January and there will be 5 more over the next 2 years. So there plenty of opportunities to join!

The seminar gave special attention to public geographies – such as films that are an output of academic geographical research; photography and exhibitions by artists who deal with geographical issues in their work; and the wide range of examples that are coming out of the work of geography teachers and school geography.

The seminar was thought-provoking with lots of practical demonstrations and discussions about many issues – including how gender influences public geographies, the impact of communication, private geographies and many other issues that were packed into the two-day seminar.

During the discussions, Daniel Raven-Ellison, who runs Guerrilla Geography and Urban Earth, noted that the rapid increase in digital geography (neogeography) where geography is ‘used’ by many is one of the best examples of public geographies. This made me think more about the meaning of public geography and public geographers in the context of neogeography.

I would argue that we should differentiate between systems (websites) that are not based on user-generated content (mash-ups and public mapping sites) and those that require active geographic contribution from the user.

As Byron Antoniou (who is doing his PhD at UCL) noted, within the websites that are based on user-generated spatial content, we should differentiate between geographically explicit systems (OpenStreetMap, Geograph) and geographically implicit systems (Flickr, Wikipedia). The latter can hold geographic information, but that is not their main objective.

So, when users use a public mapping site passively, they don’t engage with the geography of the place fully. They consume a geographical image and, because of the nature of browsing, this image will disappear in the general haze of the many pages and images that they are exposed to. Considering that the average user might view up to 150 pages a day, this is no more ‘public geography’ than a map in a newspaper. Even the programmers that construct mash-ups are not ‘public geographers’ – they are concerned with the automation of the representation, and very rarely consider the visualisation carefully. Not surprisingly, the exceptions (such as London Profiler) have been created by people with a deeper understanding of geography.

In geographically implicit systems, there is some engagement with geography, but it is limited and might even be mechanical. For example, if GPS information is used to automatically geotag an image on Flickr or Picasa, the user is not actively engaged with the geography of their image. The engagement can be higher for example when a person creates a memory map, or manually locates the image position on the map, as it forces the person to recall the real world geography and match it with the map.

Finally, geographically explicit systems are, in my view, mostly public geographies. Because of the task that they were designed for, contributors are aware of the geography that they engage with both in the digital form and in the real world. For example, when a participant captures a road in OpenStreetMap, she is forced to consider the real world characteristics of the street as well as its digital representation. Thus, a meaningful engagement with space and place is an integral part of working with these systems.

Yet, because of participation inequality, even in geographically explicit systems only a small group of participants (about 10% or maybe less) are becoming deeply engaged with the process and working with the system for a period of time that allows them to develop a fuller geographical understanding of projections, scale, place, space and other ‘deep’ geographical concepts.

So while it might seem that there is an explosion of digital mapping information and applications, the number of public geographers – while growing – is quite small.


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