The 3 days of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) or RGS/IBG  annual conference are always valuable, as they provide an opportunity to catch up with the current themes in (mostly human) Geography. While I spend most of my time in an engineering department, I also like to keep my ‘geographer identity’ up to date as this is the discipline that I feel most affiliated with.

Since last year’s announcement that the conference will focus on ‘Geographies of Co-Production‘ I was looking forward to it, as this topic relate many themes of my research work. Indeed, the conference was excellent – from the opening session to the last one that I attended (a discussion about the co-production of co-production).

Just before the conference, the participatory geographies research group run a training day, in which I run a workshop on participatory mapping. It was good to see the range of people that came to the workshop, many of them in early stages of their research career who want to use participatory methods in their research.

In the opening session on Tuesday’s night, Uma Kothari raised a very important point about the risk of institutions blaming the participants if a solution that was developed with them failed. There is a need to ensure that bodies like the World Bank or other funders don’t escape their responsibilities and support as a result of participatory approaches. Another excellent discussion came from Keri Facer who analysed the difficulties of interdisciplinary research based on her experience from the ‘connected communities‘ project. Noticing and negotiating the multiple dimensions of differences between research teams is critical for the co-production of knowledge.

By the end of this session, and as was demonstrated throughout the conference, it became clear that there are many different notions of ‘co-production of knowledge’ – sometime it is about two researchers working together, for others it is about working with policy makers or civil servants, and yet for another group it means to have an inclusive knowledge production with all people that can be impacted by a policy or research recommendation. Moreover, there was even a tension between the type of inclusiveness – should it be based on simple openness (‘if you want to participate, join’), or representation of people within the group, or should it be a active effort for inclusiveness? The fuzziness of the concept proved to be very useful as it led to many discussions about ‘what co-production means?’, as well as ‘what co-production does?’.

Two GIS education sessions were very good (see Patrick’s summery on the ExCiteS blog) and I found Nick Tate and Claire Jarvis discussion about the potential of virtual community of practice (CoP) for GIScience professionals especially interesting. An open question that was left at the end of the session was about the value of generic expertise (GIScience) or the way they are used in a specific area. In other words, do we need a CoP to share the way we use the tools and methods or is it about situated knowledge within a specific domain? 

ECR panel (source: Keri Facer)

ECR panel (source: Keri Facer)

The Chair Early Career panel was, for me, the best session in the conferenceMaria Escobar-TelloNaomi Millner, Hilary Geoghegan and Saffron O’Neil discussed their experience in working with policy makers, participants, communities and universities. Maria explored the enjoyment of working at the speed of policy making in DEFRA, which also bring with it major challenges in formulating and doing research. Naomi discussed productive margins project which involved redesigning community engagement, and also noted what looks like very interesting reading: the e-book Problems of Participation: Reflections on Authority, Democracy, and the Struggle for Common Life. Hilary demonstrated how she has integrated her enthusiasm for enthusiasm into her work, while showing how knowledge is co-produced at the boundaries between amateurs and professionals, citizens and scientists. Hilary recommended another important resource – the review Towards co-production in research with communities (especially the diagram/table on page 9). Saffron completed the session with her work on climate change adaptation, and the co-production of knowledge with scientists and communities. Her research on community based climate change visualisation is noteworthy, and suggest ways of engaging people through photos that they take around their homes.

In another session which focused on mapping, the Connected Communities project appeared again, in the work of Chris Speed, Michelle Bastian & Alex Hale on participatory local food mapping in Liverpool and the lovely website that resulted from their project, Memories of Mr Seel’s Garden. It is interesting to see how methods travel across disciplines and to reflect what insights should be integrated in future work (while also resisting a feeling of ‘this is naive, you should have done this or that’!).

On the last day of the conference, the sessions on ‘the co-production of data based living‘ included lots to contemplate on. Rob Kitchin discussion and critique of smart-cities dashboards, highlighting that data is not-neutral, and that it is sometime used to decontextualised the city from its history and exclude non-quantified and sensed forms of knowledge (his new book ‘the data revolution’ is just out). Agnieszka Leszczynski continued to develop her exploration of the mediation qualities of techno-social-spatial interfaces leading to the experience of being at a place intermingled with the experience of the data that you consume and produce in it. Matt Wilson drawn parallel between the quantified self and the quantified city, suggesting the concept of ‘self-city-nation’ and the tensions between statements of collaboration and sharing within proprietary commercial systems that aim at extracting profit from these actions. Also interesting was Ewa Luger discussion of the meaning of ‘consent’ within the Internet of Things project ‘Hub of All Things‘ and the degree in which it is ignored by technology designers.

The highlight of the last day for me was the presentation by Rebecca Lave on Critical Physical Geography‘. This is the idea that it is necessary to combine scientific understanding of hydrology and ecology with social theory. It is also useful in alerting geographers who are dealing with human geography to understand the physical conditions that influence life in specific places. This approach encourage people who are involved in research to ask questions about knowledge production, for example social justice aspects in access to models when corporations can have access to weather or flood models that are superior to what is available to the rest of society.

Overall, Wendy Larner decision to focus the conference on co-production of knowledge was timely and created a fantastic conference. Best to complete this post with her statement on the RGS website:

The co-production of knowledge isn’t entirely new and Wendy is quick to point out that themes like citizen science and participatory methods are well established within geography. “What we are now seeing is a sustained move towards the co-production of knowledge across our entire discipline.”

 

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.

GIS Research UK (GISRUK) is a long running conference series, and the 2011 instalment was hosted by the University of Portsmouth at the end of April.

During the conference, I was asked to give a keynote talk about Participatory GIS. I decided to cover the background of Participatory GIS in the mid-1990s, and the transition to more advanced Web Mapping applications from the mid-2000s. Of special importance are the systems that allow user-generated content, and the geographical types of systems that are now leading to the generation of Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI).

The next part of the talk focused on Citizen Science, culminating with the ideas that are the basis for Extreme Citizen Science.

Interestingly, as in previous presentations, one of the common questions about Citizen Science came up. Professional scientists seem to have a problem with the suggestion that citizens are as capable as scientists in data collection and analysis. While there is an acceptance about the concept, the idea that participants can suggest problems, collect data rigorously and analyse it seems to be too radical – or worrying.

What is important to understand is that the ideas of Extreme Citizen Science are not about replacing the role of scientists, but are a call to rethink the role of the participants and the scientists in cases where Citizen Science is used. It is a way to consider science as a collaborative process of learning and exploration of issues. My own experience is that participants have a lot of respect for the knowledge of the scientists, as long as the scientists have a lot of respect for the knowledge and ability of the participants. The participants would like to learn more about the topic that they are exploring and are keen to know: ‘what does the data that I collected mean?’ At the same time, some of the participants can become very serious in terms of data collection, reading about the specific issues and using the resources that are available online today to learn more. At some point, they are becoming knowledgeable participants and it is worth seeing them as such.

The slides below were used for this talk, and include links to the relevant literature.

In its February issue, the magazine GIS development published an article on the activities of the social enterprise Mapping for Change. Please note that the image at the start of the published article is not from our activities and that the article was truncated for publication – we are currently working on a more comprehensive version that we aim to publish later in the year. Dr Hanif Rahemtulla contributed significantly to organising the writing of this article.

The article describes how we utilised community mapping, participatory sensing and mashups technologies to deal with a range of environmental issues with communities across London. It also provides information about our recent projects, including the North Dorset Climate Action map.

The article can be accessed here.

The UrbanBuzz team that recorded some of the community showcase presentations during the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities event in June, have now released the videos on YouTube. The videos are showing the posters and explanations for our work in Marks Gate, Pepys Estate and Hackney Wick. The presentations are by members of the communities, with some help from the project team.

This is the video for Marks Gate, where the focus was on community perceptions about their environment and how it can improved:

The next one shows the noise mapping work in the Pepys Estate (and I had the pleasure of assisting Caroline to explain the mapping):

And the final one shows the historical mapping in Hackney Wick:

The three videos give a good overview of the community mapping projects that were carried out within Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities, and the Environmental Justice projects with London 21 and London Sustainability Exchange .

The Mapping for Sustainable Communities seminar that was organised by myself together with London 21, on the 17th June, was a fantastic event that I thoroughly enjoyed. With over 100 participants, coming from academia, practice and from communities across London and further afield, it was a unique opportunity for discussion between these 3 groups which, unfortunately, is rare.

The day was fairly intensive with a series of presentations from a wide range of speakers, providing a range of views and opinions. At lunch, and especially during the afternoon workshops, there was more time for discussion and exchange of experiences. It was very satisfying to see people stand and discuss the various aspects of participatory and community mapping during the reception at the end of the day, after a heavy day of listening and talking about these issues.

The seminar covered the whole range of technical options – from paper to 3D computer mapping. It also covered various views – from the more theoretical to the practical.

As a conclusion from the day, it is clear that there is a good potential for community and participatory mapping in many aspects of life in the UK. Particpatory mapping can we be used to celebrate the wonder of places, find about their history, or identify issues that are of concern to the community. We need to take into account the local organisational and governance structures, and be sensitive to the needs of the communities within which we operate. There is an ethical dimension that should not be overlooked, but it is important to find the cases where we can make an impact with these tools and use them to make places more sustainable.

In case that you have missed the seminar, or would like to see the presentations from it, here is the outline of the day, with a link to the presentations on SlideShare:

  • Mike Batty (UCL) – Participation through Online Technologies: Experiences with 3D-GIS, Second Life and Multimedia in London (Mike’s presentation was too interactive – so for more information about the issues that he presented, see the CASA website)
  • Community Showcase, where five of the communities that we are working with talked about their experiences.
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