Chapter in ‘Understanding Spatial Media’ on VGI & Citizen Science

77906_9781473949683[1]The book ‘Understanding Spatial Media‘ came out earlier this year. The project is the result of joint effort of the editors Rob Kitchin (NUI Maynooth, Ireland), Tracey P. Lauriault (Carleton University, Canada), and Matthew W. Wilson (University of Kentucky, USA).

The book is filling the need to review and explain what happened in the part 20 years, with the increase use of digital geographic information that then became widespread and can be considered as a media – something that Daniel Sui and Mike Goodchild noted in 2001. The book chapters are covering the underlying technologies, the sources of the data and media that are part of this area, and the implications – from smart cities to surveillance and privacy.

My contribution to this book is in a chapter that belong to the middle section – spatial data and spatial media – and that provides an introduction to Volunteered Geographic Information and Citizen Science. If you’re interested, you can read the chapter here.


Call for papers – special issue of the Cartographic Journal on Participatory GIS

Call for papers for a special issue of The Cartographic Journal on past, present and future of
Participatory GIS and Public Participation GIS.

DSC01463In the 1990s, participatory GIS (PGIS) and Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) emerged as an approach and tool to make geospatial technologies more relevant and accessible to marginalized groups. The goal has been to integrate the qualitative and experiential knowledge of local communities and individuals, thereby empowering local peoples and non-profit organizations to participate in political decision-making. By enabling the participation of local people from different walks of life, P/PGIS has provided a platform where these people can share their viewpoints and create maps depicting alternative views of the same problem, but from a local perspective.

Over the years, numerous applications integrating GIS and social and spatial knowledge of local groups have been developed. P/PGIS appears well articulated as a technique. With the growth of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), from an epistemological view point the relationship of P/PGIS constructs (society, technology and institutions) and the use of components (access, power relations, diverse knowledge) in P/PGIS necessitates an exploration of what P/PGIS means in 21st century.

A related field, Citizen Science a.k.a. public participation in scientific research is a research technique that allows participation of public in the discovery of new scientific knowledge through data collection, analysis, or reporting. This approach can be viewed to be somewhat similar in its implementation to P/PGIS, which broadens the scope of data collection and enables information sharing among stakeholders in specific policies to solve a problem. The success of all three concepts, citizen science, PGIS and PPGIS, is influenced by the Geoweb – an integration of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) (e.g., social networking sites) and geospatial technologies (e.g., virtual globes like Google Earth, free and open source GIS like QGIS and location enabled devices like the iPhone) – that allows a platform for non-experts to participate in the creation and sharing of geospatial information without the aid of geospatial professionals.

Following a successful session in the AAG 2015 Annual Meeting, this call is for papers that will appear in a special issue of ‘The Cartographic Journal’ ( We are calling for reflections on PPGIS/PGIS and citizen science that address some of the questions that are listed below.

  1. What social theories form the basis for the current implementation of P/PGIS? Have these theories changed? What remains persistent and intractable?
  2. What role do spatial theories, such as Tobler’s law of spatial relations or issues of spatial data accuracy, have in P/PGIS, Citizen Science or crowdsourcing?
  3. Since Schlossberg and Shuford, have we gotten better at understanding who the public is in PPGIS and what their role is in a successful deployment of PGIS?
  4. Which new knowledge should be included in data collection, mapping and decision-making and knowledge production? To what extent are rural, developing country, or marginalized communities really involved in the counter-mapping process? Are they represented when this action is undertaken by volunteers?
  5. What role do new ICTs and the emergence of crowdsourcing plays in the inclusion of indigenous and local knowledge? Do new tech and concepts hinder the participatory process or enable empowerment of local communities? Do we have new insights on what could be considered technological determinism?
  6. Do we need to revisit P/PGIS in light of any of these shifts? How often do P/PGIS projects need to be revisited to address the dynamic nature of society and political factors and to allow future growth?
  7. How effective have P/PGIS and Citizen Science been in addressing issues of environmental and social justice and resource allocation, especially, from a policy-making perspective?
  8. Are we any better at measuring the success of P/PGIS and/or Citizen Science? Should there be policies to monitor citizen scientists’ participation in Geoweb? If so, for what purpose?
  9. What should be the role of privacy in P/PGIS, for example, when it influences the accuracy of the data and subsequent usability of final products? How have our notions of needed literacy (e.g., GIS) and skills shifted with the emergence of new technologies?
  10. How has the concept of the digital divide been impacted by the emergence of the Geoweb, crowdsourcing and/or neogeography?
  11. What is the range of participatory practices in Citizen Science and what are the values and theories that they encapsulate?
  12. What are the different applications of Citizen Science from policy and scientific research perspective?
  13. To what extent do the spatial distribution of citizens influence their participation in decision making process and resolving scientific problems?
  14. How have our notions of needed literacy (e.g., GIS) and skills shifted with the emergence of new technologies?

Editors: Muki Haklay (, University College London, UK; Renee Sieber (, McGill University; Rina Ghose (, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee; Bandana Kar (, University of Southern Mississippi – Hattiesburg. Please use this link to send queries about the special issues, or contact one of the editors.

Submission Deadlines
Abstract – a 250 word abstract along with the title of the paper, name(s) of authors and their affiliations must be submitted by 15th August 2015 to Muki Haklay (use the links above). The editorial team will make a decision if the paper is suitable for the special issue by 1st September
Paper – The final paper created following the guidelines of The Cartographic Journal must be submitted by 30th October 2015.
Our aim is that the final issue will be published in early 2016

Spatial Conversation – #VGIday #COSTEnergic

The COST Energic network (see ) is running a 2 day geolocated twitter chat, titled ‘Volunteered Geographic Information Day’ so the hashtag is #VGIDay. The conversation will take place on 14th and 15th May 2015, and we are universalists – join from anywhere in the world!
Joining is easy – and require 3 steps:

  1. Follow the @COST_Energic profile
  2. Enable your phone to disclose your position – this will allow to geocode your tweets.
  3. To participate to the discussion, use at least one of the dedicated hashtags in tweets: #COSTEnergic, #VGIday

What are we trying to do?

Discussions will be started by @COST_Energic. Through this twitter handle, we will share resources, results and ideas about the topic of VGI and geographic crowdsourcing. You can join the discussions, bring your ideas and links, and involve your contacts, and this will spread this event through the Twittersphere (and beyond?).
At the end of the experiment, we will produce a report of the generated discussion for our ENERGIC repository, and the dataset of tweets can be then used by researchers who want to visaulise, analyse and try to do things with it. It might end up as teaching material, or in IronSheep

Geoweb, crowdsourcing, liability and moral responsibility

Yesterday, Tenille Brown led a Twitter discussion as part of the Geothink consortium. Tenille opened with a question about liability and wrongful acts that can harm others

If you follow the discussion (search in Twitter for #geothink) you can see how it evolved and which issues were covered.

At one point, I have asked the question:

It is always intriguing and frustrating, at the same time, when a discussion on Twitter is taking its own life and many times move away from the context in which a topic was brought up originally. At the same time, this is the nature of the medium. Here are the answers that came up to this question:

You can see that the only legal expert around said that it’s a tough question, but of course, everyone else shared their (lay) view on the basis of moral judgement and their own worldview and not on legality, and that’s also valuable. The reason I brought the question was that during the discussion, we started exploring the duality in the digital technology area to ownership and responsibility – or rights and obligations. It seem that technology companies are very quick to emphasise ownership (expressed in strong intellectual property right arguments) without responsibility over the consequences of technology use (as expressed in EULAs and the general attitude towards the users). So the nub of the issue for me was about agency. Software does have agency on its own but that doesn’t mean that it absolved the human agents from responsibility over what it is doing (be it software developers or the companies).

In ethics discussions with engineering students, the cases of Ford Pinto or the Thiokol O-rings in the Discovery Shuttle disaster come up as useful examples to explore the responsibility of engineers towards their end users. Ethics exist for GIS – e.g. the code of ethics of URISA, or the material online about ethics for GIS professional and in Esri publication. Somehow, the growth of the geoweb took us backward. The degree to which awareness of ethics is internalised within a discourse of ‘move fast and break things‘, software / hardware development culture of perpetual beta, lack of duty of care, and a search for fast ‘exit’ (and therefore IBG-YBG) make me wonder about which mechanisms we need to put in place to ensure the reintroduction of strong ethical notions into the geoweb. As some of the responses to my question demonstrate, people will accept the changes in societal behaviour and view them as normal…

Update: Tenille posted a detailed answer to this post at

Happy 10th Birthday, OpenStreetMap!

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.

‘Keeping the spirit alive’ – preservations of participatory GIS values in the Geoweb

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 and details of the event are available here


Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers virtual issue on GIScience

Since early 2010, I had the privilege of being a member of the editorial board of the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers . It is a fascinating position, as the journal covers a wide range of topics in geography, and is also recognised as one of the top journals in the field and therefore the submissions are usually of high quality. Over the past 3 years, I was following a range of papers that deal with various aspects of Geographic Information Science (GIScience) from submission to publication either as a reviewer or as associate editor. Transactions of the IBG cover

In early 2011, I agreed to coordinate a virtual issue on GIScience.  The virtual issue is a collection of papers from the archives of the journal, demonstrating the breadth of coverage and the development of GIScience within the discipline of geography over the years. The virtual issues provide free access to a group of papers for a period of a year, so they can be used for teaching and research.

Editing the virtual issue was a very interesting task – I was exploring the archives of the journal, going back to papers that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. When looking for papers that are relevant to GIScience, I came across various papers that relate to geography’s ‘Quantitative Revolution‘. The evolution of use of computers in geography and later on the applications of GIS is covered in many papers, so the selection was a challenge. Luckily, another member of the editorial board, Brian Lees, is also well versed in GIScience as the editor of the International Journal of GIScience. Together, we made the selection of the papers that are included in the issue. Other papers are not part of the virtual issue but are valuable further reading.

To accompany the virtual issue, I have written a short piece, focusing on the nature of GIScience in geography. The piece is titled “Geographic Information Science: tribe, badge and sub-discipline” and is exploring how the latest developments in technology and practice are integrated and resisted by the core group of people who are active GIScience researchers in geography.

You can access the virtual issue on Wiley-Blackwell online library and you will find papers from 1965 to today, with links to further papers that are relevant but not free for access. The list of authors is impressive, including many names that are associated with the development of GIScience over the years from Torstan Hägerstrand or David Rhind to current researchers such as Sarah Elwood, Agnieszka Leszczynski or  Matt Zook.

The virtual issue will be officially launched (and was timed to coincide with) at the GIScience 2012 conference.

As I cannot attend the conference, and as my paper mentioned the Twitter-based GeoWebChat (see which is coordinated by Alan McConchie, I am planning to use this medium for running a #geowebchat that is dedicated to the virtual issue on the 18th September 2012, at 4pm EDT, 9pm BST so those who attend the conference can join at the end of the workshops day.