[OSM-Science] Special Issue on "Advances in Applications of Volunteered Geographic Information" in the journal Remote Sensing

Levente Juhász jlevente89 at gmail.com
Wed Sep 4 22:36:14 UTC 2019

Hey Guys,

I've just noticed this thread and thought I'd pitch in with some comments
and resources.

As for the naming convention, it's really not standardized in the
literature. Several attempts have been made to do so but people still use a
wide set of terms to describe the same thing. It's confusing, really.
Here's a recent article that actually introduces some new terms [1].
Strictly speaking, you're right. Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI)
is perhaps not the best term to describe OSM and some other forms of user
generated data. I don't really find it problematic to refer "OpenStreetMap
as one of the most successful VGI sources", though, and have referred to it
like that several times (most of the time, in fact). As long as it's clear
what is meant by VGI it's perfectly fine with me. The trick is that you
need to look at what VGI means in the context of that specific research
you're looking at. IMHO this is the only way to capture the full meaning of
it and to understand what authors of an article really mean. Perhaps
coining another term would've been better, or perhaps setting up a widely
accepted conceptual framework at the beginning of VGI research (yes, it's a
thing) would have been useful. We will never know. Anyway, every time I
read about VGI, ambient geographic information, user generated geodata,
user generated geographic information, public participatory geographic
information, shared geodata, (in)volunteered geographic information, etc.
(the list goes on), I look for a description or indication of what authors
of that research are trying to describe with the term and and consider that
meaning. In most cases, it is not about putting OSM in a box with very
different projects but simply using a term that is used by most other
people, at least in a research setting - even if it's not the best choice.
To give you an example, I've previously used VGI to describe both OSM and
Twitter data (even on the very same page) - with the distinction of OSM
users explicitly contributing geographic data, and Twitter users passively
sharing their geolocation (perhaps without their knowledge). Obviously what
I might find to apply to OSM I won't automatically assume it works with
Twitter as well just because I described them with a similar term. The
research community is very well aware of this issue but no commonly
accepted resolution exists as far as I am aware. I will continue to label
use VGI in this mail because this is what I'm used to. What I mean by VGI
in the context of OSM is this:

- it's generated collaboratively by users through an through an online
infrastructure even though these people are not getting paid to do this in
most cases = **volunteered**
- it has a spatial component, it's map data after all = **geographic**
- well, I should really use data here :) people would get confused if I
started to use VGD so I'll stick with VGI

Yes, technically you're also right about how it is not correct to label it
information. But then again, I know that people who use the term VGI are
also aware of this so it does not bother me.

You're right about the the use of 'volunteer', too. Since the early days of
VGI research it has been considered one of the main drawbacks of VGI
projects (regardless of how VGI is defined) that users are
"non-professionals". In many cases it might be true, but the more important
thing IMHO is that we have no idea about the experience of these anonymous
users. This is why, at that time was better to make a  distinction between
the product users of an online platform produce and the product of an
official mapping agency. As for the data quality, a lot of research
attention was put into assessing it instead of just assuming tat
"volunteer" = low quality and it was shown and highlighted that in many
cases these volunteers can produces superior data to "official" data
sources. Furthermore, it has also been shown that in the case of OSM
specifically these non-professionals (at least the active ones) may very
well be professionals who do this for a living. See e.g. [2] that reviewed
other studies and concluded that "Almost 50% of the respondents of each
survey had degrees or worked in the fields of geography, geomatics, urban
planning or computer/information sciences, highlighting that the OSM
community does not necessarily only constitutes of GIS amateurs, as is
oftentimes speculated". Another study used a data driven approach and also
arrived at a similar conclusion: "major editors" are likely professional
(at least in the UK, France and Germany) [3]. When I describe OSMers as
volunteers I am by no means trying to imply that they are unprofessional or
produce low quality data. Quite the contrary, I believe the volunteer label
emphasizes the power of the project and describes how wonderful it is to
build a freely available map database of the whole world just by
volunteering your time. As a side note, this moment of awe is what got me
into research. I was really fascinated by this and wanted to find out more.

All in all, you're right about all points you raised here, Christoph. It
would be hard to argue with them and I think no one from the research
community would try to do so. My point here is that there are depths to the
interpretation of the same term and the community who widely uses the term
is aware of these nuances in the meaning. Most of the time it is also
explicitly defined what VGI means in a specific context. Therefore, I do
not really consider this an issue.

Why I am glad I found this thread, though, is this: it raises an important
point we sometimes tend to forget. Scientists and researchers can't just
automatically assume that everyone else will also have the same picture
when they hear the term VGI. I guess we have to get better at this, at
least I do. Even though I try to be specific about what I sayt when giving
a talk in public, I think I will need to pay more attention to making sure
that the audience and I are on the same page. While in an academic setting
I'll probably still label OSM as VGI, I might start to look for alternative
ways to describe it when interacting with others. So thanks for this


[1] Mocnik, F. B., Ludwig, C., Grinberger, A. Y., Jacobs, C., Klonner, C.,
& Raifer, M. (2019). Shared Data Sources in the Geographical Domain—A
Classification Schema and Corresponding Visualization Techniques. *ISPRS
International Journal of Geo-Information*, *8*(5), 242. (
[2] Neis, P., & Zielstra, D. (2014). Recent developments and future trends
in volunteered geographic information research: The case of
OpenStreetMap. *Future
internet*, *6*(1), 76-106. (https://www.mdpi.com/1999-5903/6/1/76/htm)
[3] Yang, A., Fan, H., & Jing, N. (2016). Amateur or professional:
Assessing the expertise of major contributors in OpenStreetMap based on
contributing behaviors. *ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information*,
*5*(2), 21. (https://www.mdpi.com/2220-9964/5/2/21/htm)

P.S. There is an open access editorial also from Prof. Mike Goodchild which
predates the article in GeoJournal that is widely considered to have coined
the term volunteered geographic information.

Goodchild M.F. (2007). Citizens as voluntary sensors: Spatial data
infrastructure in the world of Web 2.0 (Editorial).* International Journal
of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research* 2: 24–32 (

On Wed, Aug 14, 2019 at 1:01 PM Christoph Hormann <osm at imagico.de> wrote:

> On Tuesday 13 August 2019, Andrew Davidson wrote:
> >
> > The term VGI seems to come from a paper written in 2007 by Michael
> > Goodchild (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-007-9111-y). According to
> > Google Scholar it now has over 4000 citations.
> And the number of citations shows you what exactly?
> > Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall but it might be worth
> > quoting the section in which VGI is defined:
> >
> > [...]
> What you cited illustrates precisely what i mean with "putting
> OpenStreetMap in a box with other very different projects of crowd
> sourced data and probably neglecting to properly analyze the
> differences".
> And i think it also illustrates that it is indeed inconsiderate use of
> the term 'information' (with a failure to reflect on the difference
> between 'information', 'data' and 'knowledge'/'insight').
> I think it also illustrate the term 'volunteer' is meant to be a chiffre
> for 'unprofessional', 'unofficial' and 'untrained' - which seems to
> indicate a condescending attitude towards the subject of their analysis
> and seems to transport an underlying idea that the reliability of data
> stems from the formal qualification of those who maintain it and the
> officiality of the agencies in whose name they do this rather than from
> independent factual verifiability.
> Note of course the inventor of a non-suitable term is not to blame for
> it beeing widely and thoughtlessly picked up by people when engaging
> in "science conducted by press release"
> (https://www.callingbullshit.org/)
> I am sorry for the rant - my main motivation to raise this subject here
> again is to encourage everyone to critically evaluate their use of
> terms like this and what it might communicate about their view of their
> subject matter.
> --
> Christoph Hormann
> http://www.imagico.de/
> _______________________________________________
> Science mailing list
> Science at openstreetmap.org
> https://lists.openstreetmap.org/listinfo/science
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