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Community Mapping Brings a Revolution to Geographic Information Science

A recent National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecture series featured Michael Goodchild, a world-renowned geographer and director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Spatial Studies. On November 17, Prof. Goodchild presented his evolving views on the development and distribution of geographic information, and how these are being significantly influenced not only by new technologies, but, in particular, by the volunteer efforts of interested non-professionals connected in with the new technologies.

Below is my take on Prof. Goodchild’s talk.

For the past five hundred years there has been a distinction between the professional experts who generate and distribute “official” or authoritative geographic information, and the amateur consumer of said geographic information. Maps, for example, were developed by professional “explorers” and distributed, often at high costs still today, by governments and other official organizations. Before this current era, however, the broader community was involved in communicating the details of the local and regional geographies. It seems, however, that with the advent of new social and connecting technologies, we are once again returning to these by-gone days of community mapping.

Prof. Goodchild discusses his more recent studies into how social networks and crowdsourcing activities by volunteers from around the world are successfully creating useful and new geographic information that rivals, if not routinely excels, what is generated by authoritative sources. What can be accomplished by a social network of individuals in terms of identifying geographic structures and other elements over broad distances or even over real-time scales cannot be reasonably completed by a lone researcher or by automated computers. This crowdsourcing efficiency from scale is one of the powers of citizen science and is why volunteers are beginning to be recognized and utilized by professional communities to help advance scientific work.

For example, with geotagging features on Flickr, valuable image data of geographic structures can be visualized into a comprehensive review of a region that may also contain direct textual accounts written by the volunteer photographer. Wikimapia is another example of a growing crowdsourced map that overlays detailed location information and stories onto the latest Google map. Volunteers zoom around the map and draw location outlines to identify the specific geographic content, and include additional information, stories, and photographs. With the extreme accessibility of geographic information, the role of the geographer is evolving into less of an analyzer of information and more of a synthesizer of geographic details from many sources.

A key issue arises during the synthesizing of volunteered information through the verification of its accuracy against authoritative information. False details will always be a prevalent feature of volunteered sources, but dealing with this feature is not necessarily an unreasonable task. Typically, just as content is being provided by the crowdsourced masses, so to will the filtering for accuracy be accomplished by the crowdsourced masses. And, the more popular a bit of volunteered information is, the more eyes will be reviewing the submitted data and chances of corrections as needed significantly increase.

In particular, Prof. Goodchild is trying to understand how useful crowdsourced geographical information is during emergency management issues, such as wild fires infiltrating residential areas in Santa Barbara, or damage reports post-earthquake in Haiti. With specific experiences of wild fires in California over the past several years, it was found that volunteered information about location and direction of raging fires were provided with near real-time resolution compared to crashed servers and severely delayed reports from “official” sources. Although the volunteered information contained false positives of wild fire location, and corrections may or may not have occurred on the short time frame, it is certainly better to think the fire is near your back door and make a decision to evacuate than otherwise.

Watch Prof. Goodchild’s 50-minute lecture and learn more about how the average, non-professional citizen is changing the field of geography. And, with the technology at your fingertips, you might be able to find ways to participate in useful geographic information development in your region of the world.

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“From Community Mapping to Critical Spatial Thinking” :: NSF’s Distinguished Lecture series :: November 17, 2010 :: [ READ MORE ]

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