Scope and Novelty of the Workshop

The advent, integration, and rapid adoption of geospatial and cyber technologies have prompted a phenomenal growth of the rate at which individual citizens are able to easily generate and openly share data. User-generated content (UGC) and volunteered geographic information (VGI), which is a subset of the former with geo-specific information, are two terms that have emerged to describe this plethora of information available in cyberspace.  The arrival and rapidly increasing popularity of geographic exploration systems (GES), such as Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, and NASA World Wind, have quickly expanded from geographic exploration to a community standard platform for global communication through geospatial information sharing.   Moreover, the ever increasing membership of cyber social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, are sharing dynamic information about their locations and activities.  Integrated in such systems is a vast volume of VGI, that includes observables (such as vegetation, critical infrastructures, hydrography), directly physically measurables (such as temperature, geophysical parameters) data, and even personal perspectives and experiences of citizen participants in the form of images, videos, and text.  

Although recent advancements in geospatial technology-based tools have enabled and inspired many individuals to include geography and the spatial representation of information in their personal and professional lives in ways they had not previously imagined possible, the usage and utility of such information have largely being limited to gaining geographic awareness and “infotainment”.  For example, following a search for a location-based service (such as restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, movie theatres) and finding possible routes and modes of transportation to those locations, the utilization of user reviews of those services far exceeds any other routine use of VGI.  Very recently, the critical use of VGI was clearly demonstrated for disaster management during the wildfires in southern California where citizens provided real-time information that was mapped to provide situational awareness to first responders and the larger community in general.  The commercial sector, on the other hand, has started incorporating “crowd-sourcing” in their business model to collect information that improves the quality of their geographic information services.  However, one important issue that remains to be addressed is the scientific potential of VGI or whether VGI can be successfully used for scientific analyses and experiments. 

The general phenomenon of VGI can also be a mode of communication between individuals possessing a wide range of scientific training and the scientific community. This connection can establish a pathway for the general public to make their own contributions to scientific efforts that capture their interest and imaginations. Citizen scientists are increasingly contributing to scientific research by engaging in observation, measurement, or computation. These individuals range from completely untrained, but interested and motivated, citizens to highly trained specialists with unique skill sets. The first group can offer tremendous volumes of data. The second, although more limited in number, can provide location- or field-specific details that may be very difficult for an individual or localized group to obtain.  A critical gap exists between the time information can be made available from an individual and the time it takes to organize and provide summaries of data through more formalized channels. Facilitating the provision of information sooner, and possibly throughout a given process, by integrating those who are directly involved in the process can bridge this gap and provide much higher temporal resolution for both analysis and validation of modeling results. Analyzing ground-truth data as it becomes available and feeding it back in throughout the lifespan of a process can improve modeling accuracy and in turn the efficiency of the process being modeled. One of the most important issues to be understood is the assurance of the accuracy and validity in VGI. Determining the appropriate segment of the population and the appropriate tools for data collection and data entry are critical to understanding and mitigating this problem. One example representative of the first solution is the HoneyBeeNet [honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov]. This project gathers data from bee keepers about hive conditions which are then utilized to monitor changes in the timing of plant–pollinator interaction in order to better understand the effect of climate and land use change.  Leveraging subject matter experts committed to the process improves the potential for accurate data.  An example representative of this second group is the Open Street Map project [www.openstreetmap.org]. In this free open-source web-based application individuals can upload GPS readings that represent transportation routes in their area. The GPS device provides metadata about the accuracy of the data being submitted.

The rapidly expanding availability of VGI is presenting researchers with new challenges, yet little work has been done toward investigating requirements for standards and data models needed to utilize VGI effectively.  While data discovery, capture, and quality validation continue to be priorities on geographic information science research agendas [www.ucgis.org], these issues must now be expanded upon as data derived from VGI will not necessarily conform to traditional constructs. It is critical to understand the issues associated with determining the most appropriate sources of data, promoting the involvement of those sources, acquiring accurate and useful information, and ultimately connecting these data with scientific research. One of the most important issues to be understood is the assurance of the validity and uncertainty in VGI and how to deal with these issues as we aspire to make VGI a powerful asset for scientific research.  

Anticipated Outcomes

The workshop is expected to have the following outcomes:

  1. Develop a greater understanding of the various possible modalities and characteristics of VGI.

  2. Plausible methodological and technological approaches through which VGI can be made useful for scientific research.

  3. Identification of possible research projects and collaborative teams that might respond to upcoming calls for proposals as well as special issues of journals.