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Science and OpenStreetMap and why not call it ‘VGI’

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These days OpenStreetMap is getting quite popular as a subject of study in social and geoinformation sciences. A lot of research papers are published on this matter and the term ‘VGI’ (volunteered geographic information) is a popular buzzword in this context, it seems to become almost a fixed requirement to use it in any scientific text dealing with OpenStreetMap in some form. Nearly always it is essentially used as a chiffre for OpenStreetMap – the idea being that by genericizing you make your results more universal. This almost never works since either you are only dealing with OpenStreetMap and not with any other alleged ‘VGI’ projects or you are putting OpenStreetMap in a box with other very different projects of crowd sourced data and are probably neglecting to properly analyze the differences.

On its own the term ‘VGI’ is a really bad choice due to several problems:

  • The key term is ‘volunteered’ which bears the question what it is meant to contrast with, i.e. what ‘non-volunteered geographic information’ is supposed to be. Also the question arises if and to what extent the data in OpenStreetMap can actually be considered volunteered more than data in other geographic databases. It if fairly unclear who volunteers what in case of OpenStreetMap – is data mapped by a paid mapper based on satellite imagery ‘volunteered information’? Is it volunteered by the mapper? By the satellite image provider? By the owner of the satellite?
  • The use of the term ‘information’ emphasizes these problems even further since it specifically refers to the underlying semantics of geographic data and not the concrete data representation.
  • For someone to actually substantially ‘volunteer information’ this would in fact have to be private, privileged – like when you map details of your backyard or inside your house only accessible to you. One of the core principles of OpenStreetMap is however verifiability – so information is either not really suited for OSM or it is not really volunteered since it is openly accessible to others as well so it is at most voluntarily entered by the mapper into the OSM database (although again the question would be how this could be non-voluntarily). So in a way this term is quite demeaning for OpenStreetMap since it does not acknowledge the principle of verifiability.

Although i am not sure if this played a role in coining this term ‘VGI’ underlines the idea that information is property and can and is usually owned by someone and that such information can only become free information by the owner volunteering it. This is actually diametrical to the core idea of the OpenStreetMap project to collect information in an open database that is inherently free because it is independently verifiable by anyone.

So if you want to use a catchy term something like ‘crowd sourced geodata’ might be more fitting but you’d better think well if it really is useful and necessary to use a genericized term in your case.

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