Crowdsourcing, citizen science, public participatory GIS (PPGIS), neogeography: the participation of individuals in adding to the collective geospatial knowledge has come a long way since 2007 when UC Barbara geography professor Michael F. Goodchild coined the term “Volunteered Geography.” Also known as Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), Goodchild’s seminal paper described the practice of individuals, commonly non-experts, voluntarily collecting and sharing geographic data.
A more recent review, published in the Journal of Remote Sensing (published online on January 22, 2024), provides an updated look at the benefits and concerns when it comes to collaborative geographic data collection.
Xiao Huang, an assistant professor with Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, along with 17 other academics from U.S. and international universities, collectively surveyed the state of collaborative geospatial data efforts. Entitled, “Crowdsourcing Geospatial Data for Earth and Human Observations: A Review,” the article delves into the evolving landscape of crowdsourced geospatial data, highlighting its transformative impact across various sectors, including urban planning, environmental monitoring, and disaster response.
Benefits of crowdsourced geographic data
The review provides an in-depth examination into the methodologies and applications of crowdsourcing geospatial data, emphasizing the integration of this data in real-time decision-making processes. Crowdsourcing efforts range from from weather and climate observations to biodiversity monitoring, landslide monitoring, and urban planning. The authors of this review noted that the shift towards democratized data collection not only diversifies the types of available geospatial data but also provides more nuance and depth of insights that come from a diverse participation base of volunteers.
The authors found that by opening up data collection to the public, ordinary individuals contributed invaluable real-time insights into human behaviors and environmental changes that help to further our understanding of the Earth’s processes. The researchers also point out that technological advancements like Web 2.0 and Big Data, coupled with increased internet access and the widespread use of smartphones, has ushered in this paradigm shift, enabling the collection of vast amounts of data from the global community.
Challenges to crowdsource geographic data collection
Despite its potential, using crowdsourced geospatial data is not without challenges. Issues related to data quality and accuracy, biases, privacy concerns, legal and ethical considerations, sustainability of data collection, and interpretation complexities are discussed.
The study points out that accuracy and reliability of volunteered data are often questioned, as the lack of proper training among contributors may lead to inconsistencies and errors. Various validation and verification methods such as cross-referencing with official data sources and implementing quality control mechanisms are essential checks and balances.
Privacy and ethical considerations also must be factored, especially in the context of location-based data. The potential for misuse of personal information and the need for robust data protection measures are critical issues that must be addressed to ensure the responsible use of crowdsourced geospatial data.
The authors of the study also highlight the challenges of digital divide and participation inequality. Access to technology and the internet, as well as the skills to use them, are not uniformly distributed globally, which can limit the diversity of contributions and potentially reinforce existing inequalities in geographic information.
In the conclusion to their review, the authors proposed future directions for crowdsourcing geospatial data, emphasizing the need for integrating temporal data, leveraging artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), and ensuring inclusivity through the involvement of underrepresented communities. The review also found that there is a gap connecting the geographic data produced from public sources (for example, collecting illness reports via social media platforms) with the target focus areas (in this case epidemiologists and public health officials).
The authors also advocate for a holistic approach to crowdsourcing that encompasses not only technological advancements but also ethical and participatory frameworks to provide for robust, sustainable, and impactful crowdsourcing of geographic data.
As lead author Huang emphasizes, “Our goal is to enhance the scope and impact of geospatial crowdsourcing by incorporating the temporal dimension, integrating advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, and utilizing advanced technologies, while ensuring inclusivity, especially from underrepresented regions… We encourage pioneering a sustainable crowdsourcing ecosystem by fostering a strong, motivated community of citizen scientists, offering effective incentives and comprehensive education, and bridging digital divides. This effort culminates in translating the rich, crowdsourced geospatial data into tangible real-world impacts, informing policy decisions, advancing scientific research and empowering communities and individuals globally.”
Huang, X., Wang, S., Yang, D., Hu, T., Chen, M., Zhang, M., … & Hohl, A. (2024). Crowdsourcing Geospatial Data for Earth and Human Observations: A Review. Journal of Remote Sensing, 4, 0105. DOI: 10.34133/remotesensing.0105