Volunteered Geography

Caitlin Dempsey


Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) represents a transformative approach to collecting and analyzing geographic data. This concept, rooted in the participatory nature of the digital age, has gained significant traction in the past two decades, becoming an essential element in various applications ranging from disaster response to urban planning and environmental monitoring.

Origin of the term “Volunteered Geography”

The term “Volunteered Geographic Information” was first coined by Michael F. Goodchild in 2007. Goodchild, a renowned geographer and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, introduced the term in his seminal paper titled “Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography.” In this work, he outlined the emerging trend of public participation, known popularly as “crowdsourcing”, in the collection and sharing of geographic data, facilitated by advancements in technology and the widespread availability of the internet. “Citizens as sensors” also explores the historical and current trends of collaborative geographic data creation in what he terms “volunteered geography” in an article published in GeoJournal. 

In dissecting this phenomenon, Goodchild seeks to answer the following questions: “what drives people to do this, how accurate are the results, will they threaten individual privacy, and how can they augment more conventional sources?” 

Goodchild cites the Martin Waldseemüller map which is the first documented use of “America” as an early example of what he calls “volunteered geographic information (VGI).”  On a more current level, Goodchild looks at modern examples of Wikimapia, OpenStreetMap, and Google Earth.

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What is “Volunteered Geography”?

Volunteered Geographic Information refers to the practice of individuals, commonly non-experts, voluntarily collecting and sharing geographic data with the public or specific entities. This data can range from simple location tags to complex spatial observations and is typically shared through various platforms such as social media, dedicated mapping websites, and mobile applications.

The essence of VGI lies in its participatory nature, where individuals contribute to the collective creation of geographic databases. This process democratizes geographic information, making it more accessible and reflective of a broader range of perspectives and experiences than traditional methods of geographic data collection, which often rely on official sources and may not capture the nuances of local knowledge.

What is the benefit of “Volunteered Geography?”

Crowdsourcing enables real-time data collection and sharing, making it an invaluable resource in emergency response and disaster management. For instance, during natural disasters, volunteers can report on-the-ground conditions, aiding in the efficient allocation of resources and response efforts. Similarly, in environmental monitoring, citizen scientists can contribute observations on biodiversity, water quality, and other environmental parameters, enriching scientific research with local and detailed data.


Goodchild, M. F. (2007). Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography. GeoJournal69, 211-221. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-007-9111-y

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.