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Volunteered Geographic Information Plays Critical Role in Crises

Redlands GIS Week

As a political revolution swept Egypt, led by protesters who organized via social media, attendees at Redlands GIS Week met in a workshop to explore the future impact of social media and volunteered geographic information, especially during crises and emergencies.

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After the protests began in Cairo, Esri created the Egypt Events Map that utilized social media, such as videos from YouTube and tweets from Twitter, that were related to the antigovernment uprising.

More than 100 academics, students, government and private-sector experts, and Esri employees attended the workshop, titled Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI): Real-Time and Emergency Applications. The event, held February 8–10, 2011, at Esri headquarters in Redlands, California, was cosponsored by the University of Redlands, University of Southern California Spatial Sciences Institute, and Esri.

Volunteered geographic information, or locational crowdsourcing—where citizen volunteers contribute data that's georeferenced then disseminated—is particularly useful in emergency applications where the data's timeliness can make it especially valuable. For example, Esri created the online Egypt Events Map just after antigovernment rallies began in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. The map pulled in social media related to the protest in real time. Though only a few Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr posts appeared initially because the government shut down the Internet early on, the number expanded as restrictions eased.

It's About Time

In his keynote speech, It's About Time: The Temporal Dimension in VGI, geography professor Michael F. Goodchild from the University of California, Santa Barbara, stressed the importance of time in VGI to create an accurate picture of what's occurring and when in a particular situation. Maps have traditionally emphasized the static aspects of geography. "You did not make maps of things that were changing," he said. "But rivers change course, people move, events occur, and emergencies develop. Geography is dynamic."

Quality of VGI

Goodchild also examined the issue of quality of VGI.

VGI can readily claim to be the most current data source, as witnessed by Twitter's ability to break news before other sources. Compared to traditional authoritative data sources, VGI has been criticized for having poorer positional accuracy and overall veracity, Goodchild explained in his talk. However, that assertion is countered by citing Linus's law, which states that the more people involved and watching over a project, the more likely errors can be spotted and fixed quickly. The law was named after Linus Torvalds, credited with initiating development of the Linux operating system. Examples of the self-regulating effect of crowdsourcing are open source software projects, such as Linux, and wikis, such as Wikipedia. Another law at play with VGI is Tobler's law, which states, "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." This means that citizen contributions will tend to be more accurate in places the contributor lives near and knows best.

"The most compelling case for VGI is during emergencies," said Goodchild, adding that with experts sometimes thin on the ground, it's important to turn to citizens who can contribute data through social media or other means. "We have seven billion intelligent observers on the planet," he explained.

Successful VGI Projects

Two rapid and successful VGI deployments helped coordinate disaster response after a devastating magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010.

OpenStreetMap project volunteers working outside Haiti rapidly created a digital streetmap of Port-au-Prince and other places in Haiti using fine-resolution imagery to trace vector maps of streets and other features. The Ushahidi Project was able to post appeals for help, translated from Creole into English by another group of online volunteers. Together, these VGI projects were instrumental in guiding first responders to disaster victims.

At the workshop, Anahi Ayala Iacucci from the International Network of Crisis Mappers (and an Ushahidi collaborator) presented Introducing the Standby Volunteer Task Force: An Online Community for Live Crisis Mapping. She explained how the digital response to the disaster in Haiti was organized. Iacucci stressed that volunteers need not wait until the next crisis happens to start creating and publishing VGI. People should work together right now to start collectively mapping poorly mapped regions at risk, she said.

Iacucci acknowledged Esri's participation in many of the volunteer efforts, as well as in helping Ushahidi publish geodata. She also called for a stronger awareness campaign about the tools Esri offers to assist volunteers.

Kurt Daradics, cofounder of Esri Partner CitySourced, spoke about his company's experience with VGI in his presentation Using VGI to Mobilize Civic Engagement. CitySourced develops and markets software for mobile devices and servers that connect citizen requests for service to public agency back-office work order systems. The company used Esri's ArcGIS API for iOS to develop its iPhone application, which lets citizens report problems, such as potholes and graffiti, to their local governments.

Daradics said that having citizens directly report neighborhood problems using applications on smartphones can significantly reduce the cost of 311 call center systems. By connecting to enterprise work order systems, an alert can be sent notifying the person who reported the problem that it had been resolved, thus increasing citizen trust in government.

Other notable speakers at Redlands GIS Week included Lorant Czaran from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Bonn, Germany; Lars Bromley from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme in Geneva, Switzerland; Sentil Prakash Chinnachamy from Spatial Edge; and Joseph Toland from the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Toland said FEMA is committed to including VGI in the mix of data sources used to provide common operating pictures for first responders. These capabilities are being built into the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders system, which includes a map viewer built on ArcGIS API for Flex.

Mapping Disasters

Esri staff conducted several demonstrations, including showing attendees the interactive Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill map. The application, created in April 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, shows VGI related to the massive oil spill posted by citizens via Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and Ushahidi. The application provides context to the VGI data by including map data supplied by authoritative sources. The 2011 floods in Queensland, Australia, and the subsequent Tropical Cyclone Yasi presented further opportunities for mobile GIS to prove to be the best solution to a complex situation.

Current events have proved VGI valuable in case after case. Nontechnical but involved people around the world know they can contribute to the public record, and the power and value of VGI they produce will continue to influence world events.

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