Keynote @ GIScience 2014

I gave a keynote address at the biennial GIScience conference in Vienna, entitled The Science of Citizen Science, Volunteered Geographic Information and Public Participation GIS

Abstract: If we believe the rhetoric, geospatial technologies have transformed the role of the citizen in contributing information related to place. I refer here broadly to citizen engagement, usually by non-expert members of specific geography communities who tweet, text, photoblog, and GPS about their everyday lived experience. Citizen engagement has been impacted by new mapping platforms (e.g., Google Maps), which allow people to interactively navigate digital representations at increasingly hyperlocal resolutions. Location based services bring geospatial specific content to your mobile device where you are right now. To these digital maps experts and non-experts alike can add geotagged content of practically anything place-based, whether a restaurant review or a favourite park, a notice of a protest march or a siting of a pothole. The intersection of engagement and technology generated new areas of research: volunteered geographic information (VGI) and Public Participation GIS and renewed interest in existing ones like citizen science. Interested publics have participated in zooniverse and the Great Backyard Bird Count. They have digitized the world’s road network and much more in the massive crowdsourced application, OpenStreetMap. To the petabytes of citizen-contributed, cloud-based geolocated data on the web, governments, such as cities, are opening up data sets as well as accepting data from the public, for example via Open 311 type systems. Community residents can monitor or appify the cities in which they live. The new hardware, software platforms, the apps, and the content appear to transform the way that government can talk to citizens, citizens can talk to government and citizens can talk to each other.

This talk traces the past twenty years of research on citizen, volunteer, and public using geospatial technologies and data. I’ll talk about what we know about the science of engagement and contributions on these platforms, in terms of data quality and motivations. I’ll describe how civic engagement on this new medium can blur experts and non-experts, disrupt existing legal and political regimes, and potentially distance participation from channels of influence. The new technologies have demanded changes in methods to assess effect and effectiveness. Indeed, they have challenged what constitues effectiveness on these new platforms. This talk will be as much about the science of the citizen, volunteer and public as it will be about the questioning of GIScience in its approach to quantifying the citizen. I’ll conclude with some scenarios of future where people, whether citizen scientist (via processes like machine learning) or GIScientist (via a type of techno-libertarianism) may no longer be needed.