The dangers and benefits of VGI and PPGIS

“Is VGI participation? From vernal pools to video games” by Tulloch evaluates the relationship between volunteered geographic information (VGI) and public participatory GIS (PPGIS). On the one hand, PPGIS embeds issues of power and is driven by political or social motivations, on the other, volunteered geographic information is driven by individuals or a collective group of people.
While the semantic distinction between PPGIS and VGI may be of importance to academics, the everyday users and producers of geographic information are indifferent to the difference. What does deserve greater consideration and should be of interest to the general public, are the issues of power and control associated with both PPGIS and VGI. Tulloch argues that PPGIS shifts power to the grassroots, creating a collective sense of empowerment, while VGI contributors derive power on an individual or personal level by being the ones who control data collection and dissemination. However, this belies who is actually in control of information creation and diffusion. In the case of PPGIS, the public may only encompasses a specific and selected segment of the population, creating a power hierarchy where those involved in the selection process are propelled to the top, those contributing are place squarely in the middle, and those excluded from the process are relegated to the sidelines. Similarly, active contributors of VGI represent only a fraction of the population (typically middle-aged white men in Western countries). While this is not a problem in and of itself, it becomes a concern when volunteered information (geographic or otherwise) is taken to represent the ideas and thoughts of the general public. Moreover, the very fact that one has the time to actively collect and share geographic information betrays one’s privileged rank in society. What is more disconcerting, (and briefly mentioned in the article), is that you may not be aware that you are volunteering geographic information. This passive VGI that is collected, analyzed and then sold, reveals that you, the contributor, are not in control; someone else, something else -Big Brother for lack of a better term- extracts and evaluates your information whether you are actively or knowingly involved in the process.
PPGIS and VGI have the potential to engage the public in a dynamic way; however, the power struggles inherent in both PPGIS and VGI need to be more fully explored and discussed. Establishing VGI as an independent discipline, or a sub-topic within PPGIS is, as far as I am concerned, an unnecessary debate on semantics.

Note: Issues of data quality (accuracy and precision), data aggregation and mashing, as well as concerns of meta data are only some of the concerns of relevance to GI scientists.


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