Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI): a cost-effective way to gather actionable data

It’s no surprise that three of the most common constraints for data gathering projects are time, money and human resources. 

Since day one, we’ve helped our clients minimise costs by using the latest open source technologies. Unfortunately, lack of time and a shortage of people are harder issues to overcome.

Many GIS teams are adequately resourced for day-to-day service delivery but have little or no spare capacity to spare for additional project work. It’s therefore impossible for many of the GIS teams we work with to get out into the field and collect vast amounts of data, especially if their deadlines are tight. 

Now, Volunteered Geographic Information offers them a cost-effective and efficient solution.

What is Volunteered Geographic Information?

According to Wikipedia, Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) involves the ‘harnessing of tools to create, assemble, and disseminate geographic data provided voluntarily by individuals. VGI is a special case of the larger phenomenon known as user-generated content.’ In essence, it’s the crowdsourcing of information from so-called ‘citizen geographers’.

In recent years, the public’s improved access to technology and its increased confidence around digital maps have come together to make data collection via VGI a viable alternative to traditional in-house data collection. 

Examples of VGI projects 

VGI projects can differ enormously in size. On one end of the scale are councils that use VGI to help identify and locate issues, such as broken street lights or potholes. For their ‘volunteers’, participating involves simply clicking on a map and answering a few questions. There is little flourish or fanfare needed. 

On the other end of the scale is a bespoke VGI platform, such as our Don’t Lose Your Way build for the Ramblers. This attracted celebrity endorsement, won column inches in national newspapers, enjoyed significant airtime on popular TV programmes and resulted in the recruitment of thousands of volunteers. 

Beginning a VGI project

The thought of embarking on a VGI project can be daunting. The key to success is to ensure that you consider the project from a volunteer perspective at an early stage. 

Dan Ormsby, our Head of Operations, and Jack Cornish, Head of Paths for the Ramblers, recently gave a talk on Don’t Lose Your Way to the AGI’s Early Careers Network. During their presentation, they explored the questions that VGI project teams can ask to scope out a project.  

The pair suggested beginning with questions around the recruitment, usage and management of volunteers, including:

  • What will motivate volunteers? 
  • How will we recruit volunteers?
  • How will we engage with them?
  • In what stages of the project can we use them (e.g. collection, QA, management)?
  • What skills are they likely to have?

Once these questions have been answered, project teams will have the information needed to explore what volunteers may need from the system. At this stage, key questions include: 

  • How can we design an interface that’s intuitive for all users?
  • How can we sustain their motivation, e.g. gamification?
  • How can we break down tasks?
  • How can we offer ongoing support, if needed?

Finally, the information gathered is used to underpin decisions relating to the system itself. At this final stage, critical questions include:

  • What tech stack and build do we need?
  • Do we need to make the build scalable?
  • Will there be peaks and troughs of usage?
  • What background mapping do we need?
  • How will we licence maps? 
  • Who will own data? 

From our experience, investing a little time in answering these questions will pay dividends in the long run. 

Next steps:

If you’re interested in VGI, you may like to:

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