With this year’s State of the Map conference rapidly approaching, for this month’s Nestoria Interview we once again turn our attention to rapidly growing community mapping project OpenStreetMap (OSM).
Specifically we have the pleasure of interviewing Christopher J. Parker, who will be speaking at this year’s SOTM.
Currently studying a PhD in human interaction at Loughborough University, focusing on the phenomenon of “Volunteered Geographic Information” (VGI). In July 2009, he will be presenting his current findings on “Value and How it Changes Everything” at State of the Map 2009.
Christopher, thanks for talking with us.
1. Please tell us about your current work related to OSM.
As said in my bio, I am researching Volunteered Geographic Information from a human factors point of view. Broadly speaking, this is where people share their information (photos, videos, locations etc) with the world by uploading it to the web and adding a geotag. The output from this can be as simple as displaying where everyone’s photos were taken on a map (as with sites such as Panorama and Flickr), or the map itself (as with OpenStreetMap) where the volunteered information is the collection of ‘nodes’ and polylines which make up the map you see. As anyone who follows social media will know, the idea of this is very recent, with the term VGI only being coined in 2007 by Prof. Michael Goodchild in 2007 (Citizens as Sensors: The world of Volunteered Geography).
So what does this mean? There are a lot of questions are floating around at the moment to do with how we perceive this Volunteered Information. Aside from the technical quality (a very contentious issue), how do we as users perceive volunteered information differently from professional information. How and why do we value a volunteered source higher than a technically more complete professional source of higher quality. What is even more interesting is the idea of an emotional interface (Roush, 2007, Second Earth. Technology Review. 2007. July/ August. P39-48) where the geospatial element (the map the data is overlaid onto) is just a medium through which to explorer the emotions generated by content such as holiday photos.
OpenStreetMap, being a system almost entirely created, developed and edited by volunteers is an excellent example of Volunteered Geographic Information. Unlike allot of websites which may only cover one area of VGI (such as geotagging where a YouTube video was shot), OpenStreetMap provides a highly diverse range of features, so one may expect it to be a good representation of the human factors which run through the VGI community.
Because of this, I am interviewing a wide range of OpenStreetMap users, contributors and developers about their experiences and feelings related to use of OpenStreetMap and why they see it differently to other map sources. The research is geared away from technical issues and OSM specific topics, and other VGI sources such as Google Map Maker are being considered as well. The result of this should be to provide some unique insight into the general perception of the VGI sources, applicable to a wide range of VGI uses and applications; not just one very fast developing website.
2. What made you think this was an interesting topic? And what has the response from the OSM community been?
When I started my PhD at Loughborough I was asked to research anything I could link to the human factors of travel. After reading around the subject, the idea of people using GPS devices to ‘map’ their environment kept cropping up time and time again. I wanted to find a topic that was pretty sparse in research to date, was cutting edge and had allot of potential to move forward. The topic of Volunteered Geographic Information was probably the best find from this period as (at the time) it was only just over a year old in definition and all the research seemed to be either from a GIS technical slant or that of future speculation. I have always had an interest in technology with my background in product design, so reading about how this technology could potentially revolutionise the perception of our environment really got a fire lit under me. I suppose what sold it to me though was the lack of human factors research. One can see a new technology in many ways, but unless one understands why we perceive it the way we do, or why it diffuses the way it does, then it is hard to fully utilise it. I wanted to be able to provide that academic background that would give guidelines to developers and users so their products and services using this volunteered information would actually mean something to the consumers.
To date, the reaction from the OSM community I have been studying has been very positive. At the end of my interviews I always ask if they have any questions, and invariably it is “what have you found in your research”, followed by at least ten minutes of me explaining the findings of user value to date. I think possibly because those involved in OSM tend to be flying the flag for Open Source software the people I speak to are very happy to share their ideas and thoughts with the world.
3. It’s often said that only 1% of internet users are content creators, the rest are content consumers. Does your research support this theory, or do you think more and more users will become content creators as familiarity grows and tools become better?
Whether this statement is true or not is beyond my scope of research. Certainly there have been studies into this which show the producers in the traditional sense are outweighed by the consumers. However the maths seems to make perfect sense in that if you look at Second Life, which as of now (16:00, 17/06/2009, Second Life interface) has had 1,400,042 active users in the last 60 days. If only 1% of users produce content (in this case 3D objects) then you have 14,000 developers producing an interactive virtual world while receiving no income from Linden Lab who run the project. Now, how much of that is true is not for me to say, but even a 0.5% developer community would still be a very large contributor base.
I suppose the problem with this analogy is that it is based on the traditional view of the contributor as one who uses a relatively high degree of technical knowledge to produce something the average person either doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how; as in the case of Second Life objects. But here is the spanner in the works, what does content mean? I suppose this could be a whole area of research in itself, but one of the most exciting developments of the last few years has been the idea of putting a GPS tracker in your mobile devices. With user friendly software a child could upload their journey path from their phone to a map system, which in turn could work out the road network. Take a photograph of anything in the world, upload it to a site such as Flickr and the GPS tag that goes with it could place it on a map for anyone to explore. All of this is content in the VGI sense, where as Clay Shirky stated in his recent talk at TED (May 2009) “every time a new consumer joins this media landscape a new joins as well because the same equipment, phone, computers lets you consume and produce”. If we just geotag our information, potentially any information, it is VGI.
From everything I have read and researched to date I can only state with reasonable comfort that what we are experiencing today is just the tip of the iceberg. I would strongly encourage everyone who reads this interview to watch the 17 minute lecture by Clay Shirky linked above to get a much better case put forward than I can, but when more data and information is volunteered by normal people, the data we use may not be a representation of activity, but the activity itself.
I will close this point with a thought for everyone who has used Twitter (the 140 character long micro blog service). Type the name of any political party into search.twitter.com and you will see the personal and emotional feelings for that party come up across your screen not from any form of propaganda or media filter, but through the simple thoughts of you and me. Now consider what we would have if each micro blog post (or Tweet) came with the geo location of the writer. A map could be created of emotions towards political parties, or anything else you care to name, through the country and the world. I suppose this could be referred to Volunteered Emotional Geospatial Information (VEGI), and it may or may not follow the same human interaction issues as traditional VGI (If VGI can yet be referred to as traditional). However you could chose to look at this analogy, and the blurred role of the user and the, and in the words of Matrix not yet know “how far this rabbit hole really goes”.
4. Do you think your research findings will be applicable to all user generated content services (things like YouTube and Facebook)?
At this stage of my research I honestly do not know. My focus is at the moment on users either creating maps or creating locations such as coffee shops or other amenities on maps. Even to ask what I have found out in this area and how it applies to other forms of map mashups would be too presumptuous. However, certain trends are starting to emerge which suggest the user perception of volunteer generated maps is not quite what we would have thought when we first looked at it. My presentation at State of the Map 2009 (which will also be on my research blog) should be the unveiling of my first analysis of this data.
I think it is highly unlikely that users would view the volunteered content of a map generated with the help of a GPS device as the same as the video posted on YouTube by the disgruntled employee of some Multinational Organisation. Yet at the same time both forms of media have similar traits in the form of geo-tagging the information, openness and volunteer generated, so I would imagine there may be some similarities.
I think social media and its potential link with VGI is a very interesting topic and while, as I said before, my research may not directly influence the direction of Twitter, Facebook or other future sites, but it may influence the apps which run on them. I find it is better to see Facebook as a social operating system which allows apps to run, which in turn allow social networks to thrive; similar in a way to Microsoft Windows running Outlook which allows emails to be sent.
5. Based on your research what advice do you have for start-ups like Nestoria who are keen to benefit from the technological advancements and enthusiasm of the OSM community?
Ultimately, I feel it is a little early to provide any concrete advice from my research as it is still early days and the direction and scope of my findings may change dramatically over the next couple of years. That said, there are a few pieces of research which may prove very relevant.
Firstly I would say embrace the OSM community, but also look outside. There are probably more social networks existing than you can name, and they never stay the same in their constant and rapid evolution. I’m sure everyone can remember the first time they heard that strange word ‘Google’ uttered while they searched the information superhighway with the worlds #1 search engine of the day: Yahoo!
As a more direct take from my research, understand why and how your user base values your product or your competitors’ product. These are your true unique selling points (and their unique selling points) as they engage at the emotional level of gains over sacrifices. Every user is different and will see things in a different way, and technological superiority doesn’t always mean higher value. Sometimes why we value something so highly is a mystery to ourselves; so this is an elusive quest, but value is the key to satisfaction. Even if there is a product we may not like on an ethical level (possibly Microsoft?), we still value it higher than the competitor we ethically prefer because of X, Y and Z (possibly Linux?). So understanding why the value is what it is allows you to tailor your product or service to capitalise on those “warm fuzzy feelings” your product gives your uses, increasing satisfaction and hopefully social diffusion. How relevant my findings on user perception of the value of Volunteered Geographic Information is unknown, but I would advise any developer or mashup creating working from OSM data to take these findings into consideration when deciding how to progress in a world where the consumers and increasingly becoming the producers.
Thanks Christopher. We look forward to learning more at SOTM. For those interested, you can follow Christopher’s research on his blog and on twitter @Kyral210.
If this interview has whetted your appetite for all things SOTM you may be interest in our coverage of SOTM 2008.
past Nestoria interviews: Ryan Notz, Lance Johnson, and Peter Le Masurier.