The Epistemology of Big Data and Volunteered Geographic Information

Renée Sieber - Department of Geography, McGill University

Jan. 25, 2013, 1 p.m. - Jan. 25, 2013, 2 p.m.


An emergent field of research in Geospatial Information Science concerns the collection, analysis and visualization of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). VGI is user generated content on Web 2.0 platforms that also contains a geolocation. It is characterized as big data from non-experts as citizen “sensors” who are presumably close to phenomena like crises and can quickly and massively contribute content to platforms like Twitter or Google Maps. VGI has become immensely salient in GIScience because of potentials for spatial data inferencing and data mining, the apparent importance of geography in computer science and software engineering. In my talk, I will cover the potential for the big data of VGI in GIScience and discuss the challenges faced in handling this new data source. I will predominately talk about the non-algorithmic side of these challenges. I will describe the way in which VGI represents data AND an epistemology, that is a path to truth, whether you call truth accuracy or authenticity. VGI is also promoted as being more participatory, where hackathons and citizen science are just two examples. It often fails at these ideals. The talk draws on my current research in VGI on Geospatial Web 2.0 platforms and compares that to my prior research in Public Participation Geographic Information Systems and Science (PPGIS). The comparison suggests that the ways VGI is framed (as truth, as participatory, as volunteered) make a purely algorithmic, extractive approach a problem. Sieber conducts research at the intersection of social theory and software architecture, particularly where it concerns locational information. She is best known for her work in Public Participation Geographic Information Systems and Science (PPGIS), although she’s also collaborated on GIS applications in health, climate modeling, and the digital humanities. She is jointly appointed between the School of Environment and the Department of Geography and she is affiliated with the School of Computer Science.