Geographic Investigation

Two lessons highlight the topic of using technology to map current events in the world and how we are individually being mapped, knowingly or unknowingly. Lesson 1 looks at how Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) can be used to visualize real-time events within an interactive map. Lesson 2 raises the question of personal privacy when participating in such activities as tweeting.

A geographer’s unique perspective provides a deeper understanding of privacy issues related to the use of locational data. In studying an issue or problem, a geographer uses one or more of four geographic advantages which distinguish the investigation from approaches used in other disciplines. In this instance, two geographic advantages come into play: Relationships between people and the environment and The importance of spatial variability.  A geographer may ask questions such as “In what ways does VGI reflect the spatial distribution and use of social networking technologies in a specific location?” or “What are the spatial components of threats to personal privacy created by emerging geographical technologies?” These questions and others foster better understanding of the issues and problems related to citizen mapping.

Lesson 1: Mapping the World Lesson 2: Mapping Citizens

Lesson 1: Mapping the World

Mapping the World

Citizens from around the world collaborate to map an issue or a cause by using such social networking tools as twitter, email, or SMS. This effort known as crowdsourcing has proven to be an invaluable resource because of the real-time sharing of information and easily visualized map format. In January of 2010, Haiti experienced a catastrophic earthquake. Multiple international online mapping organizations and volunteers worldwide worked together to create up-to-date maps of devastated areas to support emergency response.

Activty 1: Mobile Technology Helps Disaster Victims Worldwide

Click on Mapping with Mobile Technology to Support Disaster Relief for an introduction to crowdsourcing.  Watch the video in its entirety first, then watch again while pausing and replaying parts of the video to answer the questions which follow.

  • What tools are citizens using to send messages for help?
  • What tools are researchers/aid relief workers using to map disaster areas?
  • How does the Ushahidi mapping system collect and compile VGI?

Activity 2: Geospatial Exploration for Citizen Mapping in Disaster Relief

An exploration of a Ushahidi demo crowdsourcing map examines the accuracy and reliability of VGI.

1. Click on  Online Platform to Map Real Time Data to access demo data on how the Ushahidi platform helps to collect information to produce near real-time interactive maps.

Note: The geographic location and data of Ushahidi Demos change as new events happen around the world. Activity 2 is written to be general to fit changing scenarios, but we encourage all students to explore deeper.

2. Using the zoom functions on the left of map, zoom in/out to get a closer look at areas with reports. If you click and drag on the map, you can pan to see other areas in the region.

3. Look at a sample report. What types of information are provided? If the data were mapped, how would this help the situation?

4. Explore the various ways to submit a report. Submit a report to test how Ushahidi works.

Note: The locational information on the map can assist one to precisely mark the location of an incident and how other geographic features may interact with the phenomenon (e.g. topography in case of a landslide).

5. Locational information from a set of real submitted reports were added to Open Street Map, which allows people to make changes and contribute VGI. The maps below show data from the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Click on each image below to compare the Open Street Map and Google Map. Think about these questions:

  • What map features are on the Open Street Map that are not found on the Google Map?
  • How are the maps different?
  • Which map is more reliable? Why?

Source: ©2012 Google

Source: ©2012 Google

Lesson summary

When disaster strikes, aide workers may not have current information about the immediate area. This may be due to loss of communication or lack of up-to-date map of the area. With current technology and infrastructure, witnesses of events can provide locational information to aide workers and emergency personnel. Locational information is imperative to mapping and visualizing the situation on a map. Students learned about the concept of VGI and explored the versatility of VGI to map the world and to support causes. The next activity is to explore the idea of mapping citizen and privacy issues surrounding VGI.

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Lesson 2: Mapping Citizens

Mapping Citizens

Some web applications can search public VGI, including blogs and social networking sites, for information about trends in public opinion, market research, or current events. Just as the information can be used to help people, public VGI can also make individuals vulnerable to dangerous situations, such as stalking or burglary. For example, Twitter allows users to publish micro blog with VGI known as “tweets.” Tweets include exact geographic coordinates or general place, like a town or neighborhood of the author. In light of locational privacy, it is important for users to be cautious about sharing personal geographic information publicly and utilizing such information.

Activity 1: How Safe Are Your Online Public Data?

Click on the image below to access Episode 3 of the Geospatial Revolution series. As you watch the video, consider the questions which follow.

Privacy Issues with Citizen Mapping
Source: Penn State Public Broadcasting

  • What are the potential applications/shortcomings of real-time sharing of spatial location?
  • Provide examples of beneficial and dangerous results of real-time sharing of spatial location?
  • How can we strike a balance between VGI and spatial privacy?
  • How does VGI support and prepare emergency responders in the aftermath of a natural disaster?
  • What other uses might the Ushahidi be used for?

Activity 2: Publicly Available VGI and Personal Information

This activity introduces students to GeoCommons, a mapping platform that can compile, query, visualize, overlay and analyze public VGI data with existing geospatial information.

Mapping locational data

1. Tweets contribute to a range of conversations, from political revolutions to entertainment issues. Tweets about the show Glee, made between October 8-12, 2010, can be downloaded from GeoCommons. Click here to see a slideshow on finding personal identification via the mapped Tweet information.

2. Explore where these Tweets about Glee have been made. Click here to see the mapped results (Silverlight plugin needed).

Tweets about Glee in October 2010
Source: Data from geocommons, Mapped with esri ArcGIS Explorer Online

3. Zoom into an area of interest and identify a single Tweet. Double click on the map to Zoom into street level. You have now identified the intersection of a geographic location related to the author of the tweet.

4. Questions to consider:

  • What type of personal information do the Tweets reveal about a user?
  • By exploring the Twitter information at the street view level, how might user privacy be compromised?
  • How else might your personal information be compromised by tweeting?

Lesson Summary

VGI can be used as a tool to gather valuable information from individuals and crowds, yet oversharing VGI can jeopardize personal privacy. Thus, it is important for individuals to maintain personal safety when contributing VGI and to be aware of ways their personal information and geographic location may be used against and for them. Students explored Tweets to learn that geographic information are embedded within and that these data can be mapped for public viewing.

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A system for determining precise x, y, and z position anywhere on Earth based on satellite range

The ability to control the collection or dissemination of information about himself or herself” (Elmwood and Leszczynski, 2011)

The differential access to information and their usage among population groups with varying levels of socioeconomic and demographic composition

Outsourcing tasks to a large group of people, often through an appeal on the internet

Relationships between people and the environment

Our planet as well as the people who live on it are constantly changing. Identifying and understanding relationships between people and the environment are critical to designing a sustainable future. This critical aspect is reflected in the fact that 10 of the 11 modules include this geographic advantage as a focus in the geographic investigation.

The importance of spatial variability

Geographers know and understand the importance of spatial variability and the place-dependence of processes. Eight of the modules include this geographic advantage as a focus in the geographic investigation.

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