What is Volunteered Geographic Information?
Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) is actually not exactly what it sounds like. The term refers to information that is gathered from applications such as MapShare and Google Maps/MapMaker that individuals can use to make geographic information about their own activities, habits, and consumption patterns. In this way, VGI is considered Big Data which is data about people's behavior and habits based off of their consumption patterns and web history. However, although the title suggests that the information is freely and knowingly volunteered by users, in many cases users are not aware of how the information they make is being used by companies and institutions, so VGI might therefore be more appropriately called Involuntary Geographic Information.
Problems with VGI as a Data Source
Although these kinds of data are very valuable for tracking consumer patterns and understanding consumer behavior, this type of information is very biased and interest-specific and thus can only represent a particular portion of a population. Since the information cannot be applied to a random sample or make any inferences about a generalized population, as it is now VGI cannot be used as a reliable geographic or demographic data source. Further, as people who use these kinds of applications to communicate their location to a friend or navigate an unfamiliar area, the kinds of information that these databases supply does not provide an objective view of mapped spaces but is subject to users conceptions of those spaces.
This map shows popular tourist attractions in a city based on information about tourist density and flow gathered from a Flickr database.
Future Applications of VGI
Despite its current pitfalls, VGI still shows enormous potential for seeing and understanding populations' desires, needs, habits, and behaviors. In order to make VGI a valuable and reliable data source, scholars have proposed making the process of a producing VGI a more communicative practice - one where users provide more information about themselves and their activities in order to further conceptualize the data they supply - rather than just a sender-receiver relationship. However, problems regarding safety and privacy complicate this possibility.
Fischer, F. (2012). VGI as Big Data: A new but delicate geographic data-source. GeoInformatics, 15(3), 46-47.