Human Behavior, Geodata Collection and Sharing: Two Stories

By Adena Schutzberg

As much as we like to think that geospatial technology is about technology, it's clearly about people, too. People write the software, design the analyses, and make the pretty maps. They are also key players in data collection and creation. Two recent events got me thinking about the role of human behavior in enhancing geodata collection and sharing.

Story 1: My Data! Mine! Mine! Mine!
Each year my household hosts a holiday party where the main event is a tour of the neighborhood houses decked out with holidays lights. We aim to travel about six miles and see a variety of displays: large and small, overdone and tasteful, religious and secular. Guests cover the distance jogging and on bikes. The attendees light up their outfits and bikes, too, so the little parade is a bit of a spectacle!

Each year, I do the reconnaissance to locate the houses of interest. I've used different methods including simple paper maps and a group Google My Map where invitees were invited to mark notable displays. This year, I wanted to get a bit more efficient. I used my Android phone's recording app to capture the addresses of interest while I ran around the area. "Robinson Road, 5, 7, 12, 15...," is the sort of thing I'd record. The numbers were the addresses on Robinson Road. When I got home I'd transcribe my data into an Excel spreadsheet. Then I used Batchgeo to geocode the data and post them on a Google Map. It worked great. My co-host used those data (in KML format) to create the route in another piece of software.

Now, here's my observation about myself. I did the data collection and I didn't want to make the online map public. I could have, but instead, I made it private and shared it only with the routemaker. I thought about why I felt that way. Honestly, it boiled down to the fact that it was a lot of work. Oh, the technical part was quick and easy, but the five hours of running at night in the cold and capturing the data was a challenge. In the end, I decided that was not a good enough reason. The data I collected were valuable, if only for a few weeks. It'd be a great resource for anyone else who wanted to tour our city's lights. By the way, the city itself does host a trolley tour of displays (The Illuminations Tour) the night before our party. It sells out, at $10/seat, every year!

If nothing else, I got a sense of why some individuals in public entities might feel a possessive twinge about their data. The big difference: they are paid (or someone is) to collect the data! Those individuals, unlike me, do not "own them." And, maybe, just maybe, it's that subtle idea, the idea of community ownership of public geodata that we need to spread worldwide to help the open data efforts.

Story 2: Barriers in the Snow and Gaps in the Maps
Before New Year's, the Boston area received about 18 inches of snow. My city requires (pdf) owners of houses and businesses to shovel the sidewalk in front of their property within six hours after the storm ends. If the snow is still there after that time, there are fines. The city does a pretty good job reminding residents about the requirement and I know my neighbors try to help each other out if there are special challenges (like a new baby, someone on crutches or someone on vacation). Other neighbors clear the walks and steps of elderly folks.

As I walked to the gym a few hours after the storm ended, I was pleased to find the majority of houses and businesses had already done their part. The paths varied quite a bit: some areas were the full width of the sidewalk and others were clearly "single track" where only one person could fit. Still, the walks were, for the most part, shoveled.

This whole effort breaks down when one person does not do their job. In one case on my short walk there was an 18-inch high, 100-foot long barrier between one cleared area and the next. That forced pedestrians into the street and hopefully, though not necessarily, back onto the sidewalk further down.

Now consider citizen mapping. The same sort of barrier is possible: if one town, or one street, or one country decides not to do its part, there's a gap. And, as in the case of snow shoveling, if someone nice steps up and does the mapping work for you, the gap is removed.

Still, I believe having the local person do the work (mapping or shoveling) will yield the best results. When I'm shoveling my own sidewalk I know where the concrete edging on the front yard ends. I'm extra careful where there is no edging to avoid disturbing the grass, which is challenged enough without the snow. I'm also careful to shovel out a "hole" for the trash barrel to stand on trash day. Otherwise it's in the street or driveway and gets banged around. Like the grass, our barrels have enough challenges without the snow.

How, then, do we create environments where everyone shovels their walks? Clearly the city regulations and threats of fines work some percentage of the time, but not all the time. OpenStreetMap works in some areas, but not others. How do we create an environment that encourages higher participation (via carrot), even without a law and fines (via stick)?

The Way Ahead?
I don't have a magic way to get individuals and organization to share their geodata or do their part to fill in the maps. I do hope those in psychology, sociology and related fields of human behavior are working on such things. They could sure help geospatial practitioners out as we look to citizens and governments to collect data and share them.


Published Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Written by Adena Schutzberg


Published in

Government


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