Report from a Crowd Sourcing Event at Woodrow Wilson International Center

Last week I attended the workshop “Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This was my first meeting I have attended that was fully dedicated to the discussion of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). Lea Shanley, director of the Commons Lab, brought together top-notch panelists (see agenda) from government, university and industry. A great variety of topics were discussed, including the lack of privacy policy, simple tools to deal with information security (e.g. SSL – Secure Sockets Layer), and recommendations to make crowd sourcing successful.

I attended because in the OWS-9 Cross Community Interoperability (CCI) Thread the OGC is advancing Semantic Mediation capabilities for data discovery and access, including traditional web services (e.g. OGC Web Map Server (WMS) and Web Feature Server (WFS) Interface standards) and non-traditional web services. The latter refers to crowd sourced data from  Twitter, Ushahidi and Open Street Map (OSM).  How are we advancing it? A screenshot from a slide I presented during the meeting shows the idea.


VGI data is being wrapped via WFS, which will be mediated and conflated with other more traditional data sources, like NGA (National Geo-Intelligence Agency) TDS (Topographic Data Store) and USGS (US Geological Survey) TNM (The National Map). I know you are getting excited about the details, but unfortunately I cannot tell more about this activity. The demo and reports will be available at the January 2013 Technical Committee (TC) at ESRI.

An idea that was repeated over and over again was the importance of community building, for example, meeting face-to-face with data-gathering volunteers. In essence, the message is, "Put people before technology."

A great book was recommended: The Art of Community (Jono Bacon), which I have already downloaded and started to read. The book provides a practical approach (to-do list after every chapter) about building a community. It talks about the personality of the leader, the process (setting up goals, designing roles and teams and making it financially viable), communication, creating incentives and making the process sustainable. It also provides a discussion about tools and social media to support the day-to-day functioning of a community. The book ends with a discussion about governance and conflict management.

The book reminds me that OGC is a big community bound together by a mission to make this world a better world by providing geospatial standards. The OGC facilitates meetings and provides tools (portal) and the policies and procedures that guide us and help us move forward toward agreement. Essential to our success is member organizations that provide great leaders who take on the role of chairs of the working groups. Again, this is an example of the importance of putting people before technology.

Highlights from the panelists:

Bruce Heinlien - Director of Human Geography

  • Usually, the base layer after a disaster comes from satellite, but often it is covered with clouds or smoke. Social Media can help create this first layer.

Robert Munro, Chief Executive Officer, IdiBon

  • IdiBon specializes in language processing. Robert states that twitter is a difficult source of data. Much better is Facebook where individuals are more organized into groups and where location information can be better extracted.

Kate Starbird, Assistant Professor, University of Washington, Seattle

  • Kate, has done extensive research in the topic. Talked about digital volunteers and the use of microsyntax. See more in project EPIC. She also mentioned the importance of Instagram advancing the geotagging of tweet photos.

E. Lynn Usery, Research Physical Scientist and Director, Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science (CEGIS), U.S. Geological Survey

  • Talked about a project in Colorado where volunteers added data to OSM to create features for the national map. The data accuracy was about 90%.

Tim Brice, Senior Meteorologist, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Talked about a project using twitter to allow volunteers to update weather data using a special hashtag and the difficulty of getting old tweets and old Facebook posts.

Kris Eriksen, Public Information Officer, Portland National Interagency Fire Center, NIMO Team, US Forest Service (USFS)

  • Mentioned Nixle as a platform to send messages from public safety agencies.

Bartel Van de Walle, Associate Professor, Department of Information Management, Tilburg University

  • Talked about the importance of performing “sense making” before “decision making”.

Robin Murphy, Raytheon Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Texas A&M University

  • Talked about robots used in disasters.

Will McClintock, Director, SeaSketch, Marine Science Institute, University of California Santa Barbara

  • Talked about a project where citizens help determined marine protected areas, advancing crowd-sourced technologies for Marine Spatial Planning.

Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director of NetHope

  • Closed the meeting with a great presentation about Information Age principles (See related white paper). The mentioned principles of collaboration, openness, interdependence, integrity, self-organization and sustainability reminded me of the principles discussed in the Wikinomics book.

Summary of tweets of the meeting:

Meeting website: