Teresa Scassa - Blog

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Volunteered geographic information (VGI) is a relatively recent and rapidly emerging phenomenon. In general terms, it involves the dissemination of geographic information, or of other information placed in geographic context, by individuals or groups of individuals. This would cover collaborative online mapping projects such as Wikimapia and OpenStreetMap, where individuals contribute geographical information to crowd-sourced maps. It would also cover a broad range of other types of user-generated map content. This can include the mapping of information by an individual or group of individuals (see, for example, the maps created by Patrick Cain), or the crowd-sourcing of information that is placed in a geographic context (consider, for example, the disaster maps created in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, or the earthquake in Haiti). While VGI projects may be led by amateurs, VGI is increasingly being considered as an important source of geographic information by private sector companies and by governments. For example, both TomTom and Google have found ways to incorporate geographic information supplied by users into their products, and governments are also considering ways in which VGI may be used to enhance existing maps or databases.

Volunteered geographic information may simply be raw geographic data (such as the co-ordinates of a point of interest). However, there is no limit to the kind of information that can be placed in geographic context. VGI may include geo-referenced photographs; it may also include text descriptions of places, objects or phenomena, audio or video content. It is a form of user-generated content (UGC) that is distinctive because the content is situated in relation to physical space. VGI shares other characteristics of the broader UGC phenomenon in that it is made possible by the broad accessibility of the tools and devices necessary to enable ordinary individuals without special skills or training to participate in the creation and dissemination of knew knowledge and content. Easily available tools such as the Google Maps application programming interface (API), or sites such as Tagzania.com or Wayfaring.com support the creation of maps by non-experts. Hand held GPS devices (now available on most smart phones) also give ordinary individuals powerful tools to record and transmit relatively precise geographic data.

Volunteered geographic information may be relied upon for a variety of reasons. As with other crowd-sourcing initiatives, VGI may offer an alternative to commercial products. In some cases, crowd-sourced maps may fill in gaps in the market, as where the mapping of a particular region or phenomenon is not a priority for commercial map publishers. Projects that place other types of information in geographic context can offer new ways of thinking about social, economic or political phenomena. Crowd-sourced disaster maps may offer real-time tools for dealing with rapidly developing events. In some cases, VGI initiatives offer a means of gathering information that might otherwise be too difficult or too costly to collect.

The legal and ethical issues raised by the VGI phenomenon are only now beginning to be explored. The mapping of VGI can raise a wide range of privacy issues. Further, as with many other types of UGC, intellectual property rights issues may frequently arise. Concerns have also been raised about the potential liability not just of those who publish or host VGI-based maps, but also of those who contribute data to such projects. In a recent article I explore identify and examine a number of these issues from the perspective of the host of VGI content, the supplier of VGI, and the user of VGI-based products or services.


Monday, 13 August 2012 15:02

Guilt By Association: The London 2012 Olympics

Written by Teresa Scassa
I recently blogged for FreeSpeechDebate.Org about free speech, ambush marketing and the London Olympics. The posting is available here: http://freespeechdebate.com/en/discuss/guilt-by-association-the-london-2012-olympics/

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