The Web of Geospatial Collaboration

Communities Eclipse Governments in Mapping the World

Figure 1

Fig. 1

By visualizing various data sources, this GeoCommons map gives us an overall perspective of the potential impact of the disaster in Japan. Seismic events sized by magnitude (in red) are mapped with nuclear facilities sized by capacity (in orange). The base layer of this map shows the most populated darker areas have been most heavily impacted. The purple and blue dots show tweets and flickr photos streaming in real-time. You can also see more data updated daily by searching tag: japanquake on GeoCommons. Map courtesy of GeoIQ (formerly FortiusOne).

Figure 2

Fig. 2

This map from Esri uses trend analysis to visualize community reports related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Ushahidi social network allows anyone to report incidents via SMS, e-mail or the web. You can view all categories to understand the distribution of reports or filter by category and time to get a better understanding of spatial and temporal trends.

Figure 3

Fig. 3

Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" in Swahili) maps were created in 2008 for Kenya, and now are the most widely used platform for local-level geospatial reporting. This map shows Japan following the recent earthquake.

Abe Usher

CEO, Sterling Data LLC, Sterling, Va.

As the hype of Web 2.0 has worn off and the collaborative use of the Internet becomes a societal norm, we are witnessing an unprecedented explosion in the creation and analysis of geospatial data. Just as major governments are reducing their investments in location intelligence (in response to weak recovery from the global recession), individuals and non-government organizations (NGOs) are fueling a bonfire of innovation in the world of geospatial information system (GIS) data.

This innovation is timely, as it helps address many major problems of the 21st century that require location-centric data and technology:

  • Provisioning social services for security and education as world population rises;
  • Allocating resources for infrastructure enhancement in the face of dwindling government resources;
  • Optimizing logistic delivery channels;
  • Planning operations for counter-insurgency and stability operations.

Three threads are related to the “web” of geospatial collaboration in the 21st century: (1) how users are co-creating content through the participatory Internet, (2) how new methods are available for exploring and analyzing data, and (3) how emergency responders are finding new ways to use old technologies.

Co-creation of Content through the Internet of Participation

For the duration of the 20th century, GIS data remained locked up in proprietary databases belonging to commercial interests and nation-states. The Internet has played a major role as a catalyst for accelerating the generation and exchange of location data. As access to high-speed Internet has grown, the democratization of geospatial information has moved forward at a geometric rate. Suddenly, amateur grassroots projects have started amassing quantities of data that dwarf the amount of information tied up in proprietary systems. Such grassroots content creation is exemplified by web sites like,,, and

Originally created in December of 2002, represents a great (early) place of community-generated geospatial data. Before it was acquired by Google in 2004, the Keyhole Community ( was set up as a community resource, allowing users to post points of interest to share with other users. With help from Google, the site has expanded tremendously. Today it boasts millions of users and a collection of public keyhole markup language (KML) points that span hundreds of thousands of locations around the world.

The “buzz” feature (of Google Maps) takes near real-time geotagged Tweets from Twitter and adds them to the map. An incredible feature, buzz enables users to dynamically explore this data with a map providing them with a rich appreciation for what's happening right now — all over the world.

The Yahoo property Flickr goes even further than bbs.keyhole in providing a community where photos are geospatially annotated and marked up. Flickr provides users with a platform to upload and share annotated photos, free of charge. Although not required, many photos feature geospatial annotation or markup; researchers from the University of Munster in Germany estimated Flickr has more than 100 million geotagged photos. The aggregation of such a large volume of volunteered geographic information (VGI, also referred to as Community Remote Sensing) paints quite a “picture” of the state of affairs on the ground. (acquired by Google) is a contrast to Flickr, offering a complementary community of geospatially tagged photos. High quality photos from Panoramio are often made available from within as well as within the public version of Google Earth. The fact that users can post photos that eventually end up featured within Google properties has been a major draw. At the time this article was written, Panoramio boasts more than 47 million photos. An important part of its community outreach and a unique feature of its social community, Panoramio has monthly photo contests spanning four categories: scenery, heritage, travel, and unusual location.

The next generation of community-generated geospatial data is now being created at the popular micro-blogging site Twitter. In 2009, Twitter implemented a geo application programming interface (API) that allows developers and applications to annotate tweets with location information in the form of decimal degrees coordinates. Although a slim 0.23% of Twitter tweets include geospatial information (, at 50 million tweets per day, that still amounts to more than 100,000 geospatially tagged tweets per day (3 million geo-tagged tweets per month). This has given rise to an entirely new era of near real-time geospatially annotated data.

The Cloudmade-funded OpenStreetMap community has become a boon to organizations looking to obtain and evaluate road network data. Originally founded in 2004 by Steve Coast, the OpenStreetMap project originally aimed to encourage growth in the development and distribution of GIS data by providing map data free of charge under a Creative Commons license. In the past seven years, it has grown from just an idea to the dominant source of free map data in the world. OpenStreetMap allows users to edit and interact with map data in a similar style to wikis and other community-based collaboration mechanisms. True to its mission, OpenStreetMap makes all of its polygon data available for download as a data export in OSM (sounds like ‘awesome’) format – approximately 205 megabytes.

New Methods of Exploring and Analyzing Data

Simultaneous with the expansion of GIS data production, there has been a renaissance in online tools for the exploration and analysis of location data. Just a few of the notable innovations include Google FusionTables, GeoIQ’s (formerly FortiusOne) collaborative GeoCommons site, SimpleGeo’s new cloud-based geospatial infrastructure, and enhancements within Google Maps.

Google’s creation of FusionTables has opened up a world of thematic map generation. Fusion Tables provides a simple web-based service for uploading and sharing tabular (structured) data. As a simple consumer technology, Fusion Tables lacks many of the features belonging to sophisticated data analysis software. However, its ease of use vastly eclipses other online offerings. In just five minutes, a user can upload a text file with detailed geospatial data, generate a geospatial heatmap based on location data, and then share it with the world as a downloadable KML file or network addressable KML network link. The simplicity of this data mashup solution has significantly lowered the bar for viewing and exploring location data online.

GeoCommons, the open geospatial analysis platform provided by the commercial company GeoIQ, provides easy data processing and analysis for the novice GIS user. Slightly more complicated than FusionTables but much more customizable, the GeoCommons site provides a very rich interface for creating compelling and beautiful thematic maps. Through its wizard-driven interface, GeoCommons guides users through the process of selecting datasets (from an online collection of more than 4,000 sources, up to 23,000 when you include data contributors and map makers) and choosing thematic views of the information. Like FusionTables, GeoCommons allows users to share their creations as KML file downloads.

For power-users and software developers not satisfied with FusionTables or GeoCommons, startup SimpleGeo provides a fascinating pre-built infrastructure for building geospatial applications. Originally created by a group of engineers hoping to make the next generation of mobile games with virtual reality technology, the founders realized that developing the back-end infrastructure for location-aware applications is a difficult task. Enter SimpleGeo: an online infrastructure for creating geospatial applications.

Although it is much more complicated to use than FusionTables or GeoCommons, SimpleGeo provides powerful application programmer interfaces (APIs) that allow software engineers to augment their applications with free “context data” that helps describe the environment surrounding a location. For example, the SimpleGeo Context API provides a web-based service that yields population, weather, and geographic features related to a point of interest. Users simply provide a decimal degree latitude and longitude to the service and receive a Javascript Object Notation (JSON) encoded response describing nearby points of interest and local demographic data. This is a major breakthrough, as users of this type of service can now receive detailed inform-ation for any place on earth without needing to create their own in-house worldwide geospatial database.

The grand-daddy of web 2.0-style online maps, Google Maps now provides many optional location data points and photos in conjunction with its standard interface. In addition to its ‘slippy maps’ (the first web-based maps that allowed moving maps around without reloading the web page), Google Maps now provides users with three significant enhancements that improve data exploration: photos, places, and buzz. The ‘photos’ feature allows users to turn on a layer of geotagged photos from the site Similar to the capability native to Google StreetView, these images give users ground-level photos of the region of interest; in addition they include the annotations and metadata that the originators uploaded with their photo.

The ‘places’ feature enumerates a number of major locations significant to the local community (e.g. schools, historical landmarks, government buildings). These places provide insights into especially important regions of social significance. Finally the ‘buzz’ feature takes near real-time geotagged Tweets from Twitter and adds them to the map. An incredible feature, buzz enables users to dynamically explore this data with a map providing them with a rich appreciation for what’s happening right now – all over the world.

Emergency Response

Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, is an open source platform originally created to help facilitate grassroots reports of violence following elections in Kenya in 2008. During its use in 2008, it rapidly expanded to over 45,000 users in Kenya and today it is the most widely used platform for local-level geospatial reporting. Capable of accepting input from SMS text messages or Internet-based web forms, it has played an important role in the recent history of emergency response in Haiti, Afghanistan and Chile.

AliveInAfghanistan, an Ushahidi-based website, set out to monitor the reports of fraud and violence during the period surrounding elections in 2009-2010. More successfully than any other source, AliveInAfghanistan (officially sponsored by the Pajhwok news agency) provided up-to-date ‘micro stories’ detailing exactly what was taking place across the country. Such a capability is especially important in developing countries that lack a strong government infrastructure for monitoring local security and that have weak information exchange capabilities.

During earthquakes in Chile in 2010, Ushahidi was used extensively to aggregate field reports on activity following the natural disaster. More than 1,200 earthquake damage assessments and situation reports were uploaded via the web and SMS. Such information served as an important catalyst for getting aid to the right place at the right time.

In the lull between emergencies, you can find NGO staff and emergency responders hanging out at Crisis Mappers, a Ning-powered social networking site that connects hundreds of professionals and volunteers interested in helping bring geospatial data to bear in crisis situations. The specified mission of the site is “leveraging mobile platforms, computational and statistical models, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.” Borrowing techniques from the Facebook playbook, Crisis Mappers is a growing online community where users are encouraged to express their experience and ideas related to humanitarian emergencies through blogs, videos, discussion forums and internal mail.

As this article was being written, a massive earthquake and tsunami devast-ated the northeastern region of Japan and damaged a nuclear power plant. As emergency responders from Japan, China, and the United States swing into action, Internet users are uploading vitally important messages and images about the aftermath via Twitter and Flickr (See Figures 1-3). Although restoration of the affected area seems far off, the geospatial data provided by Internet users in Japan will continue to provide critical indicators for emergency responders operating in the area.


New technology is proving to be a powerful force, driving significant changes in the community of online mapping. As Internet users join together to co-create location content, use Web-based tools for geospatial analysis, and work together in emergency response scenarios, they are rapidly leaving the governments of the world behind.

To stay engaged in the online geospatial community, government organizations must shed some 20th century traditions and adopt new practices - or risk being left “off the new map” of groups that are most relevant to GEOINT. To that end, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has demonstrated commitment in its new initiatives to provide online, on-demand access to GEOINT and to expand analytic expertise in analysis of not only physical features, but also the dynamic field of human geography. 2011 holds promise to be a transformative time for the geospatial community across government and industry.

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