Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Social Georeferencing - Bring Content Into the Field

I recently presented at the conference Handheld Librarian 9. (No, the conference is not about lilliputian librarians who you carry around to help your daily information-seeking needs with obligatory hushing panache - it's about the use of mobile devices in public and academic libraries).

I presented on social georeferencing - a term I may have coined years ago - to denote online, collaborative efforts to identify relevant location(s) contained in information objects. It would be tremendously useful if more content was not available via mobile devices, but also accessible via location-based services as I will discuss.

My survey and ethnographic research has shown people value geographically relevant information. Yet the current mechanisms of libraries to georeference information through automation or manual effort are often not sufficient. Current projects, however, provide a model of online, collaborative tools to allow average people to georeference material. This crowdsourcing model of social georeferencing is not only scalable but also allows people to determine the places of information that they find meaningful.

My short presentation introduces core concepts and presents examples of existing social georeferencing. Recommendations and caveats to launch such projects are offerred. The goal is to engage the public in helping make existing digital information available in the field.

Slide deck:

Geographic relevance and location-based services
Locative functionality is the killer app of smartphones and tablets. According to a Pew 2012 study, ¾ of Americans have used a location-based service (LBS). Location-based services, (a term sometimes used interchangeably with locative media) are mobile apps that deliver content and customizes user experience based on a user’s physical location. (For more definitions of key terms, see my post on geo-terminology.)

The concept of geographic relevance is crucial as it is the ability of mobile devices to provide this that delivers the value proposition of LBS. Geographic relevance is a type of information relevance. There are various types of geographic relevance, but the one that users really care about is proximity - that is the degree to which the locations referenced in the information objects match the physical location of the user. Generally, but not always, the more precise the match, the better.

Over the past couple years, I've conducted two studies – a survey and an ethnography – on people's use of LBS. In the survey, I found many respondents (86%) reported using their device to access at least one locative functionality in the past month. The results are dated now, so I expect these figures would be higher. At the high end, 84% reported finding proximal businesses or services, reading local news (74%), finding nearby sites (67%), reading information about their location (66%), and 20% reading the history of the location they were in. Overall, I found that users appreciated the geographically relevant info they could get via LBS but wanted more information and more types of it.

To achieve this though, there are several challenges. Digitizing content and licensing is not the least of them. So assuming the content is digitized and available via mobiles, it needs to have geographic metadata indicating its target location – normally done by providing longitude and latitude coordinates. (There are fields for geographic metadata in the Marc and Dublin Core standards).

When you create content in an LBS, such as Foursquare, Waze or Google Local, the location coordinates are automatically appended. But for non-native info, it needs to have the geographic coordinates added to be able to be positioned via an LBS. From my experience, the geographic metadata available in a lot of library records refers to the source geography – such as the publisher's location – or has classifications often at a country or region level, which is too broad for LBS.

I use the term georeference to refer to the practice of adding geographic metadata to information objects, whether the objects are visual (e.g., maps, photographs) or text. I use the term geotagging to refer to users applying a folksonomy tag to an information object – which I'll talk about later. Others use these terms in different ways, however.

Coming from a city with a notorious mayor who has been less than supportive of public libraries, I'm aware of the financial pressures on libraries, so proposing any project requiring significant labour costs is not a great idea. There has been some excellent work on creating automated solutions to georeferencing textual content ( see research on the topic. I'm not convinced, however, that machines can not only detect locations in text with all its associated challenges of resolving place ambiguity (which Springfield, U.S.A.?), homographs (e.g. mobile device vs. Mobile, Alabama), and fuzzy boundaries (where precisely is "downtown" in any city), but more importantly determine which locations mentioned are used in a meaningful or relevant manner. For this, there really is no substitute for human involvement as people are best able to determine meaning.

I believe social georeferencing can provide a suitable and scalable method to achieve this goal.

Social georeferencing
Googling the term "social georeferencing", I didn't find any other websites using the term. I realize that the tech industry doesn't need yet another neologism, but in this case I think it does offer a new way to think of an emerging practice. I define social georeferencing as collaborative efforts using digital media methods to identify the pertinent locations contained within information objects. It is a form of social media and shares a focus on users creating digital content.

I'm aware of two main ways people can currently georeference information online: 1) geotagging or 2) plotting on map. The photo website Flickr provides an example of both map plotting and tags (links go to my photo collections).

As I mentioned earlier, I use the term geotagging to mean the practice of users adding place-specific tags, which are user-generated keywords or short phrases that describe or summarize content. Geotags may better capture the place-names people actually use when searching for information. Tags, however are not without problems as I have previously written about issues related to folksonomies.

Plotting on a map involves either pinning a digital object onto a map or indicating boundary lines via an online map interface. An example of this type of project was recently conducted by the British Library. They asked the public to contribute by georeferencing some of their collections of old maps. (When maps are digitized they are just an image file, they need to have coordinates identified.) The British Library used an online tool developed by Klokan wherein users correlated parts of the historic maps with points on an online map. In seven weeks ending January 2014, a round of the project was completed with 2700 maps georeferenced. The library elaborates on the project:
Through georeferencing, the selected map images were spatially enabled, making them geographically searchable and able to be visualised using geospatial tools and combined with other maps online. All georeferenced maps are added to the portal Old Maps Online, which uses a geographic search interface to identify and view historic maps from numerous collections online. The output of this work may also be viewed using the BL Georeferencer interactive map and directly from the Online Gallery map pages.

Determining and discussing locations
I encountered another online way of involving the public in georeferencing with the OurOntario project. OurOntario was a collaborative project with libraries and museums across Ontario. It helped organizations digitize and share local history collections. Each information object (such as a photograph, newspaper article, or artifact) has their own webpage, which enables the public to add their comments. I saw users on this site using the comments to discern the specific location of old, historic photographs (often not an easy task). Once a location has been established via the public, the administrators could then add the geographic metadata to the record.

Integration with existing online interfaces
Providing a method for the public to directly edit the online catalogues may not be viable or recommended. But there are ways to combine the public's efforts with existing catalogues as has been done with user data created from user of the book website LibraryThing. LibraryThing is example of easy-to-use, social tool people use to describe, tag, rate, and share information.  Existing projects have successfully combined LibraryThing’s user-generated content with library catalogues - see LibraryThing for Libraries page.
  • Quality and accuracy of public’s work
  • Malicious hijacking
  • Exploitation of free labour
  • Creating and managing an online, collaborative system is time-consuming 
  • Maintaining public (and internal) interest in project
Encouraging Participation
  • Offer incentives and prizes
  • Determine and reward “super users” (i.e. normally a handful of users who create the bulk of content)
  • Give credit for contributions
  • Promote with social media
  • Engaging user experience (including gamification) 
Naturally, with any such projects there are costs and concerns related to the setting-up and maintaining the necessary infrastructure and to overseeing and encouraging people's efforts. The benefits of social georeferencing include providing an affordable and scalable solution, resolving toponym problems related to accuracy or ambiguity, and it provides a social, viral project to engage one's community. Once completed, such efforts will help make static information accessible in the field where and when it is relevant and useful to people.

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