Thursday, 2 May 2013

Who are volunteers? About the motivation of "VGI-contributor" and "Volunteer and Technical Communities" - by Robin Peters

The impact of volunteered geographic information (VGI) is increasing. They offer a huge potential for private companies as well as government agencies or other organizations. At the latest after the earthquake in Haiti 2010 the work of volunteers has even shown the high benefit of VGI in humanitarian emergencies. Providing up-to-date mapped information was a great assistance for the relief organizations on-site [1]. But examining only the generated geographic information does not meet the whole phenomenon of VGI. To get a whole view of VGI and its potential, we have to consider two sides: In addition to the geographic information especially the volunteers play a central role, who generate the information resp. data in the first place [2]. For this reason it is of great interest, how people become such volunteers, why they contribute without consideration. What is their motivation

Particularly, the Web 2.0 has provided a necessary framework to enable the rapid rise of VGI-contributor's activity ‒ besides other technologies, such as the spread of GPS-capable devices [3]. All this makes it possible that today users can be producers at the same time, becoming so-called produser [2]. But new technologies and the access to them are not sufficient factors to explain VGI-contribution, the individual motivation plays a key role. To understand VGI-contributors, it is important to consider their specific characteristics in more detail. VGI-contributors have different backgrounds, experience and knowledge - in short: they are a heterogeneous group. In addition, each VGI project or platform may have different structures and goals. Summarized all this affects the motivation of every individual to contribute [4].

In recent years, more often volunteers got together ‒ often technically-skilled people, who are adept among others in social media and geographic information system ‒ forming Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TC), such as The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team or Ushahidi. Their work and proceeding provide advantages and resources of which common relief organizations can benefit [5].

Regarding the mentioned potential of VGI-contributors and V&TCs, an intended aim should be to increase the motivation to participate in VGI-projects, to inspire more people to voluntarily contribute and to keep already active VGI-contributors. Despite the advantages there exist different possibilities to make the work of V&TCs more effective [1].

To handle these issues and exploit the full potential of VGI-contributors, the whole process of volunteerism has to be considered. Volunteers have different expectations and requests in their voluntarily activities [6]. In this respect it is important to consider the heterogeneity of VGI-contributors. The motivations can range from altruism over fun to the expectation to gain personal or even monetary benefit [3]. It seems to be crucial that VGI-projects must try to consider and adapt their structures to VGI-contributors' motivations to attract them. How can people be convinced to contribute in a VGI-context?


1. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2010) Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. Washington, D.C. and Berkshire, UK: UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, 2011. 72 p.

2. Coleman, D. J., Georgiadou, Y. & Labonte, J. (2009) Volunteered Geographic Information: The Nature and Motivation of Produsers. In: International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research, 2009, Vol. 4: 332-358 p.

3. Goodchild, M. F. (2007) Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography. In: GeoJournal, 2007 69(4): 211-221 p.

4. Budhathoki, N. R. (2010) Participants' motivations to contribute geographic information in an online community. PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 115 p.

5. Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery Labs (2010) Volunteer Technology Communities: Open Development. Available on web: last access April 26, 2013.

6. Clary, E. G. & Snyder M. (1999) The Motivations to Volunteer: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. In: Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1999 8(5): 156-159 p.


  1. I think privacy issues will play and important role not only for the contributors but also for the data provider.
    People need to be aware of private and personal data before sharing it. Sharing too many personal information can have impacts on individuals, such as personal consequences in the insurance sector or in health care. This is a challenge for data the collector and provider.
    If the control of the granularity of data being released is not ensured, people may be less likely to share that data publicly.

    Another question the comes to mind is: Who actually owns the data that is being published? And thus who is responsible for wrong decisions that are made on basis of information due to a lack of quality of the data?

    1. In the field of Digital Humanitarian Volunteerism, most often the volunteer groups are organized in networks, so called "Volunteer & Technical Communities". These V&TCs advocate for the principles of Open Data.
      Thus, all information generated by volunteers of V&TCs are most often publicly available.

  2. I guess it would be very interesting to do a reseaerch on how people feel about giving data to a governmental institution in comparison to a private company or social network. People know that their data is often used for further issues ( even if the privacy policy does not allow this), when they post private information on a social network and do it anyway. If people know that they could help other people with their information in the case of a disaster etc., I could imagine that the inhibition to interact with the government is lower ( especially considering the volunteers acting motivated by altruism). That definitly depends on the registration process they need to go through before and the information given by the government about the whole process.

  3. Werner Clödy8 May 2013 at 12:10

    I also think that it would be exciting to examine whether there is a correlation between social networks and to participate in VGI-projects. Maybe people are rather willing to take part in VGI-projects in conjunction with social networks like facebook etc.

  4. What about people who are motivated and fascinated by the idea of VGI, but nether are a part of any social network nor have other accounts on Websites that offer VGI service, because they basicly feel uncomfortable to spread out their personal data over in the internet. First idea is of course to use a fake identity and keep "real life data". How far can this work?
    If there isn´t any face behind an identity, who takes responsibility for everything he/she influences?
    How can people who feel unsafe still become a part of VGI?

  5. In theory everybody can contribute to VGI projects but isn´t it just an "elite" that is involved in these projects, at least V&TCs related to Humanitarian Aid? How do people get information and know of the existence of such projects in the first place.
    Maybe it’s not just a lack of motivation but also a lack of information. Who knows about these communities and the opportunity to contribute despite of people who already work or study in related fields. I´m sure there will be more people who are interested to be a volunteer. Maybe social networks or education institutions could bridge this gap of information. In the next step it’s important to ensure an easy and user-friendly access to these networks to maintain the motivation of the people.