Opening-up (to) the politics of Anthropocene science

A group of scientists working for the International Commission on Stratigraphy recently recommended that the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an age defined by human impacts on the environment, be set at 1950. The concept of the Anthropocene has produced wide-ranging debates across the natural and social sciences. Here, Johannes Lundershausen , PhD candidate at the Tübingen Centre for Ethics, reflects on a recent dialogue in Geo between Mark Maslin and Andrew Barry

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published and thus fostered a timely dialogue between scientists researching the Anthropocene and scholars in science studies reflecting on the practice of this research (Barry and Maslin, 2016). The interlocutors in the published debate are physical geographer Mark Maslin, who has been actively involved in controversial debates between different research groups about the inception of the Anthropocene (Lewis and Maslin, 2015a), and human geographer Andrew Barry (both from University College London).

The starting point of their discussion is that the politics of the Anthropocene do not just relate to environmental governance but also to the ways in which this Epoch is formally defined by geoscientists. They highlight their disagreement about desirable interactions between the ‘formal’ geo-scientific assessment of the Anthropocene and the ‘informal’ engagements of social scientists with the concept. Whereas Mark Maslin holds that these academic realms should debate the Anthropocene in their own terms, Andrew Barry considers closer collaboration between disciplines essential to the study of the Anthropocene.

Copyright Smudge Studio

This difference is intriguing particularly because Maslin and Barry ostensibly agree on the need to ‘open up the geo-scientific debate about the Anthropocene to the social sciences’ and Barry acknowledges that Maslin has taken a step in this direction, for example in  a publication that he co-authored with UCL colleague Simon Lewis (2015b). Nevertheless, Maslin and Barry arguably mean different things when they talk about this interdisciplinary openness.

When prompted, Maslin draws a picture of interdisciplinarity in which social and natural science debates run parallel to each other. Social sciences, from this perspective, are expected to adapt to the requirements of the natural sciences in order to inform the latter about the consequences of their work as well as the social causes of environmental changes. Geoscientists, meanwhile, ‘should not be distracted by the […] valid discussions on the history and politics’ of the Anthropocene (p. 6). This way of ‘opening-up’ is reminiscent of the ‘subordination-service mode’ of interdisciplinarity that Barry and colleagues defined in a seminal paper in 2008 (Barry et al., 2008).

Barry himself comes closer to an ‘agonistic-antagonistic mode’ of interdisciplinarity in which the epistemological and ontological assumptions of established disciplines are challenged. He proposes a collaboration between the social and the geo-sciences that breaks with the existing disciplinary divisions of labour and involves the social sciences directly in the assessment of the merits of different proposals for an Anthropocene inception.

These two approaches, however, are more than different visions of interdisciplinarity. They also make for different ways of dealing with the topic of the debate, i.e. the politics of the Anthropocene, especially as they relate to geo-scientific definitions of the term. For Barry, interdisciplinarity can foster new conceptualisations of the role of politics in the geo-sciences and, reciprocally, the role of the geological in historical and political sciences; whereas for Maslin, interdisciplinary collaboration can or should not affect the constitution of geo-scientific practice.

Ultimately, it could be argued, the two approaches to interdisciplinarity are equipped to deal with very different conceptions of politics in the geo-sciences in particular, and in science more generally. Although Maslin recognizes politics in the interpretation and application of official criteria for establishing formal geological units, these politics are rather different from those that Barry refers to when he highlights the inherently political nature of, for example, applying scientific standards in practice, defining the scope of scientific controversies or deciding which parties are legitimately involved in such controversies (p. 3). Maslin views science as an ideally value-free endeavour in which clearly defined rules and epistemic standards guide the interpretation of data. This ideal is particularly apparent in his criticism of the members of the Anthropocene Working Group, who, he alleges, have been ‘swayed by political considerations’ in their interpretation of stratigraphic evidence (p. 4). Instead of following the remit of their work and keeping politics out of the geo-scientific definition of the Anthropocene, Maslin contends, they have acted as an advocacy group for a post-1945 inception of the Anthropocene.

This difference between Maslin’s ideal of value-free science and Barry’s insistence on the social and historical contingency of scientific practice raises questions about the initially proclaimed agreement of the two interlocutors about the existence of politics in Anthropocene geo-science. One particularly interesting question concerning this emerging disagreement is how to practically deal with social values in scientific practice (including, amongst others, political ones).

Scientists who operate under the ideal of value-free science tend to see social values in scientific practice as a threat to scientific integrity that opens the door to a politicisation of science. But in geo-scientific research on the Anthropocene, as Barry argues, scientific evaluations are underdetermined by evidence (and, I would add, also by epistemic values). In this situation, social values do not necessarily compete with geo-scientific evidence but they can work to complement the available geological evidence by guiding its interpretation and judging its power to support a given proposal for the inception of the Anthropocene.

Involving social scientists in geo-scientific debates, as suggested by Barry, might be a method of operationalising this indirect role of social values in Anthropocene science. I would argue that Maslin’s proposal to adopt public engagement strategies from climatologists, on the other hand, will not suffice to deal with the politics in Anthropocene science (cf. Beck, 2012), nor will his appeal reference to scientific objectivity, which other researchers, who he accuses of practicing politicised geo-science, equally claim for themselves (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). Opening up to the idea of an appropriate place for social values in geo-scientific practice and the possibility of an interdisciplinary exchange that produces different scientific practices, arguably holds more potential to deal with the ‘mask[ed][…] political views’ (p. 9) and the ‘political ramifications’ (p. 4) that Maslin acknowledges. The question remains as to whether there are ways to do this while maintaining the ‘independence and credibility’ of geo-scientists (p.6) that Maslin calls for. Debates such as this, between physical and social scientists, are vital ways of moving this conversation forward.

Johannes Lundershausen is a PhD candidate at the Tübingen Centre for Ethics.

Barry A, Born G and Weszkalnys G (2008) Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society 37(1): 20–49.

Barry A and Maslin M (2016) The politics of the anthropocene: A dialogue. Geo: Geography and Environment 3(2): e00022

Beck S (2012) Between Tribalism and Trust: The IPCC Under the “Public Microscope”. Nature and Culture 7(2): 151–173

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015a) A transparent framework for defining the Anthropocene Epoch. The Anthropocene Review 2(2): 128–146

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015b) Defining the anthropocene. Nature 519(7542): 171–180.

Zalasiewicz J, Waters CN, Barnosky AD, Cearreta A, Edgeworth M, Ellis EC, et al. (2015) Colonization of the Americas, ‘Little Ice Age’ climate, and bomb-produced carbon: Their role in defining the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review 2(2): 117–127

Journal metrics and linguistic hegemony

Geography is a uniquely international discipline. It is concerned with describing and explaining the world in all its infinite variety. Geographical societies and university departments can be found in all corners of the globe, and the discipline’s practitioners often build careers on internationally collaborative research focused on distant places. Why, then, is the world of geographical publishing and performance measurement so skewed towards the publishing cultures of North America and northwest Europe?

This is the question which arises from a recent paper in Geo: Geography and Environment by Michael Meadows, Ton Dietz and Christian Vandermotten. The authors note the rise and the apparent embedding of a metrics culture in higher education (see for example recent discussions about the role of metrics in the UK’s assessment exercises for research and teaching). Metrics, such as journal impact factors and personal H-index values, have not only become popular ways of trying to describe the impact of publications and their authors – they have also become key adjudicators of academic careers, with measures such as the H-index seemingly holding ever greater sway over promotion and funding decisions.

When metrics become performative, when efforts to describe a system become part of the means by which that system is run, then pre-existing hierarchies and power structures tend to get reinforced. Meadows and colleagues argue that this is particularly the case in academic geography. They point out how the key databases from which the main metrics are derived – Web of Science and Scopus – massively underrepresent research being published outside of the networks of the major commercial publishers, and in languages other than English. Using a newly developed database of geography journals developed by the International Geographical Union, they present some disturbing statistics – of the more than 200 geography journals published in China, not one appears in the international journal rankings produced by these western organisations. Of the 27 geographical journals published in Germany, fewer than ten are represented on Web of Science.  Of the 108 geography journals published worldwide in Spanish, just three appear on Web of Science.

These huge disparities in how ‘quality’ academic research is identified, measured and ranked have significant implications not only for individual career trajectories, but for the discipline as a whole. The concerns and interests of Anglophone geography will continue to dominate so long as metrics and rankings reinforce the dominance of certain publication outlets, at the risk of marginalising alternative paradigms, arguments, or ways of working. As the authors note, “ranking and the dominance of particular leading journals may undermine innovation and alternative and critical thinking” (p5).

What is to be done? The authors note a number of positive developments, including alternative, more inclusive ranking systems such as that being developed at CERES in the Netherlands (see here in PDF). Open access is certainly part of the story as well, with the authors identifying something of a ‘Latin reaction’ to Anglophonic dominance with a widespread move to online, ‘green’ open access publishing models. How to fund open access publishing is still a live question of course, with different initiatives emerging to allocate costs for ‘gold’ open access publishing between research funders, institutions, and individual authors. Geo can be considered part of this broader experimentation.

But returning to the discipline geography more specifically, the authors conclude by addressing the IGU, whose new database underpins the authors’ arguments. They urge the IGU to explore the kind of multi-lingual publishing options being innovated in settings like Conservation Biology, with the organisation’s international reach potentially making it a powerful vehicle for new efforts to promote working and publishing practices which help to break down linguistic barriers. More broadly, the article prompts geographers to reflect on how a discipline so international in reach can make its publication practices more inclusive of linguistic, cultural and intellectual diversity.

Martin Mahony is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He also edits the Geo blog.

Drawing, remembering, knowing: natural history and the ecological imagination

By Meredith Root-Bernstein (Aarhus University)

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published my personal essay about how natural history practices have helped me to think about interdisciplinary research and collaborations.  I emphasize in the essay how developing and sharing habits of observing, interpreting, and considering the human contexts of nature can help form shared understandings as the basis for exchanges about social and natural sciences of the environment.  In that essay, I discuss seeing an espino (Acacia caven) with a liana growing on it in central Chile.  My research involves searching for the key problems and solutions for the conservation of a silvopastoral system (“espinal”) and the surrounding shrub and forest habitats in this mediterranean-climate zone.  The most common species in espinal is the espino (Acacia caven).  Yet, I had never seen an espino with a liana, and I became intrigued by trying to understand the potential ecological and social meanings of this unusual species assemblage.  Here, I expand on that essay with a discussion of a sketch of the liana and the espino.  While looking for something else I came across this drawing I made of the espino and its liana:

Bernstein image

I had forgotten about the sketch, and I have also forgotten the exact circumstances of making it.  I am sure that I didn’t make it in situ, and a few days probably elapsed between seeing the tree and making the drawing. The structure of the trunk is hard to read.  First I thought it suggested that the tree is old and perhaps has ridges or hollows, but this doesn’t match the photograph.  I also couldn’t think of any example of thick, undulating or textured espino trunks.  Something was wrong, either with the drawing, my memory, or my knowledge of espinos.  Then, while walking past some trees here in Denmark with ivy on them, I realized by analogy that I had drawn the vines of the liana descending to the ground.

The liana seems to be partly imaginary.  I remember seeing red stems and green leaves, but I am fairly sure that there were no black drupes at the time and that I only saw images of them by looking up the species on the internet.  The drawing thus knits together memory and imagination to represent the way I was thinking about my observation.

The ambiguity of the sketch forced me to think about the visual and structural patterns that things make, and how those map onto our other kinds of knowledge and memory.   There are really two issues here: one is that the sketch was by nature approximate, hasty, and in this case not based on direct observation but rather memory and its own approximations.  All of these aspects confer an abstract nature on the sketch.  It excludes the inessential and retains only an impression, just enough to reconstruct what was seen.  The second issue though relates to my lack of experience thinking about and observing lianas.  This led to what might be a not-so-clear abstraction of a liana growing up a trunk, and certainly created ambiguity in interpretation.  But the ivy I saw that helped me to understand the sketched pattern of something I had only seen once before—a liana on an espino—taught me about lianas and vines in general.

An important part of natural history is personal memory, the accumulation of implicit and tacit knowledge.  How do we make these memories relevant to interpreting the future as well as the past?  Writing, sketching and showing others are all important means of communication, that emphasize different aspects of nature—the narratives and cycles, the structural patterns, the kinaesthetic and embodied knowledge of where, when and how.

It is well-known that natural history drawings have features that photographs do not: they can represent a general or ideal example of something, facilitating recognition, and they can bring attention to particular features or patterns through emphasis, selectivity and abstraction.

As I mention in the article, I think of natural history as seeking patterns, which can be used to interpret the past, but also potentially the future.  In my drawing, I imagined the visual effect of the liana on the espino in a season when it had fruit. In the Anthropocene, it might be interesting to think more about the natural history of the future.  How will places look, behave and feel under climate change? How will we read the landscape of abandoned infrastructures in the future?  What unexpected species pairing will we find somewhere next year, testimony to some casual event yesterday?  These visions don’t have to be apocalyptic—and they don’t have to be written.   Drawings can often be both more subtle and more complex than words.  They have their own logic of organization and representation.

I recently saw a short article in the ESA Bulletin about how ecologists can avoid midlife crises and burnout.  Going into the field from time to time was one suggestion.  I would also add to that that the practice of natural history, and the attempt to communicate it, if only to oneself later on, can be both enjoyable and meaningful.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this sketch that I had forgotten about, and it brought a new angle to what the liana and the espino taught me about the socioecological interactions of central Chile.

Who knows, practicing a little natural history on your days out might even inspire a new line of research, maybe an interdisciplinary one.  You don’t have to try to be serious and professional about natural history, which might take away the enjoyment of being in nature.  Play is an important way to explore the world, and its not just for children.  Many accomplished scientists, among others, take time to have fun with no clear purpose as a way to think better (see here  and here).  Later on, accumulated memories will certainly make something useful out of what you observe in nature for fun, whether it’s a publishable research project or some extra emotional attachment helping you to find satisfaction and motivation.  Indeed, my paper in GEO: Geography and Environment, and this blog post, were written just for fun and have helped me to recognise how important natural history is for my enjoyment of my job.

Meredith Root-Bernstein is a postdoctoral researcher in the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project, based in the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

Uneven geographies of openness and information

By Helen Pallett (University of East Anglia, UK)

Open access to information and data appears to be a cause which has found its moment, with governments, businesses, NGOs and academics queuing up to ratify open access commitments and extoll its virtues. It has variously been heralded as a means of rejuvenating democracy, reforming corrupt institutions, holding big business and business-dealings to account, improving the quality of scientific data available, removing academics from their ivory towers, and changing relationships between publishers, academic journals and authors.

These arguments for the opening up of data and information now seem uncontroversial and have few serious detractors. However, an emerging body of work demonstrates that to take the geographies of information seriously is to add a significant but often-overlooked angle on debates in academia and policy on open access and open data. This is what Mark Graham, Stefano De Sabbata and Matthew A. Zook have done in their recent paper in Geo, ‘Towards a study of information geographies’.

In this paper the authors focus on the different internet-based platforms through which geographic information itself is mediated, hosted and delivered. The potential of the internet and related technologies to facilitate the wide sharing, distribution and processing of information has of course been at the centre of arguments for and models of open data, and even open innovation or open government. Whilst the transformative power of platforms like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap are evident, the paper draws attention to their uneven geographies in a number of ways.

At a very basic level, geographies of internet access are uneven – less than 20% of the population in countries like India, Tanzania and Guatemala are internet users. But there are also clear barriers to participation in creating and contributing to geographic information platforms which transcend questions of who is connected to the internet, and there are important geographic patterns in what gets represented and what is overlooked. For example, domain names of websites are overwhelmingly located in Europe and North America, and similar patterns are found in the numbers of people contributing information to or coding these platforms such as Wikipedia or Geonames. This geography of participation also has implications for representation, with platforms like OpenStreetMap displaying much denser geographic information for locations in Japan, Europe and North America, as compared to locations in Africa, Australia and much of South America.



Distribution of domain names by country. From Graham et al. (2015).


The authors have demonstrated that information has geographies in the way that it is produced, presented and distributed, far from flowing with ease across space. This sounds a note of caution with regards to claims about the democratising and empowering potential of platforms aiming to open up information, including attempts to facilitate access to scientific data, academic papers, and government data. It suggests that enabling open access to information at this general level can only do so much, without addressing existing highly uneven geographies of access to the infrastructures and platforms hosting and transmitting this information. Furthermore, there are not only uneven geographies of access to consider, but also uneven geographies of participation and representation which serve to further shape and limit the data and information which is available to us.

Helen Pallett is a Senior Research Associate in the Science, Society & Sustainability group at the University of East Anglia.

Learning from guano: In search of a paleo-seabird proxy

By Jessica Conroy (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA)

Take a vacation to the Galápagos Islands and you’re bound to see some of the archipelago’s most colorful denizens perched on guano-splashed basalt rocks, or a sweet ball of puffy white feathers sitting patiently in her nest, waiting for breakfast.

Seabirds like the red-footed and blue-footed booby are some of the unique inhabitants of the Galápagos. Apart from being photogenic, they are impressive animals, with amazing hunting abilities, sometimes flying over 100 km away from their nesting sites in search of food.

Conroy image

A Genovesa red-footed booby. Credit: Jonathan Overpeck

Seabirds are also harbingers of the large changes sweeping the world ocean. A study of long-term seabird populations shows many species are declining.  Recent research also points to longer-term changes in some seabird populations relative to the last several millennia, likely related to recent human exploitation of the marine ecosystem.

Natural climate and ocean variability can also affect seabird populations. In the tropical Pacific, many species of seabirds suffer the effects of interannual El Niño events, which influences the abundance of seabird prey by altering ocean properties such as temperature and nutrient availability. In the Galápagos, blue-footed booby populations are decreasing, perhaps due to shifts in climate that operate over decades.

It is important to define the natural baseline of these varying populations. In order to place recent changes in a long-term context, scientists must establish the range of natural ups and downs in seabird populations prior to recent changes. But unfortunately, there are very little long-term seabird population data.

Lake sediments have long offered a way to tell us something about past environments– how much it rained, or variations in past temperatures. But, in the right setting, could lake sediments tell us something about seabirds? We thought one such lake may have an interesting story to tell.

Genovesa Island is a small, uninhabited island in the northeastern part of the Galápagos. With no surface water, it is not a tempting site for human settlement; Darwin did not even make it here. But, it is home to thousands of red-footed boobies and lesser numbers of great frigatebirds. According to the only estimate of the island’s bird population in the scientific literature, it is home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies in the world. The birds nest across the island, including the steep crater walls at the center of the island, which shelter a very inaccessible (to humans) crater lake.

The Genovesa seabirds produce large quantities of guano. The crater is streaked in white, and the air has an acrid smell. Some of this guano makes it into the lake, either directly, or by washing in during rainy periods. We hypothesized that there would be a geochemical signal of this guano archived in the lake sediments. One candidate for a paleo-guano proxy was the stable isotopic composition of nitrogen in lake organic matter. The heavier, less abundant stable isotope of nitrogen, 15N, is preferentially sequestered in organisms, with animals higher on the food web containing more 15N relative to 14N. As seabirds sit high on the food web, they, and their guano, have a distinctly high 15N/14N ratio—much higher than the 15N/14N values related to other processes and organisms that are typically found in lake sediments.

We measured 15N/14N in organic matter in Genovesa lake sediments and guano samples. The data, expressed in delta notation, d15N, where the 15N/14N ratio is normalized to the ratio of 15N/14N in air, showed high values in both guano samples and in the sediments, supporting a geochemical signature of seabird presence in the sediment. Although pretty cool, this result has been observed before, in arctic seabird ponds. The most interesting aspect of our study was the variability in d15N values over time.

We found that higher d15N values, which we interpreted as indicating increased seabird activity on Genovesa, coincided with decadal changes in the counts of anchovies and sardines in the eastern Pacific. With more of these fish in the region, d15N was higher, suggesting more seabird activity on the island.  An abrupt increase in d15N also occurred around 1830 AD, right when ocean sediment cores off the coast of Peru and Chile showed increased ocean productivity and nutrients. Another abrupt shift occurred in the mid 1960s. Thus, seabird activity has been highly variable at Genovesa over the last 400 years, increasing and decreasing in concert with decadal and abrupt changes in the ocean environment.

What do these results imply about the seabirds living on Genovesa? They seem to be doing ok, at least in context of last 400 years. Although this year’s monster El Niño event may have a negative impact on seabirds elsewhere in the Galápagos, past observations and our guano proxy suggest Genovesa seabirds don’t seem to feel El Niño events the same way.  But a recent  increase in decade-to-decade ups and downs in the d15N guano proxy record suggests that perhaps Genovesa seabirds are becoming more sensitive to regional ocean and climate changes on the decadal timescale. Or, there may have been a strengthening of climate change on the decadal timescale in this region during the 20th century. We hope to extend our lake sediment record deeper into the past and explore more potential guano indicators in order to find out.

About the author:

Jessica Conroy is an assistant professor in the Departments of Geology and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Open for collaboration

This week (Oct 19th-25th) is Open Access Week, with the theme of ‘Open for Collaboration’. Open Access Week is organised by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and this year’s theme aims to inspire conversations about how cooperation between stakeholders in the academic enterprise can lead to new forms of collaboration – whether that’s collaboration in research, collaboration in new publishing platforms, or collaboration between academic and policy communities in discussions about how open-access can become the new norm in scholarly publishing.

Here at Geo we are engaged in all of these types of collaboration, and we hope that our blog can become a springboard for new working relationships of all kinds.

In the first instance, the blog can offer authors and readers of our journal the opportunity to reach out to wider audiences. We are publishing blog posts alongside published Geo articles, which can be a great way of drawing attention to the topical relevance of an article, of situating it within wider scientific, political, environmental or cultural debates, or of telling some of the story behind the research which might not have made it into the journal article itself.

Evidence is growing that journal articles which are open access and which are publicised through social media such as blogs and Twitter can receive a greater readership which in turn can lead to more citations.[1] With our blog and social media presence, Geo can help scholars to take advantage of these new routes to wider research engagement (find us on Twitter and Facebook).

We also believe that these new opportunities can help develop connections which, in time, may lead to important new collaborative ventures. While we invite journal authors to comment on their own published papers, we often also seek out comments from interested readers – see for example the posts published along with Sabina Leonelli and colleagues’ paper on encouraging open science (see here and here), or Werner Krauss’ commentary on Mike Hulme’s piece on climate and culture. In this way, we hope that the Geo blog can spark new intellectual conversations and connections, opening up space for new collaborative relationships.

We hope that the Geo blog can also become a site for debating the shifting policy environment of open-access publishing. As open access becomes a key requirement in research assessment exercises in the UK for example, new questions are emerging about how access to open access – through the availability of resources to fund ‘gold’ open access publishing – is distributed across the academic landscape. We’re keen to encourage reflection on these and other issues, so if you have ideas for a post, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Academia is inherently a collaborative enterprise – not just in the shape of research teams and multi-author publications, but in the relationships between individuals, institutions and policies, between researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, and in the deep well of knowledge from which we all draw in building our arguments and research programmes (for an example of this collaborative landscape, see this blog post on crowd-sourced geographic information). In making new knowledge, we collaborate with those who have gone before us, and with a diversity of people around us. Journals like Geo are part of this story of changing collaborative relationships within and beyond the academy, and we hope the blog can be a place to tell this story in new and exciting ways.

[1] See for example Gunther Eysenbach, ‘Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact.’, Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 4 (2011); Melissa Terras, ‘The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment’, Journal of Digital Humanities, 1, 3 (2012).

Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to ensure the information to be captured represented their views on the area and its future, in light of the Olympic works that happened on their doorstep. The GIScience research community, by contrast, emphasizes quantitative modelling and universal rules about geographic information (exemplified by frequent mentioning of Tobler’s first law of Geography). The GIScience research community was not especially welcoming of qualitative, participatory mapping efforts, leaving these efforts mostly in the margins of the discipline.

Hackney mapping

Participatory Mapping in Hackney Wick, London, 2007

Around 2005, researchers in GIScience started to notice that when people used their Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to record where they took pictures or used online mapping apps to make their own maps, they were generating a new kind of geographic information. Once projects like OpenStreetMap and other user-generated geographic information came to the scene, the early hostility evaporated and volunteered geographic information (VGI) or crowdsourced geographic information was embraced as a valid, valuable and useful source of information for GIScience research. More importantly, VGI became an acceptable research subject, with subjects like how to assess quality and what motivates people to contribute.

This about-face was puzzling and we felt that it justified an investigation of the concepts and ideas that allowed that to happen. Why did VGI become part of the “truth” in GIScience? In philosophical language, the questions ‘where does knowledge come from? how was it created? What is the meaning and truth of knowledge?’ is known as epistemology and our paper evolved into an exploration of the epistemology, or more accurately the multiple epistemologies, which are inherent in VGI. It’s easy to make the case that VGI is a new way of knowing the world, with (1) its potential to disrupt existing practices (e.g. the way OpenStreetMap provide alternative to official maps as shown in the image below) and (2) the way VGI both constrains contributions (e.g., 140 chars) and opens contributions (e.g., with its ease of user interface; with its multimedia offerings). VGI affords a new epistemology, a new way of knowing geography, of knowing place. Rather than observing a way of knowing, we were interested in what researchers thought was the epistemology of VGI. They were building it in real-time and attempting to ensure it conformed to existing ways of knowing. An analog would be: instead of knowing a religion from the inside, you construct your conception of it, with your own assumptions and biases, while you are on the outside. We argue that construction was occurring with VGI.


OpenStreetMap mapping party (Nono photos)

We likewise were interested in the way that long-standing critics of mapping technologies would respond to new sources of data and new platforms for that data. Criticism tends to be grounded in the structuralist works of Michel Foucault on power and how it is influenced by wider societal structures. Critics extended traditional notions of volunteerism and empowerment to VGI, without necessarily examining whether or not these were applicable to the new ‘ecosystem’ of geospatial apps companies, code and data. We also were curious why the critiques focussed on the software platforms used to generate the data (e.g., Twitter) instead of the data themselves (tweets). It was as if the platforms used to create and share VGI are embedded in various socio-political and economic configurations. However, the data were innocent of association with the assemblages. Lastly, we saw an unconscious shift in the Critical GIS/GIScience field from the collective to the personal. Historically, in the wider field of human geography, when we thought of civil society mapping together by using technology, we looked at collective activities like counter-mapping (e.g., a community fights an extension to airport runway by conducting a spatial analysis to demonstrate the adverse impacts of noise or pollution to the surrounding geography). We believe the shift occurred because Critical GIS scholars were never comfortable with community and consensus-based action in the first place. In hindsight, it probably is easier to critique the (individual) emancipatory potential as opposed to the (collective) empowerment potential of the technology. Moreover, Critical GIS researchers have shifted their attention away from geographic information systems towards the software stack of geospatial software and geosocial media, which raises question about what is considered under this term. For all of these reasons and more we decided to investigate the “world building” from both the instrumentalist scientists and from their critics.

We do use some philosophical framing–Borgmann has a great idea called the device paradigm–to analyse what is happening, and we hope that the paper will contribute to the debate in the critical studies of geographical information beyond the confines of GIScience to human geography more broadly.

About the authors:

Renée E. Sieber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the School of Environment at McGill University. Muki Haklay is Professor of Geographical Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London.