Published works

Published works

Assessing the potential, application, and implications of volunteered geographic information in disaster risk reduction

TitleAssessing the potential, application, and implications of volunteered geographic information in disaster risk reduction
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsHaworth, B
Academic DepartmentFaculty of Science, School of Geosciences
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages205
Date Published2016
UniversityThe University of Sydney
Thesis TypePhD

This thesis examines the potential role of volunteered geographic information (VGI) practices in fostering community engagement in disaster risk reduction (DRR). Through various technological innovations citizens can now collect, share and map geographic information for disaster management in unprecedented ways. VGI refers to the widespread voluntary engagement of private citizens in the creation of geographic information, predominantly through sources such as social media, smartphones and inexpensive online mapping tools. VGI represents shifts in the ways geographic information is created, shared, used and experienced. This has important implications for various applications of geospatial information, including disaster management, and geographers, with a broad cross-section of skills spanning modern critical human geography and the technical components of GIS, are ideally positioned to examine the impacts of VGI. VGI technologies enable cost-effective, rapid sharing of diverse geographic information from community members at all stages of the disaster management cycle, including prevention, preparation, response and recovery (PPRR). But VGI also presents new challenges, including issues of data quality, data management, liability and the digital divide. Research in this emerging area has focussed on disaster response while largely ignoring prevention and preparedness. Preparing for disasters dramatically reduces the likelihood of negative impacts on life and property and there is a global need for increased community engagement in DRR. This thesis provides valuable insight into how VGI can contribute to addressing this need, where, particularly in the preparedness phase of PPRR, VGI considered as a social practice and not simply a type of data has potential to aid in building community connectedness, risk awareness and increased disaster resilience.

The objective of this research is to assess the usefulness of VGI in fostering community bushfire preparation engagement and increased disaster resilience, and to ascertain the broader impacts of VGI practices on traditional top-down systems such as emergency management. The thesis has several main components. First, community surveys were completed with residents of bushfire-risk communities in Tasmania to examine bushfire preparedness and the current uptake, usage patterns and limitations of VGI technologies like social media. Results indicated high potential for the use of VGI in community engagement in DRR, but also important challenges related to demographics, usage patterns and trust of online information.

Second, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 13 emergency management professionals to assess their views on how community VGI practices are impacting authoritative emergency management. The study identified key opportunities and challenges of VGI for emergency management, as well as how community-driven bottom-up systems such as VGI can both disrupt and complement authoritative top-down systems.

Third, a novel participatory mapping approach to VGI was employed through community workshops in four Tasmanian communities to assess the user-experience of contributing local information for community bushfire preparation, and the value to individuals of sharing knowledge and mapping collaboratively with other community members for DRR. Workshop observations and questionnaire results provided evidence that participatory mapping of VGI in bushfire management aids the promotion of social inclusion, capacity building and enablement of democratic participation. While the local knowledge exchanged was of value to participants in their bushfire preparedness, the social vi quality of VGI appeared to be the most valuable element of participatory mapping. Concerns regarding VGI that arose in the study included issues of data quality, privacy, trust and the underrepresentation of particular individuals or groups in: the study; community bushfire management; and mapping and geospatial datasets.

This thesis develops a multifaceted understanding of the opportunities and challenges of VGI in community DRR and resilience building, as well as the broader implications of VGI on traditional authoritative systems, social systems, and the disciplines of geography and geographic information science. Significantly, VGI disrupts the traditional top-down structure of emergency management and reflects a culture shift away from organisational power, control and regulation of information. The thesis argues changes to traditional systems catalysed by VGI involve decentralisation of power and increased empowerment of citizens, where value can be increasingly recognised in both ‘expert’ and citizen-produced information, initiatives and practices.

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