3 Methods for generating maps with volunteers

Geospatial data has traditionally been very expensive to collect- requiring specialized tools and teams. However, in recent years advancements in information technologies have allowed geospatial data collection to become a democratized process using humans as sensors to collect intricate details of both their physical environment and personal experiences.


User generated spatial data collectively known as volunteered geographic information (VGI) is good news for communities all around the world because now any given community or organization can start to collect the data they need (Goodchild, P. 212; Elwood, P. 173).


This document summarizes some of the most common methods used in VGI projects across a number of disciplines, all of which can be realized using Urbamapp’s data collection platform.


Community Maps

Community map making tools, such as Urbamapp, empower citizen to tell their story through maps and data. We at Urbamapp love to support Community or Citizen Maps because they create powerful datasets that allow for the community to digitize quantitative and qualitative data at a very detailed level. This is especially powerful in developing countries where corporations and governments have not made data accessible.


With minimal training, citizens can learn how to map land uses, natural resources such as fresh water sources, infrastructures, as well as identifying areas prone to landslides and other risks.


In addition to mapping the physical world, communities can also be guided to create maps of the intangible. Mapping exercises can document memories, culture, and knowledge in a visual exercise. With guided dialogue, community maps can provide a platform to talk about the future of a community.



Citizen observatories have become a popular method for the scientific community to cost-effectively monitor distributions and trends of flora and fauna across large regions. This method is based on volunteers being attentive to their surroundings and registering the location and moment they see the subject species. This helps scientists study the location and the concentration of a specific species over time.


Three types of data are essential for any observatory: Location data used to understand where populations are located, photographs as evidence of the sighting, and date and time.


More recently, the observatory methodology has been adopted by other disciplines such as art and design to study design trends across time and space.



A Mapathon is a massive data collection project that leverages the power of the crowd with new mapping tools to create open databases of powerful information. These types of projects are often related to understanding complex systems such as informal transportation networks and to improve the quality of life in rapidly changing urban environments.


Mapathons are essentially localized crowdsourcing exercises where each volunteered data point is one piece of the puzzle. In order to encourage participation, prizes are often offered to the volunteers.

Citizens + Data = CHANGE

If you find yourself needing geospatial data that is openly observable to the community, a VGI map might be right for you. As this article points out there are a number of ways to structure a community mapping project and all can generate powerful maps and datasets. Feel free to reach out if you are interested in discussing how to create powerful maps with the support of your community. We are here to help.


Goodchild, M. (2007). Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography. GeoJournal, 69, 211-221.Elwood, S. (2008). Volunteered geographic information: future research directions motivated by critical, participatory, and feminist GIS. GeoJournal,72, 173-183.


Ana Maria Quiros
Ana Maria Quiros

An Open Data advocate with experience in data collection and business intelligence.