Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-7635

Article | Open Access

The V in VGI: Citizens or Civic Data Sources

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Abstract:  Volunteered geographic information (VGI), delivered via mobile and web apps, offers new potentials for civic engagement. If framed in the context of open, transparent and accountable governance then presumably VGI should advance dialogue and consultation between citizen and government. If governments perceive citizens as consumers of services then arguably such democratic intent elide when municipalities use VGI. Our empirical research shows how assumptions embedded in VGI drive the interaction between citizens and government. We created a typology that operationalises VGI as a potential act of citizenship and an instance of consumption. We then selected civic apps from Canadian cities that appeared to invoke these VGI types. We conducted interviews with developers of the apps; they were from government, private sector, and civil society. Results from qualitative semi-structured interviews indicate a blurring of consumer and citizen-centric orientations among respondents, which depended on motivations for data use, engagement and communication objectives, and sector of the respondent. Citizen engagement, an analogue for citizenship, was interpreted multiple ways. Overall, we found that government and developers may increase choice by creating consumer-friendly apps but this does not ensure VGI offers an act of civic participation. The burden is placed on the contributor to make it so. Apps and VGI could potentially further a data-driven and neoliberal government. Planners should be mindful of the dominance of a consumer-centric view even as they assume VGI invariably improves democratic participation.

Keywords:  Canada; citizen engagement; consumer; democracy; governance; government; municipal; open data; participation; volunteer



© Suthee Sangiambut, Renee Sieber. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.