Volunteered Geographic Information

Volunteered Geographic Information

CIPPIC is grateful to the GEOIDE Network (Network of Centres of Excellence program) for financial support for its work on legal issues associated with volunteered geographic information.


OpenStreetMap, a global "wikipedia of maps", demonstrates that volunteer collaborations are a force to be reckoned with in the geography world. Increasingly, crowd-sourced Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) projects are addressing mapping needs in crisis situations. The 2010 Haitian earthquakes provoked a blossoming of such initiatives, with a mileau of volunteer mapping efforts put forth to assist with relief efforts. Similar mapping efforts are now cropping up to assist in the context of forest fires, floods, hurricanes and other disasters.

Whether you are contributing to VGI or relying upon the information, there are some key legal issues and potential legal risks that arise in this exciting new mapping environment.



What is VGI?

The term “Volunteered Geographic Information” (VGI) refers to maps created through the efforts of volunteers who collect and submit geographic data. For example, drivers and pedestrians might report road closures and accidents as they encounter them, developing a continuously-updated map of passable roads.  Unlike a traditional mapping process, VGI “crowd-sources” the mapping work to volunteers rather than professional geographers surveying and creating the map. VGI can allow organizations to quickly and inexpensively create maps, albeit often with a trade-off in accuracy.

How is VGI Used?

VGI allows organizations and individuals to create new maps and improve existing ones, leveraging the information that volunteers collect and submit. Often, mappers in the VGI context obtain a base map layer from OpenStreetMap or Google Maps, then add data and points of interest on top (and OpenStreetMap is actually itself a VGI project). These maps can help identify disaster areas such as forest fires, help locate missing people in times of crises, or help provide warnings of many different types of dangers.

Online communities can also use VGI to create specialized maps geared towards particular audiences. For example, these maps might show the best bird-watching spots or highlight a collection of favourite restaurants.

Reliability of VGI

Is it safe to rely on information from a VGI website?

Whether you can safely rely on VGI depends on how you plan to use the information. Overall, you should keep in mind that many of the volunteer contributors involved in creating a VGI map have no specialized expertise or training. Mistakes and inaccuracies are likely.

VGI is also a new phenomenon. Some of the supporting website services, data analytics software, and data verification technologies are therefore in their infancy. Data collection processes also vary from website to website. Some VGI services moderate and verify the submissions of volunteers, while others immediately put all information onto the live website. Again, errors and inaccuracies are to be expected.

You need to use your best judgement to assess any VGI-based website on a case-by-case basis. In general, you should try to only rely on VGI as a supplementary source of information – especially where the accuracy of your information is critical or where it feeds into important decisions.

Is the accuracy of information on a VGI website crucial?

In many cases, accuracy of the information on a VGI website is important. Although no one is likely to suffer injury from an inaccurate map of bird-watching locations, VGI is increasingly used in disaster-relief scenarios.

Although fully relying upon a VGI map may not be a prudent course of action, the wide public availability of VGI information means that some people will inevitably rely on this information. For example, persons in the vicinity of a forest fire might use the information to decide whether or not to evacuate their homes. The forest fighters combating the fire might use VGI to help identify its location. If the given location of the fire is wrong, the fire fighters could be delayed from responding to an actual fire. If a VGI map fails to identify a forest fire altogether, this could lead fire fighters to not even respond.

Thus, especially where disaster responders use VGI, inaccurate information can certainly lead to wasted resources, damage to property, and even physical injury.

Do VGI websites have a legal obligation to provide accurate information?

At present, there are no laws in Canada setting out any specific obligations for VGI service providers. However, the general legal obligations that all persons must follow still apply. Foremost, all VGI service providers must ensure that they do not engage in any “negligent” behaviour. Where a VGI service provider is negligent and this leads to injury, those responsible could face legal liability for any harm done, depending on the particular circumstances. Please see When would a VGI website be liable in negligence for inaccurate information?, for further details on the law of negligence in this context.

Do a VGI website  have a legal obligation to verify or moderate the information submitted?

A court could expect a website to make a reasonable effort to verify the data posted on the site. Ensuring that all information on the site is 100% accurate might not be possible, especially in the time-sensitive context of disaster-relief; however, a court may still expect a website to make a reasonable effort both to moderate the information and warn users of potential gaps in the accuracy of the information provided.

The standard required for moderating submissions and ensuring accuracy will vary depending on the particular risks posed by inaccurate or unverified information on the website. A court will consider these contextual factors under the “standard of care” stage of a negligence analysis, discussed below under When would a VGI website be liable in negligence for inaccurate information?.

When would a VGI website be liable in negligence for inaccurate information?

The law of negligence for websites publicly providing information is not a well-developed area of the law. The extent of a website's duties are not clearly defined or known. However, under Canadian common law, there are several key criteria that must usually be met in order for an injured person to successfully establish a claim in negligence:

  • A duty of care;
  • A breach of the appropriate standard of care; and
  • A causal link between a negligent act and the injury suffered.
Duty of Ca​re

For a court to find a “duty of care”, there must exist a relationship of proximity between the website providers and the end user. That is, the relationship between the VGI service provider and the website visitor must be of such a nature that it is only reasonable for the service provider to keep the end user in mind and attempt to prevent injury to him or her.

Many factors arise in a court's contemplation of this “duty of care”.  A court might look at whether the website targets a specific class of users, whether it presents itself as a professional and authoritative source of information, whether there is any membership fee, and whether any contractual relationship exists (such as through a “Terms of Use”). The type of injury is also an important factor: courts are much more reticent to recognize a duty of care for economic losses.

A court would also consider matters of public policy. For instance, a court might not want to hinder innovation in the developing field of VGI, nor extend the liability of a website provider to a broad and indeterminate number of users.

Given that there have been no decided cases on VGI negligence in Canada, it is not clear at this point in time which of these factors a court would weigh most strongly. The prudent course for a VGI website is to assume that a court might find a duty of care, and act to an appropriate standard of care, as discussed below. For liability in Quebec, also note that courts do not directly look for a “duty of care”, but rather consider many of these same factors at other stages of the analysis.

Standard of care

The standard of care is the minimum standard of behaviour to which a person must act in order to avoid liability. To determine the standard that a VGI website should follow in providing accurate information, a court will most likely consider what a “reasonable person” would do in the circumstances.

This standard will vary widely depending on the particular circumstances Courts usually demand a higher standard of care in situations that are considered “dangerous”. Thus, a higher standard of care will be expected of a VGI website aimed at helping people make decisions in a disaster relief context, as opposed to a website aggregating restaurant locations.

Courts will also consider standard industry practices; therefore, to meet the requisite standard of care, websites should, at the very least, attempt to follow the common practices of other websites with respect to moderating and verifying user inputs.

Causal Link

To establish negligence, a court must also find that the injury suffered was caused by negligence on the part of the VGI website. The general test here is that the injury would not have occurred “but for” the VGI website's negligence. Additionally, the particular type of injury suffered must not have “too remote” of a connection with the VGI websites actions.

Other Legal Tests

Although these factors always guide a court's analysis in negligence cases, more specific legal tests may apply. Courts have specialized ways of analyzing product defects, negligent performances of services, and negligent misrepresentations of information. It is difficult to identify whether a VGI website is a product, service, or information: therefore, any of these specialized tests could potentially apply.

The VGI website states that it is not liable for any injuries. Does this discharge them of legal responsibility?

Yes, in most cases a disclaimer will discharge the website of legal responsibility for many injuries to the user. A prominent “terms of use” on a website most often constitutes a contract between you and the website provider. By using the website, you agree to be bound by these terms. Where the terms include a clear and specific disclaimer, or a statement that you must not rely on the information, the legal remedies available to you in the case of injury will be much more limited.

However, a website cannot rid itself of all legal responsibility through such a disclaimer. For example, where the information on the website is passed on to others, these third parties have not agreed to the website terms of use. The disclaimer will not apply. Where the disclaimer is unclear, unspecific, or “unconscionably”, it may also not apply.

How should a VGI website limit its risk of liability?

Due to the high stakes of some VGI information, such as in disaster relief, a VGI website should be very careful in producing and presenting information online. Especially in high-risk contexts, the website providers must take reasonable steps to moderate and verify the accuracy of the information posted. This need not be an overly onerous task: in some cases, volunteer moderators verifying each other's information will be sufficient.

VGI websites should also make sure that their software is running smoothly, and that the visual designs of the sites are clear and informative. The site should also offer ways to let the user judge the fitness of the data themselves.

Of course, clear information is also important. All VGI websites should clearly and prominently warn the users as to potential inaccuracies and dangers associated with relying on the information presented.

What should I do if I notice inaccurate information of a VGI site?

VGI depends on the efforts of individual volunteers to create, improve, correct and continually update the map data. If you notice an error in the data, you should attempt to follow the user guides on the website explaining how you can participate and correct the error. You may also wish to contact the site administrator or other community members to ensure that the error is corrected.

Participating in VGI

Do I need to worry about legal liability for my participation as a volunteer data collector?

No, in most cases individual volunteers will not face legal liability for errors or inaccuracies that arise out of their participation on a VGI map. Even if you make an innocent mistake in submitting information, a court will not likely to find you legally negligent nor order you to pay damages for someone else's injuries.

First of all, in considering any negligent behaviour, a court is unlikely to find a “duty of care” in these circumstances. The “duty of care” refers to the closeness of the relationship between a person injured and a person who is allegedly negligent. In the case of one user submitting VGI to a website and another user viewing the map, the relationship is not particularly close. As discussed under When would a VGI website be liable in negligence for inaccurate information?, a duty of care is even tenuous in the context of the relationship between a VGI website itself and an injured user. The relationship between two different users is even less proximate.

Second, a court is not likely to expect a very high standard of care from a lay individual contributor. In the context of most VGI sites, it is expected that many contributors will not have any specialized training or expertise in mapping or geography. Certainly, contributors should exercise the diligence of any reasonable person in making submissions; however, an untrained volunteer is likely to make mistakes and errors.

Thus, liability is unlikely for an innocent mistake. Note, however, that any contractual agreement that a user makes with a VGI website could change this low likelihood and greatly increase the chances of liability – see below, Do the terms of use on a VGI website affect my potential liability for submitting data?.

Users should also be aware the legal context is different for those who wilfully or maliciously submit incorrect information. It goes without saying that this is never a good idea. Such users may face liability under the “tort of deceit”.

Do the terms of use on a VGI website affect my potential liability for submitting data?

Yes, users submitting data a VGI website should watch-out for two clauses in a VGI website's terms of use which could greatly increase their potential liability.

First, you should carefully read the terms of use and ensure that they do not require you to provide any type of warranty of guarantee that the data you submit is correct or accurate. If you do provide a warranty, the VGI website itself could hold you legally responsible for any errors.

Second, you should ensure that the terms of use do not ask you to in any way “indemnify” the website. Such a clause could require you to defend the VGI website against lawsuits from other parties – and, importantly, you could even have to pay damages that the court might award against the VGI website!

Should I submit data even if I’m not 100% sure if it’s accurate?

Ideally, you will want to be sure that the data that you submit is accurate. This helps ensure a high-quality map for all users of the system. First-hand knowledge is always better than information you heard from a friend! Of course, this does not mean you have to rush into a blazing fire to be sure it exists; a reasonable belief is usually sufficient.

You should always review a VGI website's instructions for submissions and moderation. Some websites allow users to add additional details. For example, if you notice smoke coming out of a forest, you could submit that fact instead of stating there is a forest fire.


General Infor​mation:
Platform building websites:
  • Open Street Map, is a free world-wide map where users can edit and build on existing maps.
  • Crowd Map, allows you to collect information from cell phones, news and the web, aggregate that information into a single platform and visualize it on a map and timeline.
  • Google Map Maker, enables users to update Google Maps with the user’s local knowledge.
Disaster Relief:
  • Bushfire Connect, a site which aims to empower citizens to report on bushfire situations.
  • Ushahidi, a platform for crowdsourcing information that has already been used in various situations for crisis mapping.
Court Decisions:
Academic sources:
  • Bayus v Coquitlum, [1993] BCJ No 1751. Courts state that the city is negligent in not having up-to-date maps.
  • Rosenberg v. Harwood, (2011), Case No 100916536, Utah Dist Ct, Central Div. Courts state that the service provider does not owe a duty of care to users of the map.
  • Jennifer A Chandler & Katherine Levitt, “Spatial Data Quality: The Duty to Warn Users of Risks Associated with Using Spatial Data” (2011) 49 Alberta Law Review 79.
  • Ian J Duncan, “Negligence and Professional Malpractice Related to GIS Datasets” (Paper delivered at USGS Digital Mapping Techniques ’03 – Workshop Proceedings, 2012).
  • Marc Gervais, “On the Importance of External Data Quality in Civil Law”, Fundamentals of Spatial Data Quality, eds. Rodolpe Devillers and Robert Jeansoulin (London: ISTE Ldt. 2005).
  • Michael F Goodchild, “Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography” (2007) 69 Geojournal 211.
  • J.L. Phillips, Information Liability: the Possible Chilling Effect of Tort Claims against Producers of Geographic Information Systems Data, http://www.law.fsu.edu/journals/lawreview/downloads/263.phil.pdf
  • Andriy Rak et al, “Legal Liability Concerns Surrounding Volunteered Geographic Information Applicable to Canada” (Paper delivered at the GSDI World Conference, 2012). https://www.zotero.org/almccon/items/F8T8MDZ7
  • Kerrin Stewart, George Cho and Eugene Clark, “Geographical Information Systems and Legal Liability”. 8 JL & Inf Sci 84 (1997).
  • Albert Yeung & G Hall, “User Education and Legal Issues of Spatial Database Systems” (2007) 87 GeoJournal 219.
  • Matthew Zook et al, “Volunteered Geographic Information and Crowdsourcing Disaster Relief: a Case study of the Haitian Earthquake” (2010) 2 World Health & Medical Policy 7.