Vernacular Place Names by OS and UK Coastguard

Interaction type

Government → Public → Government

Trigger Event

Increasing recognition of the use of vernacular place names and their importance to emergency services.

Domain

Emergency operations such as search and rescue.

Organisation

Ordnance Survey GB & the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency

Actors

1. Ordnance Survey (research staff, data capture staff)

2. Coastguard (Coastguards)

3. Volunteer coastguards

4. General public

Data sets in use

1. Topographic mapping provided to the Coastguard to enable the recording of Place names.  This ranged from 1:250k mapping to 1:1250 scale through 1:100k, 1:25K and 1:10k.

2. Address and place names gazetteers contain current known place names.

Process

An application was developed by Ordnance Survey to enable the Coastguard and their volunteers to enter, locate and classify vernacular place names.

Ordnance Survey then assessed the quality of the data.

Feedback

The immediate result has been to obtain many new vernacular place names that are assessed and quality controlled by Ordnance Survey.

Goal

1. Improving the ability of the Coastguard to locate people when contacted in emergency situations

2. Improving Ordnance Survey’s database of place names for use in new and existing products.

Side effects

Tensions in areas where English is not the first language – some groups are unwilling to report names that are English even those these can be shown to be in common usage even by locals.

Contact Point

Glen Hart (glen [dot] hart [at] ordnancesurvey [dot] co [dot] uk)

Two of the most prominent UK governmental agencies, the HM Coastguard of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), responsible for the initiation and coordination of all civilian maritime search and rescue operations within the UK and Ordnance Survey (OS), Great Britain’s national mapping agency, have joined forces to create an up-to-dated dataset of vernacular place names. Vernacular place names are those place names that are in common usage irrespective of whether they are official names or not.

There has been an increasing recognition by OS for capturing richer and more detail vernacular place names. At the same time, the UK Coastguard where in the process of closing approximately half of their Coastguard centres and recognised that there was a day that a lot of local knowledge could be lost. In that context, both sides recognised the mutual benefit of capture vernacular coastal place names using the knowledge by the coastguards (professional crowdsourcing) and that knowledge held in the heads of local coastguard volunteers (these are local people that can assist in certain coastguard operations).

An updated database of vernacular place names is a priceless apparatus when it comes to providing swift response to life-threatening situations. One of the most important parts of the response process is to understand the position of the person in difficulty and many times official mapping products might not provide all the necessary information needed. It is very common that people in need, in order to identify their location, will use local names that do not exist in official gazetteers.

The solution to this challenge was FINTAN an Ordnance Survey application that enables the crowdsourcing of vernacular local names of coastal areas. FINTAN includes topographic mapping provided to the Coastguard to enable the recording of place names. This ranged from 1:250k mapping to 1:1250 scale through 1:100k, 1:25K and 1:10k. Additionally, address and place names gazetteers containing current known place names have been used. Special care has been taken in FINTAN to allow other emergency services that use different reference systems to work to a common geography and terminology.

Through FINTAN the HM Coastguard and their volunteers are enabled to enter, locate and classify vernacular place names of features such as beaches or rocks so to update the existing database.

The effort has been an excellent cooperation paradigm between two government agencies and a group of volunteers from the general public which reflects a general interest in place names and their continued use. An immediate result was to obtain many new vernacular place names that are assessed and quality controlled by Ordnance Survey. The results so far show that the quality of the data has been to a very high standard. Moreover, both agencies have achieved their goals: HM Coastguard has improved its ability to locate people when contacted in emergency situations and OS improved its database of place names for use in new and existing products.

What made this work were groups that shared a common interest and all benefited from the additional data collected.  It also engaged a group that probably would not otherwise have engaged in such an activity and was done through coastguards speaking with their local volunteers and then entering the results. An interesting point is that this level of personal contact would not be possible if the whole of the general public were invited to contribute. Another, equally interesting, point is that the use OSM datasets has been avoided as it is rather poor at collecting place names whereas the volunteers had a clear interest in this.

On the negative side, tensions in areas where English is not the first language have been observed as some groups are unwilling to report names that are English even these can be shown to be in common usage even by locals.

Main lessons:

  • Crowdsourcing can prove to be a valuable tool when it comes to existing knowledge preservation.

  • Professional Crowdsourcing might be equally or even more productive compared to the general crowdsourcing practices when it comes to collecting data for specific areas or subjects.

  • Local and regional interests and perceptions might introduce biases to the data collected.

  • Such data flow (i.e. from OS to HM Coastguard and the volunteers and back to OS) can be a win-win situation for all involved parties as well as the general public. It is a clear case where the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

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