Location Matters

So I came into Geographical Information Systems (GIS), in a rather backwards way. I started working for the The Open Planning Project (TOPP), based on three (four) words in the job posting: ‘open source’, ‘non-profit’, and ‘java’. The first two for their deeper importance to me, the latter because the word was on my resume. The fact that it was a GIS server was of practically no importance to me, and that it was urban planning related was just a nice little bonus.

I programmed away, happily releasing all my code as open source. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized how important the stuff could be. I had vague hints, but it really all crystallized on reading the headmap manifesto. Which everyone should read, it’s absolutely incredible, and has implications far beyond location. Interestingly the last year or so has seen mapping explode into the mainstream, and I believe we’re only starting to see its importance.

The big thing for me, however, does not involve targeting advertising and search (uh, duh). It’s the potential of location to bring the internet out of the virtual and into reality. The reason for my hope in technology is in its ability to bring people together, and by combining awareness of location with the interconnection that the Internet has brought us, there’s a huge potential for something incredible.

The Internet has been amazing in its ability to connect people in distant places over things they have in common. From its earliest days, with bbs communities forming around interests, right up to social networks and blogospheres, the net has been about bringing people together. But the logical extension of this is that we spend all our days plugged in, starting at computer screens. I fear that mediated interactions online start to replace the real stuff of human contact. There is something about being able to talk to someone in person that no amount of email, instant messaging and online game playing can begin to touch. There can only be but a partial view online, as people consciously or unconsciously represent themselves as other than they are. This can be liberating, but I feel it is ultimately self defeating – instead of encouraging us to develop our selves more fully, it can encourage further retreat and covering up of the parts that need the most work. By far the most satisfying online communities that I’ve been a part of have been based in physical connection, and online interaction allows us to extend and further the basis created in person. But there’s no way I’d let anyone into that online community who I hadn’t met and shared a beer and a long conversation with.

So for me the big potential of location is to bring us closer together. To allow these online communities to grow legs and exist in reality. Online social networks are nice, but the majority of people stick with them for all of two weeks, before losing interest. Meanwhile our real social networks can last a lifetime. What I’d like to be able to do is to walk to central park with a frisbee, turn on my location aware pda, and be informed that a friend of Ank’s is reading near the great lawn and could be convinced to play. If I have an interest in writing Situationist cookbooks, then by god I want to know anytime I’m walking down the street or in a cafe if someone else is also interesting in such things. I’d like to be able to walk down the street of a new city, and get recommendations on restaurants that are within 5 blocks, from a network of trusted people.

I want location technology to help turn chance encounters into more lasting connections. I’d like it to help people get past our protective exteriors, to figure out what we do have in common. I’d like online meetings to lead to physical meetings, and I’d like the virtual connections to start to change our physical world. This is starting to emerge, as activists use meet-up, text messages, blogs and email lists to effect action in the real world. I think it’s only going to grow as our location technology gets better, as people gain the ability to leave their own virtual touches on the geography, for as specific or as wide an audience as they choose. See the headmap manifesto for an amazingly rich treatment of the ideas just alluded to here.

The second reason I am excited about location and mapping is the inherent power contained in maps, and exploring how to give everyone the ability to make their own maps. Maps present themselves as objective reality, yet every single map contains a huge number of biases. They flatten the world (literally) to a single representation. Maps are used like statistics, as a seemingly objective reality that can be twisted to further one’s ends. A simple example of this is the use of mapping projections. A projection is the way in which the 3d globe is representing in two dimensions. Map makers have a number they can use, which will all give the land viewed at least a slightly different appearance. During the cold war all maps from the US would use a projection that greatly increased the size of land closer to the poles, especially the north pole. This gave the Soviet Union the appearance of looming over and threatening the whole world. And it would generally be drawn in an aggressive color, like red. One could not help looking at a map of the world and thinking at some level about how the USSR was out to take over everything.

I’d like to bring people the ability to remix the ‘official’ maps, to color them and project them to their own purposes, to exploit the assumptions inscribed by dominant elites. And beyond that, I’d like to enable a new form of maps, that draw on the wealth of individual human experiences, instead of flattening it all into an official story. No, I’m not some post-modern extremist who believes everything is completely relative. There should be base maps that we all agree upon. But on top of that creativity in how we represent and interpret the world should flow. If one looks at maps from medieval times, they are covered with subjective experiences, of how an individual saw the world. They make no sense from a linear rational perspective, they work poorly for figuring out an objective path, but they closely connect you with how the mapmaker saw the world. I’d like maps where we are aware of the map maker’s finger prints, and celebrate the uniqueness of those fingerprints, and what they say about the world and the time.

The final reason one could term environmental. This is the least thought out for me, but something I hope to explore more in the future. But we as a human race need to figure out how to manage our resources. I admit it, I am scared by this talk of peak oil, and that we could be plunged into an era of war and scarcity. Our planet has more than enough resources to support us, we just need to figure out how to use and manage them correctly. It is only collectively that we will achieve this, and I believe maps and earth imagery hold a key to allowing us to understand the global impact of what we do. If we just take a short sighted view and follow our leaders into wars and conflicts, if we just use maps to figure out how to bomb people, then I fear for our future as a race. If we can easily find diverse sources of spatial information, combine it in various ways, and run models and simulations that can in turn be shared with others, in short if we take an open source approach to resource management and planning our future, then we’re starting in the right direction.

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10 thoughts on “Location Matters

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  2. Trackback is a wonderful thing – but it seems to have missed much of the formatting. And I have to remember to finish editing my posts before hitting “publish”. Anyways, thanks for the insight!

  3. “The reason for my hope in technology is in its ability to bring people together”. I’m doing some pretty boring digitizing work those days the only benefit of which is to allow me to put my headset on and listen to podcasts or radio over the web. I’ve downloaded a bunch of conferences from the FSF site at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/audio/audio.html. I listened to 3 or 4 of Richard Stallman’s recent conferences, which are quite entertaining and challenging, but I’m currently listening to “Bradley M. Kuhn’s speech, Software Freedom and the GNU Generation” who talks about how he got into computing, namely to make it esier for people to use computers. The sense fo community and sharing that transpires from the talks on the FSF site are quite in synch with your thoughts and motives. I find it interesting to realize that people that find themselves in the free software world are usually there as a result of a relatively well thought out (usually long!) reflexion process that involves concepts like community, democracy, fairness, openness.

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