Building the GeoSpatial Web, Introduction

Ok, it's finally time for me to get to the whole reason I started this blog, which I thought I'd have done in the first month or two. The thing I'd like to examine is how architectures of participation can apply to geospatial. I started a journal paper when I was in Africa, with the help of Mike Gould and Andreas Wytzisk. Unfortunately it was far too speculative for academia, and we've had a hard time turning it in to a real journal article, with appropriate references for everything. I learned a lot from their help, but as I have no immediate plans to be an academic, and more just want to try to see the ideas come in to being, I decided it makes sense to just present what I came up with in a blog so it's out, so the things I thought about my year in Zambia don't just live in my head.

The subject of the paper was applying 'open source principles' to 'spatial data infrastructures'. I've since taken to terms that I like a bit better for each, which I've been using in this blog. Architectures of Participation I use for 'open source principles', so as to not confuse the issue as much (see my original post, linked above, for more). And I've found the term SDI too over-used so it now means too many different things to people. So I prefer 'GeoSpatial Web', which I believe would have the same end result that the SDI builders desire – just as the World Wide Web is the way of organizing and searching tons of text information without ever making people fill out metadata and put their data in catalogs.

There are four areas where I feel geospatial could benefit from increased architectures of participation. This should strike as a lot less radical than a couple years ago, as 'web 2.0' is on the cover of newsweek and geospatial leads the 'mash-up' charge (see for example, which at the time of the writing had 30% of mashups written with Google Maps (#1), plus 5% GeoNames, and 5% Yahoo Maps). But I believe that something much bigger could happen than a bunch of one off mashups. I believe that there is the potential for a true 'GeoSpatial Web', where geodata is so available and so rich that it becomes a texture, a foundation on top of which new services can be made. Just as the World Wide Web enables these geospatial mashups – one architecture of participation begets many more – so too will the geospatial web ultimately enable new layers of openness and collaboration. The things that jump to me are urban planning: open source traffic modeling, true citizen participation in planning – able to adjust simulation variables online, being able to walk by an empty lot and learn what's going to be built there next, and to use one's mobile phone to leave feedback on the plan. But I imagine it will mean different things to different domains, just the WWW has enabled connections that no one could anticipate. But the point is we won't just have mash-ups, instead we'll have mashups that talk to each other, that live as information in their own right, to be re-used and re-mashed, not merely the end combination of commercial APIs as they tend towards now.

The four areas where I initially see architectures of participation being applied are (in no particular order)

  • Metadata – creation and updating
  • Geospatial data – generation and maintenance
  • Software for geospatial (open source)
  • Distribution of data

If these four things come in to place, we will start to have holarchy of participation around geospatial data. I believe we will no longer talk about building 'spatial data infrastructures', but that things will just come together in an integrated web of information. It will no longer be a matter of paying people to learn how to fill out metadata and put their data online, but instead citizens will ask the question 'why isn't this data available?', just like we now wonder how companies and governments don't have a web presence. The SDI builders should focus on enabling bottom up participation, innovating to enable a new kind of infrastructure, instead of relying on past tech metaphors.

Over the next bunch of posts I hope to explore in depth what can be done in the geospatial domain to bring more participation. I believe that if done right it will enable what we dream of, and more.


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