So if by Weber’s criteria geospatial data has a high chance for a true architecture of participation to form around, then why don’t we see more collaboratively built maps? Why do governments and commercial ventures dominate the landscape of geospatial data? Though there are several emerging examples, shouldn’t they be a bigger deal?
As I posit that a successful architecture of participation is made up of both a social component and a technical component, let’s examine the hold ups in each.
On the social side of the fence I believe the problem is mostly historical. Maps have traditionally been viewed as a source of power, something to be kept secret. King Phillip II of Spain kept his maps under lock and key – state secrets to be protected. Maps are historically the tools of conquerors and rulers, and thus kept private to retain an advantage. Though maps obviously have a huge value for a large number of civil society uses, there seems to be a legacy of maps as a competitive advantage instead of a base of cooperation. The workflows for the creation of maps thus aren’t seen as having the potential for wider contributions, for opening themselves up.
In contrast the tradition with software is one of sharing. Indeed it wasn’t until the late 1970s before anyone even thought of software as something to keep protected, to attempt to sell . Software’s roots are academic and hobbyist – two groups for whom sharing is natural. Contributing to the sharing ethos is the fact that in the early days there were so many different chips and computers that the only way one could distribute a piece of software to more than one brand of computer was to include the source code. Binary distributions just weren’t a viable option if you wanted many people to make use of your software.
In the early 80s, however, computer manufacturers started providing their own operating systems and requiring license agreements to use them. Indeed Microsoft got their first big break by re-selling an operating system to IBM. This was a huge boon for computer software in general, as it enabled more people to work on software for a living, as software itself was seen to have value. But the sharing roots of software could not be denied, as Richard Stallman soon formed the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation to counter the commodification of software and to create open structures of sharing.
While the Free and Open Source Software movement has grown to become a huge success, mapping data, with no tradition of sharing, has become increasingly locked down, commodified, and managed by a bureaucratic-informational complex. The sharing is weighted by the legacy of paper maps, which could not be copied infinitely, and searching for mapping data is similarly bogged in library metaphors. While software just needed to get back to its roots to share, geospatial information has no similar roots. Not surprisingly, the fore front of the fledgling open geodata movement is dominated by people with roots in software, not traditional GIS types.
As for the technical side of the fence, the main problem as I see it is that the software to create maps and do GIS is bloody expensive. Desktop software runs thousands of dollars, up to tens of thousands of dollars. There have emerged some low cost options, but those still run at least a couple of hundred dollars. Server software is even more expensive. Additionally there are also training costs – super expensive software seems to beg ‘training’ to justify itself by forming an ‘elect’ of those who are able to operate it. If it’s hard enough to operate that someone needs to be specially trained then it must be worth all that money (see for example oracle vs. postgres, the latter is almost as powerful, yet far, far easier to set up). Past that there is surveying equipment and GPSes, which have been quite expensive.
So in the past, the tools to create maps were too expensive. But this is changing. Commercial GPSes are quite cheap, and open source GIS software is emerging. Of course the technical in turn feeds back in to the social – I don’t believe that if existing GIS software were suddenly freely available it would be sufficient to spark a true architecture of participation around geospatial data. It is still too tied to a culture of the GIS elect – GIS as a special skill that must be learned, that only few have. While the first wave of open source desktop GIS are only aping the traditional tools, the great thing is that they are open, and for the most part designed in a modular fashion. I’ll try to hit on this more in a future post, but I believe that these OS desktop GIS tools will be reused to open the way to specialized tools that allow most anyone to create geospatial data. They may not be recognized as ‘real’ GIS, indeed I think the ‘elect’ will try hard to defend their position, but they will be the key to making true architectures of participation around geospatial data.
So the seeds of change are there, and indeed projects like geonames, wikimapia, openstreetmap, wifimaps, plus all the KML layers available, are already showing results. I believe right now we’re in a time like Free Software before Linux. Building some small scale stuff, some of which will have value. But we’ve not yet hit on the appropriate social and technical architectures to make a huge success like Linux. Until then we’ve just got to keep experimenting, and even after that I’m sure more experimentation will take place, and it will be different for every project, just like we’ve learned much from Linus’s social innovations, yet no project functions exactly like it. But we will gather a suite of tools and social structures to allow replicable success in collaborative mapping, and before long it will snowball into something far bigger than most can imagine.