Producing, not consuming, makes the GeoWeb go ’round.

Aaron on Streetsblog just passed me a link to post by Steven Johnson on what he calls ‘the pothole paradox‘. It’s a very nice introduction to GeoWeb ideas, and clearly explains to laypeople why geospatial metadata on everything could help. But for us working on building this open, interoperable GeoWeb it offers very little, except that their stovepipe system is going to attempt to solve it.

Why do I call outside.in a stovepipe? Because as it stands now it only sucks information in. He asserts that to be successful their system must be structured with two spatial properties:

1. Every single piece of data in the system has to be associated with some kind of machine-readable location, as precisely as possible.

2. Where appropriate, data should be associated with a human-readable place (a bar, school, playground, park, or even neighborhood.)

I would maintain that these are true for the broader GeoWeb, a system of systems. And I’m sure outside.in would love it if the entire web was structured that way, and they would be the one who aggregates the results. Unfortunately they are in a position to potentially do something about it, and as far as I can find they just want it all in their own system.

Why do I draw that conclusion? Mostly because there’s no way to access the geo information that their community is encoding. They have a number of easy options to tag location on blog posts, including the GeoRSS standard that many of us are promoting. And they let people submit non-located stories and easily add location. They are actively adding that meta geospatial data layer, and then keeping it all for themselves as far as I can tell. Why do I say that? Because as far as I can tell there’s no machine readable output of the geospatial locations that they’re adding. If I subscribe to a feed of stories about Brooklyn then there’s no GeoRSS tags. Which means that if I want to make a service that mashes up the geotagged stories from outside.in I have to rewrite all their mechanisms for getting that spatial information.

Yes, this is arguably their core ‘value add’, since they have the community that adds all the geospatial metadata. Outside.in thus would love it if the rest of the web had GeoRSS on everything, and then their users were the ones who got the additional information added to those that the authors did not tag. But if everyone thinks in this way then we’re basically stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma.

Thankfully the big players in the Geo Web have actually been getting out of this in the last couple years. Almost two years ago at a Location Intelligence conference GeoRSS was all the buzz. Microsoft and Yahoo! both announced they would support it, and there was a lot of pressure on Google to do so as well. But all seemed utterly unaware that the key is not to be able to read GeoRSS, it’s to output it by default whenever someone uses their API. Google wasn’t yet doing anything with GeoRSS, still trying to make KML the one true format, but they suffered from the same thing – if you used the Google Maps API it would not output any machine readable format, KML or otherwise.

At the time I stood up and asked the question, and it was weird how something so obvious to me was so hard to explain to them. They thought that just being able to read a standard was the most open thing they could do. But basically none of them were offering their information up to others to read. They all had users who were creating new geospatial information through their API’s, but it wasn’t contributing to ‘the’ GeoWeb, it was just making their own little web better. Each seemed to want to ‘own’ the web, which would constrain it to a bunch of competing projects, instead of a new public infrastructure like the internet. The latter web is the one they all wanted, and why they’re investing so hugely, but none wanted to blink, to be the one to cooperate since the other might defect.

Thankfully the past couple years have seen some great progress on this. I wrote about Google’s progress after Where 2.0, which is impressive as they are the ones in the lead. Microsoft has arguably done even more, they were the first to take up my call to produce GeoRSS from their native ‘Collections’ API. They’ve also launched the ability to search KML (and GeoRSS I think/hope?) and easily import KML, now that it is becoming an open standard. This might be surprising to some, but one should remember that those who are behind always rush to standards. Microsoft IE3 actually was the first full commercial implementation of CSS2. We’ve seen a parallel in the geospatial world, with ESRI talking much more about standards, getting their services to implement OGC standards for real, instead of just paying lip service. It looks like they are also embracing KML.

On Google’s side, their GeoSearch is now crawling GeoRSS, which is great (and would be able to crawl outside.in’s aggregrated feeds if they published them). Unfortunately looking just now it appears that their push to get people to make their Google Maps using KML or GeoRSS is no longer a priority. For awhile they were pushing this in their talks, like at the last Google Dev Day. It makes a ton of sense that it’s in their interest to, since more data produced that way means more data for their GeoSearch. But the documents appear to barely mention it. On the other hand MyMaps has everything that users create as KML, and that is arguably more important because presumably people who just need to throw up some points and lines will use that. The more complicated uses of the Maps API would need more than KML or GeoRSS anyways. MyMaps could of course be more open, if it were to produce GeoRSS as well. Yahoo!’s apis seem to have made no progress towards producing GeoRSS, which is unfortunate as they were the first to support reading it.

Ok, this is longer than I had intended (but that’s why I have a blog, so I don’t have to feel bad about writing too much, dammit!).  But I hope that outside.in starts producing machine readable feeds of the awesome geospatial tags their community is gather, to help lead the growth of the geospatial web instead of just waiting to capture the hyperlocal part of it for their own sandbox.  For the GeoWeb to truly succeed we’re going to need a huge number of organizations taking that leap towards cooperation over ownership.  Thankfully the big guys seem to be providing decent leadership, I’d give them a solid ‘B’ on their progress the last few months (though Microsoft might even deserve an A).

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