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The emergence of the geospatial Web

January 22, 2009

Introduction to the Second Inclusiva-net Meeting
“Digital networks and physical space”
Medialab-Prado, Madrid (Spain) 2008

by Juan Martín Prada
via iDC – mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity

In contrast to the widely held supposition that telecommunications networks make no territorial distinctions, political power systems today are responding worldwide by strengthening geographical ties to their decisions, through new divisionary tactics, territorial separations, and barriers to prevent people from moving. Migration is becoming increasingly difficult, almost always subject to illegality and suspicion. Tactics continue to focus on localization and using borders for political ends. To inhabit still means to inhabit a specific place in the economic and political hierarchy. In the last few years it has become evident that the Internet is not a system that truly transcends borders. Instead, territorial limits have a strong influence on it. Clearly, equal access to the Internet is not available in all parts of the world. In addition to radically different speeds, possibilities and costs of connecting to the Web in different places, political factors may also limit free speech (e.g., in some countries, many bloggers are tried and sentenced) and access to certain information (results vary among countries for certain key words on the most popular Internet search engines, and there are even places where no results whatsoever are shown in searches for terms of a delicate nature).

This turn toward physical space is intensified today by the enormous development of new technological applications for everyday use that highlight the relation between information and place. Several years ago, portable communication systems, such as mobile telephones or electronic diaries, began to include visual tools like photographic or video cameras; today, many come equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) (1) devices that provide geotag coordinates, as well as all kinds of applications designed to manage geographically contextualized information. Large telecommunications companies have realized that, to offer efficient service, users spatial location is of tremendous significance. Information technology media have become so portable that the desktop phase when users accessed information through home or office computers has become a thing of the past. Digital information now finds users wherever they are, in a variety of settings and times. That is why huge possibilities for new business developments are opening up in location-based services, which provide specifically territorialized (2) information, such as geographically contextualized advertising or the location of nearby services like restaurants, shops, etc. Therefore, the advertising directed at us will soon be related exclusively to the place where we are or where we live, and we may even have to get used to the daily presence of locative spam.

Networks increasingly function through the confluence of principles of synchronicity in time and coincidence in space. In the field of technology today, we are experiencing an intense relationship between calendar and cardinal points. All the tools and applications on the Web currently are quickly adapting this link to physical space, the place and the territory (3). The growing interest in geotagged information is strongly reinforced by a rising public awareness of environmental data like pollution or climate change effects, as well as by new needs for information linked to physical spaces such as the traceability of consumer goods, that is, tracking the location and geographic route of a product throughout its production, manipulation and sale.

Great progress has occurred in Web applications related to the field of geographic information systems (GIS), that is, those designed to manage geographically referenced information, which usually function as databases generally associated with digital maps. The boom in services like MapQuest or Google Maps, or the acquisitions by large Internet companies of Keyhole, GeoTango and Vexcel are proof of users growing interest in geographic data and information and spatial navigation. Among all the geobrowsers (applications for consulting geospatial data and managing geolocalized information), some of them, such as NASA World Wind, Google Earth or Microsoft Live Local 3D, have taken on great relevance and are used by a huge number of people, as well as the vast proliferation of blogs and websites related to these geobrowsers, e.g. Google Earth blog or Google Maps Mania.

Given that the majority of geobrowsing platforms offer APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) or XML scripting for carrying out services on their platforms, creating applications to generate geographic contents is a booming field today. A geospatial web can be said to exist now, made up of all these types of applications and geographic data management services (4). There is also a boom in the development of mapping tools based on open standards and open-data services such as Geonames, which consist of vast geographic databases available for download under Creative Commons licence that users can edit and expand using a wiki interface. There are certainly numerous communities for open source geosoftware and there are countless areas open for work: GMAP hackers, OpenMappers, MapServers, GPSmappers, GeoServers, RDF mappers, terrain mappers, geobloggers, etc. There are also companies like GeoCommons that enable anyone to generate maps that geographically represent the data that interest them, also using data contributed by many other users. Linking certain geographic points to the photos and videos taken there, historical data, and all types of personal comments and anecdotes has become an everyday practice among the multitude of users of social networks.

Therefore, geotagging activities are becoming more habitual on the Web, that is, assigning spatial coordinates to certain files, such as georeferencing photographs on platforms such as Flickr, Google Earth, etc. or assigning geographic identifiers to text files and even video and audio documents (geoparsing). Geo-referencing images is an activity already performed by photographic cameras that include GPS systems: the date, place, or type of event photographed are metadata included in the photographic document at the time it is created. There are even in-site applications such as GeoNotes that allow users to tag physical space, leaving notes in the places where they are located or reading the notes other users have left there.

The popularization of actions to annotate the planet is one of the most significant processes in the development of the second era of the Internet. The expression The Earth as universal desktop”(5) is even becoming popular. Geo-referencing practices understand geographic localization not only as a coordinate, a dot on a map, but also in relation to the experiences of the persons who were there. The result is generally the generation of open maps, a sort of update of maps showing points of interest. Actually, the Geo-spatial Web brings depth and richness back to geography after many years when the field provided merely cartographic, objective descriptions of places. The texts and other information added to satellite photographs of the territory inevitably invite comparisons with the plaques on buildings that mark where someone was born or died, just as the thumbtacks marking spots on geobrowsers bring to mind the flowers that relatives place periodically at the site of a car accident where they lost a family member.

All of this is accompanied by proposals that are the beginning of a phase in which the great communicative potentials of pervasive computing, or ubicomp, are evident, that is, of all those technologies that enable the management of digital information anywhere, as well as connections and interaction among different strata of spatially localized data.

Local Web 2.0”

The structure of participatory media contents based on spatial annotation point to interesting signs that practices which spatialize information hold intense socializing potential, given that they involve the development of reciprocal awareness between persons and their surroundings, often based on belonging to common spatial contexts. The Web has started to channel the collective desire to know more about the geographic spaces around us, the place where we live or that we pass through, as well as the persons who live or can be found around us. That desire has found one of its main sources of fulfilment in the participatory technologies of the social web, which provides the basis of what is called local Web 2.0. The significance of contextual knowledge is growing as the new connected society is constituted, as well as the possibilities opened up for developing a geographically localized collective memory (6).

The creation of these open maps includes geographic localization and its technologies in the life of the community that inhabits those spaces and places, and serves as a tool for activating specific types of communication and socialization in the community. Thus, many geobrowsers are designed specifically to create communities based on the physical proximity of their users, who share a common environment. Among the most interesting developments are the highly significant projects (7) based on local wireless networks managed by their users.

Actually, even in this new geographic phase of the Web, activated by new geolocalization technologies, we are experiencing the lasting devaluation of public physical space, the continuous de-urbanization of real space. It was thought that this would be offset by the increasing urbanization of the global and (falsely) trans-border space of the networks. In addition, as a particularly active part of the interweaving of digital production of sociality and coincidence in physical space, directly related to the live experience of a place, it is worth pointing out the rise of hyperlocal journalism, based on comments on news at the local community level, of interest precisely because of its ties to its users everyday environment. Closely related to this phenomenon, completely coinciding with it in the majority of cases, is place blogging, that is, the activity of blogs focused on events, news and people in a specific local area, such as a neighbourhood or small town. Several aggregators and search engines for place blogs have been put into operation, such as Outside.in, Place blogger and Peuplade. They are proof of a growing interest in exploring the socializing potentials inherent in the physical proximity of Web users and in the information generated and shared by persons who live in the same places.

There are many other emerging collective action practices, such as flash mobs, that consider their essential component or teleological culmination to be the congregation of persons in a particular place. This is yet another example of the increasingly forceful demand that the social should be built on the materiality of physical space, rather than being limited to the field of online interactions. Streets and squares should be reclaimed as communication media in and of themselves, reactivated as priority spaces for social interaction.

The set of artistic practices related to locative media (a term that can be defined as the representation and experience of a place through digital interfaces) can play an enormous role in the design of forms of social and political dissention, especially though the design of alternative forms of social and communicative interaction. The creative link between these new technologies and mass public protest events that began around the Reclaim the Streets movement are very promising. These critical practices are certainly the clearest reflections of the new tensions between the global and the local, the physical and the virtual.

Notes

(1) GPS (Global Positioning) System was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1973 and was used by the U.S. Department of Defence.
(2) See Malcolm McCullough On Urban Markup: Frames Of Reference in Location Models For Participatory Urbanism, [on line], Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol. 14, issue, 03, 2006, URL [Retrieved: 20 March 2008].
(3) For example, Twittervision, geo-localizes messages from Twitter, adding a significant spatial dimension to the synchronicity integral to this system and opening up a fascinating field of spatial and contextual
perceptions. Another example is the tool Google Trends, which identifies the source of searches by users of Google Search, showing through complex graphics how often a certain search is carried out in various regions of the world.
(4) Also noteworthy are weogeo, Everyscope, veloroutes, and Edushi. Edushi is focused on the three-dimensional construction of cities.
(5) “Earth as Universal Desktop, is an expression proposed by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash in 1992.
(6) Of special interest in this respect: the Urban tapestries project (2002-2004) by the Proboscis collective.
(7) See, for example, the Neighbornode project, created by John Geraci.

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