A lot of great conferences in the UK happen in London. But not all great conferences. For some, you have to travel a little further afield. Maybe to East Anglia. Or more specifically to Norwich, the county town of Norfolk. If you were in Norwich last week, you might have noticed that SyncConf was taking place and I’d been asked by ex-MultiMapper and co-founder of SyncConf, John Fagan to do a talk on something related to maps. How could I refuse?
SyncConf isn’t a maps conference or a geo conference; it’s a tech conference for the city’s tech and startup community. So it seemed to make sense not to go full-on maps nerd for the conference audience but instead look at how we got to the current state of play where the digital map has become ubiquitous. It also allowed me to the opportunity to put a little bit of map porn into a slide deck.
This is how it turned out .. my slide deck and notes follow after the break.
Back in July, I wrote about Big (Location) Data vs. My (Location) Data, which was the theme for a talk I gave at the AGI Northern Conference. The TL;DR premise behind the talk was that the location trail we generate on today’s interweb is part of our own digital history and that there’s a very one sided relationship between the people who generate this digital stuff and the organisations that aim to make money out of our digital stuff.
Once I’d given that talk, done the usual blog write up and posted it, I considered the topic done and dusted and I moved onto the next theme. But as it turns out, the topic was neither done, nor dusted.
Firstly Eric van Rees from Geoinformatics magazine mailed me to say he’d liked the write up and would I consider crunching down 60 odd slides and 3000 odd words into a 750 word maximum column for the next issue of the magazine.
And then a conversation on Twitter ensued where some people immediately saw the inherent value in their personal location history whilst some people … didn’t.
That conversation was enough to make me go back and revisit the theme and the talk morphed and expanded considerably. Fast forward to this week and I’ve given the talk in its’ new form twice, once at Nottingham University’s GeoSpatial faculty and once at the Edinburgh Earth Observatory EOO-AGI(S) seminar series at Edinburgh University.
Maybe now this topic and this talk is finished and it’s time to move on. But somehow, I think this will be a recurring theme in talks to come over the next few years.
The slides from the talk are below and the notes accompanying those slides are after the break.
The moment you make a map there’s a fairly good chance that it will be out of date. There’s nothing wrong with this; anyone who works in the cartography or mapping fields will tell you that one of the biggest challenges in making maps is not making the map, it’s keeping it up to date once it’s made. Geography is constantly moving, changing, flowing thing.
One of the most fascinating aspects of old maps is not so much looking at what’s changed since they were made, though that is fascinating enough, but of what might have been but then never was.
Regular readers of this blog may have worked out that out of all the maps there are, my favourite is the London Underground Tube map. A browse through the London Tube Map Archive shows just how much the Tube network has expanded and contracted over the years and how stations have changed not only in name but sometimes in position as well. But some of these maps also show what was planned but which was never realised; as Trent Reznor once put it “all the what abouts, the might have and could have beens“. Take a look at this map of the network from 1938.
The lines marked under contruction are part of what was called the New Works Programme and some of them that are shown on the map did get built. The eastern and western Central Line extensions were completed, though only as far as West Ruislip in the east and not to Denham as planned. The extension of the Bakerloo line from Baker Street to Stanmore was also built and now forms part of today’s Jubilee Line. But the Northern Heights Plan, the criss cross of lines branching off from the Northern Line never reached completion. The extension north of Edgware, the link between Edgware and Mill Hill East to Finchley and the extension to Alexandra Palace from Finsbury Park via Highgate were all finally dropped in 1954.
There’s a strange parallel between 1939’s Tube map and one produced by Transport For London in 2004, showing how the map would look in 2016. A scaled down version of Crossrail is currently being tunneled underneath central London, but there’s no sign yet of the Cross River Transit linking Brixton and Peckham with Camden, nor is there any sign of the West London Transit linking Shepherds Bush with Uxbridge via Ealing Broadway. Heathrow Terminal 5 on the Piccadilly Line was built and now links to Paddington but as part of the Heathrow Express and not Crossrail and there’s no sign of the Metropolitan Line linking Watford and Watford Junction.
As a closing note which will probably be only of interest to my Teddington readers (Hi Ed !!), a branch of Crossrail was also planned to start at Kingston and link with the main Crossrail route somewhere west of today’s Ladbroke Grove station, taking in Teddington, Twickenham and Richmond along the way. In the light of today’s spending cuts and economic climate, it sadly looks like the scope of the network envisaged back in 2004 will never be fully realised, consigning 2004’s map of the Underground network to the same level of historical curiosity that 1938’s map has today.
With GeoBabel firmly put to rest, I was looking for inspiration when Andrew Larcombe asked me back to the British Computer Society’s Geospatial Specialist Group to speak. After a week of drawing a blank, with Andrew sending gentle messages of encouragement via Twitter Direct Message (OI – GALE. TITLE. NOW!!) inspiration finally arrived from a variety of sources. Firstly there was Mashable’s History of Location Technology infographic. Then there the brief history of location slides I’d used in a few of my previous talks. There was the rather fine 3D visualisation of geolocation history that Chris Osborne used at W3G and at GeoCom 2010. And then there were two questions that kept cropping up when speaking to people at conferences … “this location stuff’s only recent isn’t it?” and “I can’t keep up with this geo stuff, it’s all moving too fast, where’s it going?“.
So I started to research this. I knew that location had a long history but I was taken aback to find out just how long that history was. I’d tended to think of the human race using longitude and latitude to work out their location sometime in the 1700’s, about the same time as the race to make a working, reliable marine chronometer. It came as a bit of a shock to find out that longitude and latitude were first proposed in 300 BC and were first used to locate a position on the surface of the Earth in 200 BC. Focussing on use of location, on location sharing and on LBS/LBMS and putting GIS to one side I came up with A (Mostly) Complete & (Mostly) Accurate History Of Location (Abridged).
The first 15 of my slides takes the story of location from 3200 BC, with the first use of celestial navigation to 1960, with the launch of the first navigation satellites. That’s not the first GPS satellites, they didn’t come along until 1969.
And then things really start to accelerate with the headlong rush to the internet, to smart phones, to PNDs (Personal Navigation Devices), to online maps on phones, to LBMS (Location Based Mobile Services) to attempts to own the “Place space” from Facebook, Foursquare and Gowalla.
I finished my talk with an illustration of how services are frantically adding “check-in” facilties and how the early adoptors in the location sharing and check-in space aren’t necessarily the leaders now, some 4 years after they were first launched. 4 years is an awfully long time in technology and an awfully large amount has been launched, been shuttered, succeeded and failed over that time.
Post talk, a lively and pointed Q&A session ensued and I was asked to make some predictions for the location space in the coming year. As I’ve written about before, predictions are notoriously hard to make and even harder to make them correctly. Having said that, I can’t believe that check-ins are the nadir of the location space. The more services that add them, the more time it takes for the end-user to get a relevant experience … check-in fatigue. The end goal has to be increasing relevance in your online and mobile experience and that has to mean less fragmented apps (more GeoBabel) and more integration of location as a feature and not a business in itself.
Finally, an hour and a half after we’d started, the talk and the Q&A was over; there’s only one thing you can really do after that and that’s head out into Covent Garden in search of geo-beers and a geo-curry. Which is just what happened.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)
“History is written by the victors“. So goes the saying attributed to Winston Churchill sometime during his reign as British Prime Minister. I’d like to offer up a corollary to that saying, which is “History is also written by the man from the council with a tin of white paint“.
I should explain.
I live in what used to be the rather grandly named Municipal Borough of Twickenham. Used to be. Twickenham as a borough was created in 1926 out of the 1868 Twickenham Local Government District. In 1934 the new borough absorbed the nearby urban districts of Hampton, Hampton Wick and Teddington. But when Greater London was created in 1965, Twickenham Borough vanished overnight, becoming part of the new London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames.
But traces of the old borough still exist, if you keep your eyes open. Almost all of the old street signs still exist, with the old Borough of Twickenham wording carefully painted out, by the man from the council with a tin of council issued standard white paint. Almost 45 years later, those same street signs are still there, but they’re starting to show their age and the paint is peeling in places, peeling back the years as an added bonus.
The Borough of Twickenham wasn’t the only thing to vanish overnight in 1965, so did the County of Middlesex, of which Twickenham was a part. Middlesex however lives on, both as an informal name and as a postal county and again, traces of the lost county still exist, if you know where to look.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the etymology of place names recently. That’s a slightly verbose way of saying that I’ve been thinking about the origin of place names and where they come from. Take London for example. That’s pretty easy as most sources of information seem to agree that London derives from Londinium, the name of the Roman settlement from which the modern metropolis of London grew.
Then there’s Teddington, the town on the River Thames at the upstream limit of the Tideway, where I currently live. Some people believe that the name derives from Tide’s End Town; Rudyard Kipling was one of the people who subscribed to this version of the name’s origin. Scholars though tend to believe that the town was named after a Saxon leader, called either Todyngton or Tutington, which morphed into the modern day name over the centuries.
All well and good but this sort of debate over the origin of a name is continuing even today and in a much more geekier vein. To paraphrase John Cleese in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch, I was perusing the internet the other day and came across a discussion of the origins of the UNIX command grep. If you know your UNIX command line, you’ll probably know that grep is the tool you use to search inside text files. Indeed, just as Robert Heinlein’s grok has become part of today’s technical culture as a synonym for understand, so grep has become a synonym for search … I’m just grepping for the time the restaurant opens.
If you’d asked me last week how grep got its name, I’d have said with high confidence that it’s an acronym for General Regular Expression Parser, G .. R .. E .. P, grep. But Mike Burns over at Giant Robot offers up an alternate etymology, albeit a rather contrived one to my mind, that the name originated from the commands to search for text within the ed text editor, thus when looking for the regular expression “re”, you’d issue the command g/re/p. All of which looks nice and convenient but only works when you’re looking for the string “re”, which isn’t that much of a common event when you think about it.
A bit of background research yields even more versions of how grep got its name. John Barry’s book Technobabble offers up a whole slew of alternatives.
The November 1990 issue of the SunTech Journal states that grep is an acronym forGet Regular Expression and Print.
The December 1985 issue of UNIX World, thinks that it’s really Globally search for a Regular Expression and Print.
A technical writer at Hewlett-Packard offers the alternative of Generalized Regular Expression Parser.
An Introduction to Berkeley UNIX disagrees; it’s Generalized Regular Expression Pattern.
Don Libes and Sandy Ressler in Life With UNIX thinks it’s Global Regular Expression Print.
And finally, the authors of UNIX For People prefer the definition as Global Regular Expression or Pattern.
That’s 8 differing and conflicting definitions.
And the point of all of this etymological meandering? Well, today’s internet community prides itself in being the ultimate source of information in today’s society. Yet I find it deliciously ironic that we can pretty much agree on the origins of place names dating from Roman and from Saxon times but can’t agree on the origin of a UNIX command that was created on March 3rd. 1973. The irony becomes even deeper when you consider that UNIX systems formed the backbone of the origins of today’s internet and World Wide Web and that a substantial proportion of the servers on the net today still run UNIX, and thus still run the grep command.
Back in March of this year I wrote about deliberately tracking my journey by using Google’s Latitude and unexpectedly tracking the same journey by looking at the history of my Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins.
By using the history function from Google Latitude I was able to put together a quick and dirty visualisation of the locations I’d been to but my check-in history added not only the location but also the place that was at each location.
During last week’s Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco, Fred Wilson (no, not the guy from the B-52’s) mentioned that you could feed your Foursquare check-in history into Google Maps and produce another quick and dirty visualisation of not only the places you’d checked into but also where those places were.
Simply login to your Foursquare account and visit your feeds page at http://foursquare.com/feeds/ and copy the RSS check-in history link but don’t click on the link. Open up Google Maps and paste in the link and add ?count=200 to the end of the URL to make Foursquare return a reasonable amount of check-ins. Hey presto, one instant map of your check-ins, which shows me that I’ve been checking in in the Bay Area in the USA, in and around London in the UK and in and around Berlin in Germany. Not that I didn’t know this already but it’s always good to see this visualised on a map.
Of course, Google Maps is a full slippy maps implementation, so I can click, drag and zoom in to see my check-ins from the Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco in the Bay Area, south through Palo Alto to San Jose.
I can also jump across the Atlantic Ocean, straight over the United Kingdom, to Berlin and see Berlin’s Tegel Airport in the west and the Nokia Gate5 office in the Mitte district of the city.
With a little bit of time, effort and GIS know-how I could have probably come up with a slick animated trail of my check-ins but sometimes a quick and dirty way of seeing where I’ve been on a map is all that’s needed.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)