Posts Tagged ‘place’

The Internet Seems To Like The Combination Of Maps And Innuendo

Oh people of the interwebs; you are indeed a wondrous thing. If you build something and put it up on the internet, you’ve no expectation that anyone will see it, let alone look at it. But it appears that the combination of innuendo and some vaguely sounding rude place names (actually with some very rude place names) seems to be something that the citizens of the internet actually like.

The map hit the internet at maps.geotastic.org/rude/ around lunchtime on the 6th. of February; since then, several things have happened.

Firstly, Eric Rodenbeck, the CEO of Stamen Design, whose map tiles I used on the Rude Map, dropped me an email to say he liked it. I’m a massive fan of the cartography that Stamen produces and this would, alone, be enough to make the making of the map worthwhile.

But then, the URL of the site started proliferating over Twitter … including Jonathan Crowe, author of the late and utterly lamented Map Room blog.

Then the map started to get written about. Firstly by The Independent, then by Laughing Squid, Blame It On The Voices, Reddit and io9.

Rude Places Map - The Independent

And it keeps on getting mentions on Twitter, on Google+ and other social networks. According to the server logs, the map’s been viewed a staggering (to me at least) 53,000 times; this definitely classes as a first for me. So with tongue firmly in cheek and innuendo firmly in mind, it seems that if you build it, they will come can be the case sometimes.

All of which, makes me wonder … what should I build a map of next?

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Ooh That Sounds Rude; Mapping British Innuendo

No-one can really define what being British is, though many have tried. One thing that lots of people do seem to agree on is that part of being British is a love for and an appreciation of the British sense of humour. This can be roughly and with a sweeping generalisation said to consist of equal parts of finding fun in everyday situations Peep Show), satire and parody (Have I Got News For You), social awkwardness (The Office), surrealism and nonsense (Monty Python) and innuendo (the Carry On films).

Focus on that trait of innuendo for a moment. Could you possibly combine the British fondness for innuendo with geography and put it on a map? It turns out you can. So I did. It may be vaguely NSFW but there’s real geographical data behind this.

Rude Places Map

Maybe it’s part of bring British, but an airport whose code is BUM is just … funny.

As a classic Web 2.0 style maps mashup, this is never going to win any awards for originality or innovativeness. But the source of each of these vaguely rude sounding names was from Yahoo’s WOE data set, before the data was released via the GeoPlanet API and (currently offline) GeoPlanet Data download. A list of real but amusing sounding place names, culled from GeoPlanet by one of the old Yahoo! Geo team, has been sitting in a file on one of my backup drives for too many years now. But given a geographic data set. Stamen’s wonderful Toner map tiles and a JavaScript maps API, in this case Leaflet, the temptation to make a map out of it all was just too strong.

Yes it’s a map, yes it’s geographical innuendo and yes, it’s very much part of the British sense of humour. If you’re British, try not to snigger too much; if you’re not British, just shake your head sadly and mutter “those crazy Brits”.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Talking About A Sense Of Place

As a precursor to last week’s mashup* Digital Trends event, I chatted to Paul Squires of Imperica about my location trends in more detail than the mashup* format would have allowed for. The write-up from that interview is now up on Imperica’s web site and, thanks to them adopting a Creative Commons  license, I’m able to reproduce it here.

A Sense Of Place

It’s going to be mobile’s year.

In fact, it has been “mobile’s year” for many years. Analysts have predicted that the following year will be the golden year of mobile, ever since WAP started to become generally available on small, monochrome screens.

This year, it might just be mobile’s year. Widespread adoption of geolocation, tablet computing and apps are transforming mobile from simply a mobile telephony handset, to truly mobile, experiential, computing.

The handset vendor that has been part of “mobile’s year” ever since the early days of such predictions, is Nokia. The journey from small, blue phones with Snake to technologically complex, Ovi-enabled devices has been fast and, at times, tough. Leading this continued evolution from the point of view of location, is Gary Gale.

Gale, as Director of Ovi Places, is continuing a life-long fascination with maps. From a deep fascination with Harry Beck’s Tube map as a child, he now runs a business which aims to meet – and exceed – the consumer expectations of what mapping can offer to mobility. These expectations are both, from the consumer’s perspective, urgent and complex.

Currently, location is often externalised, as demonstrated by the “world of check-ins” offered by Foursquare, Facebook Places, and elsewhere. Gale feels that location will simply bed into a wider context over time, leading to less specifically location-based applications, but more apps with location features. “The applications that we have, will do a much better job at predicting the information that we need, and delivering it – so it becomes less of a case of ‘app fatigue’. Currently, if you want to find a piece of information, you go to one app. It shows where the information you want to find is, so you swap over to another app, but then you realise that you’ve forgotten the time that the place you want to go to opens, so you have to go back to the previous app to find out. You then go back to the map app, and you find that it has lost the context, so you have to go through it again. It’s an immensely boring experience. Combining those pieces of information into something of use, is the challenge.”

“Industry commentators have been excited about the number of apps downloaded through app stores. It’s a nice infographic, but how many of them are usable? How many of them are used and reused on a daily basis? The challenge is less about the 30 billion mark; it’s much more about making my life easier.”

While Gale acknowledges that location is important – it’s rich, timely, and vital – but the important piece to remember here it is context. Gale’s view, which might challenge some current startups, is that as location does not fundamentally make an app in itself, it should also not be a rationale for a business.

Smartphones continue to occupy a minority share of overall mobile ownership, although this is growing quickly. As more and more consumers exchange their old handsets for sophisticated, GPS-enabled devices, the way in which we understand and use geo-locative data will change. We are still scratching the surface.

Privacy Area

“Despite the meteoric rise of the check-in economy, a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the concept of sharing their current location with a company. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable premise, as a lot of the ways in which this is messaged, is ambiguous and unclear. My fear is that there will be a big tabloid media crash involving this technology; all of a sudden, this is brought to the public, and they will sit up and take notice. In a high-profile divorce between B-list celebrities, if one claims that they weren’t somewhere and the app says that they were, then the press would have a field day. It would be thrust into the public’s attention. The challenge for the location industry as a whole, is to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Gale points out the undercurrent of apps that, without the consumer knowing it, sends their location data back. While such references are often buried in a terms and conditions page that we all have the tendency to ignore until clicking Accept, the point is made that location information sharing is still oblique, with an insufficient level of clarity and understanding on the part of consumers.

This mismatch of delivery and experience extends to geotargeted advertising. As Gale’s history includes leading Yahoo’s UK Geotechnologies group – which developed the world’s first geotargeted advertising network. However, as he illustrates, geotargeting means, and results in, different outcomes in different environments. Different countries treat IP addresses in very different ways; regional IP allocation based on the Baby Bell network allows for reasonably precise targeting in the US, where many European countries make targeting more difficult, due to dynamic allocation. Such variations, and their impact on message delivery, are lessened with a greater degree of location information – although not without its dangers. “You have a trinity of mobile phone triangulation, GPS lock, and public wi-fi points, for information. They’re pretty accurate. Even without GPS, when someone is running a map application on an iPad even without GPS, just through just public wi-fi, you’re able to work out where you are. The key is to engage the customer, so that they think it’s a really handy feature, rather than “that’s creepy, how the hell did they know that?” – and that’s a big challenge.”

“People are happy with ads on mobile and the web, as they either consciously or unconsciously understand that there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. What they’re less comfortable with, is the perception that there is someone watching them at that precise minute in time. That’s not the case; with the vast majority of information, apart from that which you sign on and participate in things, is utterly anonymised. You are just one point in a mass from which you can draw trends and plot nice graphs. There is a perception of ‘hell, how did I know that?’ and that’s very scary.”

More Than The Map

The other side of this coin, in terms of experience, is the quality of the information being presented. If your location can be pinpointed, then it means nothing unless there is good information – a good context to surround it. Gale makes the point that we are now at the point where it’s commonplace to use a GPS-enabled smartphone to find your way around a new place, where previously it used to be an A-Z, and latterly printouts of online maps. Neither are really seen in public any more, resulting in an expectation of not only “the now”, but “the what” and “why”. “We have had to go from the static, updated-twice-a-year view of the world, to a view where people have come to expect that the map which they are experiencing, is accurate, all of the time. If there’s a new housing development, footpath or a closed road, they get quite frustrated if they can see it with their own eyes, but the map doesn’t show that. There’s a fundamental change in the way in which we undertake mapping as a professional discipline.”

“The map’s not enough any more. You want a rich experience on the map, to avoid this disjointed app experience from earlier. You want the information represented on the map, to be available to you in a very easy-to-consume form which gives you the key facts that you need, and also to have it updated and be relevant. If you are looking for a place to get a cup of coffee, you want to know where those places are; you then need to know what time it opens; whether it serves food; whether there are nearby transport facilities. We expect that experience, no matter where we are. It’s a global marketplace, but everywhere in the world is local to somebody. It could be your local neighbourhood, or having got off the plane in a new city, you want to find somewhere to go out.”

You Are Here

“You expect that information to be made available in the same level of timeliness and freshness and accuracy as we do in your own local neighbourhood. That’s a significant swing from the two-editions-a-year, to a new place which has just opened up, and it should be on the map on my handset.”

Behind all of this, is place. “The spatial map still remains one of the best ways of visualising information. It’s visceral, visual, and the best way to impart this information. The map is not going anywhere, other than forward. People have predicted the death of the map, but it’s still the best way of representing that data.”

The point is strongly made that “hard data” – such a full address – is no longer enough, in terms of how to present location information. Our interaction with maps is similar to the historical use of search engines: based on hard syntax. “You have to know about informal places; you have to know about colloquial neighbourhoods, which don’t formally exist, but everyone knows where they are – like in London. Soho, Chinatown, the West End… are all ambiguously and vaguely defined, but everyone knows where they are. And you have to be able to understand that. But you also have to be able to understand in the same number of languages that there are in the world. People expect these services to respond to them in their mother tongue. You have to build internationalisation and localisation in, from the ground up. That’s a massive challenge for the industry. There’s still work to be done.”

As we finish, Gale makes the point that capability still needs information. While the UK and many other developed – and developing – countries have an abundance of mapping data to offer, this is not necessarily the case for every country. Essentially, this is about a quality, consistent experience – and for app developers, geotargeting-based businesses, and mapping agencies, to listen to consumers that pick holes in it. “They have the right to say that they were on location, and the experience was appalling. That will act as a significant nudge, in the direction of making the ability to have a complete map from different sources. People are coming to the conclusion that there needs to be a bit more sanity in this.”

Gary Gale is Director of Ovi Places at Nokia. Gary blogs at garygale.com, and he is @vicchi on Twitter.

Photo Credits: Mark Barkway and Isma Monfort on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Schönhauser Allee, Berlin (52.5308072, 13.4108176)

Location vs. Place vs. POI

With Nokia, Google, Facebook and a whole host of other players recognising the inherent value in the concept of Places and Points Of Interest (POIs), it’s good to see that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body of the Web, is getting involved. On the 30th. September 2010, the W3C Points Of Interest Working Group (POIWG) was launched with a “mission to develop technical specifications for representation of POI information on the Web”. I should pause to make a brief disclaimer here; I’m sitting on the POIWG as part of my day job with Ovi Places at Nokia.

Of course, in order to develop those technical specifications, we need to define what a POI is in the first place. There’s a lot of acronyms flying around (3 in the first paragraph of this post alone) and a lot of conflicting terminology further confusing the matter. Even the most cursory of glances through Web content on this topic shows the terms Place, Location and POI being used interchangably and so as part of the discussion I tried to codify the difference between, and most importantly the inter-relationships between, these three seemingly straightforward terms. The genesis for this post first appeared on the POIWG public mailing list last week (and W3C working groups conduct their business as much as possible in public) but I’ve fleshed it out in a bit more detail here.

Locations vs. Places vs. POIs

So what is a POI? … Wikipedia defines a POI as a Point Of Interest … a “specific point location that someone may find useful or interesting”. But we really need a more subtle and complex definition.

To my mind, a POI is part of a loosely coupled and inter-related geographical terms, comprised of (in generalised order of scope and granularity) Locations, POIs and Places.

A Location is a geographical construct; a physical fixed point on the surface of the Earth. It could also be used to describe a fixed point on the surface of another celestial body but for the purposes of this Working Group, we’ll restrict the scope to terrestrial geographies. A Location is described by a centroid (a longitude and latitude in a widely adopted system, such as WGS-84) and an extent, either a Minimum Bounding Rectangle or a vector set. A Location is temporally persistent, it does not generally change over time.

A POI is a human construct, describing what can be found at a Location. As such a POI typically has a fine level of spatial granularity. A POI has the following attributes …

  1. A name
  2. A current Location (see the commentary below on the loose coupling of POI and Location)
  3. A category and/or type
  4. A unique identifier
  5. A URI
  6. An address
  7. Contact information

A POI has a loose coupling with a Location; in other words, a POI can move. When this occurs, the loose coupling with the previous location is removed and, providing the POI continues to exist, it is then coupled with its new Location. This can happen when the human activity at the POI relocates, such as when your local coffee shop relocates to a new address. It’s still your local coffee shop, it’s now found at a different Location.

A POI has temporal boundaries; it starts when the human activity at that Location commences and ends when human activity ceases, such as when a company or organisation goes out of business.

And then there’s a Place, which is also a human construct and typically has a coarse level of spatial granularity. Places are typically larger scale administrative constructs, either informally or formally defined. Countries, States, Counties, Districts, Neighbourhoods and postal codes or telephone area codes are all Places. Places are also informally or colloquially defined, such as the Home Counties in the United Kingdom and The Bay Area in the United States.

Places have spatial relationships; with parents, children, adjacencies and “contained by” semantics. Places also have the same attribute set as POIs, although with differing interpretations based on scale; for example, the address of a Place or its URI would refer to the address of the administrative or governing body of the Place.

A Place typically contains multiple POIs and can also be coterminous with a POI. In the former case, a Place, such as a city or a neighbourhood, will contain multiple POIs. In the latter case, a Place and a POI will occupy the same position and extent, such as in the case of Yellowstone National Park, which is both a Place and a POI.

As discussions in the POIWG get deeper and deeper into what constitutes a POI and, equally importantly, what doesn’t, it’ll be interesting to see how much of my take on the subject survives.

Written and posted from the BA North Lounge, Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5 (51.474161, -0.484344)

Quantity Or Quality? The Problem Of Junk POIs

In my recent talk to the British Computer Society’s Geospatial Specialist Group, I touched on the “race to own the Place Space“. While the more traditional geographic data providers, such as Navteq and Tele Atlas are working away adding Points Of Interest to their data sets, it’s the smaller, social location startups, that are getting the most attention and media coverage. With their apps running on smartphone hardware, Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places, amongst others, are using crowd sourcing techniques to build a large data set of their own.

For them to do this, the barriers to entry have to be very low. Ask a user for too much information and you’ll substantially reduce the number of Places that get created; and thereby hangs the biggest challenge for these data sets. Both the companies and their users want the Holy Grail of data, quantity and quality. But the lower the barriers to entry, the more quality suffers, unless there’s a dedicated attempt to manage and clean up the resultant data set.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Foursquare entry for the BCS itself. According to the BCS website, the London HQ of the UK’s Chartered Institude for IT is at The Davidson Building, 5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA. Now compare that to Foursquare, which lists BCS HQ LONDON as 5 south hompton road, The strand, london, london uk. Complete with interesting use of capitalisation. That’s the first problem.

Foursquare helpfully shows this on a map but evidently uses the provided address information as opposed to any associated geo-coordinate that was gleaned from the onboard GPS on whichever smartphone was used to create this “place“. Google has evidently tried to interpret south hompton road and displays the map at the first entry that Google’s reverse geocoder returns, which is 5 Hampton Road, in Hampton Hill. That’s not Covent Garden. That’s not even Central London. That’s way out in the suburbs of Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s the second problem.

But there’s also more than one entry in Foursquare for the BCS in London which highlights the third problem; large amounts of duplicate Places created by users either unwilling to search too closely for an existing Place or who are trying to subvert the gaming aspect to social location apps in order to gain points or recognition in the community for number of Places created, number of Mayorships gained and so on.

Quantity? Yes. Quality? Sadly no. Foursquare are reliant on their user community to clear up their data and as this example shows, that’s not always an effective strategy. As an industry we may be building a massive Place based view of the world but we’ve a long way to go before we can rely on data produced in this manner.

A geographic nod of the hat must go to Harry Wood for spotting this classic example of a “junk POI“; I’m not singling Foursquare out for any particular opprobrium here by the way, all of the social location data sets have their own howlers, as do the commercial POI data sets, ready and waiting for people to stumble across.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

Grepping And Grokking The Etymology Of Grep

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.

GREP. A photograph only a SysAdmin could love!

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 for Get 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.

Photo Credits: Danny Howard on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Your Place Is Not My Place; The Perils of Disambiguation

We take the art of geographic lookup for granted these days; type a place name into a form on a web site or feed it into a web service API and hey presto! Most of the time you’ll be told whether or not the place name is valid or not and, in case there’s more than one place with the same name, either asked to choose which one you mean or be presented with the most likely place.

Most of the time … but not all of the time.

Which Way To The Town Centre?

The hey presto bit of the process seems at first glance to be relatively trivial but isn’t. Just ask anyone who’s had to implement a system that handles place names. Actually, the hey presto part is actually two discreet processes in their own right. First of all we need to identify a place, or whether indeed there’s a place at all; this is usually called geoidentification.

identify; verb; establish or indicate who or what (someone or something) is

This is the thing that determines that there is a place in “I’m in London today” but not in “I do love Yorkshire Pudding“.

Once a place has been identified, we need to work out if there’s more than one place of the same name (which is more than likely as we’re stunningly unimaginative where place names are concerned, duplicating and reusing the same name all over the world) and if so, which one. This is usually called geodisambiguation.

disambiguate; verb; remove uncertainty of meaning from (and ambiguous sentence, phrase or other linguistic unit)

Some places are pretty easy to disambiguate; as far as I know there’s only one Ouagadougou and that’s the capital of Burkina Faso. Some places should be easy to disambiguate, least at first sight; take London, that should be easy. It’s the capital of the United Kingdom. Well that’s true but it could also be the London in Ontario, or the one in Arkansas, in California, in Kentucky or any of the other 22 Londons that I’m aware of.

The gentle art of disambiguation is critical to the act of geocoding, geoparsing, geotagging and any of the other words the the location industry chooses to tack geo on as a prefix. Get disambiguation wrong and you fail on two counts.

Firstly, you’re showing your audience that you don’t know or don’t care about what they’re trying to tell you. Secondly, you allow your users the opportunity to specify the same place in a multitude of conflicting ways.

This is part of the problem of GeoBabel; your place is not my place.

So far, so theoretical, but let’s look at a concrete example of this. A few weeks back I added my Twitter account to the Twitter directory site wefollow.com. The first thing you’re asked to do is to supply your location, or to “Type Your City” as wefollow.com phrases it. So I type London and the site starts to attempt to disambiguate on the fly; so do I mean “London, United Kingdom” or “London, Ontario“? But wait, what about the other options?

wefollow.com - London geo disambiguation fail #1

Which “London” is the one tagged by 436 people but with no indication of which country? What’s the difference between “London, United Kingdom“, “London,UK” and “London England“. Space and punctuation, or the lack of it, is obviously important to wefollow.com here. So let’s try and give the system some help and start to type United Kingdom …

wefollow.com - London geo disambiguation fail #2

Oh dear. The “London, United Kingdom” still shows up but because I’ve put a space in there I don’t get offered “London,UK” anymore but I do get offered the London in the lesser known country of “Uunited Kingdom” and also “London, Ub2“, which one assumes is the UB2 postal code which specifies the London suburb of Southall.

Your place is not my place.

To be fair, I’m not singling wefollow.com out for attack here; this is just one of many examples of sites who try to use geographic lookup but end up making life difficult for their users (but which London do I pick?) and for themselves (now, how many users in London in the UK do we have?). I’d happily offer to help them; if only I could find any contact information anywhere on the site …

Photo Credits: foilman on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Yahoo! London office (51.5141985, -0.1292006)

Retiring The Theory of Stuff; But First, A Corollary

It’s time to put the Theory of Stuff out to pasture. It’s had a good life. It’s appeared in 5 of my talk decks (or so Spotlight tells me), in 3 of my blog posts and continues to generate hits on my blog (or so my analytics tells me).

When I tell people I’m going to talk about my theory, a Mexican wave of shoulder slumping passes through the room, coupled with a prolonged sigh from an audience who’ve just resigned themselves to a slow painful death over the coming minutes. Luckily things perk up when my introductory slide of Anne Elk (Miss) and her Theory appears but even so, it’s time to quit whilst you’re ahead.

You may well ask, Chris, what *is* my theory?

But before I do …

One of the great thing’s about O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 conference is the vast number of people you meet who just fizz with ideas and intelligence in this somewhat nebulous space that we call location, place or geo. One such person is Sally Applin; she owns the domain sally.com so that’s got her off to a good start. After Where 2.0 she pointed me to her own theory that voyeurism and narcissism sell software.

People like to look at themselves and at other people. If they can do it at the same time–then the application will succeed! Look at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, Skype–basically any software that allows for both looking at others and self viewing, self reading, self posting etc…will sell. We’re on the chimp ladder. We like to compare ourselves and compete.

If you generalise software out to the slightly more generic terms ofservice or product; you’ll see that Sally’s theory complements the Theory of Stuff quite nicely and even provides an exemplar of those businesses and ventures that prove the theory.

Korean unisex toilet?

This is especially interesting when you look at the success (to date at least) of ventures in the social space, such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. What else are these is not an online way of saying “look at me, here I am, this is what I’m doing” and in doing so generating a vast sea of highly localised and personalised data into the bargain?

Photo Credits: wili_hybrid on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Yahoo! London office (51.5141985, -0.1292006)

Phi, Lambda and (Slightly Embarassing) Temporality

Longitude and latitude have been formally used as a geographic coordinate system offset from the Greenwich Meridian since the International Meridian Conference of 1884 in Washington D.C.

As a spatial coordinate system, longitude (abbreviated as φ, or phi) and latitude ( λ, or lambda) work very well in defining a point on the surface of the Earth. But to gain further meaning from a long/lat pair you either need some clever algorithmics or you need to plot the long/lat point on a map which even then will yield information only as good as that which is rendered on the map itself.

Astride The World

Which is why I think identifier systems, such as Yahoo’s WOEID, add so much value. A WOEID adds a linked web of rich metadata, describing not only a point with a long/lat centroid, but also reinforces the concept of a place, with neighbouring and hierarchical relationships.

Coordinates describe the where of a place, identifiers such as WOEIDs describe the how of a place but both conveniently (in a slight embarrassed, foot shuffling short of way) overlook the when of a place.

Former Flickr geo-hacker and current Stamen Design geo-hacker, Aaron Cope, posted a way around the temporality problem on his blog this evening, describing spacetimeid, a web app which encodes and decodes a 64-bit identifier combining x, y and z coordinates.

So far, so timely; a spacetimeid allows us to describe not only a point but also a time. The logical next step to this is to allow the encoding of a WOEID, that includes a long/lat centroid, with a time range. Two immediate use cases spring to mind.

Firstly, this allows us to represent places which have a small temporal range, such as festival or concert venues; this is frequently referred to as The Burning Man Problem, after the annual festival of the same name. During the duration of the festival Burning Man exists as a concrete place, outside of the festival timescales the site of the festival is empty land.

Burning Man 2007

Secondly, this allows us to represent changes in places over a large temporal range, which can be used to rectify historical maps and show the change in a place over a number of years.

I pinged Aaron a mail on this, saying “Encode temporal information in range format plus WOEIDs ? … Thinking a WOEID for Burning Man or similar here“. He replied a few minutes later with “Yes, that would be easy enough to do if the (x) is the WOEID and the (y) time. I can add that later“. Followed, in the time it’s taken me to write this post, with “Ask and all that … http://spacetimeid.appspot.com/woe/encode/44418/1268854022“.

Now all we need to do is get this used in the real world and the slightly embarassing problem of temporality will have been solved once and for all. Easy isn’t it?

Photo Credits: Foxgrrl and Kaptain Kobold on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)