The 3 W’s of Geo (and hyperlocal deities and a pachyderm)

Earlier this week, Jeremy Morley from the Centre for Geospatial Research at the University of Nottingham and Muki Haklay at University College London got in touch with me. The GIS Research UK Conference was in full swing, and OpenStreetMap founder Steve Coast had had to drop out of the conference due to ill health; would I think about stepping in for the closing keynote of the conference?

Hedging my bets and guessing that few, if any, of the audience had been in San Jose at Where 2.0 a couple of weeks back, I gladly accepted and reshuffled, added to and polished my Where 2.0 deck to yield Hyperlocal Deities, Pachyderms, the Letter W, the Number 3 (and some Geo).

The majority of the deck should be relatively self explanatory but I think it’s worth calling out what I’ve labelled the three W’s of geo … where, when and what.

A new and accurat map of the world

The where is what we’ve been doing for centuries; mapping the globe. Whilst it’s a sweeping generalisation, we’ve pretty much done this, albeit to a varying degree of accuracy, coverage and granularity. We’ve mapped the globe, now it’s time to do something with all of this data.

Map Archaeology

The when is the gnarly problem of temporality, which just won’t go away. This shows up in two ways. Firstly there’s the fact that places and geography change over time; how we map a place today doesn’t show how the place was 100 years ago and neither can we expect the geography of a place to be static 100 years hence. Secondly there’s the problem of places which only exist at certain times of the year. Take Burning Man and Glastonbury; for most of the year these places are a salt flat in a desert and a farmer’s field but at a certain time they become places in their own right.

The A13 from Ship Lane

Then finally there’s the what and again, this manifests in two ways. Firstly we need to recognise that places aren’t only spelt differently but they’re said differently and “New Orleans” and “Noorlans” are one and the same place. Secondly a reference to a place in intrinsically bound to it’s granularity. References to London from outside of the United Kingdom are frequently aimed at the non specific London bounded by the M25 orbital motorway. Zoom in and London becomes Greater London, and then the London Boroughs.

We’re so close to completing the where of geo, we’ve only just touched on the when and the what remains uncharted territory. And that last pun was fully intentional.

Photo Credits: The Norman. B. Leventhal Map Center, wokka and Thurrock Phil on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Yahoo! London office (51.5141985, -0.1292006)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.


Andrew Zolnai

Love your punchy humour Gary, but I insist on the 5-W’s (who, what, where, when, why, and add: how, like in a baker’s dozen). I learned it from a CBC (Radio Canada) reporter, with whom I ran a workshop ~ 20 yrs ago on tech reporting: giving reporters the tools to cover tech stories, as a CDN corp. morphed into a corpse after its demise was pre-reported – another chicken and egg, I’m sure we can find a geo in there somewhere…


OK. I’ll call you on your 5 W’s (and they have to be the 5 W’s of Geo) … let’s have an exemplar for the last two please.

Andrew Zolnai

If your challenge means exemplars of who and why – of the geo-type I presume – ‘Cloudmade’s OpenStreetMap’ acc. to TechCrunch caught out by you and Jimbo is a perfect example – ‘who’ is whodunit (news speak: get the source right and acknowledge it, geo speak: say, crowd sourcing), and ‘why’ is what is the motivation (news speak: get the scoop without over reaching, geo speak: VGI phenomenon). To which I add ‘how’ for good measure (news speak: how was the source acquired, geo speak: what OS tools were used to create it).

In my latest blogpost, I’m still holding on serving said data up on the web, until I get clearance for Darby’s data – sadly Lady Darby just passed away, and Cam. U’s Pam Smith is helping me. But I did post my 5w’s. As Monthy Python once said, “me brain hurts” ;-]

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