The Geoweb and Deep Place
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Nov 11 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Bottom-up location-aware services, like the geoweb, promise to enhance people's sense of place.


Together with a busload of other geoweb neophytes, I found myself carrying a GPS-equipped tablet PC around a decommissioned army base overlooking the Golden Gate. I clicked on one of the hotspots on the photomap of our location. A note popped up -- from the late, great Jerry Garcia, who had been quoted in print about the place we were exploring because Fort Scott in San Francisco's Presidio is where Garcia served in the army in his pre-Dead and predead days.

I would have enjoyed an audio guitar lick to go with the text excerpt from a Garcia bio, but I got the point -- location-aware technologies could make a deeper sense of place possible. Deep place is not about the technology or the political standards wars, but about the experiential possibilities of the geoweb.

At the beginning of the two-day Geoweb and Deep Place Fall Exchange organized by the Institute for the Future, participants in the event rode a bus to Fort Scott and walked around the unoccupied base with tablet PCs equipped with software from Map Bureau ("mapping for the rest of us"). My team happened on the Jerry Garcia geotag at the perimeter of the old base's parade ground at the same time that a large, hawk-like bird perched on a telephone pole in the physical world. We walked as close as we could to the bird and took a picture. We tagged a note to that spot. Later, the photographer could post the photograph online and amend the tag to ask the next people attracted to that geo-info node what kind of hawk it might be.

A few hundred yards away, a geotag informed us that we were standing on the future site of the Starfleet Academy. If you've seen the Star Trek movie where Kirk and Spock go back in time to the Starfleet Academy overlooking the Golden Gate, you will recognize where we were standing.

The software enabled us to browse Geographic Information Systems layers that could be toggled on and off, overlaid over the photomap of Fort Scott. We figured out how to overlay topographic or demographic or photographic maps, geonotes and Web searches associated with the locale. We didn't zoom to that level of sophistication immediately, however: my team took ten minutes and a call to the software provider to figure out that we had to turn on the GPS and then reboot the software.

I think most of the others would agree that the experience was akin to walking around a deserted city, imagining what life might be like when the streets are filled with people. Until there are multitudes of tags, filtering, browsing, writing and conversing via the geoweb is a small taste of what the experience might be like.

Back at the site of the conference, the former army base ballroom where the US-Japanese treaty was signed, IFTF geoweb guru Mike Liebhold talked about his pursuit of geolocation technology. The videodisc-based Aspen Movie Map that pre-Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte's Architecture Machine Group produced in the 1970s, "inspired me to think about a cinematic view of cartographic space (latitude, longitude, altitude) where digital annnotations could be hyperlinked to visible objects and places in a heads-up view. Less technically, I started thinking about the ways maps tell stories. A related MIT project -- Spatial Data Management System -- also inspired me to think of media in cartographic terms, geolocated at specific coordinates." When Atari hired PC pioneer Alan Kay to head a research group in 1980, Liebhold wrote a proposal for a "bioregional hypermedia atlas" of California. Kay hired him, along with others from Negroponte's 1970s "Arch-Mac."

After Atari Research folded, Liebhold moved to Apple and used Hypercard to experiment with "making information about places visible to people in those places." From the Apple point of view, he "saw geospatial hypermedia as the foundation for a new kind of computing: wearable, context-aware, sentient landscapes with embedded sensors and beacons." That kind of world seems imminently possible today, but it was a stretch of the imagination twenty years ago.

The Geoweb, as Liebhold and others envision it today, combines geonote-like user annotations of places, GIS databases that augment map locations and some kind of standard protocols that would enable amateurs as well as professionals to connect physical spaces with cyberspace extensions. In the commercial GIS world, ESRI developed a Microsoft-like near-monopoly on GIS software. Vast databases of information of a very wide variety of geospecific, map-linked information exist, but they aren't public. And vast databases of public records, taxpayer-funded geographic survey data and other public information are available in a bewildering variety of formats.

"While most of the existing legacy geodata is encoded and used in proprietary formats and file systems in proprietary applications, from ESRI and others," notes Liebhold, "there is a growing global movement to render and process geospatial data and geocoded hypermedia using open formats and open source tools and applications, all built on best Semantic Web practices. All data properly encoded with XML, RDF, GML and SVG should be self-identifying, and self-describing to standard client applications. A prospective geoweb might more properly be described as the geospatial semantic Web."

Right now, competing standards and approaches battle it out behind the scenes, invisible to all but the geoweb enthusiasts. I remember 1993, when it wasn't at all clear wither Hytelnet or WWW would become the dominant way of navigating the Internet. "But something as big as the Web is on the verge of emerging," Liebhold believes -- if open standards and bottom-up database building from user annotations can mesh or live alongside the economic incentives of proprietary systems. "Judging from what we can see today, North America will lead in top-down commercial apps such as precision agriculture, security, manufacturing. Western Europe will lead in bottom-up like gaming, location-blogging."