February 04, 2004

a semantic earth?

David Weinberger has written a piece for Release 1.0 on GIS, location awareness, and the layering of semantic information over the physical coordinate system of the earth's surface; it's titled "The Semantic Earth", and he has posted the surprisingly poetic abstract on his blog.

"Thanks to the constellation of technology that enables digital networks to be laid over the places of the earth, wherever we are we will be able to hear the human conversation that has occurred about that place - the history that occurred there, the aesthetics to be savored, the commerce transpiring at that very moment, recommendations offered by strangers and friends. The mute places of the earth are being given voice, and the voices are, of course, ours. Meanwhile, the places themselves are becoming digitally alive and are noting our presence, too."

It's a tempting teaser, and I want to read more. Guess I'll have to see if any of my dear colleagues are still subscribers in these times of, er, fiscal responsibility. I don't suppose the article is published under a creative commons license, either.

Predictably, I'm curious because this is an area that my research group has been interested in for some time. For example, our work in creating digital representations for people, places and things led us to semantic location and the Websign project. There have been many other noteworthy efforts with a similar flavor, just to cite a few from research ("A Walk in the Wired Woods", Urban Tapestries, PlaceLab) and the web community (GeoURL, the Degree Confluence Project, GeoGraffiti, BlogMapper), and of course there's a mountain of related work in the digital mapping and GIS world. Useful, interesting, and/or provocative references and ideas can also be found in blogspace at starhillindex, Locative Media, IFTF, and Headmap to name just a few.

In this fascinating area, there are some questions that need to be raised, for example:

Will these geolocated information systems be open systems or closed? That is to say, will the specifications for creating and accessing georeferenced data be based on open standards and protocols? Will anyone be free to create georeferenced information and services? Or will a proprietary model be operative? Will Vodafone subscribers be able to experience the geo-stories written by AT&T subscribers? Will Smartphone-based devices only post in Windows Media format, leaving Symbian devices in the cold?

What legal framework will govern these systems? Does ownership of the surface real estate confer the ability to control what is posted in the "air" above it, or by whom it is posted? Can a company "own" its location coordinates in the same way it owns its domain name?

How will businesses use geolocation? Will location-based CRM and advertising become commonplace? Can we imagine a way that these can be delivered, that we won't find supremely annoying? What will this mean for individual privacy? Are we about to give our mobile operators the same level of access to our physical whereabouts, as Visa currently has about our spending patterns?

What will be the affordances of these systems? If there is information georeferenced at some place, how will I discover it? If there are thousands of different pages or services, how will I differentiate among them to find the ones most interesting to me? Will there be filters, editors, moderators? Or will location spam overwhelm the human conversations, the historical anecdotes, and the lovingly crafted travelogues?

What fun! I can't wait to read the article.

Posted by Gene at February 4, 2004 11:44 PM | TrackBack

I strongly agree with you, especially when you mention the idea of affordance of location-based services (or semantic location projects). It is important since a big load of work attests the fact that space could be considered as a resource for social interactions and problem solving (review about this here: http://tecfa.unige.ch/~nova/CRAFT_report1.pdf)

Obviously, there is little interest for research about this topic, especially concerning sociocognitive issues.

Do you deal with these issues in your research group ?

Posted by: icon at February 5, 2004 08:45 AM

To answer your questions:

Yes, open; free creation; who knows; who knows.

Legal questions: No, no.

Busineses: Less than we expect; a big challenge; fewer privacy worries than we expect, unless the systems are poorly designed; yes.

Affordances: Google; Google; Google; something Google-related.

Posted by: askpang at February 5, 2004 04:59 PM

Nicolas, very interesting. The variety of people interested in the technological transformation of place/space amazes me; my colleagues and I are mostly focused on technology infrastructures, you seem most interested in the social & cognitive aspects, I've met many people who are into information design and the physical architecture of cities, there are a growing number of artists and designers who are beginning to move in this direction, and of course there are many seeking a commercial angle to develop new business opportunities. It feels like something profound will emerge here, perhaps soon? Thanks much for your comment!

Alex, you're in an optimistic mood today ;-) I tend to agree with you that things will be less dire than the worst case, but I'm still convinced that within the next 5 years some company will sue someone over content that is georeferenced to that company's physical location.

Posted by: Gene at February 5, 2004 10:53 PM
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