Collaborative mapping

Abstract

Just as bloggers daily create and edit web pages to maintain their weblogs and thus revolutionise online journalism, so anyone with a location-aware device could potentially create their personal map. Collaborative mapping is an initiative to collectively produce models of real-world locations online that people can then access and use to virtually annotate locations in space. This paper explains why this trend has recently emerged and presents some of the projects that are currently being undertaken. It also highlights some of the pros and cons and discusses some barriers that hinder the progress of collaborative mapping. Is the virtual world really becoming another means to navigate the physical world?

When did you start on webmapper.net and think about (collaborative) mapping?

The website started off in 1998 as a personal test bed to develop webmapping applications when I was studying geography at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. The website evolved in becoming a show case, reflected in the website's motto “what the map can be”. Using a variety of web technologies, it shows how to make the most of the characteristics of the Web. Recently, the emphasis shifted to a themed blog, discussing the latest trends in location based services (LBS), web cartography, and geo-blogging.

My involvement with collaborative mapping is a reflection of general developments and trends in these areas. The last few years, mapping as a community effort sometimes popped up, for example when working on the Multimap.com Local Information service. Since reading a paper on GeoNotes and visiting the UpMyStreet Conversations website in early 2003, it has firmly settled itself in my thinking about maps on the Web. In May, this was picked up by the Guardian Online and webmapper.net was mentioned in the article “Get caught mapping”.

What is collaborative mapping?

Collaborative mapping is an initiative to collectively create models of real-world locations online, that people can then access and use to virtually annotate locations in space. The value of the annotations is determined by physical and social proximity (expressed in distance and “degrees of separation”). Thus, the information is not only filtered based on proximity, but also ranked according to the trust one person has in another person through social networks: the “Web of Trust”.

There are some more terms being used to describe the current trend. “Collaborative mapping” stresses the importance of individuals or groups working together. “Localised social software” or “grassroots GIS”, however, are too much emphasising the underlying technology.

What is the difference between grassroots and corporate initiatives?

In general, corporate initiatives use the broadcasting-paradigm when providing location-specific information, albeit using a spatial filter: “give me the nearest five Italian restaurants”. Sometimes, it even takes on the form of spam: “the store you are passing is doing a special offer”. The information-flow is one way: from service to subscribers.

Grassroots initiatives are characterised by a two-way flow of information: everyone creates their own information feeds, sent as a small message to a spatially-enabled message board, or as a machine-readable file held on their own websites. When requesting location-specific information, the search engine not only covers a central repository such as the message board, but also crawls the machine-readable files people have made accessible on their websites.

Recently, this dichotomy has been bridged by the Mapminder service. They combine the community tools with the spatial tools to deliver location-based services. Unfortunately, the service is still little known and signing up for the service is rather difficult.

Why did this grassroots trend emerge now?

Since the Enlightenment, mapping and geographic information have been institutionalised: the map is the power. At home, maps were an instrument for nation building when nation states emerged. The people learned about their new country and the government needed a tool to exploit it nation.s natural resources. Away from home, maps were an instrument for colonisation when Africa and Asia were split up between the nation states.

In the last decennia we have seen rapid democratisation of geographic information and maps. It started when geographic information systems moved from mainframes and UNIX operating systems onto personal computers and the Windows operating system. From research and government, GIS spread into the business sector. The PARC Xerox Map Server and Virtual Tourist brought customised maps to everyone's PC, followed by the likes of Mapquest, Maporama, Multimap, and Streetmap. Soon enough, everyone will carry around location-aware portable devices such as PDAs and mobile phones.

This still leaves us the question “why now?”. There are four different developments that have led to the evolution of collaborative mapping:

  1. Introduction of location-aware devices
  2. Emergence of social software
  3. Blogging revolution
  4. Adoption of Opensource and interoperability

What are interesting groups of people involved in collaborative mapping?

Although collaborative mapping has only recently surfaced, there are various groups of people working on collaborative mapping. Some of the initiatives tie in very closely with the blogging community. GeoURL and Blogmapper allow you to locate blogs all over the world, based on coordinates specified in latitude and longitude. Others use tube stops as reference points such as NYCBlogger and Londontubeblogger.

What barriers to innovation can be identified that hinder the progress of this trend?

In the US, geographic information created by government bodies such as NIMA and USGS is freely available. The tax pays for these organizations to produce this information, so the people are not charged twice. In Europe, people pau hefty prices to obtain geographic information. The role of National Mapping Agencies (NMAs) is changing rapidly and they become more and more privatised. Their main assets are the geographic databases. To survive in their new position in he market arena, they exploit their asset on which they also hold a monopoly: no other company or organization has the technical and financial resources to create similar, large-scale geographic data sets.

In the UK, the Ordnance Survey has secured a position in the GI industry, like the BBC has in television: public money is spent on creating the large-scale database for Great Britain which the OS sells on to the GI industry for high fees. Especially when it comes to online transactions, the Ordnance Survey's pricing structure does not reflect general practice. Crown Copyright further establishes the OS monopoly. Recently, a Geographic Industry Forum (GIF) has been created to lobby in Parliament for a fairer position of OS in the GI industry.

Not only pricing and copyright put up barriers. The AGI and the OGC recently brought up the issue of patents. As the GI industry is evolving rapidly, patents have been granted to various key players in the market. It's a tricky trade-off between encouraging innovation and encouraging monopolies.

The Garmin Geko 201 product may be covered by one or more of the following patents:

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Privacy legislation, or rather the lack thereof, is another impeding aspect. For example, Barbera Streisand sued the California Coastal Records Project. This nonprofit project maintains a database of over 12,200 aerial photographs of the Californian coast (except for the Vandenberg AFB restricted area) shot since 2002 for scientific and other researchers. Photographs have been used by local and national research institutes such as NOAA and USGS. Streisand asserted that the inclusion of a single frame that includes her Malibu estate invades her privacy, violates the “anti-paparazzi” statute, seeks to profit from her name, and threatens her security.

Has the Web become a window to the physical world?

Geocaching and the degree-confluence project created online communities to explore real-world locations. Online mapping services also created a link between a company website and their brick-and-mortar outlets. A Vicinity survey shows that store locators convert online traffic to off-line transactions. Moblogging, LBS, and augmented reality initiatives further establish the Web's position in the offline world: the Web is just another tool to navigate the real world.