March 09, 2010
Where Is Everything? The Geoweb Tsunami

Where Is Everything? The Geoweb Tsunami

About 35 people attended tonight’s meeting. Josh Zapin facilitated and Jeremy Kohler recorded the minutes.


Applied Trust (www.appliedtrust.com) provides refreshments, Copy Diva (www.copydiva.com) provides the audio-visual equipment, NCAR (www.ncar.ucar.edu) provides the facility, and ONEWARE (www.oneware.com) sponsors these minutes.

Thanks also to Brian at covervillemedia.com for creating the podcast.


Don’t forget that RMIUG is always looking for ideas for meeting topics. Would you like to be a speaker, or know someone that you can suggest? Bring your ideas to Josh.

Scott Yates announces a new group in the Denver-Boulder area called the Founder Institute, an offshoot of what started in Silicon Valley. It’s like Tech Stars, but more for people already doing something else--just one class a week. Classes start in May: see founderinstitute.com. Denver is getting a great mentor, too.



Geoweb is an extension of the Internet that enables you to find things not just by keyword, but by location. Search engines know where you are. The combination of keyword information and geoinformation is what this is all about. It's accelerated by the mass proliferation of GPS smart phones. Most GPS phones record the location of every picture they take. Web sites are rising out of the geoweb dust, and they are starting to Catalog information in some very interesting ways. Your local fishing holes are being recorded on a scale never seen before.


Duncan McCall spent a number of years immersed in the location and geo space, working on projects from RFID to codeless GPS. He founded and built PublicEarth, the “Wiki for places,” which recently launched and offers an ever-expanding database of nearly five million places across 400 categories. He is currently working on a yet-to-be-announced new company in the geo/local segment. His background spans the technology and business sectors and he has had a great deal of experience building and running startups, including a premier Silicon Valley-based Systems Integrator and a nationwide retailer.



Note #1: You can hear the full broadcast of the meeting by going to: http://www.rmiug.org/blog/?p=39

Note #2: You can view Duncan's presentation by going to: http://www.slideshare.net/dunkmac/rmiug-geo-talk

Way back I started working for company in Asia when the Internet started. Then I went to Silicon Valley and set up some companies. I had a passion for and history of traveling, so for me it translated to geoweb. It started when I had an epiphany in the Sahara desert. We did this crazy car rally across Africa with a lot of people with too much time on their hands. The cars had to cost less than $150, which made the whole thing monstrously challenging. So during this rally we got down to a country called "Western Sahara," which was a disputed territory with no natural resources. Except landmines. There was a huge, shifting minefield to get across, with no safe route marked. You can pay a local lots of money to guide you across, but I didn't want to pay. I wondered if there was a technology solution to this problem. Well, I had a GPS device. And I had the Internet. So we went on-line and we found some French guy who recently went across the minefield and posted a route. So we went ahead and trusted this complete stranger with our lives. There were blown-up vehicles everywhere along his route, but we made it across with no problem and didn't have to pay anybody. Well, that was really interesting. Later, we all meet up with our GPS devices and our cell phones and started exchanging GPS coordinates via text messages to warn each other about bandits and other stuff. So what can we do with all that? I thought there must be a hell of a business in this.

So today we have an explosion of location-aware devices. Plus mapping info. Plus user-generated content. Plus the social Internet. Geoweb is kind of in the middle of all four. Let's allow people a platform to create new, intelligent, location-based information about stuff. It’s very much like Wikipedia was when it started out.


What is geoweb? It's cartography/mapping plus geographic information systems (GIS). Here are the maps, and here we are layering information onto those maps.


Online evolution of mapping:

First there was Mapquest, and it was all about getting directions. Then came Microsoft Virtual Earth. They evolved. Then Google Earth came along and allowed people to browse all of this additional imagery. Bing is the latest iteration of Microsoft's offering.

Everybody is mapping the planet now, taking pictures and creating 3-D models. What's interesting in all that was a couple of breakthroughs in 2005. First, there was Google Earth--it allowed you to drop information on a map and it would stay there. But it was messy as it became a free-for-all. The second thing that happened was Google released an API, which allowed people to take Google’s maps and build information on top of it. So someone took the craigslist housing ads and put them all on a map. People created layers with demographics, businesses, etc. There are thousands of these mashups out there.

Then came crowdsourcing, or whatever you want to call it. Web 1.0 was about published content. What people are calling 2.0 brings a lot of user-generated content. Geoweb is a great place to create content, just like Wikipedia, which is a great example of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia just created a framework for users to create their content. It's a  great model for the geoweb. Flickr is a great example. Tons of photos up there that are geotagged. The information has a spatial context now. Yelp is another good one--it's about places. Google maps has really innovated in this space as well. My company, PublicEarth was focused on the Wikipedia model. And don’t forget Brightkite. You can add location context to so much information.

Google knows search, and geosearch has defined a number of standards. KML (keyhole markup language) is a standard that Google open-sourced (Google bought a company called Keyhole to get its maps started). Then there's GPX format for GPS devices. And finally the geoRSS standard, which makes your newsfeed location-aware. GeoRSS has location tagged to it, and that makes it location-searchable by users.

Google Maps:

You can search place names, businesses, user-created maps, real estate. When you go to user-created, it searches all the KML and geoRSS stuff. It’s a great way to tap into all this knowledge that people have been creating, like favorite hikes, etc. You can also search for Wikipedia articles--most of them are tied to places, if you think about it. Then there's the panoramic photos you can put onto the maps, so you can see landscapes and landmarks. And you can see Wikipedia articles layered on the maps. You can layer hiking trails, weather, animal migrations, watersheds--all the layers are being pulled from the geoweb that Google has been indexing.

OpenStreetMap: OSM is a map created by the users. Why rely on mapping companies? It's a nonprofit foundation that gives the maps away for free. The users own it. OSM tends to be more detailed than Google because the maps are created by the people who live there. It’s a really good example of the power of crowdsourcing, and it’s starting to get generally better than Google maps. Go to osm.org to contribute your own content.

Audience comment: In the old days when Mercator was in business, cartographers did have copyrights and they relied on travelers for their information--so crowdsourcing is really old.

Yes, but now we have great platform for this crowdsourcing that we didn't have back then. OSM is hot in Europe, starting to catch on in the U.S.

On the day of the Haiti earthquake, there was no good map of Port-au-Prince on line, which presented obvious problems to the relief effort. But then volunteers when nuts and totally mapped it out in OSM incredibly fast, and this was a great help to the aid workers. Google was simply unable to respond like that.


Local 2.0:

For want of a better term. A great migration is underway as everything goes from analog to digital, from offline to online. Paper street maps, yellow pages, and guidebooks are going away in favor of Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor.

You've got trail maps on your GPS device now, and you can share information across devices. Foursquare and Brightkite are mobile applications keeping track of where everybody is.


Augmented Reality?

Remember “virtual reality” with those cool helmets? Well that never panned out. But Augmented Reality now lets you hold your phone up and point at a location and your phone will tell you what you're looking at. Lets you tap into the geoweb based on where you’re standing. This is going to be huge. Think about your utility repair working pointing at the ground and seeing where all the underground cables are running beneath. There are some fascinating possibilities here.

The ones to watch:

There are a lot of companies in this space now. I think the three most interesting ones are Twitter, Google, and Facebook--they are likely to do well here. Google has the maps, street data, and mobile properties, and they are replacing the Yellow Pages. Google should make a huge amount of money there. Twitter is also interesting: If you go to your coffee shop, the shop may not have a web site, but the people working there have a Twitter account--and they're tweeting out specials, event news, etc. This sort of thing enables a direct relationship between companies and consumers. And now, these tweets can be geocoded. Facebook: Look at Yelp. It’s a kind of dysfunctional small social network, not really well structured. But Facebook is tied to real people. Everything on there is attached to a person. Your opinions are valuable, Facebook has won the social networking war, and it’s planning to enable geoweb in a major way. Real people will be reviewing all kinds of stuff and these reviews will be geotagged. That's a huge opportunity for Facebook.



Geoweb is already here--you use it whether you know it or not.


The sensor web:

All these location-aware devices are being connected and they are collecting information. Your phone knows where it is. Combine that with the “real-time web” and it gets really interesting: We will know where everything is, and what is happening, all the time. If we mine all those twitters, etc, then this will become true. Should be a wild ride ahead.




Q: What stops Google from taking advantage of OSM and all the detailed information it has?

A: OSM has a license where if you take the information, you have to make that data available for free, and Google doesn't want to do that.


Q: What about the history of places? Is there a time capsule of geoweb?

A: Google Earth does have some historic photo layers. Then there's Concharto: It overlays historical events, which people can edit. There are a number of products like that.


Q: What if I don't want to be geotracked? How do I opt out?

A: With cell phones, there is no opt out. For 911 purposes, all U.S. phones are mandated to be location-aware. Of course, that information is only supposed to be used for emergency purposes. People are concerned about privacy. You are being tracked, and the information tends to be anonymized. But not always. There's going to be interesting developments in the next few years here.


Q: Someone sued Google to get their house off of street-view. But if you're living on a public street, anyone can take a picture. That's just the way it is.


Q: You could spend your life looking at this information. Who is going to consolidate all this information? How do I keep up?

A: That's the Internet for you. The company I founded was based on trying to solve that very problem. Google is working on that too. It will be a combination of smart search and your own profile, so the results get personalized based on where you are and what you appear to be interested in. There's a lot of opportunity here to solve this problem.


Q: PleaseRobMe.com tracks people in real time. Tells the world when you’re not home. It's crazy!

A: There are some genuine concerns there. Of course there are other ways to track people that have been around a long time, but this just makes it a little easier.


Q: Do people argue over what information on OSM is correct? Like they do on Wikipedia?

A: Certainly, there are arguments going on about locations, historical stuff, whether you need a fishing license here or there, etc. As long as the output is generally positive, it works. OSM has huge discussion and comment systems about the information, just like Wikipedia.


Q: What’s the potential for thwarting this progression by companies that don't want to share certain information? Like Rupert Murdock pulling the Wall Street Journal from Google so it only appears on another search engine. Is this a trend on the horizon? What if it all isn't open?

A: I think Google is going to get sued for antitrust pretty soon. Some of this is happening. I don't want everyone to know about my secret fishing hole, for example. The information is becoming more independent. I think there's too much of the data out there, and it’s too distributed for it to be hidden.


Q: How are people using the content that Google owns?

A: Typically the map layer is a commodity that we reference, so we don't actually have to own it. But there are some potential challenges with people building businesses on top of Google Maps. Google is trying to keep their fingers into it to some extent.


Q: Does OSM have an API?

A: Yes, you can go ahead use it to do your own thing.


Q: What's coming to the U.S.?

A: Well, India just built a huge mapping network. Business has been revolutionized there with geo-applications. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in Europe. At this point, the U.S. is catching up. It's different in each country.


Q: Are the days of free information on the Internet going away? Will all this freely shared information go away once companies figure out how to grab it and charge for it?

A: The big media companies are getting worried, but the information will always be free. However, there will always be a monetization strategy surrounding it.


Q: What about open government? It seems like every government is opening up their data to the masses.

A: Data.gov is making data available now. It's all there and the U.S. has actually been pretty proactive about this. Google is using it too.


Q: OK, what's the best GIS phone?

A: That depends what you want to do with it. The iPhone is good with a compass and maps built in. Nokia and Google Android have software that’s a bit more open than Apple’s products. But basically you want one with a compass and GPS.

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