Last Friday I was interviewed for a magazine about my thoughts on maps. This because I will be giving the opening key-note at the yearly conference of the GIS (geo information services) community in the Netherlands in September. The theme for the conference is ‘the power of maps’, and they interviewed me about my planned talk.
Now, I don’t know what I will be presenting in September, as I usually prepare my talks very shortly before a conference. So this interview was a good way of getting some first thoughts formulated. Here’s me thinking out loud.
Maps are fascinating
Maps are fascinating artefacts to me. Not just because of what they show to help me navigate in the now, but also, if not more, because of the patterns of past behavior they show. From a city map you can see a lot of its history. Street patterns are the fossilized emergent patterns of complex human interaction in a bygone age. Maps as (historical) data visualization not just as a navigation aid or information overview.
Map of the original grants of village lots from the Dutch West India Company to the inhabitants of New Amsterdam
Geo data is a key ingredient in open data
In most open data applications some sort of geo component is being used. It is one of the key ways other types of data are contextualized for a user of an application. To present information relative to me and my current or future position, to be able to compare my own actions to those of others around me, etc. This however does not need to have a map as my primary interface. In fact I’d rather have an interface that helps me solve my problems or helps me decide. And I certainly don’t want to see clumsy maps, like those you have on hotel booking sites, where the map is mostly just an illustration. Why can’t I e.g. use the map there as input method? Draw a rectangle on a map and show me the hotels in it that fit my other search criteria (availability, style and comfort, free wifi, price, in that order)? Or why not show me all the hotels within x minutes on foot or by public transport from a specific spot (like a conference venue), in a similar way as what Mapnificent is doing.
Knowledge nomads have loosened themselves from the map
In my professional network there are many that don’t have strong geo located roots anymore. In the 20th century it made sense to ask ‘where are you from’ but no longer. The question now gets a slightly uncomfortable stare and increasingly vague answers like ‘I currently work from Berlin’ or ‘I’ve just spent a few months in Barcelona’. These knowledge nomads are like flocks of birds, ever on the move, never really in a place in the traditional sense of ‘being from there’. Connections are to social networks, projects, interests, that of course will have locations attached to them always. But location is a temporary choice at most, and a side-effect of other choices most of the time. And air travel makes moving around like taking the underground: you go from one place to another without much noticing the in-between, or having the sensation of movement.
In that context maps and things like nation states become much less relevant. It is the hyper-local that becomes more relevant as a result, but a hyper-local bubble around my current position. An old Medieval notion of being in a digitalized world. Where are my contacts in town at the moment? Where are interesting places to eat, drink and have fun? Where is a coffee bar within 500 meters of my current position that my network thinks provides good coffee? What is currently happening at the spot I will be arriving at in 30 minutes? What is happening where that will impact, or needs to, my current actions and choices (traffic jams, road blocks, events, freak weather, etc.)? This is why I used Plazes, and use Foursquare, Google Latitude and Dopplr. See some earlier thoughts on this hyper local bubble and the ‘real time web’.
Berlin on Flickr: Blue pictures are by locals. Red pictures are by tourists
The map no longer a ‘thing’ in itself?
So as knowledge nomads ‘do more nomading’ maps get less relevant as a product or service in itself, but location contextualized information that influences my actions, choices and my relationships to my networks is getting more and more important. Does it mean maps and geo in general will go ‘under the hood’ of the applications and tools I will be using? Where geo is an ingredient for context, and a way of bridging and combining very different data sets, but mostly unseen at the surface?
I think there might be a lot of new added value in the map, if we let go of the map. The map is never the landscape. In order to be valuable the map needs to become a part of the landscape at least however: the mobile landscape that is my life.