My colleagues Emily and Frank have in the past months been contributing our company’s work on ethical data use to the W3C’s Spatial Data on the Web Interest Group.

The W3C now has published a draft document on the responsible use of spatial data, to invite comments and feedback. It is not a normative document but aims to promote discussion. Comments can be filed directly on the Github link mentioned, or through the group’s mailing list (subscribe, archives).

The purpose of this document is to raise awareness of the ethical responsibilities of both providers and users of spatial data on the web. While there is considerable discussion of data ethics in general, this document illustrates the issues specifically associated with the nature of spatial data and both the benefits and risks of sharing this information implicitly and explicitly on the web.

Spatial data may be seen as a fingerprint: For an individual every combination of their location in space, time, and theme is unique. The collection and sharing of individuals spatial data can lead to beneficial insights and services, but it can also compromise citizens’ privacy. This, in turn, may make them vulnerable to governmental overreach, tracking, discrimination, unwanted advertisement, and so forth. Hence, spatial data must be handled with due care. But what is careful, and what is careless? Let’s discuss this.

2013 artwork by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. Located at the Greenwich Meridian, the sign marks the distance from itself in miles around the globe. Image by Alex Liivet, license CC-BY

Recently at the Crafting {:} a Life unconference fellow participant and all around Internet Gentleman Olle hosted a session on fantasy cartography. Today I came across these excellent examples of using fictional maps, those of Middle Earth, to explore the possibilities of professional geographic information tools.

In short, Frodo could have saved half his travel time, cutting it by over 3 months, by spending some time on data analysis and route mapping first to get to the route that is the safest direct route against lowest effort.

Alternative routes into Mordor

Or should he have flown? (Fly you fools!)

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.