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.

At the Communia Workshop (organized by the Open Knowledge Foundation) yesterday and today we talked about opening up government data sources for the wider public, so others can build their own mash-ups and applications with that data. Most of the existing examples shown were map-based one way or another. That led to some discussion, with some asking why (Google-)maps were so prominent in the examples, and why not focus on some of the other great data sources out there, and others saying that your geographic location is so central to most of what you do that maps are logically the center piece of most mash-ups, and therefore the starting point for opening up government data.

Example of a random Google-maps based representation of information: European Songfestival songs

Now of course, mobile applications are all over geo-data as well, under the collective name of location based services.
I would like to propose a slightly different approach to location based services, by looking at them as context based services (a term I also heard Felix Petersen of Nokia/Plazes use at Shift last fall). Now, your geographic location is always part of your context. But it might not be the most important part of your context in a given situation. Elements in a context are often more interesting because of their relative position to you or each other, not so much because of their absolute position. So let’s make a distinction between geographic location as an important part of my context, and maps.

For me as I write this, it is relevant to know where the nearest Tube-station is, and how far in which general direction I need to walk to get there. I don’t care where exactly on the map I am however. If I had a map, I could infer how far I need to walk etc, but if I can know directly, I do not need to know my location nor a map to see where to go.

Screenshot of Google Latitude, showing 2 contacts in Amsterdam

Also, if you look at e.g. Google’s Latitude, it is interesting to know where my friends and contacts are. But I really don’t care where exactly they are. I only really want to know when they are near me, especially when they are nearer than usual, and inversely when they are further away from me than usual. It is relevant for me to know if a friend from North America is currently in the Netherlands, as that is an opportunity to meet up, or if we happen to find ourselves in the same city or region somewhere (Dopplr is an excellent example of this, which really does not need maps). It is relevant for me, when I try to phone somebody, to know I will not be reaching them in their normal location or time zone but half a world away. It possibly leads to a different decision on how important and relevant it is to call them. But to make that revised decision I do not need to know an exact location and look them up on a map. Jaiku‘s status messages about location or availability e.g. are good enough for that. In the same way, I would be interested to know which of my LinkedIn contacts are in the same building as I am, but that does not imply I need to know where the building is, or where the other person was before (s)he entered the building.

So let’s look at context more than mapped location when it comes to building our apps and mash-ups. That will free us from our current heavy map-focus, while not ignoring the underlying importance of our geographic location to our current context. A promising example is Wikitude AR (see video), that gives you info on your immediate surroundings without resorting to maps (though it can show you a map as well)

Also it allows us to think of more context based services, moving beyond immediate geographic location.
What other factors in your context are worth considering, comparing, sharing, interacting with?

Adding metadata to stuff can be a pain in your proverbial back-end. Especially if you, like me, take a lot of pictures, but do not own a camera that adds GPS coords automatically for you.
Lucky for me, the guys at Sumaato Labs (based in Hamburg, Germany) have made my life geotagging photos in Flickr a whole lot easier. Because they’ve built the Localize Bookmarklet
Here is how it works. You drag the bookmarklet to your toolbar (Firefox) or bookmarks (IE).
Open up a Flickr photo page.

Hit the bookmarklet…..and you’ll get Google Maps right there in your Flickr page.

Search your location. And put the arrow where you want it.

Save, while adding a little description if you want.

And now the geodata is stored in three places. Under the pic, in the tags, and in the Flickr Additional Info section. Cool! Don’t you just love AJAX and API’s when it’s used like this?
Another elegant feature: it remembers the last location you used for geotagging. Because your next picture is more likely to have been taken near there.

Oh and one more thing. I really miss the geotagging feature in Plazes for Flickr photos (as Plazes already know where I am/was, I could skip the interaction with a map.)