Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Blog maps, geographies of knowledge, and collaboration

Slate has a piece by Brian Montopoli on city “blog maps” that have been created to map bloggers living and blogging in Washington DC, New York, and London. Here’s the basic premise:

Some industrious blogger posts a subway map of his or her city… and then organizes the city’s blogs by the stop to which they are closest. If residents want to explore their neighborhood blogosphere, they simply click the section of the city that strikes their fancy. The result: Local bloggers find each other, exchange e-mails, meet up for drinks, and then generally do the same things as neighbors who stumble upon each other in the real world.

But blog maps offer another benefit: an alternative city guide that enables a little point-and-click sightseeing….

So far as I can tell, these maps aren’t automatically generated: each of them has a link for people to add their blogs to a list (I think I’ll e-mail the creators to find out more about how their sites work), and geocoding isn’t exactly commonplace yet for blogs. In their current form, these are interesting science experiments, but not scalable.

But they are still very interesting, because they represent garage-coding attempts to tie together the physical world, local geography and culture, and digital information. It gets really exciting– and scalable, or P2Pable– when you start mixing in GIS information. There is a gigantic amount of geographical data that’s very well-coded (geographers are very fussy) and in machine-readable form. By geocoding blogs (or for even more precision, blog entries), you can pretty quickly build automatic associations between information and places.

It’s already pretty easy to geocode a blog: GeoURL can help you do it (and check out the cool maps while you’re there). Blog geocoding is what makes the lovely global blog map work (see this earlier post). It’s not yet quite as easy to do GIS metadata for blog entries (though that probably wouldn’t be too hard to do): there’s blogmapper, but getting it to work requires a level of technical facility that 99%+ of bloggers don’t have.

More to the point, there’s not a whole lot that you can do yet with entry-level GIS information. But why would it be worth it to associate blogs and blog entries with geographical coordinates? What’s the payoff?

You might think of GIS coordinates in a blog entry as being kind of like hyperlinks to the real world. (Steven Johnson, in this Discover article, calls them “real-world URLs,” or “a kind of 3-D version of the Internet, a hypertext Web spun out in real-world geography.”) The REAL payoff starts to come when you can read data associated with a place IN THAT PLACE. For example, if you’re in an unfamiliar place, you could fire up your wireless PDA, and find other people’s blogged reports on what’s nearby, what’s worth visiting, what to avoid. (I tried to spin that out a little in something I wrote in January; it’s in the extended essay.) You could leave notes for people in places– the digital equivalent of a message on the dorm bulletin board, but available only to a particular person or group. Someone has suggested suggests a hiking blog, “a big collaborative map that’d have information that no single map publisher can put out right now.” There are also commercial possibilities: a service in which you break up a city guide (or many volumes of reference works on a city, its history, museums, etc., along wiht some memoirs, old maps and photos, etc.) and have that information available in real time/real place.

But it’s not the ecommerce opportunities that are really exciting. My sense is that what drives these early experiments is a sense– an instinct, really– that geoblogging could be a great example of creating collective knowledge, a tangible example of how (as Dan Gillmor says) all of us can be smarter than each of us. Geoblogging would allow us to create immensely detailed records of places and events, without having to have a central editorial authority oversee that project: it would basically self-organize.

[from an e-mail I sent to a colleague, 17 January 2003]

Amazon.com and other retail sites already use review and recommendation systems to gather and redistribute customer-generated information about goods. It would be a simple matter to create such services for places rather than things, and allow patrons to write their own reviews. As more people carry wireless information devices, and move from voice-and-SMS cell phones to ones offering Web access, it will become easier for patrons to write these in real time, and to read them. (Michael Kinsley, in a put-down of online communities, famously said that he didn’t want the person at the next table cooking his meal. Maybe so, but it can still be useful to know if that person thought tonight’s roasted chicken with garlic pesto and polenta was dry.)

A more intriguing, user-driven system could build off of the blogging phenomenon. 802.11b-equipped bloggers are already publishing near-real time accounts of conferences and other singular events, writing about their travels, and describing last night’s visit to the trendy new restaurant. The blogging movement has also been enthusiastic in its embrace of XML, and has developed tools for tagging, repurposing, and republishing content (most notably RSS, which lets you to turn blog entries into news feed that others can subscribe to).

Add location tracking and XML tags to indicate the geographical location of entries, and you have all the components of a smart shopper system. Here’s how it would work. Let’s say during a trip to London you discover some wonderful, out-of-the-way tea shop and bakery that’s not in any guidebook. You spend a pleasant couple hours there, writing about your day, and describing the shop: it looks modest on the outside, but the cranberry scones are to die for, and the owners are friendly. Before posting it, you geocode the entry. Now, someone wandering that street could search for information about restaurants in the area, and find your entry.

Or, imagine that while writing your thesis [Ed: yes, I spent too long in school!], you spend a lot of time in a little circle of cafes, cheap Chinese restaurants, and your corner microbrewery. Naturally, when you write in those places, you sometimes also write about those places. Visitors looking for a bit of local color or students looking for vibrant public culture could find your descriptions of late nights wrestling with Hegel, the merits of the beef vs. shrimp chow fun, and a tipsy discourse on superiority of the chocolate stout over the amber.

Because these entries are also time-stamped, users can also filter them chronologically. You could look for today’s reviews when choosing a restaurant (who cares if it got 3 stars last year? I want to know if the salmon is fresh TODAY!), but look at the last year’s postings when looking for a lively caf (do interesting people come here?).

For retailers, short entries would be part testimonial and part review. Longer or serial entries would constitute something new: a story in which their store was a character. As the old saw goes, you can’t buy that kind of publicity.

For writers and users, the result will be a cross between blogs, recommendation systems, and digital graffiti. Not only would this content be useful to other readers; it would be a way to leave a virtual mark upon a place, to commemorate its meaning in writers’ lives a way to preserve one’s experiences and contribute to the public culture, and a record of the social life of a place.

2 Comments

  1. Even better concept if you could engage an H2G2 sort of encyclopedic class of persons to commit to the scheme. Then we’ll know exactly which towels to take along on journeys, and at which outlet of Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy them.

    It will be a much cooler concept when it’s easier to get precise coordinates without a GPS. I tried to locate myself on multiple resources, and can get reliable info only to the hundredths place in my lat/lon. In the meantime, Amazon.com has my exact address…

    Victoria
    (41.84 x -87.78)

  2. It strikes me too that grabbing GPS coordinates has to be no harder than getting a URL or e-mail address for this to work. So for example, if I’m blogging on my PDA, the PDA would have to equipped with a GPS chip, and automatically insert my coordinates into a META tag. There ARE people who will go hiking, collect GPS coordinates, then write about each spot, but that’s serious early adopter stuff.

    Alex
    (37.4762 x -122.1875)

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