Tackling Issues on the Edges of Geospatial: The New York State Geospatial Summit

June 15, 2007

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This was year two for the New York State Geospatial Summit and organizers presented another thought provoking, eye-opening event. Speakers highlighted topics around the edges of what "heads down" GIS professionals do, and from the feedback I heard, that was a most welcome change and a breath of fresh air.

To be fair, the air in Skaneateles (pronounced "skinny-atlas"), New York was quite fresh already. The town name means "long lake" and it is located in the Finger Lakes region of the state. The event attendees had free rein over the rustic, two-level, water-adjacent Welch-Allyn Lodge. Welch-Allyn makes medical equipment next door and makes the space available to the community.

The pre-event on Thursday evening featured Dr. Richard Luli of The Climate Project, Al Gore's team of folks spreading the word on his "Inconvenient Truth" story. Luli talked through some 160 slides that captivated even those who had read the book or seen the movie. This group of well-educated, attentive people was stunned silent when this "regular guy" (his PhD is not in climate studies) offered up the evidence for global warming. I came away thinking this is one of those talks you need to hear regularly, like the ones about metadata and eating right.

I want to share some thoughts on the "further from GIS" talks that were presented during the plenary session on Friday.

Derrick Crandall is president and CEO of the American Recreation Coalition, a non-profit group that wants to get people outdoors. As such the group does research, keeps an eye on legislation, and tries to get out the message of encouraging "fun outdoors." Crandall shared a challenge that hits close to home with technologists: getting kids to recreate outside of the 6.5 hours a typical sixth-grader spends in front of a screen (TV, computer, iPod…). The research is fascinating. Kids, it turns out, are well aware of why they congregate in fast food places - there are triggers (like signs on the highway) that lure them there and allow them to network with others. If there were similar triggers for outdoor activities, perhaps they'd make those choices. Crandall explained how groups pushing the outdoors need to use the triggers that get to young people: text messaging, MySpace and the like. He also noted that at one time technology was seen as the enemy of outdoor activity. Now, he said, the goal is to make it a "friend." In fact, a study done with young people involving a treasure hunt was rated much higher when it involved GPS than when it did not.

Erin Aigner, a graphics editor for the New York Times, considers herself a cartographer. She showed many examples of her work for the Times and recounted many of the same challenges in creating maps for the paper and website that we face: getting data, getting things done on a deadline and the disappointment when a final product is not used. She did offer praise for the Web: it means not just maps, but full color maps, are available even if they are not in the paper.

Ok, now back to GIS. Michael Jones, CTO of Google Earth, wrapped up the event, as he did last year. Jones does a remarkable job of weaving together commentary on the state of geo in the world and Google's plans and place therein. He observed that what we geogeeks think is interesting about geospatial technologies is quite different from what the general public considers interesting. Angelina Jolie recently tattooed her arm with the locations of the birth places of her four children. She felt that was important. Perhaps equally interesting, an online publication in Europe, I believe, actually posted Google Maps of those locations! That may seem silly and unimportant to us, but clearly it's not to Jolie. Jones cited other examples of individuals worldwide modeling structures of importance to them in SketchUp and posting them to the 3D Warehouse for use in Google Earth. Again, those places, those buildings and monuments are important to them.

Jones was kind enough to provide a sneak preview of something no one outside of Google had seen: books in Google Earth. Recall that Google has scanned in text of many out-of-copyright books (and others) and performed character recognition to create searchable text. Now, the company has taken it one step further and posted locations found in some of those texts (the demo showed only publicly available ones if I recall correctly) to Google Earth. When you click on a placemark you jump to the book's page and to the exact page on which the location information was found. You also find a Google Map of all the places mentioned in the book.

Back on Google Earth, there's a timeline slider so that you can see books "pop up" as you move through time. And, if many books cite the same location (Chicago, say), Google Earth cleverly arranges a subset in an orderly circle around the city to avoid clutter. I have to say I felt a bit vindicated because my presentation earlier in the day highlighted the coming importance of time in online mapping solutions, as well as the Google Experimental (part of Google Labs) "Map View" technology for locating results of Google searches on a map.

Perhaps even more interesting to me than Jones' formal presentation was the question period. Don Cooke addressed a previous speaker’s excitement over Second Life, asking if Google was heading into that sort of space. No, Jones explained, "we are trying to build the first life." Another questioner referred to the recurring news stories about Google "censoring" imagery. Jones replied that Google has not done this. (That's something the company continues to say but which, alas, prompts all sorts of news stories.) He did note that after some requests the company did "roll back" some imagery of Iraq; somehow that seems to fall into a different category.

Jones did note that other portals address the "censorship" issue differently. In the Netherlands, they don't block out areas of concern, but rather take trees from other areas and use them to fill the areas of concern. France's GeoPortail simply plops a white blob over such areas.

Another question had to do with licensing, in particular, the difference between using Google Earth for personal and professional reasons. Jones made it clear that the license "was not about where you install the software, but how you use it." For example, if the boss asks you to create a map for a presentation, that'd be professional. If you were at work but looking for a car dealership at which to buy a new car for the family, that'd be personal use.

Jones also addressed, perhaps for my benefit, the brouhaha over the number of Google Earth users he cited at Where 2.0 and in his presentation at the Summit. He had offered up 200,000,000 and noted that number was larger than the populations of some counties, including Brazil. Now, some folks writing on the matter got all up in knots about how that measure of downloads could not be correct because with a new version of the software coming out regularly, most of us have downloaded Google Earth multiple times. Jones explained to the group at Skaneateles that, in fact, the download mechanism codes by IP address, so if you download several times from the same IP address, it still counts as one download. And, of course, not everyone downloads the software; some get it on a CD from a friend or by other means.

I again applaud conference organizers for an event that made all those in attendance think differently not only about the technology that brings us together, but about what we do with it out in the world.


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