Last week was a bit of a roller coaster starting in Las Vegas for the American Association of Geographers annual meeting and ending at Gov20Camp in Washington DC. In many ways the 2009 AAG meeting was a coming out party for the GeoWeb. There was a critical mass of presentations – well over twenty, and several respected figures discussing the GeoWeb’s impact on the traditional study of geography. Mike Goodchild’s talk on Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) was packed and focused on the impact of several GeoWeb innovations ranging from OpenStreetMap to geotagged Flickr photos. Much of Goodchild’s work has been focused on the rigor (metadata, ground truthing etc.) of VGI, which despite skepticism is emerging with surprising levels of accuracy.
Jack Dangermond’s talk explicitly called out the growing importance and role of amateur geographers, comparing their contributions to the amateur astronomy community. He even envisioned the emergence of a GeoFlickr where the community shared and remixed ESRI layer packages. While both talks had their unique quirks and perspectives on the GeoWeb/neogeography each acknowledged its growing importance in mainstream geography and GIS. I thought this was a subtle but interesting shift from previous talks that were couched in a shade more skepticism.
The particular session I presented at was entitled “Is Google Good For Geography?”. I think the title was largely chosen for its alliteration and being a bit provocative, but made for an interesting and engaging session. There were two sessions and the papers were spilt with 75% taking a critical theory approach to answering the question and about 25% taking a qualitative or quantitative approach to the general subject matter. If the Wikipedia page does not give you a flavor of critical theory – one paper posited that Google creates, “the tyranical majority in a dystopian algorithmic space”. While this can border on sounding almost farcical, well researched critical theory can provide valuable insights if you can cut through the obtuse vocabulary.
For my presentation I tried to play it down the middle of the road and provide as objective an analysis as possible. That said GeoCommons is a GeoWeb application and my opinions trend in that direction. I’ve embedded the presentation below:
(if you download the presentation the notes provide more depth to the arguments)
The point I was trying to drive at in the presentation was that geography as a discipline is missing the big picture when it comes to the GeoWeb and Google. While critical theory has its place and makes several valid points, the most important thing is the public actual cares about geography now, and we need to use the opportunity to better educate the public. For every criticism leveled in the session there are current initiatives in the community to address them. I’d wager that Google spends a good amount of time thinking about them although we rarely know it till they launch something. That said I’d put solid Vegas odds on it being much harder to say Google’s cartography is homogeneous in the future.
Back to the point, geographers need to engage in the conversation the community is having on the very problems and issues they highlight in their papers. Some geographers were annoyed that the community was not coming to them and acknowledging their work. I think this is the exact insular attitude that has made the discipline less relevant in the first place. It is all about out reach and communicating with the public if you want your research to matter, in my opinion at least.
Mike Goodchild, acting as the discussant, closed the session with his own set of questions and insight. Including reversing the question “is Geography good for Google?”. Although the more controversial statement he posed was that next year the topic should be, “Is Microsoft better for geography?”. A backhanded way of concluding that Google is good for geography, which I believe was the consensus with appropriate caveats.
The question this begged for me was, what is the difference in Microsoft’s mapping efforts that would make them better – outside of a partnership with ESRI…. Would love to hear some opinions one way or the other.
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