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Location-Based Internet Communities

By br284 in Internet
Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 05:59:13 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Geographic Information System technology has traditionally been relegated to the domain of generating maps and driving directions online. What would happen if you combined a modern GIS system and an online community?

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For the past year, I have been doing extensive work on open XML-based geographic technologies. I am almost at the point of my personal holy grail -- a mapping system with a comprehensive base map, the tools to dynamically generate maps from the base map data, and the tools to build upon the base map by contributing feature data. I have a couple of applications already in the pipeline that must be completed, but I'm eyeing some of the more interesting things that can be accomplished with this technology.

The idea that I've been rolling around in my head is what happens when you combine the idea of an Internet community such as Kuro5hin and allowing community members the ability contribute to a shared map? This idea would probably be realized in the form of a website that is user-driven (that is, users are distinguishable by identifiers and users gain reputations based upon the type and quality of content submitted) and user-supplied content consists of locations and interesting things or events that are associated with the locations. Users would be allowed to create private maps that consists of the base map and any content that the user would overlay on the base map, and users would be allowed to access content publicly provided by other users. A couple of use cases:

  1. The Single User Version - A user finds themselves in a new general geographic area. The user does not know the area much, but as they become more familiar with the area, they begin to keep track of where interesting things are. Interesting things could consist of a cozy out-of-the-way cafe, an optimal route to work in the mornings, where something interesting happened ("Geo-Log: Location X, Y. Ran across beautiful redhead watering a lawn."), etc. The single user could input the data into such this system and keep a log of these things. The user would be able to search their logs based upon certain queries ("Show me all cafes and redheads in the area bounded by X,Y->X,Y.") and dynamically generate maps for personal use.

  2. Circle of Friends Version - A circle of friends (not necessarily in the same general locations) could get together and agree to create a shared map of interesting things. This could work well if one member of the circle finds something at a certain place and wishes that the other friends could locate the thing later on. This works well in cases where one member lives in a certain locale and has the foresight to mark things that might be interesting to the other friends. For instance if one lived in Chicago and found a nightclub that the other friends would enjoy, they would record the location. Later on, when one of the others were in the same area, they could generate a map that showed where things like this club might be. What makes this approach interesting is that it is not limited to specific locales, and could be used potentially anywhere. For instance, I could mark the locations of interesting reefs in the Caribbean that friends could find years later.

  3. Larger Community Version - One could imagine a community of users who are not necessarily intimate with each other but sharing a common cause making use of such a system. One of ones that I ran across today is Seattle Wireless. In a nutshell, Seattle Wireless is a community of people dedicated to establishing public wireless networks that cover the Seattle area. Participation in the network consists setting up an 802.11b network hub that others in the vicinity can use. In this respect, there is a strong geographic component to the community's mission -- finding where the hubs are as to estimate the coverage areas. Indeed, Seattle Wireless has identified this issue and is currently looking for resources that would allow web-based mapping of their nodes. A website like this would fill this niche well.

These are a couple of potential use cases, though I will admit that there are many more that I've not even imagined, much less described here. Furthermore, there is the potential for problems with an openly available system. For example, what does one do when a vandal decides to wreck the system by contributing volumes of worthless data that slows the systems and clutters others maps? Furthermore, how should the site support eyes-only private data, or should it support it at all? One of the things that would be interesting about these problems is that they have already been solved, or largely addressed in areas such online discussion boards and journal weblogs. While there would be problems that would pop up that I cannot imagine at the moment, I anticipate that most of them are solvable.

Now that the technology for building these types of things are becoming available, is there an interest in these types of sites? Should these sites be standalone sites focusing on the geographic aspects, or are they better as additional modules in existing web-based communities like the one here. What interesting ways can one imagine using these systems, and what non-trivial problems could arise? I'm interested in this community's input.

(If anyone's interested in some of the technical details, post below and I'll do my best to answer your questions.)


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GeoJournal.Org: What would you use it for?
o Generating base maps for use elsewhere 4%
o Keeping a geographic log primarily for personal use 23%
o Sharing cool places with family and friends 14%
o Using it as a tool to augment an existing community's mission 14%
o Would not use it, not interested 14%
o Would not use it, privacy concerns 19%
o Other... Will describe how below 4%
o Other... I don't care to describe how 4%

Votes: 21
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o Seattle Wireless
o Also by br284

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Location-Based Internet Communities | 14 comments (14 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
BBS Revival? (none / 0) (#1)
by epepke on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:08:41 PM EST

One of the things I miss about the old BBS days is the intimacy and local relevance. I wonder if an application of this technology could revive them.

It wouldn't work with K5 and its "-1, too Western Hemisphere" people.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

Internet Furry Proximity Locator (4.00 / 1) (#2)
by chipuni on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:23:56 PM EST

The furries have had something similar for years, available at "http://ifpl.cattech.org". You might want to talk with Zorin (the fellow who created it), asking whether Kuro5hin can use the code.
Perfection is not reached when nothing more can be added, but only when nothing more can be taken away.
Wisdom for short attention spans.
IFPL (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by br284 on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:45:00 PM EST

I just checked out the IFPL. It is similar to what I am thinking, though one of the differences between the IFPL approach and mine would be a more pervasive integration of graphical maps than what is available at the IFPL.

Furthermore, the approach that I am advocating here is rather than be limited by having an account and seeing lists of things close to you, in order of proximity, a user would be able to enter a geographic range (due to some constraints as to keep the system responsive) and see what is in that range. For instance, imagine that K5'ers used such a system and posted where they lived (not a good idea for some of them), I could see where some lived in an area that I might be visiting. Now, this raises issues itself, but I think they are more of the "what kind of information do I wish to make public" types of issues that have been dealt with in other areas, and are largely a matter of site and personal policy.

One way to imagine what I'm advocating is a MapQuest-like server where people can add to the map and others can see the users' modifications.


[ Parent ]
Sharing (none / 0) (#3)
by enterfornone on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:26:34 PM EST

Problem is, once people have an efficient way of sharing "fave cafe" etc. you could end up with a nasty case of "Lonely Planet has destroyed X" that you often see on travel boards. A lot of people don't want you to have an easy way to share information on their fave cafe (or their fave redhead for that matter).

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A way to deal with it. (none / 0) (#4)
by br284 on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:35:33 PM EST

Well, one way that I imagine will deal with this problem is to implement an access control mechanism such that you can restrict access to the feature data to any of three parties, yourself, a group of people, or everyone else. (Idea shamelessly stolen from the Unix world.) Thus, if you still wanted to share the data, but only to a subset of the general population, you could set up an access list of who is allowed access to the location data.

Another idea not mentioned is the ability to contribute to an existing feature. For example, suppose you want to map a long hiking trail (perhaps one of those multi-state things). You could map one part of it, your buddy another, and another buddy maps another part... I don't know of any immediate value that this provides other than you don't have to walk the trail yourself, but I'm sure someone can and will figure out something to do with it. So, with this, you have a permission framework even closer to the Unix model with other users being allowed or denied read and write permissions.


[ Parent ]
Thoughts (none / 0) (#5)
by Wondertoad on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:36:11 PM EST

One of the ideas that every internet entrepreneur has is the "local portal". But precious few of them seem to have become anything at all.

Like most dot-com ideas, getting to critical mass is most of the problem. If only everyone would contribute data! we all say. Well, people need a motive - even if they tend to do things out of kindness, there are many other requests for that type of participation.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Streets and Trips accomplishes your single-use case very well indeed. IMO, it's the second-best software title ever published by that firm (the best being Age of Empires).

No large critical mass (none / 0) (#8)
by br284 on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 05:56:48 PM EST

In order for the site to become successful and provide value to the users, people and their respective circles have to be users and contribute data. This makes any critical mass issues largely irrelevent as there is not a single critical mass that must be reached (Metcalfe's Law), but more and smaller critical masses amongst the groups using the system. Or rephrased, the number of people that you don't know will probably not be contributing data that interests you, thus will be mostly irrelevent as an indicator for value. People you know will be contributing interesting data, and the quantity of these people is the dominating factor that will determine user value.

Furthermore, for some of the things that I mentioned above (buddy sharing, and Seattle Wireless), I think that it is trivial to achieve these smaller critical masses as there is no sites offering this service. The buddies decide to share geodata and they signup at the site. Seattle Wireless sees what they like, and tell their users to use the site to enter node locations. This is possible because there is no open and free solution to these types of problems that have the low barrier to entry that a site like this would have.

Also, you ignore the base map which is a large part of the value proposition offered to users. Since it consists of much of the same data companies like MapInfo and MapQuest use to generate their maps (US Census TIGER data), users can begin using the site for themselves, or in their circles without having to depend upon other users to enter the data that their base map will be based upon.

Now, the dynamics of this situation would be radically different if there were competitors offering similar services, but since this is not a business plan or venture of any sort, it is also largely irrelevent. I expect that this would be something that cost someone money to run (like k5) and that traditional GIS companies would have an interest in catering to a free community market.

In short, this would be something done to enhance the public commons and not to make a buck.


[ Parent ]
Implications (none / 0) (#6)
by dennis on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 04:42:04 PM EST

You can take it further: if you have wireless internet everywhere with combined access device/GPS unit, you can get people's comments onsite as you walk around. There are already people working on this.

A good system to keep the quality up might be a wiki, where anyone can edit anyone else's comments, and there's a version history so anyone can correct vandalism. It seems to work well for wikis on the web, maybe it would for this too.

Distributed, not centralized (5.00 / 2) (#9)
by baka_boy on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 06:10:06 PM EST

I think this is a great idea, and have a simple suggestion for how to keep the S/N ratio high, while still keeping the system open and community-centric.

If you look at the success of standalone weblog software like Radio or Greymatter, a lot of the power of the system derives from the ad-hoc networks that spring up between related individuals or sites. Because there are a few simple pieces of glue that link the sites to each other (RSS, XML-RPC, HTTP), and every contributor is responsible for creating, categorizing, and linking their content into the larger system, there doesn't have to be a single leader or control system that keeps everything in check.

This makes the tools and information much more dynamic and lets new communities more or less create themselves. People can easily aggregate a number of trusted streams on the fly, and merge them into a single data set, randomly select new sources, etc., all without the designers of the system being required to babysit the entire process.

So, applying this an information space structured around a real-world geography, the primary role for each community "server" would simply be to associate links to externally-hosted and authored content with geographic locations, while the "client" would then select from these streams based on pre-established trust relationships, searches, or any other metric they desired.

Of course, since a web site would be an extremely valuable interface to this system, the client/server distinctions could become somewhat arbitrary, or even follow a hierarchy. Individual users might actually utilize some sort of portal site, which acted as a proxy to the larger network.

Dave Winer and Jon Udell have both written at length about this kind of spontaneous network architecture, and the blogging community is a good example of it being successfully applied.

Oh, and in case it wasn't obvious, I would be extremely interested in working on this, too. I even have some programming experience to back up all this wanking.

Shared Transportation (none / 0) (#10)
by lucidvein on Tue Mar 05, 2002 at 10:06:24 PM EST

I've never understood how GPS would be personally useful. But now I can think of a few good examples.

RideShare and Carpool. An easier way to find drivers and riders. Convenient pick up routes. And up to the minute location of the vehicle.

Seattle has something similar for the bus system. All buses send GPS location updates which can be viewed here... http://busview.its.washington.edu/. (Requires JAVA)

San Fransisco has the Casual Carpool in which people offer rides in order to take advantage of the carpool lanes on the bridges.

On the other hand, an open database of locators for people seems open to privacy abuse by several groups (stalkers, marketers, FEDs).

If you don't contribute your location to our database, then the terrorists have already won.

Cooltown (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by jacoplane on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 11:36:06 AM EST

Hewlett-Packard has developed a system which should support Location-Based Communities. It is called CoolTown. As I understand it, their system would allow people to leave messages behind at a certain location. So, say you were to walk to the front door of a restaurant, your cooltown-aware agent would pick up messages previous customers had left there. But the site explains it better thant i can.

CoolTown's focus (none / 0) (#12)
by baka_boy on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 02:59:38 PM EST

The HP project, while very interesting, seems to be much more focused on pervasive computing than linking GIS data into online resources or communities. Also, given their focus on hardware (at least in the whitepapers and overviews on the CoolTown site), it requires a significant amount of infrastructure and capital that just isn't there yet.

Once everyone already has a Bluetooth phone, PDA, and printer, and the CoolTown "tags" have been scattered all over the place, I could see their ideas being really appealing. In the meantime, bringing some amount GIS-based technology to online groups like the K5 readership seems like a reasonable first step.

[ Parent ]

Sounds ideal (none / 0) (#13)
by Tatarigami on Wed Mar 06, 2002 at 05:47:43 PM EST

I have a group of friends who are managing to do something similar to what I think you're proposing, using a combination of websites, mailing lists and forums. It's a complicated arrangement, but we share some interests which means there's always plenty of content.

Centralising this whole mess would do good things for the small community we've created, and others in the same situation.

For those interested... (none / 0) (#14)
by br284 on Thu Mar 07, 2002 at 09:45:26 AM EST

For those that are interested, I've thrown up a preliminary project page for these ideas. If you are interested in following this, please submit your e-mail address on the interest form and I'll work towards establishing a mailing list and updating people as things happen.

The URL is http://aetherial.net/geo-journal.


Location-Based Internet Communities | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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