27 July 2007

everything happens somewhere

With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking -- today's New York Times. (I think you have to register, but it's free.)

The headline basically says what the article's about, and points me to some things I didn't know about -- for example, Flickr, the photo-sharing service, now allows people to tag their photos with information about their location.

It'll be interesting to see which locations are overrepresented and which are underrepresented in the ones where people take photos. I've spent a fair bit of time Googling various intersections in Philadelphia and seeing which ones get a lot of hits; obviously intersections which are landmarks of one sort or another get a lot of hits, but even intersections of two quiet residential streets will have vastly differing numbers of hits, depending on -- it seems -- how wired the neighborhood in question is. It appears to not just be a question of socioeconomic status, but also of the age of the people living in the neighborhood; neighborhoods with lots of young adults have a higher profile on the web, which isn't surprising. Also, Philadelphia seems to be a good city in which to do this, because the streets form a grid and so most intersections are at least nominally equivalent.

My favorite among these mapmaking services is the simplest one I know of -- the gmaps pedometer, which allows you to overlay a walking route on a map and find out how long it is. Since I walk everywhere this is somewhat valuable. However, I wish that it were possible to get directions on some mapping service that didn't respect one-way streets, avoided highways, and so on. A friend of mine who just got a new apartment wrote recently:
Our apartment is at [street address] It's close to the T! Here are Google Maps' directions if you are a car: [link] . If you are not a car, I recommend walking from the T [...]
The Google Maps directions put her new apartment at six-tenths of a mile from the T; on foot, it looks to be more like three-tenths of a mile.

But in general, everything happens somewhere, and giving people the ability to harness that fact can only be a Good Idea.

I think there will be another revolution, though. Google, Microsoft, etc. are working on these technologies to allow people to connect online data with real-life locations. But so much of what happens right now isn't really wedded to any location, and that will only continue in the future. This blog, for example, physically exists on a server somewhere... I don't know where. Oddly enough, I am reasonably sure it is not at 365 Main, a data center in San Francisco, because they had a power failure Tuesday afternoon and Blogger was still up. A lot of heavily trafficked sites were down, though, including Craigslist, Technorati, and Livejournal. It was a bit strange to see that sites which had nothing to do with each other in the virtual world nevertheless were tied together by their location in the physical world. But I don't care where the server is. (It is probably more accurate to say that insofar as my blog has a physical location, it is my kitchen table, because that's where I do most of my writing. But it is probably even more accurate to say that my blog's physical location is wherever my brain happens to be at any given moment.) What I care about is how it relates to the other information out there on the web, which I can get from, for example, seeing the "reactions" page at Technorati, looking at the service which tracks the hits this web page gets, noticing the blogs that people who link to my blog also link to, and so on. That tells me what's close to me in this virtual space.

And I wonder if this virtual space will turn into a physical space, if we will find a way to make a picture of it that makes sense. (A primitive example of what I'm thinking of is given by A Subway Map of Web Trends 2.0, from Strange Maps. Unfortunately this map is hampered by the fact that the makers didn't do their own graphic design, but rather based it on a map of the Tokyo subway system, and there's no reason that the Web should be isomorphic to the Tokyo subway. In fact, that would mean that the Web looks a lot like the actual city of Tokyo.) So far we have lists of what's close to each other. But a list of distances is not a map. Our minds are very good at making sense of spatial information, probably for evolutionary reasons; this is probably why one of the first things we tell our students to do, when it's at all relevant, is to draw a picture. But right now we only have the means to draw primitive pictures. That will change.


John Armstrong said...

As to the physicality of teh intarwobs, if you ever get down to Falls Church, VA and get a chance to visit inside Mae East, I highly recommend it. Standing inside, one is oddly conscious of the fact that a huge portion of the traffic on the east coast passes through those very boxes.

In fact, when I hit "PUBLISH YOUR COMMENT" in a moment, the packets will probably fly through there on their way west, and then back again when you load my comment in Philly.

This is why I'm more nervous about a disaster (natural or otherwise) befalling a parking garage a few miles west of DC than I am about one befalling the Capitol building.

Isabel said...

I've heard of people visiting Mae West (which I assume is similar). And from what I've heard, the most impressive thing about it is how unimpressive it is -- somehow one expects a place handling so much traffic to be far more monumental than it actually is.

And a disaster hitting the Capitol building would really only be a disaster if Congress were inside. (This isn't political commentary; whether you like the current Congress or not, there would clearly be chaos of some sort if a large number of them were killed or seriously injured.) The value of such a place comes from the brains which are there.

Do you have any idea what kind of security exists on the places through which a lot of Internet traffic is routed? This is something you don't hear about when the media talks about terrorism, but it seems quite important.

John Armstrong said...

Indeed it's rather unassuming to look at. The sensation is purely psychological, to have this realization of what's going on, despite its appearance.

I think we could soldier on through the chaos of losing the entire congress. Take out that big a chunk of the internet, though, and our economy would tank. Anarchy (i.e.: your sixth-grade gym class forever) wouldn't be far off if Mae West got hit too.

As for security, it's mostly obscurity. Yes, I know that's line one in every single cryptology textbook out there, but that's what we're riding on here: the assumption that not many people know about it.