A conference rich in social capital

I got back last weekend from Cape Town and the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference 2008, easily one of the best conference I have attended recently!

The FOSS4G conference is like no other attracting the most enthusiastic and active delegates who as well as talking about the potential of geospatial technology, also get on and build the tools.

To be fair Google has taken some criticism from the FOSS community for not making some of its user generated content available in its raw form “think geodata source code” rather than maps tiles, and this was a topic debated with some feeling at the conference. I did my best to explain our priorities in our approach to date, and I certainly enjoyed the debate.

The Google team from our Nairobi office ran a workshop on MapMaker which is making great progress in filling in the gaps in mapping Africa, in many countries making mapping publicly available for the first time.


For the moment making this mapping available for free to as many users of Google Maps and potential Google Maps API sites is our priority.

Following my keynote I spent as much time as possible at the Google Booth, and it was great to meet and talk to developers for literally around the world over half of the 500 people at the conference had travelling to South Africa to attend, again and indication of the commitment of the FOSS community to get things done.

The power of the FOSS community is demonstrated both by the almost complete stack of open source tools which can be used to build almost any scale of GIS system, and by the projects the community is involved in; projects such as Ushahidi which uses a combination of Free and Open Source tools to monitor human rights violations in Africa.

I spent Friday morning following the conference at Trafalgar High School in Cape Towns infamous District 6 running a workshop for teachers on using Google Earth for GIS education at the same time other delegates were running similar courses using other tools.


If like me you are becoming a little tired of the introspection of the traditional and proprietary GIS world, check out OSGeo the organisation supporting many FOSS4G projects, and start saving for your air ticket to attend FOSS4G 2009 in Sydney… you won’t regret it.

Written and submitted from the Google Office, London.

Semantics and the GeoWeb

I went along to a very interesting and well delivered presentation in front of it must be said a rather disappointing audience at the British Computer Society in London yesterday evening. “Make Mashups Correct, Complete, Relevant and Revisited” was a presentation originally given by Jonathan Lowe of Giswebsite LLP at Where 2.0, and as Jonathan is a great presenter I was really looking forward to it.

The presentation actually focused on the currently rather specialised area of semantic spatial databases and their potential in powering the mash-ups of the future. He high-lighted some of the darlings of the semantic database industry freebase and True Knowledge, who have developed technology that really demonstrates well the benefits of semantic databases.

The benefits come from having a much more structured data modelling approach than we have become used to on the web, the demo of freebase here is a great example of this, but such a strongly typed approach is also the major weakness of semantic databases at the moment.
Who defines and categorises data into these types and who builds the relationships between database elements. The wiki approach that freebase uses is a great start but ultimately will it scale ?

Semantic databases will become the future way we interact with information online only when their development and maintenance can become automated, in the same way that the creation and analysis of the web indexes behind web search is automated.

In the meantime that make some great demos

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

Camping Geowanking style

From Wherecamp 2008

This weekend the geowankers camped out at the Googleplex for the second Wherecamp.

What has become an annual event the weekend after Where 2.0, Wherecamp is an unconference, a self organised event which starts without an agenda, and features talks, hacking sessions and debates suggested by the people who turn up. As Andrew Turner captured so successfully on twitter, “#wherecamp is Where2.0 2009 beta, 2010 alpha”, or maybe the other way round ?

The camp featured many excellent presentations and discussions, The value of 3D data (aka “Is 3D shit ?” ), building 3D displays, cartography for the web, geosearch, data licensing, micro formats etc., and because of the nature of the event plenty of opportunity for practical demonstrations, including the creation of gigipan images by Rich Gibson.

click to see gigapan at work

And Jeff Johnson of PictEarth capturing aerial photography of the Googleplex using a Nokia N95, in an r/c model aircraft..

Googleplex from an airborne N95

As an old geezer I skipped the camping part, retreating to the comfort of my hotel room rather than a google tent for the night, but it was a great format and a great event. The contrast to the established GIS conferences in Europe is marked, the barcamp format, provides a great opportunity for more open debate and the presentation of ideas rather than products, and it’s just great fun.

EuroWherecamp Anyone ?

Written and submitted from the Googleplex, using the Google 802.11 network.

Backyard Space Photography

Picture from 30km

From the excellent Google Earth Blog, Frank links to another great example of what the process of democratising technology has achieved.

A group of guys launched a fully instrumented sensor package below a helium balloon, which was tracked in real time using google earth and produced some stunning images. The video on their site of the launch and recovery of the balloon, are great fun – you can just sense the excitement !!

Ok so this may not be a practical remote sensing application yet, but it’s amazing.. pictures from 30 km high, a third of the way to space, taking with a Canon Digital camera you could buy on the high street.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

In praise of the iPlayer


In the past I have been very critical of the BBC approach to making their programmes available online, which until December required you to use Microsoft DRM, and hence was PC only. However in December the beeb released the streaming version of
iPlayer using the latest Adobe technology to allow users to watch selected programmes online for a week after they are broadcast, and this is a cross platform service.

I must say this is really well down, the interface is simple and well designed, the quality of the video is very good and the flexibility such as service offers the viewers of the BBC is massive, along with on-demand services offered by virginmedia my cable supplier, my household rarely watches live broadcast TV, other than the news, choosing what to watch, when we want to watch it.

We are not alone the BBC reports today that 3.5 million shows have been streamed or downloaded since Christmas Day. Interestingly the number of people streaming the programmes outnumber those downloading using the Microsoft DRM by a factor of eight.

This could be interesting in context to the expected announcement from Apple that they will now support movie rental from itunes, is it that the video market unlike music is one where we don’t feel it necessary to “own’ the media, or is it now the fact that access to the cloud is so pervasive we don’t mind accessing information when we need it and then throwing it away.

Either way again, you can’t help but draw comparisons with how geodata is licensed, and ask similar questions, for example as a developer building some new houses, would you not want to license the data for just the period of build ?

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.