Where Conference

2.0 is rather passé in tech circles these days, so it now the O’Reilly’s Where Conference!

The annual meeting of the Geo tribes, this year takes place in downtown San Francisco in early April.

This is, despite the competition, the main conference to attend and along with it’s unofficial Wherecamp sister (this years date and location still in planning). It is worth a trip just to soak up the atmosphere of innovation and plain optimism you will not find at more traditional GIS conferences.

That said this year I will be stuck this side of the Atlantic that week attending other events, but many Googlers will be presenting and as an old hand O’Reilly have provided me with a conference discount code offering 20% of registration fees, so if you are going feel free to use the code “PARS20“.

Hope you like the new more stream lined blog design, I took the opportunity this weekend to update things when I moved domain and server hosting from GoDaddy (I know shameful) to an excellent UK operation tsohost, who have real support people answering email at 11pm on a saturday night !

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)

A smartphone without location is just not smart !

Last week location tracking almost hit the mainstream following Pete Walden’s presentation at the Where 2.0 conference, organised by O’Reilly who where also key in promoting the story..

Both Gary at www.vicchi.org and Peter at geothought.blogspot.com offer a more nuanced and thoughtful commentary than  the near hysterical reactions of the blogosphere and tech press.

At worst Apple is guilty of a lack of transparency, yes the collection of anonymised location data is mentioned in the ridiculously long terms of service and despite the fact there is a location services on/off switch in your iPhones preferences the fact that low accuracy location was collected came as a surprise to most users. I think Android is a little more explicit in the sign up process for your new Android phone you are asked to allow location date to be collected, however perhaps the industry as a whole needs to be even more clear and open in stating the benefits of collecting this data.

Location data is too important to become “ick” !

The only way we can stop it becoming so is by highlighting the benefits of the technology, so that people can make the informed decisions to opt in or not.

I’m not sure of Apples motivation although it sounds like they are trying to build their own location database rather than tracking people in the same way that Google and Skyhook have done in the past, but without wanting to sound glib in general terms any form of location based service needs to know where your device is..

Remember the old days when you used to have to type your postcode/zipcode into your phone to get a local map to be displayed, clearly we can’t go back to those days, we expect our smartphone to know where it is… is not really smart without that information !

That information comes through a number of technologies GPS being the most well known, but also databases of wifi and cell tower locations and ultimately if all else fails your devices IP address are used to provide device location. Most of us expect our location to be known nearly instantly when we want a map displayed or we want to geocode a photo we have just taken, for this to happen with any reasonable level of accuracy your location technology needs to be awake, running as a background process on your device.

Actually most of us if we think about it don’t have an issue with this other than perhaps the drain on device batteries, as the vast majority of location aware apps on our phones don’t share the location information, they are just used to establish the users context.

When however we start to share this information then we potentially do get to the point of “ick”, if there is not completely transparency and control over the process. Clearly if I chose to share my location derived by all this technology via Facebook or Twitter I have in theory made the conscious decision to tell my friends, follows and potentially the world world where I am at that point in time. For those who do share location in this way, there is a value in doing so, perhaps further developing their social networks for example, for users of the check-in services like foursuare there is additionally the potential of a financial incentives of discounts and offers from business owners.

Increasingly location based services are beginning to go beyond the manual checkin model to suggest location to check into automatically, Google Latitude for example has an option to do this, and in the near future many services may be customised based on your implicit location automatically derived. Again this has the potential to produce the “ick” response, but this ultimately is the most beneficial use of location technology.

Let me provide an example, just over a month ago I received this text message as I was getting up to go to work…

“Red Tsunami alert (8.8m, depth:24.4km) in Japan Yamagata 11/3 05:46UTC, Pop100km:31000, tsunami 860cm, Kamaishi www.gdacs.org – JRC”

This was an automatically generated SMS warning of the Sendai or Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami generated by the GDACS project of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. If you have not already done so I would strongly suggest you sign up to it. The GDACS system take feeds from a number of geological and meteorological agencies around the world and produces automatic warnings related to the occurrence of natural disasters that have the potential to impact human life.

My reason to sign-up and at least share my email address and mobile telephone number was clear, like any parent I don’t want to be one day sitting on a beach somewhere with my family wondering why the tide has gone out .. this is the sort of information you need pushed to your device without question. As it stands the GDACS system is very useful, but it could be much better. On the 11th March I was at home in London, so the Sendai quake and tsunami had no direct impact or need for any immediate action on my behalf. I have family in Tokyo however who we did immediately call, who had just got over the quake and wondering how we knew..

Imagine a development of GDACS which could offer much more specific warnings bassed on a knoweledge of the users location, that would offer a clear reason why you might want to share your location full time with a third party ?

Of course more mundane application which warned me if my travel plans where going to be impacted or if the camera lens I was looking for was actually in stock at a nearby store could also make use of this information.

There can be real value in sharing location, but unless as an industry we clearly state what these are, and we are transparent in how this information is collected we run the risk of scaring off users under an avalanche of media scare stories.

Of course it’s interesting that this data has been collected by mobile network operators for years and has been made available to law enforcement agencies and the security services when requested for years, and this data unlike most of the emerging location aware services is not anonymous !

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)

Where 2.0 Online Conference


Here’s an interesting idea, the first Where 2.0 Online Conference organised by O’Reilly – a online mini where 2.0 with a focus on LBS and AR developments on the iPhone.

This could be the future of conferences, after all for many the trek to the West Coast is both time consuming and expensive and something you can maybe justify once a year, but a year is a long time in the industry at the moment so there is also the potential for more frequent events.

If you can’t bring the people to a conference, bring the conference to the people…

For us in Europe the time difference could be a problem, but there again we can always sit back with a nice glass of wine or hot chocolate depending upon preference and watch in our pyjamas !

Written and submitted from the Googleplex, California (37.421N, 122.087W)

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.