Phil Gyford


Tuesday 27 January 2004

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Tim O’Reilly posted a question to the Geowanking list, and after a lot of responses I posted the following. I’m frustrated with endless social networking schemes, endless people going “ooh, we could annotate space!”, lots of waffle about how difficult it is to do collaborative mapping and just wish all everyone would get together and do something useful. If such a thing is possible. Rambling follows…

Tim O’Reily wrote:
> If we were to envision a next generation, collaboratively-enhanced
> version of MapQuest, or, or mapinfo, how might we
> do it? What features would lead people to naturally annotate maps?

Most of the responses so far seem to have been the usual geowanking thoughts about how to open things up, and the difficulties involved in sharing and distributing geographical data. I’m not sure this is really the issue here though. It’s like discussing how to make it easy for people to obtain their own database of books, rather than how Amazon can use its database (and data gleaned from customers) in new ways.

I assumed the question was not “how can MapQuest make the world a better place for geowankers by sharing its data”, but “how can MapQuest make its service better by using data gleaned from users.” So let’s think about what Mapquest (or whoever) could do on their site before getting into all the usual stuff about semantically sharing our collaborative meta-blogs or whatever.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that to get any useful information Mapquest would have to get people to sign up for a free account, so it can identify individuals. There’s no point in people signing up at the moment, but maybe they can be persuaded to…

Once we have signed-up users, what data can we get from their behavior? Mainly, where they search for - why not store those? Is there any useful datamining that can be done? If a user goes to the ‘print’ version of a map, that’s presumably somewhere they’re visiting so that location is probably more important than every other map they’ve viewed. Does that tell us anything?

What extra activity could people be enticed into? One day, someone will discover a real use for social networking sites, and maybe this is it. People certainly seem eager to sign up for them (if we ignore any “Oh no, not another one” aversion).

Think of Matt Jones’ idea about combining social networks with Amazon. How about combining them with maps? Instead of asking people their favorite books, films, etc, ask them where their favorite restaurants and bars are. I already know what kind of movies my first degree of friends are into, but I’d really like to know what restaurants they recommend.

So, let me overlay all the maps I view with markers indicating places that my friends recommend. Privacy issues aside for a moment, show me where my friends live (“I’m going to visit this guy I know online, let me just click his name in the sidebar and see a map to his house”).

Then you have “People who liked this bar also liked…”, “People who live near here recommend these restaurants…”, etc, etc.

I’m sure there’s plenty more we can think of, without getting into the difficulties of understanding WGS84 or whatever - no one has to understand the mechanics of Google’s search engine to use their services, or the publishing/retail worlds to use Amazon’s.

It feels almost heretical to suggest improving a commercial service but people use commercial services. So there doesn’t seem to be much harm in making them better and more useful.

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