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A Design Approach for the Geospatial Web

by Julian Bleecker
06/07/2005

Editor's note: Julian Bleecker heads the Mobile Media Lab (MML), a near-future think tank and research and development lab at the University of Southern California. In today's article, Julian describes a design approach for location-based services utilized in many of the projects under way at MML. At O'Reilly's Where 2.0 Conference later this month, Julian will be taking part in a panel discussion on the secrets behind good social mobile applications and the obstacles they face in the real world.

Recently, Mike Liebhold wrote an essay that many regarded as a kind of manifesto for the location-based service (LBS) community. In that prescient article, he describes what is needed to create a Geospatial Web, and what is necessary to sustain the promise of LBS as open and accessible, and a truly useful extension of what the World Wide Web currently offers.

This coupling of the physical world with the data world represents an exciting and challenging new frontier. Just as no one could have anticipated how radically everyday experiences would change with the proliferation of the Web, it is difficult to say precisely what the Geospatial Web will bring to our daily lives. By tagging content and data with geographic metadata--effectively giving content a location in the real world--it is possible to imagine new metaphors to describe experiences in geographic space. We'll stumble across lost pet notices on our way to work; freeway exit ramps will have indicators for a quicker route to the beach on city streets during a busy weekend; standing in front of a local theater will enable you to find movie reviews left by previous patrons. It's incredibly exciting to think of the possibilities. Perhaps our metaphors for managing content will change as the Geospatial Web grows in consequence. It may be that someday in the near future, we'll be talking about leaving our files, rather than saving them.

In an effort to continue the discussion about the Geospatial Web, I would like to offer a brief description of an approach to designed location-based experiences that drives many of the projects at the USC School of Cinema-TV's Interactive Media Division and Mobile Media Lab. This approach has three aspects: location awareness, location user interfaces, and collaborative mapping.

1. Location Awareness

Where 2.0 Conference. Many years ago, I was getting set to graduate from college with a degree in electrical engineering. I had been talking to a hiring manager at a very large semiconductor manufacturing company about a job when, strangely, the human resources guy started talking to me about another company. It turns out he was leaving the semiconductor company to help run a project managing a network of satellites that, as he explained it at the time, would tell you precisely where you are on the face of the planet. That seemed a bit speculative and had a twinge of Star Trek about it, so I passed on the offer. I didn't know it then, but he was talking about the Global Positioning System.

Sci-fi it may've been, but nowadays we take for granted the ability to know where you are with a degree of precision that would've made Christopher Columbus weep with envy. When those satellites went up and consumer-grade GPS handhelds dropped to the magical $99 price point, getting lost in the woods became a thing of the past. After the fascination of seeing the latitude and longitude of your front door stoop, having a go at geocaching, or even engaging in some GPS drawing, what else is there to GPS?

Remember that GPS technology provides, at its core, a fix on a specific location on the planet. For all intents and purposes, GPS was designed to provide latitude and longitude. But many people recognize that GPS is just an enabler for other, more user-centered applications. As GPS technology evolves and expectations about what it can do become more sophisticated, it becomes apparent that designing compelling location-based services requires serious thought about application context.

This is where the concept of location awareness comes into play. Like most context design models, location awareness focuses on a user-centered perspective. More than simply knowing latitude and longitude, location awareness is meant to consider more subjective aspects of LBS design, such as: with what activity is an individual engaged? Are they looking to find how to get from point A to point B, or are they wandering about, engaged in social activities, or on a shopping excursion?

This kind of social design is what makes a location-based service like Dodgeball, if it might be categorized as such, so compelling. And Dodgeball doesn't use GPS--yet! It's not an instrumentalized application, but a social networking experience. Dodgeball uses location awareness as a design parameter, focusing in on a specific social scenario that can leverage inferred location--"Where am I in relationship to my friends and friends of friends?"

Finding one's location and mapping (and now route-finding) represent, respectively, first- and second-generation GPS applications. Location-based services that approach their designs with location awareness in mind will represent the third generation of locative applications. Of course, GPS will be used in this third generation, but it won't be up front and center in the design. Instead, GPS will enable location-aware designs that require location, proximity, and movement to be components of the application design.

2. Location User Interfaces

Location user interfaces (LUIs) are what will make LBSes user-friendly, but there's work to be done. Effective LUIs require tagging locations with content and, conversely, tethering abstract content to specific geographic locations. The simplest example might be applying geographic tags (latitude and longitude) to certain Wikipedia entries. More complex LUIs would be designed for tagging content that has geo-specificity only for short periods of time, such as group meetings or movie listings.

We're already on our way toward enabling location user interfaces through geographic tagging. By embedding latitude and longitude into the metadata of useful content, we begin the process of making content location-based. This kind of metadata--latitude and longitude, and other information--can also be found embedded in some RSS feeds. One such schema is called GeoRSS. As location services become more sophisticated, it is even possible to obtain latitude and longitude for addresses in some countries.

Examples of experiments with geotagging can be found in several web-based applications, as well as several experiments with hacking the Geospatial Web on mobile devices. Let's look at a few:

  • Mappr is a clever mash-up of ad hoc geotagging and Flickr's amazing, open collaborative image database API.
  • Placelab is an open source research project sponsored by Intel that catalogs WiFi access points and other pieces of communications hardware.
  • Plazes is a social networking application that infers your location based on your IP address and links you up with nearby friends, or friends of a friend.
  • Another Spatial Annotation Project is a PDA application developed as a framework to research real-time spatial annotation using text, mapping, and digital photography, coupled with a standards-based data syndication scheme using RSS extensions.
  • Geoloqus, Yellow Arrow, GeoNotes, Grafidia: These are all emerging technologies that provide some concrete indications as to the near-future possibilities of spatial annotation, a way of tagging physical locations with metadata for later retrieval. A comprehensive catalog of such projects is available here.

Location user interfaces are truly enabled when context and location provide an interface to content in the real world, at (or within proximity of) the locations that have been tagged. This is when the location-aware, geotagged world becomes like a gigantic computer desktop. As you move about the world using your LUI-enabled device, you will be able to access location-aware touch points that will help you do the things you do while out and about in the real world. With careful design, this won't be the LBS equivalent of the dreaded pop-up ad. The LUI is about useful connections that maintain and enhance the best aspects of relationships between people and the activities in which they are engaged.

Near-future examples of location user interfaces are numerous, largely coming from independent emerging technology researchers and the more prescient R & D labs. One such example is the wearable and environmental media research that Scott Fisher led at NTT DoCoMo, the goal of which is to "explore applications of location-based information services over wireless networks." Using near-future visualization, localization, and geo- tagging technology, this kind of research indicates clearly the possibilities for LBS.

The next step in creating location user interfaces is to establish ubiquitous wireless networks between the Web and the physical world. These networks will support the kinds of real-time communications links from which will emerge truly powerful location-based services, communities, and applications.

Let's review the steps to creating location user interfaces:

  • Provide a single, canonical system for marking the physical world. This is what latitude and longitude provide, and what GPS makes widely available.
  • Tag data, content, and experiences using latitude and longitude. This is beginning to happen in exciting and provocative ways.
  • Provide a mechanism to author that content and those experiences in real time, while one is on location.
  • Share that content in real time with others in the world and on the Web, building on top of existing wireless voice and data infrastructures or tapping into new wireless data networks.

3. The Power of Collaborative Mapping

Where 2.0 Conference

Paul Bragiel, Julian Bleecker, and Elizabeth S. Goodman
Panel Discussion: Social Applications

Location technologies bridge the real world and the virtual. Social mobile applications use location and proximity on networked devices to tap into the real world: building new relationships, fostering existing ones, or just having fun. Learn the secrets of good social mobile applications and obstacles they face in the real world. Panelists include Elizabeth Goodman from Intel, Julian Bleecker from USC, and Paul Bragiel from Meetro.

O'Reilly Where 2.0 Conference
June 29-30, 2005
San Francisco, CA


I'm willing to bet that the real power of location-based services emerges from the power of networked individuals who engage in collaborative mapping. What is collaborative mapping? It is the kind of mapping produced collaboratively by individual authors that, when taken together, produces more than one individual could create alone. Collaborative mapping is to LBS what blogging is to the Web--a mechanism for authoring one's location-based experiences. For the blogosphere, the medium is, naturally, the Web and the terminal device is, for the most part, the computer desktop. In the case of collaborative mapping, the medium for that authorship is the physical world, and the terminal is a networked, location-aware mobile handheld device.

These services will be orders of magnitude beyond simple web browsing with your mobile phone. These services will help direct you to friends, as Dodgeball does right now, and even richer LBS experiences are in the works. Before long, we'll see spatial annotations left, like blog comments and product reviews, at restaurants within walking distance of your current location; lost pet notices tagged to street corners; bids on nearby houses for sale; the location of available parking spots; alerts about a neighborhood yard sale; or wave conditions at a nearby surf spot.

Collaborative mapping can learn something from the podcasting model. Maps should be shareable and modifiable. If I create a map that tracks a walking tour of the canals near my home in Venice, California, that has location-based annotations for my favorite nearby restaurants, I should be able to share that with anyone else who may not be familiar with the area. And if I license my map share-alike, anyone else should be able to build upon my map and pass it along to others to use.

Let me give you an example of a LBS collaborative mapping project that has been exceptionally successful in its short history. How do I measure success in this instance? Triple-digit annual growth and a 130 percent increase in exposure to its services for the year ending April, 2005. The LBS I'm referring to is Craigslist, the location-based classified advertising service. Why do I consider Craigslist an LBS? Most of the listings found on Craigslist are tied to specific cities, and almost all of those are tied to very specific street addresses within those cities. Sure, it doesn't use GPS yet, but we've already seen ways in which it has become tied into the Geospatial Web with the brilliant and simple Housing Maps, Chicago Crime Database, and others, which all tie into web-based mapping APIs like Google Maps.

What makes Craigslist a collaborative mapping project? The ability for lots of people to contribute to geospatially tagged locations of interest. And now we're seeing the first hints of an easy-to-use collaborative mapping framework with Gmaptrack, which makes hacking Google Maps feel less like hacking and more like just plain old mapping. Once the mobile phone carriers get it together and real- time data sharing happens without their ham-handed interventions, barriers to developer innovation, and perplexing pricing models that stymie usage, we can expect to see sensible LBS applications like Housing Maps operate directly on mobile devices.

Many projects previously mentioned are all focused in on this emerging technology. As phone and other GPS-enabled devices with network functionality become more widespread, we can expect that real-time, connected location user interfaces will create an entirely new and powerful framework for all kinds of collaboratively built location-based services.

This collaborative mapping approach is what frames the locative media projects we're developing at the Mobile Media Lab. We're already developing a new version of Patholog, a mobile blogging application, that will build upon the lessons we learned from our spatial annotation project ASAP. Patholog provides for collaborative authoring of location-based maps, while ASAP tightly integrates data capture (text and digital photography) with a standards-based content syndication system. In the next version of Patholog, we will have our collaborative mapping framework, along with the real-time networking that will come from deploying the prototype on the latest version of Windows Mobile.

Resources

Julian Bleecker heads the Mobile Media Lab, a near-future think tank and research and development lab run by the School of Cinema-TV and Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California.


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