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Bike the District

Published in Neogeography, Society


A year ago I decided to become a bike commuter. I live on the east side of Washington, DC and we just opened our new office on the edge of the Potomac river on the west side of DC. Inspired by my colleagues in Portland that constantly tout the wonders of bicycling their fair city, I believe that DC has an adequate and continually improving bike accessibility.

Over the year I have commuted every day that I was in town, rain or shine, and did not have to be dapper in a suit, which was about 1000 miles. In those miles I came to prefer biking as the best mode of commuting and would dread days that required a metro ride packed to standing room, concrete, lights, and stations floating by the underground wormholes.

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Daily, Historic Rides

By contrast, my surface excursion could take one of several routes. Either a scenic trip along the national mall, cruising past the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial and skirting the rolling hills of Arlington Cemetery. Or the shortest route along the obscure but great H Street corridor that is actually home to numerous global institutions.

My preferred route along H Street took me past Union Station, through China Town, over the newly constructed “City Center”, past the American Academy of Sciences and the World Bank Headquarters, the White House lawn, and finally through historic Georgetown or even along the small canal. It was those quiet mornings as the sun was rising and the fog burning off the Potomac that are only possible when you can stop on a whim to enjoy the city.

Besides the unique aspects of DC, having a bike gave me ultimate flexibility to detour through cafés in the morning, or to meet ups throughout the city in the evening without worrying about metro stop locations or bus routes.

Even travel estimation was simpler, where my times were consistent regardless of non-homogenous traffic. My trip from house to work was almost exactly 30 minutes, and one of the best parts was cruising past the traffic jammed cars that would have easily made a car trip 45-60 minutes over the same route.

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Beware the MD

Stuck Bike 2.pngOf course, urban biwheel transport is not without its threats. Coming from the east side of the city if I left close to an hour mark (e.g. 8am or 9am) I was sure to encounter Maryland drivers running late, speeding through lanes and annoyed by the bicyclist that was sharing the road. Again a secret pleasure is seeing them speed past to immediately arrest at a stop light where I would pull up next to them again.

This highlighted and oft criticism of DC, where there are numerous bike lanes yet little connectivity between them. It is not uncommon to follow a cycle track for a few blocks to have it merely stop at an intersection with no identified way to continue along other than by occupying a car lane. There is continued efforts to add more bike lanes and signs that I hope will result in a better and fully connected urban bicycle network.


Who owns Arunachal Pradesh?

Published in Neogeography, Society


I received an email the other day from a reader of my blog with a very interesting question:

I was looking at a certain area in North East part of India ( State called “Arunachal Pradesh”) which is integral part of India.

Both URL’s have different take. [Google Maps] shows it as Disputed Territory ( with Dash lines) and [Google Ditu] shows it altogether as part of China!

So, that got me unruffled and to question validity of both these sources. How does Ditu differ from Google maps? Whats association between the two and does Ditu has autonomy to change the boundary of the maps as per its wish.

Arunachal Pradesh is a border region between China and India – with 70% of the land being claimed by the Chinese as South Tibet. The border in question was decided in 1914 and called the McMahon Line, but never agreed upon by the Chinese. The Google Ditu vs. Google Map views.

Google Maps vs. Google Ditu

Comparing Google Maps (background) with Google Ditu (foreground tinted red)

Territorial disputes are definitely not a new thing – however what is perhaps alarming is that there are two different representations of reality from the same vendor and data providers. So this is entirely a representational decision that is most likely driven by business and government pressures.

What’s particularly interesting here is that primarily these definitions of boundaries derive from the data providers. You can look in the bottom right corner for who the data providers are. For both versions the providers are the same: TerraMetrics, Mapabc, and Europa Technologies.

So it seems that the cartographic designers at Google Ditu have decided to represent it a certain way. Unfortunately, the map has no additional metadata. As broad consumption of maps increases, there is a commensurate interest in the why and what behind them. Who said these are the boundaries, when were they set, and why are they shown in this language?

And I don’t mean the long reams of unreadable metadata that are the current standards in the geospatial community, I mean human understandable descriptions of the various aspects of the data, while allowing additional discovery to deeper data.

One place that you can look at the data behind the source of the map is in OpenStreetMap. Arunachal Pradesh is shown similar to Google Maps version, and a user could optionally download the data to see the attributes, edit history and sources. Alternatively I can look in GeoCommons for the GADM Admin boundaries of India and see pertinent data on who provided the data, sources, and so on.

Boundary disputes in a bi-directional medium

The representation of boundaries is obviously a very contentious issue in mapping. Maps are perceived, and often do inform, territory. There is a long history of map representation being used to influence, coerce, and force land rights.

Unfortunately, even in a “Web2.0″ world of bi-directional sharing and collaboration, with maps we’re still often forced to accept a particular viewpoint. They have on-the-ground meaning and political impact. A well known example of this were the first “edit wars” in OpenStreetMap with the names of places in Cyprus. The resolution was to by default abide by the on the ground signage, but also store both versions and allow users to provide their own personalized perspective.

Understanding, awareness, and discussion about these issues is the reason for projects like OpenStreetMap or GeoCommons where you can download the information, build and share your own maps that represent your perspective.There

There isn’t an easy answer here – with companies such as Google there are obviously market, and government, forces that direct how to represent contentious issues. The best solution is to offer background, open data, and alternative perspectives. Without a voice, citizens are relegated to discussions by officials they may, or may not, have elected – and no meaningful way to illustrate their interpretation.


NetSquared: New Orleans

Published in mapufacture, Society


NetSquared LogoIf you haven’t already heard, there are only a couple more days (Monday, March 24, 2008) to vote for the The NetSquared Mashup projects. NetSquared sponsors ‘mashups’ that promote and enable social change. This can apply to a very wide variety of projects, from awareness to funding aid. It’s incredibly easy to vote, and the top 20 voted projects of the 120+ submissions will go to the NetSquared conference in May to pitch their project for additional resources and also engage closer to the rest of the community.

When you register, you have to vote for at least 5 projects (to make sure people don’t just vote for their one personal favorite, but actually investigate other projects), and you can vote for up to 10 different projects.

I’ve personally been working with Alan Gutierrez of Think New Orleans on his incredible work in bringing awareness, and a stop to, the improper demolition of houses after Katrina. He is digitizing City Buiding permits, demolition plans, notifications, and incentive options to help citizens protect and rebuild their homes. He runs GIS coworking at Trinity church to educate local citizens on the use of GIS software for doing a lot of the heavy lifting – and we’ve been working with him to help bring all this together into the web to share and utilize by a broader community.

You can check out that project here: City of New Orleans: A Mashup for Citizen Monitoring of the Recovery

Another great project is Ushahidi: Mapping Reports of Post-Election Violence in Kenya – where they’ve built a preliminary site to accept user-contributed information on violence outbreaks.

The projects are addressing real world issues with real solutions – so far they have had success on their own and are making a difference. Independently the projects will still be successful and important and their success will only be improved upon by support of the NetSquared community.

It can be daunting to hunt through the rest of the projects. It reminds me of going through conference submissions – I would recommend going through topical areas such as “Health”, “Community Improvement”, “Arts”, etc. to make it easier to compare all the great ideas and potentials.

Remember, voting is only open until this Monday, March 24, 2008 – so please register and vote!


iCommunity.tv – located media news

Published in GeoRSS, Neogeography, Society


iCommunity.tv homepageChris Haller has recently released a very cool new localized news video site, iCommunity.tv. The site allows users to upload and geotag videos of their own news media around the world.

iCommunity.tv is a fore-runner in providing video media primarily centered around geography in addition to focusing on citizen journalism , and not just videos of crazy stunts and movies served up by other media sites. Users can create custom channels and collections based on their interests and locations.

They offer a GeoRSS feed and a KML feed of the postings – which means it works very well in your Mapufacture Maps. See the feed map. Now you can add the feed to any of your Mapufacture maps to get update when a new video shows up in your community (or area of interest, for example where your family lives or you’re going to take a vacation)

Lastly, under the hood, iCommunity.tv is built on top of the Drupal CMS platform and is an excellent example of the power behind building a GeoCMS. In the future, Chris possibly plans to offer the ability for users to aggregate their video blogs through the service to allow for easier posting.

iCommunity.TV is a service of eParticipation.com


Exonym – what you probably call ‘Roma’

Published in Neogeography, Society


I was intrigued by the concept of Location vs. Locality posed at EarthCode.com. Location is the latitude and longitude that mark a spot, or the address of a building. Locality is the ‘area’ that is local to you, and is much less defined: downtown Detroit, Northern Virginia, East Coast.

Locality also varies scope depending on what you’re talking about. Are you physically going to a restaurant? You probably are looking fairly close. Do you want an update on news? Then the larger metro area is more interesting. Weather? You’re looking at national regions (or local too, if you live near interesting geographical features).

But what do you call it?

To add to the concept, or confusion, is what people refer to these localities as. Is it: NoVA (‘no-vah’), Northern Virginia, or just DC? And what would a tourist guide from Madagascar refer to it as?

Of course, English speakers are often have it a little easier because many locations have an English name – even if the location itself isn’t an English speaking location. Of course, this happens all of the time in other languages as well for English locations. But you probably recognize Roma is Rome, and España, is Spain. However, do you know where Vereinigte Staaten is? Or what about 中國 (Zhōngguó)?

We’re constantly referring to locations by names we’ve given them and not as they’re known by the people that live there. The term for giving a name for a location that isn’t used by the locals at that location is an exonym. This is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

An exonym is a name for a place that is not used within that place by the local inhabitants, or a name for a people or language, that is not used by the people or language to which it refers.

The name that a location is referred to by the locals is an endonym.

What is interesting looking at exonyms is that they are a marker of levels of foreign involvement in the region. As cities and areas became colonized or visited by outside people, they would typically be bequethed a name in the new language. Some of these names would just be used by the visitors, but in many cases, for long periods of time this exonym would be the official name of the city. For example, look at former Soviet states or India (Bhārata Gaṇarājya).

There was a lot of this in New Zealand as well, where the Pakeha (Europeans) would bestow English names to the large ports and coastal cities. But as you venture out of the cities and leave Auckland or Christchurch, you start passing Whangarei, Tonagariro, or Oamarau.

For a demonstration of some variations of the names in Europe, check out the Interactive Map of EUROPE and database of exonyms.

We can all just get along

Internationalization of applications has long been a difficult task and subject. It is made even more relevant as the internet, and websites, becomes widely available in many more countries. Users speaking their native languages will want to view maps of their localities, using the endonyms, localized names.

This will be especially important for projects like OpenStreetMap that seeks to create a global map, for the people. There are projects in many other, non-English speaking, countries that are doing similar projects for their own regions, and presumably in their own languages.

And excellent example is the Mumbai FreeMap that seeks to “develop an open-access spatial data infrastructure, and a set of simple tools and applications in localised in Indian languages, for knowledge transfer and participatory urban planning by communities and citizens in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.”

How do you find all the names for a location? Flickr geocoding leverages people’s own terminology for location and maps it to a location. So a photo taken by an English speaker in Germany may be labelled: Germany, Munich. Whereas taken by a native German speaker may be labelled: Deutschland, München. Together, these tags describe the same location, but with the exonym and endonym.

So when developing web applications, in particular geographic services, keep in mind who your users will be and how they will use your tools. They may be locals and want to use their own names, or they may be visitors or virtual tourists and interested in learning more about the world outside their window.