[iDC] Net (dot) Geo. The emergence of the geospatial web

Juan Martín Prada juanmartinprada at 2-red.net
Tue Jan 20 23:43:33 UTC 2009

Inclusiva-net Meeting “Digital networks and physical space”. Medialab-Prado.
Madrid, Spain. 2008)

Juan Martín Prada 

   In contrast to the widely held supposition that telecommunications
networks make no territorial distinctions, political power systems today are
responding worldwide by strengthening geographical ties to their decisions,
through new divisionary tactics, territorial separations, and barriers to
prevent people from moving. Migration is becoming increasingly difficult,
almost always subject to illegality and suspicion. Tactics continue to focus
on localization and using borders for political ends. “To inhabit” still
means to inhabit a specific place in the economic and political hierarchy. 
In the last few years it has become evident that the Internet is not a
system that truly transcends borders. Instead, territorial limits have a
strong influence on it. Clearly, equal access to the Internet is not
available in all parts of the world. In addition to radically different
speeds, possibilities and costs of connecting to the Web in different
places, political factors may also limit free speech (e.g., in some
countries, many bloggers are tried and sentenced) and access to certain
information (results vary among countries for certain key words on the most
popular Internet search engines, and there are even places where no results
whatsoever are shown in searches for terms of a delicate nature). 
   This turn toward physical space is intensified today by the enormous
development of new technological applications for everyday use that
highlight the relation between information and place. Several years ago,
portable communication systems, such as mobile telephones or electronic
diaries, began to include visual tools like photographic or video cameras;
today, many come equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) (1) devices
that provide geotag coordinates, as well as all kinds of applications
designed to manage geographically contextualized information.
   Large telecommunications companies have realized that, to offer efficient
service, users’ spatial location is of tremendous significance. Information
technology media have become so portable that the “desktop phase” when users
accessed information through home or office computers has become a thing of
the past. Digital information now “finds” users wherever they are, in a
variety of settings and times. That is why huge possibilities for new
business developments are opening up in “location-based services”, which
provide specifically “territorialized”(2) information, such as
geographically contextualized advertising or the location of nearby services
like restaurants, shops, etc. Therefore, the advertising directed at us will
soon be related exclusively to the place where we are or where we live, and
we may even have to get used to the daily presence of “locative spam”. 

   Networks increasingly function through the confluence of principles of
synchronicity in time and coincidence in space. In the field of technology
today, we are experiencing an intense relationship between calendar and
cardinal points. All the tools and applications on the Web currently are
quickly adapting this link to physical space, the place and the territory
   The growing interest in geotagged information is strongly reinforced by a
rising public awareness of environmental data like pollution or climate
change effects, as well as by new needs for information linked to physical
spaces such as the traceability of consumer goods, that is, tracking the
location and geographic route of a product throughout its production,
manipulation and sale. 
   Great progress has occurred in Web applications related to the field of
geographic information systems (GIS), that is, those designed to manage
geographically referenced information, which usually function as databases
generally associated with digital maps. The boom in services like MapQuest
or Google Maps, or the acquisitions by large Internet companies of Keyhole,
GeoTango and Vexcel are proof of users’ growing interest in geographic data
and information and spatial navigation. Among all the “geobrowsers”
(applications for consulting geospatial data and managing geolocalized
information), some of them, such as NASA World Wind, Google Earth or
Microsoft Live Local 3D, have taken on great relevance and are used by a
huge number of people, as well as the vast proliferation of blogs and
websites related to these geobrowsers, e.g. Google Earth blog or Google Maps
   Given that the majority of geobrowsing platforms offer APIs (Application
Programming Interfaces) or XML scripting for carrying out services on their
platforms, creating applications to generate geographic contents is a
booming field today. A “geospatial web” can be said to exist now, made up of
all these types of applications and geographic data management services (4).
There is also a boom in the development of mapping tools based on “open
standards” and “open-data” services such as Geonames, which consist of vast
geographic databases available for download under Creative Commons licence
that users can edit and expand using a wiki interface. There are certainly
numerous communities for “open source” geosoftware and there are countless
areas open for work: “GMAP hackers”, “OpenMappers”, “MapServers”,
“GPSmappers”, “GeoServers”, “RDF mappers”, “terrain mappers”, “geobloggers”,
etc. There are also companies like GeoCommons that enable anyone to generate
maps that geographically represent the data that interest them, also using
data contributed by many other users. 
   Linking certain geographic points to the photos and videos taken there,
historical data, and all types of personal comments and anecdotes has become
an everyday practice among the multitude of users of social networks.
Therefore, geotagging activities are becoming more habitual on the Web, that
is, assigning spatial coordinates to certain files, such as georeferencing
photographs on platforms such as Flickr, Google Earth, etc. or assigning
geographic identifiers to text files and even video and audio documents
(geoparsing). Geo-referencing images is an activity already performed by
photographic cameras that include GPS systems: the date, place, or type of
event photographed are metadata included in the photographic document at the
time it is created. There are even “in-site” applications such as GeoNotes
that allow users to “tag” physical space, leaving notes in the places where
they are located or reading the notes other users have left there. 
   The popularization of actions to “annotate the planet” is one of the most
significant processes in the development of the second era of the Internet.
The expression “The Earth as universal desktop”(5) is even becoming popular.
Geo-referencing practices understand geographic localization not only as a
coordinate, a dot on a map, but also in relation to the experiences of the
persons who were there. The result is generally the generation of open maps,
a sort of update of maps showing “points of interest”. Actually, the
“Geo-spatial Web” brings depth and richness back to geography after many
years when the field provided merely cartographic, objective descriptions of
places. The texts and other information added to satellite photographs of
the territory inevitably invite comparisons with the plaques on buildings
that mark where someone was born or died, just as the thumbtacks marking
spots on geobrowsers bring to mind the flowers that relatives place
periodically at the site of a car accident where they lost a family member. 
   All of this is accompanied by proposals that are the beginning of a phase
in which the great communicative potentials of pervasive computing, or
“ubicomp”, are evident, that is, of all those technologies that enable the
management of digital information anywhere, as well as connections and
interaction among different strata of spatially localized data.  

“Local Web 2.0” 
   The structure of participatory media contents based on spatial annotation
point to interesting signs that practices which “spatialize” information
hold intense “socializing” potential, given that they involve the
development of reciprocal awareness between persons and their surroundings,
often based on belonging to common spatial contexts. 
   The Web has started to channel the collective desire to know more about
the geographic spaces around us, the place where we live or that we pass
through, as well as the persons who live or can be found around us. That
desire has found one of its main sources of fulfilment in the participatory
technologies of the social web, which provides the basis of what is called
“local Web 2.0”. The significance of contextual knowledge is growing as the
new connected society is constituted, as well as the possibilities opened up
for developing a geographically localized collective memory (6).
   The creation of these open maps includes geographic localization and its
technologies in the life of the community that inhabits those spaces and
places, and serves as a tool for activating specific types of communication
and socialization in the community. Thus, many geobrowsers are designed
specifically to create communities based on the physical proximity of their
users, who share a common environment. Among the most interesting
developments are the highly significant projects (7) based on local wireless
networks managed by their users. 
   Actually, even in this new geographic phase of the Web, activated by new
geolocalization technologies, we are experiencing the lasting devaluation of
public physical space, the continuous de-urbanization of real space. It was
thought that this would be offset by the increasing urbanization of the
global and (falsely) trans-border space of the networks.
   In addition, as a particularly active part of the interweaving of digital
production of sociality and coincidence in physical space, directly related
to the “live” experience of a place, it is worth pointing out the rise of
hyperlocal journalism, based on comments on news at the local community
level, of interest precisely because of its ties to its users’ everyday
environment. Closely related to this phenomenon, completely coinciding with
it in the majority of cases, is place blogging, that is, the activity of
blogs focused on events, news and people in a specific local area, such as a
neighbourhood or small town. Several aggregators and search engines for
place blogs have been put into operation, such as Outside.in, Place blogger
and Peuplade. They are proof of a growing interest in exploring the
socializing potentials inherent in the physical proximity of Web users and
in the information generated and shared by persons who live in the same
   There are many other emerging collective action practices, such as “flash
mobs”, that consider their essential component or teleological culmination
to be the congregation of persons in a particular place. This is yet another
example of the increasingly forceful demand that the social should be built
on the materiality of physical space, rather than being limited to the field
of online interactions. Streets and squares should be reclaimed as
communication media in and of themselves, reactivated as priority spaces for
social interaction. 
   The set of artistic practices related to locative media (a term that can
be defined as the representation and experience of a place through digital
interfaces) can play an enormous role in the design of forms of social and
political dissention, especially though the design of alternative forms of
social and communicative interaction. The creative link between these new
technologies and mass public protest events that began around the Reclaim
the Streets movement are very promising. These critical practices are
certainly the clearest reflections of the new tensions between the global
and the local, the physical and the virtual. 
   (1) GPS (Global Positioning) System was authorized by the U.S. Congress
in 1973 and was used by the U.S. Department of Defence. 
   (2) See Malcolm McCullough “On Urban Markup: Frames Of Reference in
Location Models For Participatory Urbanism”, [on line], Leonardo Electronic
Almanac, vol. 14, issue, 03, 2006, URL:
[Retrieved: 20 March 2008].
   (3) For example, Twittervision, geo-localizes messages from Twitter,
adding a significant spatial dimension to the synchronicity integral to this
system and opening up a fascinating field of spatial and contextual
perceptions. Another example is the tool Google Trends, which identifies the
source of searches by users of Google Search, showing through complex
graphics how often a certain search is carried out in various regions of the
   (4) Also noteworthy are weogeo, Everyscope, veloroutes, and Edushi.
Edushi is focused on the three-dimensional construction of cities.
   (5) “Earth as Universal Desktop”, is an expression proposed by Neal
Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash in 1992. 
   (6) Of special interest in this respect: the Urban tapestries project
(2002-2004) by the Proboscis collective.
   (7) See, for example, the Neighbornode project, created by John Geraci.

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