How the Internet Changes Human Geography (part 1 of 3)

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson

English: Map of the major urban areas in the s...
This map was made using data from the OpenStreetMap project and imagery available in the OSM database.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers listen up!  A major area of opportunity for the future is exploring the role of web data in informing human geography efforts.  As Web 2.0 hype has worn off and the participatory use of the Internet becomes a societal norm, we are witnessing an unprecedented explosion in the creation and analysis of geospatial data.  Just as major governments are reducing their investments in location intelligence (due to budget reductions), individuals and non-government organizations (NGOs) are fueling a bonfire of innovation in the world of GIS data.  This timely innovation is driven in response to several recent trends:

  • The explosion of social networks for sharing information
  • The proliferation of smartphones and GPS technology
  • Web-based planning and operations for humanitarian relief and crisis response.

There are at least three important socio-technological advances that are affecting human geography:

  1. how users are co-creating content through the participatory Internet;
  2. how new methods are available for exploring and analyzing data;
  3. how emergency responders are finding new ways to use old technologies.

Throughout the 20th century (the geospatial dark ages), GIS data remained locked up in proprietary databases belonging to commercial interests and nationstates.  The Internet has played a major role as a catalyst for accelerating the generation and exchange of location data.  With commercial platforms like Google Earth and Twitter, major governments have been disintermediated as sources of information in highly developed nations.  As access to high-speed Internet has grown, the democratization of geospatial information has moved forward at a geometric rate.  Suddenly, amateur grassroots projects have started amassing quantities of data that dwarf the amount of information tied up in proprietary systems.  Such grassroots content creation is exemplified by websites like,, and

Google Earth Originally established on the Web in December 2002, was an important early location for community-generated geospatial data.  Before it was acquired by Google in 2004, the keyhole community was set up as a community resource, allowing users to post points of interest to share with other users.  With sponsorship from Google, the site has expanded tremendously.  Today it boasts millions of users and a collection of keyhole markup language (KML) points that span hundreds of thousands of locations around the world.

Flickr The Yahoo property Flickr goes even further than bbs.keyhole in providing a data creation community.  On Flickr, photos can be geospatially annotated, marked up, uploaded, and shared free of charge.  Although not required, many photos feature geospatial annotation or markup.  Researchers from the University of Munster in Germany have estimated that Flickr has more than 100 million geotagged photos.  The aggregation of such a large volume of volunteered geographic information, also referred to as community remote sensing, paints quite a picture of the state of affairs on the ground.

Twitter.  The next generation of community-generated geospatial data is now being created at the popular micro-blogging site Twitter.  In 2009, Twitter implemented a geo application programming interface that allows developers and applications to annotate tweets with location information in the form of decimal degrees coordinates.  Less than one percent of Twitter tweets include geospatial information;  but at more than 300 million tweets per day, that still amounts to more than millions of geospatially tagged tweets per day.  This has given rise to an entirely new era of near real-time geospatially annotated data.

OpenStreetMap.  The Cloudmade-funded OpenStreetMap community has become a boon to organizations looking to obtain and evaluate road network data.  Originally founded in 2004 by Steve Coast, the OpenStreetMap project originally aimed to encourage growth in the development and distribution of GIS data by providing map data free of charge under a Creative Commons license.  In the past seven years, OpenStreetMap has grown from just an idea to the dominant source of free map data in the world.  It allows users to edit and interact with map data in a similar style to wikis and other community-based collaboration mechanisms.  True to its mission, OpenStreetMap makes all of its polygon data available for download as a data export in OSM (sounds like “awesome”) format— approximately 250 gigabytes.

[stayed tuned for the next installment — part 2 of 3 coming soon…]

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