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

In part one of this series, we explored changes in the landscape of human geography.  In part two we explored the online technologies that help users deal with new geospatial data.  In this final installment we’ll examine how new data and new technology has created change in the crisis mapper community.

Emergency Response is an Early Adopter of Collaborative Geography

The Ushahidi platform provides an open source technology for grass-roots news creation and curation.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is an open source platform originally created to help facilitate grassroots reports of violence following elections in Kenya in 2008.  During its use in 2008, it rapidly expanded to over 45,000 users in Kenya, and today it is the most widely used platform for local-level geospatial reporting.  Capable of accepting input from SMS text messages or Internet-based Web forms, it has played an important role in the recent history of emergency response in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Chile.

AliveInAfghanistan, an Ushahidi-based website, set out to monitor reports of fraud and violence during the period surrounding elections in 2009-2010.  More successfully than any other source, AliveInAfghanistan (officially sponsored by the Pajhwok news agency) provided up-to-date micro-stories detailing exactly what was taking place across the country.  Such a capability is especially important in developing countries that lack a strong government infrastructure for monitoring local security and that have weak information exchange capabilities.

During earthquakes in Chile in 2010, Ushahidi was used extensively to aggregate field reports on activity following the natural disaster.  More than 1,200 earthquake damage assessments and situation reports were uploaded via the Web and SMS.  Such information served as an important catalyst for getting aid to the right place at the right time.

In the lull between emergencies, you can find NGO staff and emergency responders hanging out at Crisis Mappers, a Ning-powered social networking site that connects hundreds of professionals and volunteers interested in helping bring geospatial data to bear in crisis situations.  The site’s mission is “leveraging mobile platforms, computational and statistical models, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.”

Borrowing techniques from the Facebook playbook, Crisis Mappers is a growing online community where users are encouraged to express their experience and ideas related to humanitarian emergencies through blogs, videos, discussion forums, and internal mail.

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeastern region of Japan and damaged a nuclear power plant.  As emergency responders from Japan, China, and the United States swung into action, Internet users were uploading vitally important messages and images about the aftermath via Twitter and Flickr.  Although restoration efforts of the affected areas still continue, the geospatial data provided by Internet users in Japan provided critical indicators for emergency responders operating in the area.

What’s next?
New technology is proving to be a powerful force, driving significant changes in the community of online mapping.  As Internet users join together to co-create geographic content, use Web-based tools for geospatial analysis, and work together in emergency response scenarios, they are rapidly leaving the governments of the world behind.

How the Internet Changes Human Geography (part 2 of 3)

In part one of this series, we examined how the participatory Internet (sometimes called Web 2.0) changed the nature of creating and finding geospatial information.  In part two, we explore new tools that help users deal with this information explosion.

GeoCommons in action at the Taj in Afghanistan

Online Tools
Simultaneous with the expansion of capabilities relevant to human geography, there has been a renaissance in online tools for the exploration and analysis of location data.  Notable innovations include Google FusionTables, GeoIQ’s (formerly FortiusOne, now a part of ESRI) collaborative GeoCommons site, and enhancements within Google Maps.


Google’s creation of FusionTables has opened up a world of thematic map generation.  FusionTables provides a simple, Web-based service for uploading and sharing tabular (structured) data. As a simple consumer technology, Fusion Tables lacks many of the features belonging to sophisticated data analysis software.  However, its ease of use vastly eclipses other online offerings.

In just five minutes, a user can upload a text file with detailed geospatial data, generate a geospatial heatmap based on location data, and then share it with the world as a downloadable KML file or network-addressable KML network link.  The simplicity of this data mashup solution has significantly lowered the bar for viewing and exploring location data online.

GeoCommons, the open geospatial analysis platform provided by GeoIQ (now an ESRI company), provides easy data processing and analysis for the novice GIS user.  Slightly more complicated than FusionTables, but much more customizable, the GeoCommons site provides a very rich interface for creating compelling and beautiful thematic maps.  Through its wizard-driven interface, GeoCommons guides users through the process of selecting datasets (from an online collection of more than 4,000 sources, and up to 23,000 when you include data contributors and map makers) and choosing thematic views of the information.  Like FusionTables, GeoCommons allows users to share their creations as KML file downloads.

Google Maps

The granddaddy of Web 2.0-style online maps, Google Maps now provides many optional location data points and photos in conjunction with its standard interface.  In addition to its “slippy maps” (the first Web-based maps that allowed moving maps around without reloading the Web page), Google Maps now provides users with three significant enhancements that improve data exploration: photos, places and buzz.

The “photos” feature allows users to turn on a layer of geotagged photos from the site  Similar to the capability native to Google StreetView, these images give users ground-level photos of the region of interest, along with the annotations and metadata that the originators uploaded with their photo.

The “places” feature enumerates a number of major locations significant to the local community, such as schools, historical landmarks and government buildings.  These places provide insights into especially important regions of social significance.

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

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…]