Friday, November 19, 2010

The wider picture..

OK, so this is really tangential to this blog but I figured that anyone looking at this can see the connection (it's towards the end :-). This is my commentary from yesterday's panel session with Alec Murphy here at OSU Geography, as part of the Geography Awareness week. Dr. Murphy presented the NRC report on "Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences" and I was asked to comment on some portions of it, so here goes...

"I want to acknowledge the entire group of students in my Cartography seminar this and previous years, and particularly James Baginski, Jay Knox, and Xining Yang, for providing lots of inspiration and material for this commentary. And excuse me for being very positivist, but this is truly an exceptional time to be a cartographer and geographer, so I can't help it!

As evidenced by this report, where each chapter contain information graphics, and many maps, visualization is key to communicate and understand our world. But the report also challenge us to think of better ways to observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world. This vision is not new. About ten years ago, then vice-president Al Gore outlined his vision of a Digital Earth and TWENTY years ago, Yale professor David Gelernter wrote a book called “Mirror Worlds” where he wrote:

'...someday soon: You will look into a computer screen and see reality. Some part of your world – the town you live in, the company you work for, your school system, the city hospital – will hang there in a sharp color image, abstract but recognizable, moving subtly in a thousand  places. This Mirror World you are looking at is fed by a steady rush of new data pouring in through cables. It is infiltrated by your own software creatures, doing your business.', and he went on to say...'Mirror worlds will transform the meaning of 'computer'.” (Gelernter 1991, 1)

 It is clear by now that many of the elements of what these two visions articulated have now become reality.

The idea that our real world is reflected in a 'mirror' representation is taking shape in front of us, and because of us.

And that is central. Increasingly, we now see user contributed data such as photographs, place descriptions, and even live feeds of real-time events. In this evolving and growing “wiki-cartography” we can find user contributed, multi-media atlases ranging from Americas favorite architecture, through the Haiti Earthquake disaster relief, to spatial annotations of famous literary figures and books. The wiki approach implies a community effort that contributes to make online mapping platforms a tremendously rich environment for exploring information on human activities and the physical environment through a bottom-up and grass-roots geographic perspective.

Michael Jones of Google even argued that geographic space is emerging as a new means for indexing, organizing, and searching web data where the planet itself becomes the browser.

Now, maps as models of the world is not a new idea, and a top-down map or GIS centric view of the world has been rightly criticized for some time now. But many, including myself, now argue that this situation is rapidly changing, and being replaced by a mirror world that is filled by content produced by networked individuals, on a massive scale. In the words of Harvey Miller – The Data Avalanche is here!

So what? Some of you might argue that I'm certainly not on Facebook, macBook, Nook, or any other book for that matter! Sure enough, the idea of a digitial divide is present, and real, but so are other divides; social, economic, racial etc. In many ways the digital divide may even be less problematic than some of those other divides.

To see this we will again follow the lead of Harvey Miller and answer his call “THE DATA AVALANCHE IS HERE. SHOULDN'T WE BE DIGGING?” So, we'll take a look at a multi-dimensional data diagram, illustrating an example of the typical, state-of-the-art exploratory software tools that are now accessible by both professional and citizen scientists to “dig into the data avalanche”.

Cell phone penetration vs. GDP/capita (purchasing power, inflation adjusted)

We see the economic divide largely untouched while the digitial divide, in this case communication technology is surging.


Geographical analysis tools like this and other information and communication technologies are becoming mainstream utilities, world-wide.

We, the plugged-in part of the world, are all neogeographers, experts in our own experiential world that we now can choose to describe and make tangible to others in a multi-faceted way; through text, images, video, and yes, maps! As such we are the cartographers of a mirror world.

These activities, whether they are lived realities such as daily chores, work, or part of imaginary worlds, will increasingly be recorded and available as a resource to also help us understand our soon to be past, present and, in my opinion, also educated guesses about our future.

The representations, whether they are images, texts, videos, sounds, are increasingly open to analysis through automated text mining technology where a renowned blogger can mine for the general sentiment in the 100+ comments received each day, where hikers can identify a bird song through audio voice recognition technology, images of landmark sites can be used by image recognition software and databases to tell you where in the world you are.

So we now can start understanding our past and current. But, the NRC report also calls for forward-looking visualizations and modeling in order to predict and visualize future scenarios. But essentially this is characterized as a 'futuristic' and 'far beyond what we can do today'. Again, let me be more optimistic.

Going to your local cafe can be turned into a game in Foursquare. In this manner game like simulations are increasingly becoming an integral part of our mirror worlds. In this manner we increasingly mix or augment reality with virtual and imaginary worlds. Simulation becomes part of the new cartography. 

Finally, as Bruno Latour recently argued, the avalanche of data have put us, social scientists, on par with physical scientist for the first time ever. I think this is true both in terms of data access and access to controlled simulation environments opening a new realm of computational social science.

1 comment:

  1. It is nice that you posted your comments here as I have to leave at 5pm that day... I enjoyed the reading.