Stopping the Social Cartography Menace

A disturbing new trend is showing up among the consumer base.  It has the potential to be worse than mix-tapes, worse than the VHS, indeed worse than online piracy.  Consumers are taking it upon themselves to make their own maps of their own neighborhoods and their own issues. The HQ for this behavior appears to be at WhereCamp Portland in October – we need to infiltrate this event and put a stop to this kind of behavior!

What we are seeing is increased collaboration and knowledge share between GIS professionals and amateur “social cartographers”.  The net effect of all this is that there may be less reliance on a single top down point of view and official maps of streets, places and businesses.  After many years we are finally able to provide beautiful, car centric, easy to use maps of city streets and businesses.  But instead of relying solely on what we’re providing people are instead beginning to rely on maps they make themselves – maps that have short-cuts through empty fields where there isn’t a single store, or that feature things that are not for sale.  Indeed concepts such as “friends” and “trust” are appearing which may circumvent advertising and marketing in some cases.  Consumers may start to explore their neighborhoods more and may become more neighborly and participate more in local events – and may even consume less.  This has to be stopped!

Already consumers are engaged in activities such as finding places where fruit may be plucked from trees “for free”.  See http://urbanedibles.org for example.  We are consumers not foragers – we don’t have forager report we have consumer report!  Clearly this is circumventing taxation, organic certification process, liabilities and insurance payments and much of the infrastructure that has been built to protect us.  Not to mention this kind of marginalization of clear ownership creates doubt as to some of the specific enforcement roles we’ve asked of law enforcement, lawyers and the judicial system.

We even see people getting lunch from tasty and cheap outside food carts instead of a proper sit down indoor restaurant.  There is a sense of a civic life being created that involves being outside, chatting with friends in groups of two or more and enjoying the outdoors simply for its own sake.  See http://foodcartsportland.com.  Clearly this will just lead to frivolity and enjoyment of simple pleasures!

Aside from the obvious inaccuracies of these “people made maps”, it clearly is not possible for consumers to collaboratively create quality by collectively adding to shared maps.  We are going to end up with a wikipedia like level of quality that is superficially compelling but that ultimately will have imperfections.  With individual bias, and human error, and lack of a professional auditing process and the years of specialized training that this requires – the outcome necessarily must be compromised.  As well with subjective human input places may be colored by personal experience or emotion rather than subject to the dry rigor of reason.  The fact that a certain field may be “a nice place to take the dogs for a run” is really secondary to the fact that it is a “development lot that will be turned into stylish condos”.  When communities start to favor emotional qualities rather than economic qualities there may be an aspect of “place making” that takes place.  Consumers may start to insist on things being a certain way – they may become more ‘picky’ and ‘demanding’ – and this could be bad for business.

Longer term trends could even include the diminishment of big box store outlets, chain outlets and the service industry as a whole.  People may learn to rely on neighbors and friends for things they need.  When people can see bargains “anywhere” using their social cartography tools they may go to bazaars of the back streets rather than to the convenient and shiny pseudo markets that we’ve built on front street.  Instead of staying at clean and comfortable new hotels people may even just camp for free, or stay with friends of friends when traveling, because places that were formerly invisible will show up on their maps!  Instead of everybody owning a car people might just do social hitch-hiking!  Effectively our economy will be driven underground.  The hyper-liquidity of the market that we enjoy today, with the large pools of dollars that we have at our disposal, will dry up as it becomes harder to scoop off the cream of peoples labor with taxation.

As well people may more quickly develop an understanding of their neighborhood – even if they’ve just moved there – and how those neighborhoods connect to the local environment.  See http://www.everyblock.com/ for example.  They may react poorly to issues like local superfund sites, or underfunded community schooling or other inescapable side effects of civic planning.  We really have no way of seeing what people will respond to.  There is a concerning possibility that entire communities may become highly mobilized to improve their local quality of life, their local watersheds and ecosystems at the expense of industry.  This could harm development!

How can we stop it?  Of course if we come right out and make it illegal this will just systemically foster resentment.  We’ve tried this before by giving charter rights to specific organizations but ultimately just ended up creating Open Street Maps [ http://www.openstreetmaps.org ] .  The right approach this time will require more subtlety.

We could seek to deflect genuinely new ideas by having them fit within tired old paradigms.  In particular build heavy clumsy standards that bog innovation by requiring people to be “doing it the right way” or face censure.  We can build a pro-forma “open source” consortium and define standards – while at the same time populating that standards body with vested interests that reflect traditional values.  This may work.

We could try to keep GIS professionals and amateurs safely apart so that expertise and new needs don’t intersect.  For example we could offer what appear to be grass roots “open source” events that in fact have significant barriers to entry such as holding the event in South Africa and having entrance fees even for speakers – presenting a facade of being “fair” or “egalitarian” while actually effectively blocking outsider thinking.  This will help assure that participants have the orthodox vested interests and expertise to preserve the status quo and appropriately marginalize disruptive new ideas.

It may even be possible to try and frame grass roots activity as a kind of specialization of traditional GIS – say referring to it as “volunteered geographic information” to create the appropriate radioactive waste handling wrapper around any invocation of the phenomena – and in this way treat consumer participation not as a revolution but as simply an extension in line with previous thinking and planning.

We could also try to encourage that people seek to maintain as much ownership over intellectual property and data assets as possible to minimize the possibility that the pooling of those assets creates a critical mass of real value.  Ideas about “the commons”, Creative Commons licensing, federating data, aggregation and suchlike should be avoided in all discussion.  We can laud concepts such as “open source” while preserving all other aspects of traditional business process and ownership and thus appear to be forward thinking while not compromising revenue streams.

Overall we are facing a challenging landscape and if we want to maintain the status quo as it exists, with our traditional maps, and their emphasis on official streets, well named resources, and approved place names and civic resources, we will have to work hard.  The social cartographers are organizing in two weeks right here in Portland on October 17th 2008.  We have significant challenges ahead – I beseech you to do your best to stop this menace – remember our economy is counting on you!

– anselm@hook.org

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  1. […] Stopping the Social Cartography Menace Via the WhereCamp PDX blog “A disturbing new trend is showing up among the consumer base. It has the potential to be worse than mix-tapes, worse than the VHS, indeed worse than online piracy. Consumers are taking it upon themselves to make their own maps of their own neighborhoods and their own issues. The HQ for this behavior appears to be at WhereCamp Portland in October – we need to infiltrate this event and put a stop to this kind of behavior!” […]

  2. […] Stopping the Social Cartography Menace Via the WhereCamp PDX blog “A disturbing new trend is showing up among the consumer base. It has the potential to be worse than mix-tapes, worse than the VHS, indeed worse than online piracy. Consumers are taking it upon themselves to make their own maps of their own neighborhoods and their own issues. The HQ for this behavior appears to be at WhereCamp Portland in October – we need to infiltrate this event and put a stop to this kind of behavior!” […]