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I’m just back from 13 hours at Where 2.0, O’Reilly Media’s new conference on geospatial Web technologies, and I’m trying to get my bearings (pun intended). About 500 people are attending the two-day conference at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco (37° 47.27’ N, 122° 24.49’ W, for you geo-tagging nuts out there). That’s a very respectable turnout, considering that this is the first time O’Reilly has mounted this kind of conference and that geospatial Web technologies involve disparate communities that have rarely mixed in the past, including geographers, cartographers, geographic information system (GIS) specialists, telecommunications engineers, Web developers, and hackers. But mix they did today.

The conference’s main theme is that the old business of GIS is about to be disrupted big-time by the arrival of Web-based technologies that put the power to access, explore, create, and enhance digital maps into the hands of average people. That’s going to change the way people think about place and space; it’s also going to create new opportunies to serve people branded information (and, not incidentally, advertising).

Today’s presentations provided a stimulating combination of cartographic history, bleeding-edge technologies (many of them still under construction), and debate over how businesses can tap into the new excitement over consumer access to geo-referenced data on the Web. In fact, the biggest actual news of the day came from the trio of giants now competing to provide consumer-oriented geospatial platforms and applications – Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!:


  • Google announced the public release of Google Earth, a free downloadable desktop application that lets users travel the globe virtually and zoom in on high-resolution satellite and aerial images of specific locations.

  • Microsoft said that it would partner with OrbImage, a satellite imagine company, to build high-resolution satellite images into MSN Virtual Earth, its upcoming rival to Google Maps and Yahoo! Maps. MSN Virtual Earth was announced in May and is expected to become available this summer.

  • Yahoo said that it would release a set of programming tools designed to allow outside programmers to build their own Web mapping applications that tap into the data in Yahoo! Maps. The Yahoo Maps API (application programming interface) will be available to developers starting tomorrow.
But the most fascinating parts of Day 1, to me, were the inspiring background talks by David Rumsey (I profiled him in the July 2005 issue of Technology Review), a collector of historical maps who is gradually making digital images of his collection available free online, and Jack Dangermond, the founder and CEO of San Diego’s ESRI, the leading purveyor of GIS and digital mapping software. Rumsey opened the conference, pointing out that innovations in mapping are nothing new; as long ago as 1895, for example, publishers were producing illustrated street guides that were the era’s equivalent of A9’s Block View (building-by-building photographs of the buildings lining the streets of 15 U.S. cities). The history of maps is all about the increasingly accurate depiction of space, Rumsey said, and now that trend has reached its ultimate extension, with cheap geolocation technologies such as GPS potentially allowing millions of people to know exactly where they are at all times. The challenge, Rumsey said, is to “allow users to have maximum flexibility in configuring the information [on maps] while at the same time leading them down paths that are graphically stunning.”

Dangermond closed out the day by talking about his 40-year background in GIS and the transition at ESRI from selling GIS software to providing geospatial Web services, which are flexible enough to mix map data with other kinds of information. “I haven’t even thought about how many platforms ESRI has moved over and survived: from mainframes to minicomputers, from minicomputers to workstations, from workstations to desktops, from desktops to mobile devices,” Dangermond said. The biggest trend in the business now, he said, is the transformation of the first generation of map servers into general knowledge servers, mixing map data and other types of georeferenced information depending on the user’s needs and context. “Geography is something that allows us to integrate what we know,” he said.

“Many years ago, I had the thought that eventually, everything that moves or changes will be measured and its location made available. And sure enough, it’s happening,” Dangermond said. The emergence of a new generation of geo-Web technologies and geo-Web developers is not only practical, he said, but “inevitable.”

I agree, and tomorrow I’ll write more about the other exciting thread in the conference – the actual applications that researchers, hackers, and geo-hobbyists are building on top of the Web-based mapping services now available from Google, Yahoo! and others.

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