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On the Horizon (03/10/06): Seeing the World

earthtopUI.jpgWe have a particular affection for maps here at WorldChanging, as they provide a view of the world that is thoroughly useful, yet is otherwise unattainable without launching into orbit. Digital maps that allow for the integration of dynamic sets of information are particularly appealing, as are those that encourage the combination of data resources. We're not alone in this appreciation of spatial displays of information, and the variety of maps out there -- either novel designs or "mash-ups" using Google Earth -- keeps growing at a pleasingly rapid pace. Here are some of those that have caught our eye over the last couple of weeks, but I want to start with some thoughts as to where the trend may go.

The Earthtop Interface: Imagine something like Google Earth (or something very similar) as your main computer interface. You connect to email, voice over IP calls, web pages, even work tools through a geographic metaphor instead of a desktop metaphor. The links to projects for the remote office, contact information, even travel info cluster together around the office's location; email and voip links for friends appear at their current locations -- following them around, if possible, so you always know where (in general) they are. You can, of course, overlay data like weather, time of day, traffic reports and the like, giving you an immediate context for what's happening both around you and around the people you correspond with.

Pundits often say that one of the strengths of the Internet is that it reduces the impact of distance and location, and indeed our work at WorldChanging is a prime example of how the Internet enables global collaboration. But while distance and location may be less visible, they're by no means unimportant. As long as we live in a physical environment, our daily lives will be changed by the conditions around us. That environmental context is made transparent by traditional network interaction tools, but its effects remain -- and by ignoring it, we reduce our ability to understand what's happening in the lives of those we care about and work with.

The Earthtop Interface may not be the most efficient user interface design, but that's okay; it would be worth trying out, if only as a tool for virtual organizations and remote collaboration. Anyone out there up for a programming challenge? MacOS X-compatible, please.

Poverty Mapping: Poverty Mapping collects indicators of economic and social development around the globe. Originally created by the government of Norway, Poverty Mapping is now operated by the UN Environment Programme. The maps are fairly traditional in format, but what the site lacks in dynamism it makes up in depth. Poverty Mapping has over 150 maps, all with links to original source material, covering issues including population density, vaccinations, water resources and consumption, land under cultivation, and so much more. It's unfortunate that, for now at least, these are all distinct, static maps; this is exactly the kind of material that would be perfect as .KML sets for Google Earth, allowing you to overlay various reports, looking for unexpected correlations. (Thank you, David Zaks)

Stopping Extinction 6.5: Biologists often talk about the "sixth extinction," the wave of species deaths ongoing today, largely attributed to human activity. Researchers at the Imperial College of London, however, decided to take a look at where mammals not currently considered endangered were most at risk of a rapid leap towards extinction. Their list is to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but Nature and the BBC have good summary articles now -- and both include maps. The map in Nature is particularly good, in that it identifies the locations by name, as well. Like the Poverty Mapping maps, however, this is static information just begging to be put into a digital dataset for use online.

Daily Disaster Maps: Budapest, Hungary-based Havaria Information Service has assembled an AlertMap of global disaster events. Various emergency situations -- extreme weather, technological mishaps, epidemics, biohazard events, and more -- show up as icons on a map of the world, with the latest items highlighted. Each item is clickable, linking to a brief summary and a connection to Google Maps for the precise location. The English isn't 100%, and the icons are sometimes a little off (the radioactivity symbol is used for biohazards, for example), but the idea is a very, very good one. (Via David Stephenson) It would be a good combination with...

GeoNews: GeoNews mashes up RSS-driven news reports and Google Maps, resulting in a geographic display of where major events are taking place. What makes it particularly cool is that you can choose from a list of news feeds to populate your map. Options include reports from BBC, CNN and Google News (which means pretty much everybody else), broken down by whatever categories these providers make available. Want just the big headlines? BBC News: Front Pages, CNN: Top Stories, and Google News: Top News are waiting.

Making the News: Word of novel uses of online mapping tools has started to hit the mainstream. Time magazine's Global Health Update recently reported on poultry veterinarians in Pennsylvania using Google Earth to help identify the location of poultry farms in order to prepare for possible avian flu outbreaks. The work itself isn't particularly novel -- they aren't even really mashing up the data -- but being noticed by the mainstream press is important.
(Via Google Earth Blog)

Comments (4)

MapMemo is perhaps heading in the EarthTop direction:


There was a start-up around 2001 called "One Cosmos" that died right before launch when the internet bubble popped. They had the concept of a world desktop where you could do all kinds of mapping and news.

Here's a link to their PDF white paper.

Here's a pic of their interface concept.



What I'd like to see (and which may already be available to 'premium' users?) is a chronology feature on google earth.
List the time at which each photo comprising the mosaic was taken and permit the user to select the date they wish to see. Ongoing changes to the Earth's surface would be very useful in establishing trends.
eg that imagery showing the extent of logging coups in British Columbia is a graphic demonstration of how man has changed the surface of the earth, but it would be more instructive to see how the terrain has altered (or not altered) since 1990, 1980, 1970(?)

Do you know Loki, the Location-Based Search, Navigation and Sharing ?


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