COMMENTARY

Harry Potter and the evolution of GIS

With geospatial advances, everyone might soon have a Marauder’s Map. Is that good?

In “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” J.K. Rowling introduced the Marauder’s Map, a magical piece of parchment that would let the user see the location, around the clock and in real time, of everyone on the Hogwarts school grounds.

It was an ingenious notion that fit right in with Rowling’s fanciful world of potions, flying brooms and hippogriffs. But in an unusual twist of fact and fantasy, it turns out that, 11 years after the novel appeared, something like a Marauder’s Map isn’t that far from reality. Pretty soon, everybody might have one.

Advances in geographic information systems have been barreling forward of late. Combined with Global Positioning System data and sophisticated mapping software, geospatial applications are being applied to everything from emergency response to urban planning, and are moving into 3-D and even 4-D apps.


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And one of the tools being developed for the not-too-distant future is geoSMS, which would allow the geotagging of Short Message Service messages, such as those used on Twitter. If you’re tweeting on the go, others would be able to follow your location. Get a lot of people involved, add a mapping app, and, theoretically, everyone could have a live map of everyone else’s location. Like magic.

An app like that would have obvious real-world advantages — in emergencies, for example, or in law enforcement and other field work. People in need of rescue could be found more easily. People on a mission could be tracked.

But as with any innovation, this has its good side and dark side. People have recently raised red flags about cameras and smart phones with GPS receivers, which embed geographic coordinates into pictures taken with the devices. If posted on the Web, anyone using one of several free apps can easily derive the location of the photo. Security experts also have warned the military that hacked smart phones could reveal troop locations to the enemy. Geotags on text messages likewise could be a double-edged sword.

Of course, possible vulnerabilites won't stop their use. For one thing, the potential benefits are too great. For another, they’re bound to be popular — both on the job and on the street.

But there are ways to prevent their misuse. With cameras and smart phones, users can turn off geotagging features, although they have to know how.

The key seems to be educating users about when it is appropriate to use these features — an admittedly thin line of defense but perhaps the only realistic one. More powerful geolocation apps are on the way, and users need to be aware that some dark forces certainly will be looking to take advantage of them.

After all, the Marauder’s Map only worked when the user tapped the map with a wand and uttered the incantation, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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