Democratizing GIS

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The handwriting was on the wall at the Where 2.0 conference in San Jose, Calif., late last month: Geographic information systems are being democratized by the Web. And this is more along the lines of a revolution than an evolution.

Instead of maps being made solely by cartographers or high-end GIS applications such as ESRI's ArcView, communities of nonspecialists are also making maps. For example, OpenStreetMap ( is a free, editable map of the world that users can revise and add to.

FatDoor ( is a unique new site that lets community members navigate their neighborhoods for restaurants, shoe repair shops, protest sites, whatever. The initial data for the site is gathered from a number of sources, but it also depends on user contributions.

Another nifty site is Swivel, currently in preview, lets users share and combine all sorts of data including maps and location-related information. Want to display smoking rates in the countries of the world? You can do it at Swivel.

Dash Navigation, which is developing an auto navigation system with real-time wireless Internet, is collecting road data by enlisting 2,000 road testers.

This democratization phenomenon is a result of a confluence of technological developments, including more powerful computers that can display 3-D maps quickly, faster Internet connections that allow such meaty apps to function on the Web, open-source development tools that allow communities of geohackers to contribute content and location Secure Digital cards for digital cameras, which allow photos to be automatically geocoded.

The one nagging question not answered at the conference was who is responsible for authenticating the information contributed by users. We've seen how much disinformation is floating among blogs and how tough it can be for wikis, such as Wikipedia, to keep on top of things.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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