I Guess I Put the Fool in Fool’s Gold

Filed under: Maps & Cartography — geoLibro @ 4:39 am

On July 6 (what, I’m telling you it will take a while to catch up) Phil Waineright at ZDNet wrote about why only chumps get excited about mashups built with maps. The reason so many mashups feature Google Maps, he says, isn’t because maps are visually rich or because it’s easy to code with the Google Maps API. It’s because mappable data share a very predictable format: the address. In these cases, he argues (with a nod to Dan Foody) that the critical data are already translated to a common, legible, nearly universal format. Because the common street address is so base, is such a simple amalgam of even simpler information pieces, it provides an easy target for masheros (uh, people who make mash-ups) who want to get their Web 2.0 on. Waineright’s problem, though, is that nobody is making any money off of these because so few of them venture into that deeper, more important world of enterprise data. Naturally, this is where I stopped caring. Waineright’s “customer record” this and “enterprise” that don’t concern me, and it especially doesn’t concern me that nobody is making any money from all of their mashing. (I’m a GIS Librarian in higher education; what do I know from making money?).

Anyway, what is still relevant to me from Waineright’s article is a remark he makes in passing (passing through “Mapping mashups are the fool’s gold of Web 2.0” and “the real wealth creators will be those who offer enterprise mashup…”). Waineright writes that map-based mashups “add no new semantic value to the integrations they perform.” This is something that occurs to me from time to time, as well. Is our world different, for example, now that the makers of the website that markets and supports Michael Mann’s new Miami Vice are able to easily post a clickable tour of Miami featuring information about Miami and its convergence of cultures? Is there, as Waineright puts it, a “semantic value” born of that marriage? Same with HBO’s Sopranos map. Same with perhaps countless other examples, many of which probably shouldn’t be considered mashups to begin with since they’re not really mashing datasets and data types together so much as taking mappable information and placing it on a map. In other words, it’s hardly a mashup map if you just collect addresses and place them on a map. That’s a map.

But I digress. Leaving the debatable and perhaps regrettable “mashup” tag behind (I mean, is it really a mashup when Mos Def joins Garbage onstage? That’s a duet, man, and it ain’t version 2.0 of anything. But again I digress), the more fundamental question, I guess, is whether a map that doesn’t generate new meanings, that doesn’t add new semantic value to the great pool of semantic value that we all contribute to so regularly, is worth making. For example, a local (Indianapolis) television station recently ran an exposé on pharmacies that did or did not dispose of confidential materials properly (executive summary: don’t do business with pharmacies). They complimented this report by posting online a map of the pharmacies whose waste they rifled through. Had this been born of GIS, the map would have bee chloroplethic, its iconography colored according to the attribute values for each pharmacy. Instead, one must click on each pharmacy in order for its performance ratings to be visible. The applicability of this kind of map is limited, and presumably designed as such. The primary reason a reader might call on it is to find out how their pharmacy scored and they will presumably be able to locate it visually. The map needn’t be complex, needn’t even be searchable. In other words, it’s perfectly appropriate for what it does, and what it does didn’t require a geography degree or GIS experience.

So while I appreciate the critique of mashups that sort of don’t do anything or don’t do it very well, I will probably forever defend the value of creating them nonetheless. The reason is simple and rare: there is no harm whatsoever in too much mapping. More maps made by more people across more disciplines of more and more disparate topics all amount to more of what maps provide already: perspective, reflection, pattern identification, scientific inquiry and analysis, artistic rendition, political action and outrage (and exclusion), and I suppose, yes, more dudes with half-beards and the marked locations of their hoverboat chases (to be fair: the Miami Vice map seems to have nothing to do with the inherent comedy of two hip cops, one well-groomed and the other not as much).

The difference between Waineright and a GIS Librarian is that my excitement about the truthiness (©2005 Colbert) or, what, falsitude that can be conveyed with maps and GIS is independent of the ultimate fruit of their employment and is instead vested in whether they’re used at all. Put more succinctly, if students can be enticed, cajoled, or duped into an interest in GIS in any way they’re more than likely going to be enriched because of it. The exercise of seeing data geographically is the point, almost unto itself. And while our students or faculty aren’t going to be solving the mysterious geography of cholera every time out, the mere effort spent on – and time spent with – maps and GIS (-ish) applications is the point. In other words, I’m convinced there is an inherent value (not semantic in this case, and rarely monetary) in working with data from new perspectives and just like anything else that value is amplified here, understated there. For every three or four Miami Vice maps there’s a, and if Purdue students or faculty come to me for help with either one I’ll be pleased and quite happy to oblige.


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