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June 30, 2005 || 10:07 pm
On Maps

The whole Google Maps/Google Earth thing is really fascinating to me from an urban planning point of view. How amazing to be able to make hacks of these to show everything from real-time bus routes in Seattle, census data down to individual house level, crime, Iraq war casualties>, geo-linked photos, situationist-ish observations, housing for sale/rent etc....

So why not add layers of tree species, brownfield sites, derelict buildings, housing density, day/night activity levels, etc? let alone the more basic stuff like water, roads, houses or parks that could be on separate GIS layers linked in with the super-userfriendly Google interface - I'm sure there would be geeks queuing up to do the work.

All the GIS data already exists in various federal government departments, both in the US and the UK. The UK already has MAGIC a useful GIS interactive resource for planning geeks like me. It's unheard of among the general public and certainly not terribly user-friendly, but it is kept pretty up-to-date and does cross-cut between different government departments. New York has the hugely impressive OASIS project which has been doing a truly fantastic (and quite politically radical) job of involving community groups to both map their neighbourhoods and also input into how the interface works and what they want to be able to use it for. OASIS combines all the government data about NYC with the input from the community groups and it's pretty easy to use (although slow-loading at times). If OASIS linked up with Google Maps (and I'm sure they are thinking about it), it would be an awesomely powerful tool.

But on a national or international level, the amount of potential geo-linked data is quite scary. Again, like on the rest of the web, filtering is going to be key. I remember working on the Thames Gateway doing really the first map survey of it (I was shocked to find out that no-one else had bothered). I got all the GIS stuff, the census data and so forth, and mapped it all in Illustrator (can you believe!). And then whenever I presented it to the (quite high-powered) people I was working for, they would always say 'Well, we want to see it all at once - we want to see how all these different maps overlap'. And I'd try to politely explain that, well, I could print that map out for you, but it just looks like an unintelligible mess. Graphically, it's just too hard to show everything you ever want to know about a place, all at once. And of course, the mapping I was doing wasn't anything near the complexity of what the geek world is now doing to Google Maps/Earth.

Then, a few months later, we were holding charrettes as part of Thurrock: A Visionary Brief and one of the big issues that came up was around the qualitative mapping of land - how to start creating new mapping paradigms that aren't the planners' standard categories but that start to express the more local, sensitive and unexpected sides of land use and quality and crucially, time as a dimension, and that could be used as the starting point for a more creative way of planning. Again, it was ferociously difficult to express this concept graphically, although we all felt like we knew what we meant.

So I'm really interested and almost impatient to see what people manage to do with the Google tools, and perhaps the 'collective brain' of the web will be able to come up with an elegant and integrated way of depicting this - and being able to go from the personal (geo-tagged photos, memories, tips and walks) to the objective (data-based) layers. And somehow, we've got to find a strategy to stop our brains exploding with the density of data that we are expected to absorb - at least, those of us who work in land use, architecture and planning. Because sometimes the best thing is to know nothing: to visit a place for the first time completely fresh, sniff the air and allow your gut instinct, unfettered by any background information, to lead you.

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