Off the Map: The spatialization of information

As professionals involved in the localization, culturalization, globalization and internationalization of content (and any other related -ization I may have missed), one of our greatest challenges these days is being able to keep pace with rapidly changing and emerging technologies. This applies not only to the tools used in content development but also the distribution channels and media that are available for presentation to the end consumer. More than ever, we seem to be riding a wave of relentless innovation in content management and media devices even beyond consumer desire. To quote the late Steve Jobs, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

We deal with information streams from a wide variety of sources on a daily basis, and many applications and tools have focused on helping us filter the information appropriately, as per our needs. Those needs continue to evolve and we often see new applications arise that provide us with amazing capabilities via our digital devices. After a short time we wonder how we ever got along without such innovations.

A clear trend over the past decade or so has been the introduction of spatial information into our digital lives. While I could be referring to conveniences like Google Maps, which is a good example, I’m really addressing the prevalence of not just maps but location-based information and how it’s become increasingly more mainstream. This has occurred through an infusion of consumer devices that have made knowing one’s location convenient, critical and often fun. The first wave of location-based media came through handheld global positioning system (GPS) devices that enabled consumers to pinpoint their geographic location quite easily. People use such devices primarily for outdoor activities like hiking and backpacking, as they make finding your location incredibly easy. One popular and now global sport that was created solely from the existence of GPS units is that of geocaching, where someone plants a “cache” at a specific latitude and longitude, records the location on a geocache website and then others use their GPS device to try and find the cache. It’s become a modern form of treasure hunting.

Just to provide a brief but important historical footnote, the idea of a satellite-based GPS has been in existence for several decades. What we know colloquially as GPS was a satellite network established by the United States starting back in the late 1970s and now in continued upgrade mode. The system quickly became a global standard for location-based applications and revolutionized several industries, such as navigation and surveying, but remained primarily a US military resource. Because of this, the European Union initiated its own GPS network known as Galileo in the late 1990s to serve a chiefly civilian purpose. Galileo was designed to work cooperatively with the US GPS, thus creating a powerful combined system. Wary of the apparent US influence over global GPS, China activated its own Beidou GPS system in late 2011.

The existence and rapid growth of GPS technology has introduced whole new realms of content and applications. Not to be left out of the trend, automobile companies saw how people were becoming comfortable not only with handheld GPS devices, but with the convenience of knowing their location. Thus, car companies started including built-in GPS devices in their cars to provide onboard navigation. Many hailed this as a major advancement, since it meant they no longer had to pack paper maps in the car. However, a 2006 study actually showed that GPS units are more distracting than using folded paper maps. This was partly due to the fact that 10% of the drivers don’t even program their GPS units until they’re actually driving, and 13% said they rely solely on their GPS unit for direction and remain nearly oblivious to what’s happening on the actual road.

Automobile-based GPS was one more step toward helping the consuming public feel more at ease with the use of spatial data on an everyday basis. The next major revolution came with powerful smartphones like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Now with a pocket computer that had a built-in GPS, a whole new world of location-based media was opened up and made readily accessible. This is what initialized the evident trend of what I tend to call the overt spatialization of information. The notion of spatialization isn’t new in the academic world and certainly not to us geographers, but its emergence in the consumer realm as location-based services is an exploding phenomenon. The plethora of this new media has served a wide range of interests, such as the following:

Foursquare: This location-based game allows you to “check in” at virtually any real-world location and gain points and badge awards in the process (Figure 1). You can also connect with your friends and find out where they’re checking in, and compete with them for check-in points.

Yelp: This has become one of the key go-to applications for finding essentially anything that might be near you, along with user-submitted reviews of those locations (Figure 2). Yelp has found many diverse uses, from finding an auto repair shop to fix your flat tire to locating a great Thai restaurant within walking distance of your current location.

Dating apps: For those looking for dating and romance, apps have been developed to facilitate finding people nearby. OkCupid and SinglesAroundMe are examples of such services, which try to match your profile’s compatibility with potential good matches in your immediate area.

Naturally, one of the primary concerns about location-based technologies is that they open up a wide range of privacy concerns. Many consumers have already been alarmed at the amount of personal information being collected by their favorite companies, websites and so on, such as Google, Apple and Facebook. The news media seems to be rife with stories about citizens of various governments being wary of the kind of information being collected about them.

What’s interesting about the spatialized apps and location-based media is that the information being collected isn’t involuntarily; in fact it’s exactly the opposite. Users of some services are actively telling the world where they are and often times why they’re there, all for the sake of gaining points or being social. Usually this is harmless fun in the realm of augmented reality, where our mobile devices are providing us with a layer of metadata on top of our real-world experience. However, sometimes it can be taken to negative and unpopular extremes. The Girls Around Me app was quickly discontinued in March 2012 after many users complained about its stalker-like business model, providing users with the ability to find women from social networks within their immediate vicinity.

For those of us adapting content for international markets, location-based media introduce a regulatory and legal aspect of our work that isn’t often addressed. One aspect requires the careful consideration of privacy laws and whether or not such media will be able to follow such laws. Another aspect is the cultural acceptability of divulging your location so readily and essentially opening up your personal life to scrutiny by your friends, family, workers and so on. There is also a host of technical and geopolitical issues related to location-based information, which will require another column to cover in depth, but let me mention geocoding as a brief glimpse into the issue. Geocoding of information is an important component of spatial data; it’s how a place is tagged as being part of a specific country or province. The specific tag will be dependent on having accurate information from a data provider, where “accurate” also implies being sufficiently culturalized for global consumption. If a location is geocoded as being in one place (such as Taiwan) when a user in another locale thinks it belongs in another place (such as China), it can lead to content complications.

It’s amazing how quickly people discover, adapt to and integrate new forms of technology into their lives. It’s also clear that location-based media is more than just a fad, and that people are quickly discerning both the benefits and limitations of this new media.