Completing the Model

It has been a truism for some time that GIS enables us to build models of the Earth. Esri Press has even offered a book on geodatabase design called “Modeling Our World” for a while. Traditionally, GIS has given us the ability to model the surface of the earth (in a broad sense), including our effect upon it. That can be extended to subsurface modeling and weather modeling and similar concepts but, in general, GIS has focused on the surface of the earth, plus or minus a few thousand meters or so.

One important aspect of our world that has defied modeling with traditional GIS tools is us. While it’s true that we can use GIS to do demographic analysis that market analysis and the like, those applications have typically fallen into the sweet spot of traditional GIS in that they typically involve analyzing aggregations of data captured over a period of time. These applications, like most others that are well-handled by GIS, are slow-moving.

All of these applications have a lot of value (or else most of us wouldn’t be doing our current jobs), but they present an incomplete picture. If we were to take the model of our world as represented by traditional GIS, turn it into reality and place that world in orbit; I suspect an alien visitor would come upon it and find a lifeless world with strong evidence that a people once lived there. GIS does a great job of showing the expansion of new subdivisions and their parcels, road networks, utility networks, the demographic makeup of their residents and the like. But, every day, each of those people leaves their homes and goes to countless locations throughout their day for brief time periods and myriad reasons. Such movements are fleeting and not well-handled by traditional GIS tools.

Over the last few years, the emergence of location-aware social media has given us a window into these fleeting aspects of human behavior. Tools such as Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, combined with microformats such as GeoRSS and GeoJSON and wired into advanced smartphone platforms (and many other technologies) are building a “story” that is profound. We can see who was doing what, where they did it and when. This clearly has some “Big Brother” implications that we must consider. But, over time, it can provide a detailed picture of almost archaeological significance (imagine the value of the Twitter stream of one day in Republican Rome).

The exploitation of these information streams is still in its infancy. We’ll see a lot of micro-targeting of content such as advertising (cast a smaller net more precisely) and other such applications. Geo-fencing has also gotten a lot of press lately. That’s a concept that has been worked with great value over the years in the defense and security worlds, but may have found its ‘killer app’ with location-aware social media. Many other applications and tools are on the way; I’m sure, as more people turn their imagination to them.

So, while there’s been a lot of churn regarding the value of such streams (“Don’t clutter my Twitter timeline with your check-ins!”), they are here to stay. They help us complete the model by enabling us to model ourselves; the way we live, at the pace we live.

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5 Responses to Completing the Model

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Completing the Model « geoMusings --

  2. Terry says:

    Usually, our attempts to understand the past are hampered by the efforts of humans. For example, history is not exactly – well, factual. There are extremely few historical accounts that were written without some agenda or other. Archaeology attempts (in theory) to mitigate this, but usually fails because the archaeologists themselves have their own agenda.

    Every now and then, though, we luck into an exception. The case that springs to mind is a find I remember reading about years back. Someone stumbled upon a wealth of written letters that were circulated amongst a group of workers who had been brought to together to construct some piece of monumental Mediterranean architecture (I think it was a pyramid, but I’m not sure). These people were all brought together and dumped into a city (incarnated for the purpose) where they all cohabitated (along with their families) for the duration of the project.

    Now, this wasn’t the first we had heard of these people. It was just the first real insight we had gained into who they really were, how they lived and what they really cared about.

    And what we learned is that they were people. Just that – people. The letter I recall most clearly was more a complaint than anything else, the subject of which was beer. The worker writing the missive chastised his neighbor for not properly reciprocating the gift of beer during alternating visits (it pretty much always comes down to beer, doesn’t it?).

    I thought about those letters a short while ago when the entirety of Twitter got archived, and you reminded me of them again with this post, Bill. The various forms of social networks are accumulating vast amounts of invaluable data for future scholars (as well as present ones). The only question is who’s going to figure out a way to put it all together. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to be Big Brother.

    • Bill Dollins says:

      As always, insight comments. Thank you, Terry. I agree that Big Brother probably won’t figure out how to put it all together. That’ll probably be someone else for a purpose that’s completely non-nefarious. After that, then the potentially nefarious applications may start.

      That said, I don’t spend much time worrying about such things.

      And, yes, it always comes down to beer.

  3. Paolo says:

    side note: I think that the Esri book you mentioned was outstanding, it has been one of my favourite GIS readings for years and I have recommended it to a lot of people. I think it was dated 2000, it is incredible that time goes away so fast 😦

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