Did we say this series was over? One more! The other posts in this series can be found here. The first one with an explanation of what this is about is here.
Alex Pasternack, Beijing, China
Granted, the internet revolution was probably the most important tech development of the past two decades. But when engineers at Xerox developed the graphical user interface, or GUI (subsequently "borrowed" by Apple and Microsoft) back in the 80's, they laid the groundwork for the digital ease we enjoy today. Combined with the internet, GUIs made it possible for amateurs like me to sit down at the screen and share information about the world with you, and vice-versa (that's what the World Wide Web is). While the next paradigm shift in computing may be still to come, we have proceeded by small steps into that unknown territory between connectivity and intuitive graphics: the peer-to-peer, "smart mob" technologies of social networks, blogging, and Wikipedia and its offspring are our best forays so far, making access to information better than ever—and shining light on the darker areas of the world.
How social issues will continue to find a voice in this realm of pervasive information—or how technology can keep addressing challenges that aren't necessarily technological—has always been one of this site's central concerns. And if you're reading this, how technologies that rely upon the intelligence and action of the collective will change the face of the world—especially open source databases and social maps—are not just a concern of yours but soon, a vital source of power too.
From the turning of elections, to the shaming of companies, to the voicing of injustice, the power of smart mobs and mobile technology has been proven. Corporations and governments may be getting stronger and more vigilant—but so is everyone else. No wonder the Chinese government this year has started to demand that cell phones be linked to the user's real name, and is planning on doing the same with blogs: Of all the things feared by the Chinese government, perhaps none is more threatening—or as readily available—as the smart mob tools of SMS and blogging.
A story about a flock of pigeons being used to track pollution over San Jose last year got Jamais Cascio at WorldChanging expounding upon his Participatory Panopticon idea--the notion that the public can be as watchful as any government: why not start a network of cell phone users (in the style of Peter Gabriel's Witness project) collecting data on environmental problems, he wondered. The potential for the mobile and online technologies we already have to create smart mob networks of global information—from pollution alerts to product surveys to maps of green buildings—are huge. It's a testament to the smart mob that the idea is quickly taking on lives of its own.
Perhaps the most recent evidence of smart mob reporting is WikiLeaks, a wiki site designed to allow anyone to post documents on the web without fear of being traced (news of the site was it seems, fittingly, leaked). The hope of the site's anonymous founders is to protect whistle-blowers and journalists from being thrown into jail for emailing sensitive documents, a fate that befell Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced to a 10-year term in 2005 for publicising an email from Chinese officials about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Its primary targets, according to the site, include , unethical behaviour by governments and corporations in China, Russia, and oppressive regimes in Eurasia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, though it's scope is not limited to these countries.
Just as a picture (and video) can capture a thousand words, so too are maps excellent at helping us visualize environmental and other problems: they can show us not just how such problems might effect their surroundings but can demonstrate significant geographical trends in a way that a graph or a paragraph cannot (gawk, for instance, at the work of Princeton's International Networks Archive). Social mapping—the mash-ups of smart mob, wikipedia-like systems with online map technology—has made our lives easier and more fun for a few years (see Google Maps Mania). But the potential for us amateurs to use such technology to highlight global issues, much in the way scientists have been doing for years with geographic information systems, or GIS, is going to make our lives even better. It's a trend that we might call Socially-Conscious Mapping. Consider it the graphical user interface for our green era.
If a standard online map can help us locate the best place to buy a new computer, a socially-conscious map can tell us where to recycle our old computer, or where a similar computer might have been tossed in our neighbourhood. It may even help us see where that computer we want to buy was made, and where it will likely be discarded—and the surrounding landscape likely to be effected. 2006 was a big year for socially-conscious mapping; but with more compatibility, more wireless, more eco-consciousness, 2007 should be even bigger for smart green maps.
Take a look, for instance, at Ma Jun's China Water Pollution Map http://www.ipe.org.cn/water. While it's not the first live eco map and it's far from complete, it may be the first of its kind in China, where making environmental problems public--and putting environmental reporting in the hands of citizen groups--is becoming increasingly crucial. Considering that one water pollution incident takes place every two to three days on average (to say nothing of chronically cancerous http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2007/01/cancer-villages.html water supplies), and government oversight remains poor, map tools like this could be a lynchpin in the government's effort to shame polluters and the entire country's efforts to live healthily.
The recently-launched HealthMAP system is another shining example of how socially-conscious mapping can change our world: started by two staffers at the Children's Hospital Informatics Program in Boston -- physician John Brownstein and software developer Clark Freifeld -- it allows scientists and concerned citizens to track outbreaks of disease in real time around the world. Here's how the WHO explains the value of such maps:
Geographic information systems (GIS) provide ideal platforms for the convergence of disease-specific information and their analyses in relation to population settlements, surrounding social and health services and the natural environment. They are highly suitable for analysing epidemiological data, revealing trends and interrelationships that would be more difficult to discover in tabular format. Moreover GIS allows policy makers to easily visualize problems in relation to existing health and social services and the natural environment and so more effectively target resources.
Dynamic socially-conscious maps also show pollution in Europe (The Dutch Ozone Monitoring Instrument charts pollution across that continent in almost real time) while others track floods around the world. Systems like the very cool Social Explorer, which shows US census data at street level detail, can help to track population growth. Wind maps, like this one of the United States, were used by Stanford University scientists to make wind measurements at over 8000 points around the earth; altogether, they measured the globe's wind potential at around 72 terrawatts.
Of course, we also have green maps like Wendy Brawer's illustrious (though still analog) map of environmentally-friendly activities and shops, Google's effort to track green locations around the U.S, and (as Greenmap.org tells us) online and analog green maps in Latin America, Europe and Japan. Before long, Southeast Asia? Russia? China? (There's already a healthy green map growing in Taiwan).
Data on green projects need not be gathered by citizens. As the Times recently reported, a proposal headed by Lawrence Bender, who produced "An Inconvenient Truth," is to create a Web site that would track sales of compact fluorescent bulbs at Wal-Mart, Walgreen's, Target, and major retailers around the U.S. The result would be a real-time map showing how much Americans have saved by using the energy-efficient bulbs. As Andy Ruben, Wal-MartæŠ¯ vice president for strategy and sustainability, said, such a map "helps consumers see this as something bigger than buying a bulb."
Now imagine what happens when such maps meet what's known as ubiquitious computing: that is, mash-ups of maps with data from mobile devices like cell phones that allow users like us to upload info about, say, a nearby organic farm, or a chemical spill, on the go.
All the way back in 2005, Berkeley engineering student R.J. Honicky noted that the GIS applications used by scientist to track the endemicity of malaria and contain river blindness could easily be wiki-fied, so to speak: cell phones equipped with cheap environmental sensors could be used to "help reduce pollution, fight disease, and tackle other societal scale problems with no additional effort on the part of the person carrying the phone." In the spirit of Microsoft's AURA project, Master's students at the School of Information at UC Berkeley developed iBuyRight, a prototype for turning a mobile phone into a kind of social responsibility scanner: "After a product bar code is scanned with a cell phone, iBuyRight retrieves relevant information from a social and environmental issues database, then displays it on the cell phone screen in an easy-to-read format. By turning the phone into an access point for product information at the point of purchase, the application aims to fulfill a consumer's need to know where a product comes from, how it is made, and the impact these practices have on the environment and communities."
On the map side of things, online services like flagr already allow anyone to "bookmark" places to create green wiki-maps of socially conscious establishments, for instance. In other words, the distance between your location (and the information that lies there) and a customizable online map that the whole world can see is smaller than ever.
Over a decade ago, the cost of using mobile phones meant they were generally only for emergencies; now the cost of mobile tech is so low, and the costs of not acting so high, it's inevitable that in 2007 mobile devices (and the maps that can illustrate their information) will continue to come to the rescue in case of emergencies—and this time, much larger ones.