A recap of Where 2.0: The conference for all things location-aware

[Editor's note: Expanded version of my post for The Washington Post's @innovations blog.]

We use maps to show readers the “where” in our stories. But beyond simply locating the places mentioned in text, maps can create a larger narrative by adding context and showing trends (or animating the path of Friday’s royal wedding parade).

Krissy Clark, a reporter for KQED Public Radio in Los Angeles, summed up the “where” from the journalist’s perspective in her plenary talk at the Where 2.0 Conference last week in Santa Clara, Calif., “Stories Everywhere”:

The Where 2.0 Conference bills itself as a source for all things location-aware, or geo. Sessions explored the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies and marketing.

The buzzword this year was “serendipity” — using customers’ locations, especially with mobile apps, to create experiences that delight them by providing them with relevant, unexpected information based on their locations (to paraphrase Jeff Jarvis).

More nerdy details after the jump.

Using location awareness to improve consumer experiences

The online auction site eBay announced during the conference that it was acquiring a company called Where that will provide consumers with a shopping experience based on their location via geo-targeted ads, deals and coupons, and an option to “purchase this now, near you.”

Another powerful tool is the ability to allow consumers to broadcast their location to the world or to a group of friends. Geoloqi, a real-time geolocation messaging platform, introduced a mobile app called Map Attack that turns a map into a Pac-Man style game played by two teams who compete by visiting real-world locations with their phone.

MapAttack at WhereCamp 2011 from aaronpk on Vimeo.

Location-tracking controversy

Fallout from the iOS location controversy continued this week after researchers announced at the conference that iPhones and some iPads keep records of which cellphone towers and WiFi base stations owners used the last year. Privacy concerns grew in the industry as Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone were found to have similar concerns. The ACLU of Northern California provided relevant guidance in the session “Location-Based Privacy: It’s Good for Business” with case studies and best practices.

Interactive maps without Flash

Of particular interest to developers of interactive maps was TileMill, a desktop application that was created by a Knight News Challenge winner. It has an impressive ability to generate your own styled maps (with CSS-like style sheets) with your own data. It’s perfect for election results mapping — the Chicago Tribune used it for the map they made of the recent mayor’s race.

The newest version of TileMill allows interactivity without requiring Flash by using a UTF-GRID overlay to allow pixel-level (vs. feature-level) interaction client side.

As an added bonus, the Arc2Earth plugin for ArcMap now writes out MBTile format web tiles, resulting in better file management for larger map sets leveraging the ArcGIS cartographic engine.

Google allows consumers to edit Google Maps, offers new Map Builder

Google announced it will allow U.S. consumers to edit Google Maps, imitating what OpenStreetMap and other services have provided since 2004. Unlike OpenStreetMap, users will not be able to download and reuse their contributions, but it should help make Google’s maps more accurate. Google is also taking on Esri, the Microsoft of the professional mapping world, by offering a new service, Map Builder, to move government and business Geographic Information System data into its maps and Earth geo clouds. Esri made its own announcements about new cloud Web services. Both are paid services that process, publish and analyze geospatial data.

NoGIS Gains Headway

This year’s conference continued a growing trend where “geo” is being incorporated into new contexts, but without any mention of “GIS”, the catchall phrase for complicated desktop software for building maps and performing analysis. Businesses and software packages are most interested in adding geography and location awareness to their applications, but the GIS logic that turns random data into actionable intelligence operates as an uncredited black box, often with a technology stack not tied to the traditional players. Besides the consumer and enterprise examples mentioned above, this often boils down to simply visualizing geo data that is otherwise in tabular formats like Microsoft Excel or Oracle.

Useful applications for data providers and programmers

SimpleGeo made a huge announcement that it was making its database of 20 million place lists, most of which are businesses, public domain. This should result in more accurate geocoding and interoperability. For example, instead of offering Foursquare check-ins to three different versions of the same business, it will now be easier for programmers to determine which is the best place to present the user.

Kellan Elliott-McCrea from Etsy (and before that Flickr) demonstrated a nifty, easy to implement work flow to leverage GeoIP, Solr, bash scripts, and free city location databases to rank places with similar names by population and distance when a user fills out an auto-complete location box to address dissambiguating cities with the same name and prioritizing nearer results over random results.

For the OpenData advocates, Max Ogden of Code for America presented ”Building the Open, Replicable Civic Web with GeoCouch.” He’s a smart dude to follow.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt

At the WhereCamp unconference that followed the paid event, GeoIQ distributed awesome Null Island geo-nerd T-shirts. Null Island is an imaginary location where bad geocodes go to party. The T-shirt was featured in a fun game called Null Island WhereCamp Time Machine Game.

(Photo by mpanighetti of the prebirth island zone)

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