When I applied to the News Challenge last year there was a guideline that all proposals had to somehow further the way digital media was used to assist a “specific physical area”. This is actually why my friend Ian Anderson mentioned GPS during our brainstorming session, which led right over to Geotagging. The funny thing is that we had actually misinterpreted the entire situation – we took “specific physical area” to mean “specific physical community” – yet our solution still fulfilled the requirements of the News Challenge.
This post is about my suspicion that although Geotagging does connect information to a physical location, a lot of the time we are actually trying to connect information to the communities that exist there. My point is simply this: articles that are tagged to a spot on the map are tagged to a spot – not a community. Since physically defined communities “contain” those spots it is easy to accidentally ignore the middleman and treat Geotagging as a way to connect information to community. This wouldn’t be a problem, but “physical location” and “physically defined community” can be functionally different concepts.
Think of a town, Blanksville, in which there was a recent riot, a school bus that crashed resulting in the death of a student, an increase in property tax, and a release of chemicals into a local river. If those stories aren’t tagged directly to Blanksville and they have merely been Geotagged then the only thing that systematically connects them is proximity.
In this case there is important information lost (i.e. the collective message that Blanksville is not a fun place to live). Readers also risk missing out on any those stories in the event that they were tagged to a part of town that they don’t usually pay attention to. To top it off, in the case of the property tax, the story would either be awkwardly linked to some random point within Blanksville or it wouldn’t show up on the physically fed news radar at all! This isn’t good – so many stories could get lost, go unnoticed, or simply not fit.
One possible solution is pretty straightforward: in addition to tagging to the physical location, tag the story directly to the relevant physical community. Doing this would get the best of both worlds. I could see this working is with a library of physical communities where each community has some data associated with it. In particular, it could have a name and the physically defined boundaries of that community. If you form this list right then the physical regions would be semantically linked to the physical locations they contain. In other words, it would be computer readable and you could create “smart” applications to do the dirty work.
I’m going to postpone the conversation on just how that tagging could be done; as Steve Yelvington mentioned in a comment on this blog, who or what does the tagging could very well make or break the system. Part of the reason is that I’m taking a course in “Decision Support Systems” which is a fancy way of saying “using computers to help make intelligent decisions” – such as a program that tags content to location in an automated fashion. For now just pretend that there is a mythical database of physical communities and that stories are tagged to them by a magical automated program written by Adrian Holovaty.
Regardless of where the community list comes from, once it exists you can allow users to specify the physically defined communities they care about in addition to just specifying regions of interest on the map. Since articles can be tagged to those physically defined regions – either by hand or (ideally) by some sort of algorithm – you can now hand feed people community news instead of just regional news without losing the benefits of a large aggregation system.
This is just one idea, and although I think it has potential it definitely raises a few flags. For instance, it might be overcomplicated or difficult to implement smoothly. Even if this example solution isn’t the best, the disparity between “physical location” and “physical community” is one that ought to be addressed when working with Geotagged news.
(This post pertains to a bullet point from Tapping the Potential of Geotagging – Support physically defined regions.)