Now that we’ve achieved near global digital spatial data coverage, with a number of online tools to explore the world, it’s time to add to that data with further understanding. One tool to take on this challenge is MapStory, a new data commons to store and explore details about our world that adds a time component through the breadth of geologic time. Matt Ball spoke recently with Chris Tucker, chairman and CEO of the non-profit MapStory Foundation, about the vision, goals and benefits of this open, open, open platform.
Ball: Your online mapping site MapStory recently launched, when did you start the effort, and what is the main mission?
Tucker: This is something that I’ve wanted to do since 1994, but there was no business model or technology to pull it off, and I had to finish my PhD and needed to get a job. And, the tech and business model didn’t seem to exist. It was pretty clear by 2003 that the vision was finally technically doable, and business models started emerging with Wikipedia and later OpenStreetMap. You started seeing crowdsourcing work, and geospatial crowdsourcing occur with sites like Wikimapia. They never fully fulfilled the vision that I had for MapStory, but the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of people willing to put their content into the Creative Commons as a cultural resource, to make humanity a better place, that became a compelling proven business model for driving content.
When I was at Ionic Enterprise Inc., there were a number of projects where we were creating distributed editing workdlows via OGC Transactional Web Feature Services, as of 2003. It wasn’t as polished and as “commodity” as it is today, but it was there. When we sold Ionic to ERDAS in 2007, MapStory was at the top of my priority list as a hobby, in my “abundant” spare time once I left ERDAS in 2009.
We took a shot at it. This was in the midst of a decades long involvement in complex conflicts with societies on the other side of the Earth that we knew far too little about. At that time, it seemed to me that, amongst other things, MapStory might help to breed common understanding amongst the peoples of the world about the peoples of the world. It seemed to me that there would always be an academic or NGO or local expert that had a reasonable understanding of remote areas of the Earth, but still, that data wasn’t really available to the rest of the world in an easy way. It would be buried in a PDF document, or you would have to search 22 websites, or purely analog and offline.
We are in an era where people are really curious about other parts of the world, and understanding how things have evolved there. People are yearning for context, and there are tons of data out there, and there are those that want to offer their data so that a region can be understood by others, they way they understand it. MapStory is a content channel where the people that know this information can make it available both spatially and temporally so that the barrier to accessing the knowledge is very low. All you have to do is pan and zoom to the area that you’re interested in, and the moment of time, and you can see the available information, much like searching YouTube.
Ball: What is the underpinning software of the site? It’s built on open standards, open data, and open software, right?
Tucker: The spatial temporal data is in a PostGIS database fronted by GeoServer and OpenLayers married to a Django instance, with an OGC Catalog component. Our technology partner, OpenGeo (www.opengeo.org) calls this a “GeoNode.” We have invested in GeoNode for better temporal, social and narrative support. It’s a spatial data infrastructure (SDI), but it’s not using the metaphors of web mapping and SDI, it’s using the metaphors of Wikipedia, YouTube, and other successful social media platforms.
I spoke at the FOSS4G North America recently about what I’ve seen in terms of a journey of radical openness over the past ten or fifteen years. When I started in the industry, we started one of the first companies that bet the farm on implementing the Open Geospatial Consortium standards stack. People thought we were insane, but seven years later when we sold the company, we made a pretty penny.
The notion of building a proprietary software stack implementing the OGC interfaces, was considered radical back then, but open source geospatial implementations began emerging, clearly they had a more radical commitment to openness. You started seeing open source implementations of the OGC stack, and then cloud-enabled open source implementations of the OGC stack, and that’s even more radical. You shed all your normal hardware and data infrastructure and shove it in the cloud. At some level, Map Story is just another level on that journey - it’s OGC-compliant, open source, it’s in the cloud, and then it’s an open data commons with license-free creative commons. I’ve followed this weird journey of radical openness, and that’s where we are today. It doesn’t look like that will stop, with open science, open SensorWeb. and location-enabled Web of Things getting ready to explode.
One of the things that we’re working on is to make sure that MapStory can go all the way back to the start of geologic time. That hopefully will serve as a basis of mashing up all paleoclimatology data, paleobiology data, and genetic anthropology, and that sort of stuff. The journey of radical openness is just continuing, and hopefully we’re situated in a way that can help.
Ball: I’m impressed with the level of story tellers and content that are on the site so far, how are you going about ramping up the level of input to the site? How do you measure success?
Tucker: I grew up as a redneck in the South, and now I’m an over-educated redneck living in Washington, D.C. One lesson that I’ve learned is that if you listen to other gringoes in Washington about their opinions of the world, you’re going to get an extremely slanted and distorted view of the world. So what better than to provide a global platform that lets people that are dispersed around the world, embedded in those cultures, knowledgeable about their history, to share their local knowledge. They can share not only their knowledge, but their narrative. They can do this in a way that a school kid on the other side of the Earth just needs to hit play and watch it for four minutes – and suddenly that kid would be familiar with a narrative from the other side of the Earth that today is virtually impossible to get at.
To me, success for MapStory is not if a bunch of over-educated white people on the East Coast of the United States use it. I would be unhappy if that were the end result of this endeavor. I have a contributor from Australia that has all the history, from the arrival of Captain Cook and all the convict ships, with the entire evolution of modern Australia. It’s what he’s passionate about. It’s educational to people around the world, as well as Australians who don’t have that synoptic view of how they got to where they are. Helping passionate people from around the world to talk about their part of the world is how you achieve a more complete understanding of the world as a whole. It’s not going to emanate from Harvard or Washington or New York City, not to knock any of those, but that’s not how success is going to be achieved.
Ball: The outreach to the social sciences has added a lot of detail to MapStory that we haven’t seen on a mapping site. I’m reminded of Pleiades [http://pleiades.stoa.org/], the ancient world mapping center. Is there an aim to combine the human geography as well as the deep history of people on the planet?
Tucker: I’m definitely coming at this in a different way. I’m known in some circles as a geospatial guy, and I never have and never will look at myself that way. I’m a Ph.D. political scientist from Columbia that wandered into the national security space, and then subsequently wandered into the geospatial technical dimension of both national security and civilian life. That was very useful for me to understand the tech and the tools to achieve this (e.g, MapStory), but in my mind I’m not a human geographer or a GIS guy. If anything, I’m motivated by passionate knowledge communities that don’t talk to each other. It makes me kind of angry that historians, human geographers, anthropologists, and at least 50 other academic disciplines, on top of practitioner disciplines, don’t talk to each other the way they should. And, that the way they organize their knowledge makes it far to inaccessible to every day people who would really like to have a better understanding of their world!
The one common element is that all of these academic and professional disciplines are exploring knowledge about things that have happened on Earth, and that the knowledge spans both space and time. The unifying metaphor for everything we know about things that have happened on this planet is space and time. Not to force everyone to be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, but you want it to be easy for all these disciplines to discover their colleagues that are studying things in similar geographies over similar times, albeit in a different discipline and a different phenomenology and lens on the world.
Innovation always occurs at the boundary of disciplines, markets and bodies of knowledge. If you can lay bare all those boundaries, you’re going to get much faster innovation in terms of what we know about our world, and how well we know our world.
Ball: It’s good to hear you speak to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary and the power of geospatial visualization as a means for collaboration.
Tucker: I grew up professionally under Michael Crow, who is now president of Arizona State, who was the executive vice provost at Columbia. He is a force of nature. He’s probably ruined me for life as somebody who forced people to think in interdisciplinary ways. He never had this explicit “space-time” riff, but I know he thinks that way. It was clear to me at a young age, when I started working with him at age 19, that there is only one Earth and one past, although we experience it differently. You have to let all that knowledge pool naturally in a way that all the disciplines can interface and interact for the betterment of society.
Arizona State has a heritage of interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary thinking, but when they hired Mike, they supercharged it. They also have the largest geospatial research and scholarship of any university, not just as a GIS or geography department, it crosscuts their sustainability sciences, engineering and planning, social sciences, geology, etc. Its a large cohort of people that are thinking and acting pretty explicitly in terms of space and time. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Mike and his leadership as they’ve tried to evolve that. I have a team of twelve students at ASU now that are helping with MapStory. ASU is an epicenter of interdisciplinary space-time thinking, and I’m proud to be affiliated with them and thankful for the support that they have provided.
Ball: It’s really a time for the rethinking of education, and your alignment and goals seem to be toward moving along new ways of problem solving. Is the tool aimed at a higher education user?
Tucker: Not really, but to me that’s an easy group because they are educated and well trained on tools to generate data, and there is a rigor to what they do. But that’s one cross section of passionate information communities. Another community that we’re created for are the military history buffs that are putting together animated recollections of famous battles. Those people aren’t tenured professors of universities. In some cases, they are retirees that think it’s a crime that children of today don’t understand the battles of yesteryear. They put in the time to create these amazingly detailed renditions, and my concern is that they use Flash or animated GIFs to visualize, but that the data isn’t available in a data commons. They are telling a story, but it’s not attached to open data, and if its in Flash it’s no longer geospatial, it’s in vector space. We hope to change all this. One of our partners has done every major Civil War battle, in some cases down to the minute, and over the course of the Summer you’ll see these pop up on MapStory.
But, there are hundreds of similarly passionate information communities. We’re trying to provide an easy toolkit that lets people from these passionate information communities share their knowledge in space and time with other users.
Ball: At the latest GeoInt event, I was struck by the number of vendors and sessions that addressed the human geography component. The emphasis was on better understanding of different cultures and even understanding ancient tribal alliances and conflicts, because those seem to be so close to the surface even today.
Tucker: Absolutely. The key thing I try to point out to people is that historical memory elsewhere is much longer than in the United States. If you go to the American South outside the big cities, their historical memory will be of their great-great grandfather fighting in the Civil War. In big cities, it’s much more about what has happened in the last handful of years, months, and weeks. As a society, we’ve gotten so much involved in where we’re trying to go that often times we are lazy in organizing our knowledge about our past.
If you go to some remote village in Central Asia, one hundred years ago is yesterday to them. They still remember when the king relocated their tribe a hundred years ago, and put them at odds with two other ethnic groups. That’s just where they are, and that’s the dominant narrative of their existence. You need to understand that when you’re interacting with them – whether you are supporting military operations or humanitarian assistance and disaster response. If you don’t understand the narrative, and how it arrayed across real-world geography and calendar time, then you don’t understand where they’re coming from and you’ll end up doing something stupid.
In the mission statement for the MapStory Foundation, I talk about increasing understanding. A lot of conflict comes from not having a basic understanding and appreciation of the narrative that a group lives by, and organizes society by. If MapStory can make some small contribution to the sharing of those narratives, then I can die a happy man.
Ball: The spatio-temporal focus hits on one of the frontiers of geospatial technology as there really aren’t a good deal of tools to pull information together, to visualize and simulate, and gain understanding from that data. Have you focused on that in terms of a geovisualization capability?
Tucker: In terms of investment, the start of Wikipedia was just the installation of a wiki and populating that with information. Much in the same way, we installed GeoNode and started loading in data. GeoNode a year ago didn’t do what it does today. We invested some money specifically in three broad areas: temporal enablement, further social enablement, and then narrative enablement.
GIS as a discipline has historically been very static, and I think that’s not a reflection of people’s aspirations, because people definitely want to understand change over time. It’s an artifact of the tools that have dominated the market. There are a lot of interesting things you can do with spatial analysis, but because the tools really have not been there to manage our knowledge of the world spatio-temporally, to manage the data about change over time, it’s actually stifled even basic research into spatial temporal analysis. Hopefully, we can move that along by providing a place where huge volumes of data about the world are managed spatially and temporally, where the data is accessible for analytics and algorithms, and maybe we’ll get some advances in fundamental knowledge about spatio-temporal analysis.
If you look at neo-classical economics, it’s very much stuck in a static mode. With evolutionary economics, those that study the dynamics of technical change in an innovation economy, they have been trying to do dynamic analysis. Once the data is there, people will employ all new approaches for understanding change over time.
Ball: As a non-profit entity, with partners and a foundation, what is the model going forward?
Tucker: We stood up the MapStory Foundation much in the way the Wikimedia Foundation was created. It’s a 501c3 that’s there to provide care and feeding for the management of a global data commons. Wikimedia organizes all knowledge encyclopedically, and we do it spatially and temporally, but it’s just a new dimension of the global data commons. As a 501c3, we’re an education and research organization that accepts donations, and the users themselves can help underwrite it as well as major foundations and philanthropic entities that have an interest in seeing certain dimensions of the world’s knowledge better explored.
I’ve gotten calls from people that have said they have had a similar vision, and now they see that we’re doing it, they want to be a part. Well, it’s not “us” doing “it”, MapStory is a an architecture of participation that is designed to let everyone in the world get involved and help everyone better understand our rich past, complex present, and uncertain future. We’re doing it collectively. Whoever wants to do it gets to do it. This is not a company where one person controls it because they want to make money off of it in the end. Anybody that has approached me with a passion to support this has been offered a framework to contribute. It’s like a good old American barn raising as the model. If people have data, if they want to put together instructional material or put together policies and procedures, they’re all welcome. The “To-Do List” is exceptionally long, and it’s never going to end. People that are interested in doing this are more than welcome to join in.