Retrofitting Geo for the 4th Dimension

We are in a period of mass-market place ambiguity.

Places drift, jump, and fade, physically. Some places have a much higher propensity towards noticeable drift than others, but location, in general, is not stable. The geo-web of the past few years has mostly ignored this as a low impact edge case. The era of the Google Maps API dramatically boosted developer productivity and interest within the geo space because it simplified and lowered the barriers to entry, while simultaneously reinforcing a few paradigms that find easy adoption within rapidly moving startups and business, ideas like “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and “solve for the 80% use case”. Startups are constantly faced with a to-do list that can never be 100% complete, but these catchy ideas formalize and automate the painful process of deeming some desires unworthy of your attention. Since 80% of the places that most people are searching for, or reviewing, or visiting feel relatively immune to change (at least in the “several years” lifespan much of today’s software is being designed for), we have very quickly built up a stiff and rigid framework around these places to facilitate the steep adoption of these now ubiquitous geo-services. The rigidity is manifest in the ways that place drift isn’t handled, places are assumed to be permanent.

This curve based market selection exists everywhere. Architectural guidelines and building codes are designed for average sized humans, websites are designed for the most commonly sized screens, even health care is designed, to put it another way, to ignore a certain subset of problems. I’m not making the case that we should solve every problem, every time. If we tried to solve every problem, we’d likely solve none. What I’m trying to articulate is that we are at a point, in the geo-web industry and as end users, where we can choose to keep building a concrete framework for the places that generally don’t move, and just write off the anomalies as being in the jurisdiction of specialists, or we can start building a new flexible framework that understands and incorporates place drift. If we accept that all places drift, we don’t have to divide the world into places that are easily indexed and those that aren’t, we can more closely match the human experience of flexible place allocation.


The illusion of stasis ignores the fundamental reality that every place eventually drifts, jumps, moves, or vanishes. It’s not the responsibility of any one startup to design, use and evangelize a structure intended to last for decades instead of years, but it might be an opportunity. Or it might fall into the realm of proposals that have to swim against such a strong incumbent current that it is thought best to form some sort of committee, or standards organization.

One tectonic shift that is going to press up against the old concrete framework currently in place is the explosion of real-time geo-data. This shift is forcing designers and developers to shoehorn the 4th dimension into their schemas by attaching the tweets, road reports, and sensor data with flexible glue. This is like building earthquake proof penthouses on top of old unreinforced brick buildings resulting in a Winchester Mystery House. I guess i’m advocating for both new building standards as well as seismic retrofitting of the 4th dimension into the legacy geo-data that is still being used from previous eras.

Ideally the new standards would not just implement a few more date fields (although perhaps this is all that can be expected of retrofitting), but should address issues similar to what KML’s “Level of Detail” concept can address (when you have a lot of data in a region, some is better suited for visibility from afar, while other is better seen up close). It should also be able to deal with transposition (where the temporal continuity connects various locations of a place). Finally, such a new standard should be able to address the flexible and permeable, and pixelated nature of borders and boundaries. The defined location of a neighborhood breathes, it’s alive, it’s a collection of diverse perspectives, each of these perspectives having their own native shelf lives of validity and relevancy.

I’m not just talking about when a dry cleaner moves to a new address, but also addressing the NYC’s WTC past and future, the shifting of Chilean cities from earthquake, the addition of a new wing to a museum, or when an entire mansion is stolen and relocated across state lines.

This all brings me back to the previously described idea of a scatterplot approach, where the notion of canonical location data is traded for an ongoing changing flowing morphing stream of scatterplot location data, a “location field” if you will. This field is a living entity, a wave, that adjusts instantly, and represents the pulse of data available for, from, and about a place. Places are patterns that coalesce, they emerge from, and superimpose over, other places of various size and scope.

Places are like people, we change over time, the atoms in our body are completely regenerated every N years, we learn and forget tons of things, our relationships grow and break, we migrate to whole new sets of peers, yet we somehow maintain some sense of continuity. This hybrid form of change and stasis can and should be integrated more into the digitization of our environments.

Maybe places are more about time than location.

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