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Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Gatekeepers, Digital Gazetteers and Folksonomies

February 8th, 2009 by MDob

During a presentation I made late last year, I was introduced by a well-known figure in geographic circles in the United Kingdom who indicated that I had probably put more maps in the hands of more people than anyone else in the industry. Well, if we can agree that on-screen maps are not actually in anyone’s hands, then I guess the statement may be true, although I had never thought about my career in those terms.

One of the many hats I wore while at Rand McNally (at that time it was a significant company, not the lost soul that it has become today) was Chief Cartographer. I was always interested in hearing what our users were saying to us in their communications. The most common criticism (you never remember the praise) was that we did not label a place with the name the writer preferred. Next was the charge that we had used a name that they believed showed some form of political favoritism on the part of our company or that we had simply chosen not to position a name on a map when the writer believed one was required.

To be honest, over the years, I heard more unique territorial claims and other rationales for the appropriateness of geographic terms than you would believe or be willing to read. However, musing about place names led me to ponder the notion of “authority” and authoritative geographic gazetteers in today’s world.

At the same time, I received a note from Dr. Duane Marble, one of the founding fathers of GIS and someone I am pleased to call my friend. (I am glad to note that this does not stop him from beating up my concepts from time to time.) Duane related to a note he had seen on a bulletin board for a discussion group in map history.

The email he sent contained the text of someone’s rant about the current state of place names, the conventional knowledge of their form and the casual use of language, in general. Read this sarcastic (yet revealing) riposte (I have removed the author’s name in order to avoid placing them in protective custody):

“It is both place and street names e.g. Kings / King’s Heath, St Pauls / St Paul’s Square. Dumbing down in an age where undergraduates don’t / dont know the difference between their / there they’re (theyre), and it’s / its???. Or, a lifesaver because ambulance Satnavs don(‘)t recognise ‘St Paul’s if someone types in St Pauls. Perhaps it(‘)s dumbed down computers and they’re (sic) programmers.

PS there(‘)s a sign on a s’crapyard near S’cunthorpe, warning “Beware of the Dog’s”. I never did summon up the courage to enquire just what it was belonging to that Dog of which I should be wary.”

The question that pops into my mind reading this gem is what is authoritative today in respect to geographical data, particularly regarding place names. For words, we still have Webster’s and other authorities who make great fanfare over “new” words that enter the world’s vocabulary. Is there currently a similar gate keeper or authority for maps and place names or will we go with place name Folksonomies? Should there be an authority, or is this a misplaced concept in the modern world of information sharing? What will happen in the future? How were these issues handled previously? Why does this matter? We will not answer all of these questions today, but let’s make a start by looking at past best practices.

Historically, the map industry distributed its products on paper, as there really was no practical alternative for distributing cartographic product. Today, the number of viable publishers of paper maps (either street or reference) is miniscule and declining. Graphic limits in the form of constraints of printing press technology, acuity, paper quality, tool limitations, and print formats interacted with geographic variables to limit the space available to position place names on maps. For this reason, great effort was put into both selecting the appropriate names for the level of generalization being shown on the map and in determining the most appropriate form of the place names involved.

At the time, map publishers wanted to be “authoritative’ and, in part, hoped to accomplish this goal by using an “appropriate” name form to identify a specific location. The goal of being authoritative reflected two interrelated concepts. First, a “non-authoritative” reference publisher did not have much of a future. Second, the professional cartographers developed sophisticated, consensual research approaches that honored both geographic and political reality and were paid and bonused to tease the most reasonable name form from a variety of contenders.

Of course, not everyone had the same standards. In the 1980’s, a Swedish company published a large, colorful wall map of the world that was printed on a wallpaper-like material. This visually appealing map was designed to cover the entire wall of a room. It was also designed for a client in Saudi Arabia. Curiously, the map did not show…Israel. Nope, no name, no borders, no Israel. I was told that the product sold well, even though it was “non-authoritative.” We will come back to this issue in a related blog later in this series.)

At Rand McNally, we were lucky enough to have a talented team who worked very hard to examine various claims according to a well-vetted set of procedure. We worked with the Board of Geographic Names in the U.S. and solicited input from similar organizations around the world to help form our editorial opinion about each and every place name used in a Rand McNally map, atlas or globe (in both English and the relevant language of the location’s geography).
The result was that this talented, knowledgeable team determined “the name” that the company felt was the most “appropriate” for every location and feature around the world shown on various of our maps.

Taking a stand always caused problems, either with consumers, or sometimes with a custom publishing customer who had commissioned a map or atlas. Our customers, for various reasons, might prefer one place name form over another (e.g. at the time, many UK publishers preferred Burma to Myanmar) and expected us to use their editorial style. It was, also, the case that sometimes we made mistakes. However, the point I want to make here is that we applied significant geographic expertise to the issue of determining the most appropriate name for countries, cities and features around the world.

It is clear to me that harmonizing place names so that they reflect some standard of use, is an excellent idea for some mapping applications. For example, the Getty has worked very hard to become the “authority” for place names in the art world. Their goal is be the authoratative source of the name a place was known by when a notable artist was in residence. Clearly, establishing an authoritative registry for place names and art has significant value to researchers in the history of art and for other pursuits. However, is the same true of common maps used for navigation or reference?

If it is, who sets the standard for place names on Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, and Microsoft Maps? Since the maps most often presented by these companies are street maps, perhaps we should ask “Are Navteq and TeleAtlas authoritative in respect to place and feature names?”

If so, why is it that I cannot find common place names around the world when I use most of these mapping services? Why is Mexico a blank on most online maps? Why is it that I often find numerous versions of place names and am forced to disambiguate them myself so that I can find the place of interest to me? Alternatively, why can’t I find the names of physical features (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) when I search Google and other online map offerings? The answer is not “user error.”

Well, the problem here is that the map databases from TeleAtlas and Navteq mirror the information a navigation system would need to know for navigating a car.The problem is that these databases have now attained “reference map” status and are being applied to problems beyond their ability to solve. In other words, the maps and the data behind them lack authority. Of course, they also lack worldwide coverage. As a consequence today’s map distributors (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc) sew together disparate source and decrease authoritativeness even further. What to do?

Well, that’s a lot of questions, when added to the ones at the start of this blog. Let’s start examining these questions in the context of geographical gazetteers over the next few blogs.

Hope I have’nt/havent/haven’t/have not made too many typos/typoes/cruds today!

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Posted in Categorization, Data Sources, folksonomy, geographical gazetteers, Geospatial, Google, Mapping, Microsoft, Navteq, TeleAtlas, Yahoo

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