Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 22nd Jun 2008

Technology Update - Hyper-Local News

Chris Vallance

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Meera - In this modern age of GPS and route finders many of us no-longer feel the need to own or even look at a map.  There’s more to a map than meets the eye. We could be missing out on an important skill. I’m in London once again with Chris Vallance who’s going to tell me all about the wide range of information a map can provide. Hello Chris. A Political and Physical Worldmap from end of 2005.How are you?

Chris V - Fine thanks. Bit tired, just back from Chicago Hyper Local News.

Meera - What is that?

Chris V - It’s a bit of a renaissance for maps really. Because of the social tools that are available, things like Google Maps, you’ve got mapping functionality built in for things like services. It’s very easy to mix up data and geography.

Meera - How can this relate to news?

Chris V - Within news there’s this movement for hyper local news.  In other words overlaying information onto maps that you can search down to the post code or block level.  I’ve been meeting with a group of people in Chicago who run every block, it does just that.  You get all kinds of information about your neighbourhood on a map.  Very granular, very detailed: everything from who’s been burglarised, mugged, school performances, local newspaper reports relevant to that specific area.

Dr. John Snow (1813-1858)When it comes to mashing up this kind of data with geography we do a kind of flag waving.  The early days of using geographic data to present information to make a case one of the pioneers was a British Physician, a chap called John Snow: a very important figure in the history of epidemiology.  His work centred around a cholera outbreak in London.  In fact there is a monument to him in central London.  It’s a pump because he was able to trace the source of the outbreak back to a specific pump.  Part of the way he presented his case, he made his case that this was the source of the outbreak was using mapping data.  John Snow’s story was told by somebody in this Hyper Local News group in the most cutting-edge, modern kinds of mapping.  It’s Stephen Johnson and he’s the author of a new book on The Ghost Map.

Stephen - Of course it’s a kind of medical thriller in some ways.  The story of terrible outbreaks of cholera in the history of London but crucially there were two people living in the community, John Snow and Henry Whitehead, to try and figure out where the cholera was coming from.  Cholera was in the water.  It was about a contaminated water supply. Snow and Whitehead together ended up building this map of all the deaths in Soho and London that pointed vividly when you looked at it on a page to this central water pump.  What I think is so interesting about this story is Snow and Whitehead were crucially locals.  They were in the neighbourhood.  It was Whitehead’s social network; that he knew so many of his neighbours he was able to contribute so much to the case.  One of the things I love about the story is that at the intersection points of all these things is a great study in mapping, information science, epidemiology in cities and how cities and communities can solve problems.

Chris V - If you look at John Snow’s original maps they’re not so different if you Google them.

Stephen - That’s right.  The first match-up.  He took some publicly-accessible data from the health records showing who lived and died.  He added his own data, the data that he and Whitehead had collected, took the street grid that was publically available – just not in digital form – and he layered data on top of that and built something that created a whole new perception of what was happening in his community and ultimately what was happening in communities all around the world.

Chris V - Did the map help to make the case?

Original map made by John Snow in 1854Stephen - Certainly.  Some people think the map was how Snow got to the solution itself.  That he drew the map and realised that cholera must be in the water because of the pump.  In fact it was the other way around.  He developed the theory on its own that the water was the problem.  He built the map more in a sense of a marketing device for his idea.  You can see this in his map in a second.

Chris V - That’s in 1854.  We’re at least 154 years on from that.  What are we doing that is utilising the tools at our disposal?

Stephen - There are two ways to think about it.  The first is literally the idea of maps.  This is the great renaissance of amateur map makers thanks to the open tools that folks like Yahoo and Google have given us: to create our own vision of the geographic world around us.  We could take these maps and say, ‘Hey, I’ve created a map of all the pizza parlours that I love,’ or, ’these are comments on local schools...these are crimes that have happened.’  The other thing that’s not necessarily tied to maps is the flowering of local experts in communities all around the world who are using the connective power of the web to share their ideas about their real world environments.  We’ve been developing this service outside dot n which is only available in the US where we’re trying to, in a sense, scrape the web for all the information that we can find that’s relevant to places, to neighbourhoods, to schools, to parks, to real estate developments.  We’ve taken all that information and mapped it to geographic points so that you can come down to it and say, ‘I’m standing on this street corner at this specific spot, tell me what’s happening within 1000ft of me.’

John Snow memorial and pub, Broadwick Street, LondonMeera - That was Stephen Johnson, author of The Ghost map.  I guess with all this hyper local mapping is this going to replace the local news paper?

Chris V - The thing about a local newspaper is it gives you information on a city-wide, on a region-wide basis.  It doesn’t necessarily drill down to the individual street or the individual postcode which is what hyper local news does.  They will link back to news articles that are based about a specific location, say about a specific school.  They’re only linking back to the news.  They’re not really replacing it.  They only see it as complementary rather than in competition.

That was Meera Senthilingam talking to Chris Vallance about hyper-local news – which is the newest online development where you can find out the latest news about specific roads or postcodes, and build a modified map to show anything from the nearest schools to the nearest massage parlours!

It’s quite remarkable to think that it effectively all stems from the mapping techniques pioneered by the Victorian physician Dr John Snow who made a map to trace the source of a London cholera epidemic.

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