Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Monday, 8 September 2008 13:12 UK

Where do you think you are?

Snow's cholera map
1850's Soho: an early incarnation of the geographic web

"This is, in a sense, a social network of dead people," Steven Johnson told this year's dConstruct conference in Brighton.

Mr Johnson was a keynote speaker at the gathering which brought together technologists and theorists involved in the social web.

In his speech Mr Johnson described the London cholera outbreak of 1854, and how it was halted.

The quip raised a nervous laugh, but the map of cholera deaths compiled by physician John Snow was meant to show the power of very local knowledge; it clearly showed a clustering of victims around a single water pump.

The water-contamination hypothesis had been made by Snow before, but the piece of the puzzle that made the picture clear came from Henry Whitehead, a local vicar who knew each and every person in the community and helped Snow build the map.

When the handle from that pump was removed, the story goes, modern epidemiology was born. But it isn't just a story about epidemiology, Johnson argues.

"It's also a story about a social system, about a neighbourhood, about amateurs who live in that neighbourhood who have a very local - we might say now 'hyperlocal' - kind of expertise about what's going on in their communities who were able to share that expertise. In doing so they changed the world."

Untethered web users

Mr Johnson and many others at the conference argued about and how to program for the so-called "geographic web". For most of its life, the web has been "out there", a boundless but ethereal construct. While it could provide information about particular places, web surfers had to find and assimilate it themselves. Where that surfer was, or lived, wasn't even possible to specify.

All that is changing. "Geo-tagging", first popularised on the photo-sharing site Flickr, associates files, photos, blogs, restaurant reviews, even music listeners with a particular place.

Google's mapping application has been widely adopted by websites to create their own geo-tagged content. GPS locating hardware is increasingly being built into mobile phones, and location-based mobile phone applications are being integrated with sites like Facebook and "micro-blogging" service Twitter.

lisbon restaurants
Unfamiliar territory? Let the geographic web guide you

"How we access the web isn't necessarily tethered to a desktop computer sitting in a specific room - we're out and about and the kind of information you want to access when you're out and about is different," says Jeremy Keith, a web design expert at the UK consultancy Clearleft. "What becomes really valuable is if your device knows where you are and can tailor useful information to that."

The challenge now is to sort out all that geographically specific information - the "what" narrowed down by the "where".

"This social web of people on the ground," Mr Johnson argues, "requires tools to grab that information and aggregate it, make sense of it, share it, and amplify it."

Last month saw the release of Yahoo's Fire Eagle, one of the steps in the effort to do just that. Fire Eagle aims to be the location broker for a number of third-party applications that can make use of its users' locations. Tell Fire Eagle where you are by, say, sending a Twitter message to it, and it relays the information to other sites.

Those might be social networks like the location-specific brightkite, or one for travellers like Dopplr. Land in Budapest, and you'll know who among your friends is also there and have a handful of hotel and restaurant recommendations already in hand.

Or if you allow your GPS-enabled phone to update automatically, you could be walking home from work when you get word that a Facebook friend of yours is at a pub nearby.

The possibilities are as limitless as your potential wherabouts.

In a lot of cases, software isn't useful unless a certain number of people are adding value
Joshua Porter
Johnson wants to search the web at large to provide local, current news for users of his company's site, outside.in. By setting your location, outside.in searches for current information, blogs, reviews, and so on - in part via Fire Eagle - to provide a customisable service. Set up an account at home and you'll get a custom-built scouring of the web, pared down and made for you, right there.

Or tap into local news and chatter when you're travelling; just let outside.in know and instantly you've got your proverbial ear to the ground.

Users can set a "radius" around themselves to determine just how local the news they receive is. As they join the fray, they receive a ranking for how much they are contributing to conversations on local issues.

Geographic chickens and eggs

These are early days, though, and Jeremy Keith says that the dConstruct conference exists to thrash out the ideas behind sea changes like the transition to the geographic web.

The truth about many of these sites is that they are all taking baby steps toward true integration of web services with the way that, with new tools in our hands, we will be making use of them.

These sites will come into their own only when a critical mass of people are involved, so the first step is getting the word out. Much of the conference's content is dedicated to designing websites that tantalise people into signing up.

"How do you engage people to participate and to contribute their ideas and content? In a lot of cases, software isn't useful unless a certain number of people are adding value - it's a chicken and egg problem," says Joshua Porter, founder of web design company Bokardo.

Porter says that imbuing sites with a sense of competition, like outside.in's rankings, is one of the best ways to encourage people to contribute.

Mr Johnson closed his talk with what he hoped was the take-home message. Teething problems and privacy concerns aside, the geographic web should be a tool "not to use the web as a mechanism to escape the real world but instead use the web as a way of enhancing the real world, making you feel more connected to your community".

That community, wherever and however transient it might be, is connected - and the near future will bring it to the comfort of your home or the palm of your hand.


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