Three and a half conferences (12 hours onsite training at Google counts as the half) in three weeks has about done me in. At various times, I inevitably ask myself, “Why am I here and not at home?” But I realize why I travel to these events when the light bulb goes off. Usually it’s about connecting the dots in a way that with 20-20 hindsight seems like stating the obvious.

I posted a blog in early May on the Where 2.0 conference, focusing on mapping and social activism; I noted that having a purpose (outside of making money and/or creating cool tools) moves the process and the product along. Where 2.0 was three days of 25 presentations a day and then evening events; so it’s no surprise that it was over a month later that the dots from Where 2.0 connected with the dots from my next three conferences: Knight’s Future of Civic Media at MIT, The Center for Social Media’s Beyond Broadcast, with this year’s topic being Mapping Public Media at the American University, and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE’s) National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio.

The guiding questions of the Beyond Broadcast conference seemed especially relevant for my locative media practice:

How are media makers using online mapping and visualization tools to tell stories and engage communities? What can those same tools tell us about changes in the public media landscape?

The first dot (still unconnected) came at Beyond Broadcast when a member of the audience commented that hyperlocal mapping is a contested space. His comment was in reaction to the Oakland Crimespotting site. Living in Oakland, he commented that crime in Oakland is no surprise and not news. He pointed out that hyperlocal, crimemapping sites reinforce stereotypes about where crime occurs, and more importantly, who commits it; from his perspectives, these sites don’t necessarily inform the community, offer insight into issues, or shed light on potential solution. Interesting comment. Got me thinking.

If it’s not news to the residents and doesn’t help solve community problems, then what’s the value? I visited the Crimespotting site for a more in-depth look with widen eyes. Crime data was “mashed-up,” with geographical info; but more accurately, it was two pieces of information overlayed: an event (eg, the crime) and the place where the event occurred. De facto every event has “place” information embedded in it – events happen in place. And it’s valuable to know where they happened, but just placing a crime event on a map does not necessarily give us insight into the story. As the Beyond Broadcast panelist Lee Banville, Editor-in-Chief of the Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, noted simply mapping “doesn’t necessarily tell a story, it introduces a story.” Otherwise, he pointed out, a map can become a data dump.

Most Knight grantees have a j-background, so narrative is normally wrapped around any mapping. But still, additional graphical/data info layers would provide material for a more detailed analysis. Just adding place information to data doesn’t encourage deep critical thinking. So we ask: what tools might allow us to go beyond simple geographical information and towards analysis and problem solving?

I found the next soon-to-be connected dot at the NECC conference in San Antonio via a GIS presentation by Professor Bob Kolvoord from James Madison University. Graphical Information System (GIS) is connecting data to maps, but the difference is both in quantity and quality of data, as well as intention. The intent is for analysis, not a superficial look. On the flip side, there is a learning curve with GIS software. I took a semester length course in GIS at our community college. It’s complicated software for those with little programming experience. But it did allow me to overlay many professionally produced data layers on a map, offering more than just place information. The most prominent commercial provider of GIS software is ESRI, and they have created a light version of their GIS software for K-12 education.

Like it or not, almost any discussion of mapping either begins or ends with Google Earth or Google Maps, and so goes this post. At Where 2.0 this year, keynote speaker John Hanke, Director, Google Earth & Maps invited Jack Dangemond founder and president of ESRI on stage with him to announce a partnership that enables ESRI’s newest 9.3 release of their industry-standard ArcGIS suite to be imported into Google Earth/Maps, thereby bringing lots of highly detailed data into the light. Taking into account Google’s large layperson user base, Jack Dangemond observed that the partnership represents the emergence of a new “societal GIS.” The addition of this new features in the ERSI software facilitates KML output of the GIS data. This output makes it possible to create mashups between deep GIS databases and neogeography databases and tools, between crowdsourced data and professional GIS data, moving beyond just mapping problems to helping create solutions.