GIS Day at the CDC - not!

I was hoping to attend a day-long series of presentations at the CDC in Atlanta today as part of GIS Day. The CDC have posters and some interesting looking presentations on public health and GIS.

The CDC however requires people to obtain a "sponsor," someone who will meet you and escort you in. However, if you're not an American citizen you have to fill out a form for security a week in advance with passport number, date and place of birth, employer and so on. Despite the best efforts of my CDC contacts, as of 8AM this morning we have not heard back.

So I will miss out, which is disappointing. While I should have contacted the CDC earlier it never occurred to me that a public event at the CDC was so hard to attend!


Wayfinding and navigability

I mentioned in the previous post that there is a new book out called Ambient Findability. It looks at ways we can find our way through the information overload of today's society.

One of the key points it makes is that wayfinding and navigability through the real physical environment are strong metaphors for finding our way through the noosphere, to use the old phrase of Teilhard de Chardin (maybe we'd call it the blogosphere today).

For what it's worth I did a Masters Thesis on this in the 1980s. I studied both expert and novice wayfinders as they performed a wayfinding task (deciding on a route through an environment as they studied a map). Here's what I found:

1. Experts do wayfinding differently than novices.
Where novices follow a string of beads or trail of breadcrumbs from one known point to another. experts navigate "regionally," paradoxically not by knowing exactly where they are, but with a wider sense of where they are generally.

2. Experts and novices focus on different parts of the task
If you're a novice wayfinder you're much more likely to think in terms of the destination. Experts focus on the route itself.

3. Experts are "enablers," novices are "disablers."
Experts look for aspects of the route that will help them, novices look for aspects that will hinder them.

4. Experts have a richer, more interconnected thought process.
I also looked at how expert and novice problem-solving was structured. I found that experts had a far richer and integrated problem solving thought process than novices, who thought in isolated, disjoint patterns.

5. Experts built in error checking protocols.
Finally, I also discovered that experts often employed error-checking protocols which let them know for instance when they had overshot their destination ("oh, I've reached the stream behind the destination, I'd better go back").

Now this was only a Masters Thesis with limited numbers of subjects, but I've often wondered if these findings would extrapolate to the information sphere.

Neuromancer and Cyberspace

It's been 21 years since William Gibson's Neuromancer came out... cyberspace all grown up now. Who can forget those great quotes:
"sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel..."
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."

Great metaphors. I can remember reading Neuromancer the year it came out, 1984, a year I moved from the UK to the USA and the year of celebration of George Orwell's novel. It was a great book. Of course it built on earlier work that was equally influential. Especially the work of Philip K. Dick between the 1950s and 1980s, who practically invented the idea of a consensual hallucination in such works as Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, VALIS, and many others.

Don't forget Vernor Vinge's 1981 True Names as well. Less well known to the public this book affected the computer geeks just as much as Gibson (read their comments on the Amazon comments site, there's one guy who read it at Carnegie Mellon, where Hans Moravec's 1983 computer science class was instructed to read it.)

The problem is, is the concept of cyberspace dead? I don't mean the internet, email etc., but the very idea of a shared experience which is a place in the full sense of the word?

Do we share experience--or is our "virtual" experience actually fractured into millions of little groups, tiny blogs, zillions of 1-1 emails, etc? This is the situation today I think. For example this post goes out on my blog that 10-20 people read every day, via Planet Geospatial. (I'm not complaining: that's 10-20 more people I'm talking to if I wasn't doing the blog, although I can't see your faces, and the flow is only 1-way.)

This is why say Peter Morville's concept of ambient findability is interesting, because he addresses the question of how you find anything, and strategies such as tagging that might aid in "navigating" information.

Second, does it really exist as a place, even a virtual place? Perhaps the real question is whether it is useful to treat it as a place or space. I've always been confused by the use of metaphors here. I'm a big believer that the virtual and the material are and always have been integrated. I don't think for example you can understand the dot-com boom and bust without grasping that.

I'm not against metaphors, especially as they seem to indicate an interesting geography of a new domain. But there's the problem, is it really a singular domain... is there an "it"?

Perhaps there is no cyberspace.


Do we need a GIS Certificate?

A nationwide GIS Certificate has been in place since January 2004, run by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). If you pay $250, demonstrate some GIS experience and sign a Code of Ethics you can become a GIS Professional (GISP).

Developing the Certificate wasn't easy and many people worked hard on it. But not everyone is convinced that it is necessary.

According to Francis Harvey a professor at the University of Minnesota:

achievement of skill-level, point-based certification approaches such as that being promoted by URISA ... can become so nonspecific as to be meaningless for employers looking for concrete measures of job candidates' skills and abilities.
Harvey concludes that such vagueness makes the certificate meaningless by itself.

As a cartographer who sees GIS as part of mapping and not the other way around, it's particularly chastening and dispiriting to see "cartography and visualization" being given such a small "walk-on" part. GISCI should read Keith Clarke's textbook, Getting Started with GIS (Fourth Edition), which shows how GIS has its roots in cartography.

To get a GISCI Certificate, applicants must sign a Code of Ethics. In fact, the code came before the certificate and was being discussed as early as 1993 by Will Craig. At that time, Craig argued that a certificate based on training was worse than a code of ethics that has to do with how someone performs.

Craig also argued strongly for enforcement and sanctions for code violations. As far as I can see, however, there are none in the present certificate. Sanctions in other organizations include private and public censure as well as being disbarred from membership.

The GISCI Certificate and the Code of Ethics seem to me to be seriously deficient. I'm not opposed to either in principle, but a certificate that baldly asserts the irreproachable "scientificity" of its subject, and a Code of Ethics that lacks sanctions and acknowledgement of the power structures of GIS knowledge are, to my mind, divorced from reality.

[Ed. note: The preceding is a shorter version of my GeoWorld column earlier this year. After publishing it I received a bumper load of email on the topic. As this is Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day, it seems timely to bring this issue up again].


AGS President: We Face Geoslavery

American Geographical Society President Jerry Dobson has warned that we face a future of "geoslavery."

Dobson cited a number of examples such as a school in Sutter California that ordered its children to wear RFID tags around their necks until parents objected and the principal backed down, as well as a similar scheme in Osaka, Japan, or a new law in Finland which permits cellphone tracking of children, and even a case in Kenosha, Wisconsin where a woman discovered her estranged husband had secretly hidden a GPS tracker in her car.

Dobson warns that human tracking will "offer a new form of human slavery based on location control." He acknowledges that human tracking has positive aspects, and wants to see a national debate.

Interestingly, he says that this issue goes far beyond the privacy issues of the sort I posted about below. Who has control? Which technologies are acceptable? Will tracking become a ubiquitous (ha!) tool of control throughout society?


Domestic surveillance and denunciation letters

A chilling article in today's Washington Post gives new details on the ways we are being monitored.

Nothing new, right? Well hold on... the article says that the government is engaging in a dramatic uptick of domestic surveillance by issuing special national security letters. These letters are secret (if you get one it's a crime to even make them public).

The example they give is a letter they uncovered that was given to a library employee, who was asked to hand over user logs of a public computer: "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" using the library computer.

These letters, which have been used sparingly since the 1970s have suddenly exploded. WaPo says about 30,000 of these letters are now issued by the FBI every year:

Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.
The cause is the Patriot Act (of course!). BushCo. have attempted to compare them to Grand Jury subpoenas, but the piece points out that unlike subpoenas, NSLs are aimed not at past activities but at future or potential behavior. In other words they need no prior cause or even illegality, but only the label "bad guy."

Crime therefore is no longer about catching and punishing transgressors, but about predicting and assessing potential future crimes based on risk analysis. Hence "risk society."

Why is a risk society bad? Here are some reasons I thought of:

1. Surveillance switches from the few to the all--since we're all potentially risky. Constant surveillance (including geosurveillance).

2. Death of democracy: "A society in which everyone's actions are tracked is not, in principle, free" (EFF).

3. If we're constantly surveilled, and know we're surveilled, it will chill our behavior and expression.

4. This constant surveillance will probably include geosurveillance and human tracking

One last point. In ancien regime France they had something called lettres de cachet. These letters were denunciation letters issued by the state (the king). Get one of these and you were carted off to prison. They were of course perverted in that they became available for sale in order to deal with troublesome people, people who were unwanted, strange, disorderly, mad, bad, etc. (families would especially buy these to cart off unwanted family members).

National security letters = lettres de cachet?


Constitutional amendment to protect geo-privacy

Following my earlier note about a new program to implement RFID in our passports, perhaps it's time to start thinking about an actual constitutional amendment to protect privacy, including geo-privacy (the right to control our own locational information).

There's an interesting blog entry about this here. That way we could short-circuit all the debate over whether a right to privacy exists each time we get a Supreme Court nominee. A large majority of Americans are in favor of such a right after all.