dConstruct 2008: Steven Johnson: The Urban Web

Wants to start with "a rousing speech about intestinal disease".

London, 1854 - mired in its own filth. A Victorian city with an Elizabethan health structure, creating a smelly environment regularly swept by cholera, particularly in the summer. The smell was seen to be the cause: the miasma theory "all smell was the disease".

A public watering hole in Broad St gets contaminated. August 28, 1854 the first victim dies, and following on 10% of the neighbourhood dies in the next 2 weeks.

The story: John Snow works out that cholera is caused by filthy water and creates a map visualising deaths and their relation to contaminated pumps. Snow was a local physician who saw the concentrated outbreak in his community as an opportunity to identify the source of water and thereby prove his theory. He produced a diagram showing location of deaths plotting on a street map - though this itself was nothing new. But he also plotted on the map the area within which local residents would walk to get water - i.e. showing who would be affected by this pump. This disproved the link between miasma (smell) and disease.

Another significant individual: the Reverend Henry Whitehead (local vicar, 25-26yo) was well known in the neighbourhood as a "connector" figure. The pump was well known for its water quality (!) so Whitehead set out to disprove the theory through interviews with local residents, in the process often uncovering data supporting a link back to the infected pump and identifying individuals who had left the area. Whitehead eventually discovered "patient zero".

Snow & Whitehead has access to archives of open data, created in the previous century by William Far (sp?) and in a standardised format allowing consumers to identify deaths from cholera by geography. The idea behind this was that third parties might do interesting things with this data: Snow & Whitehead's first mashup!

Snow's incredible intellectual skill was the ability to move between levels - individuals up to the water system of all London - and draw conclusions. His map was "a social network of dead people" - those united by their disease.

Cholera never returned to London after 1866.

So, to the geographic web. The initial web kicked off in part because of having a standardised means of locating pages: the URI. Stacks can be built of top of this information only because you know where it is. We're now starting to get standardised geographic formats for data online (e.g. Google/Yahoo mapping APIs).

We have local expertise (knowledgeable sources of local information, spread via self-publishing in blogs), open standards for information, and visualisation/mapping tools.

We should be able to filer queries and provide results by "what people near me are saying". Yet in real life things that are said near to us matter more than things said further awau.

Demos "outside.in GeoToolkit" - to help authors Geotag their content properly, then examine it.

Another product: Radar. Takes a location, shows you what's happening in 1000ft from you, your neightbourhood, your city...

Amongst startups doing location products, there's a disproportionate emphasis on finding restaurants, local businesses, etc. Whilst this is valuable, there's a lot more to geography in everyday life.

Outside.in seems to provide a twitter-like feeling of connection to a location.

Geoweb could provide "eyes on the street" (quotes Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of American Cities" - sure I remember Adam Greenfield mentioning this at LIFT or PICNIC last year). These eyes, and the intelligence behind them, are what make cities great.

- snow go ethno

- what geo formats?