Completing the Model

It has been a truism for some time that GIS enables us to build models of the Earth. Esri Press has even offered a book on geodatabase design called “Modeling Our World” for a while. Traditionally, GIS has given us the ability to model the surface of the earth (in a broad sense), including our effect upon it. That can be extended to subsurface modeling and weather modeling and similar concepts but, in general, GIS has focused on the surface of the earth, plus or minus a few thousand meters or so.

One important aspect of our world that has defied modeling with traditional GIS tools is us. While it’s true that we can use GIS to do demographic analysis that market analysis and the like, those applications have typically fallen into the sweet spot of traditional GIS in that they typically involve analyzing aggregations of data captured over a period of time. These applications, like most others that are well-handled by GIS, are slow-moving.

All of these applications have a lot of value (or else most of us wouldn’t be doing our current jobs), but they present an incomplete picture. If we were to take the model of our world as represented by traditional GIS, turn it into reality and place that world in orbit; I suspect an alien visitor would come upon it and find a lifeless world with strong evidence that a people once lived there. GIS does a great job of showing the expansion of new subdivisions and their parcels, road networks, utility networks, the demographic makeup of their residents and the like. But, every day, each of those people leaves their homes and goes to countless locations throughout their day for brief time periods and myriad reasons. Such movements are fleeting and not well-handled by traditional GIS tools.

Over the last few years, the emergence of location-aware social media has given us a window into these fleeting aspects of human behavior. Tools such as Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook, combined with microformats such as GeoRSS and GeoJSON and wired into advanced smartphone platforms (and many other technologies) are building a “story” that is profound. We can see who was doing what, where they did it and when. This clearly has some “Big Brother” implications that we must consider. But, over time, it can provide a detailed picture of almost archaeological significance (imagine the value of the Twitter stream of one day in Republican Rome).

The exploitation of these information streams is still in its infancy. We’ll see a lot of micro-targeting of content such as advertising (cast a smaller net more precisely) and other such applications. Geo-fencing has also gotten a lot of press lately. That’s a concept that has been worked with great value over the years in the defense and security worlds, but may have found its ‘killer app’ with location-aware social media. Many other applications and tools are on the way; I’m sure, as more people turn their imagination to them.

So, while there’s been a lot of churn regarding the value of such streams (“Don’t clutter my Twitter timeline with your check-ins!”), they are here to stay. They help us complete the model by enabling us to model ourselves; the way we live, at the pace we live.