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Democracy is here and now

Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Distinguished Professor
Bhaskaracharya Institute for
Space Applications and Geoinformatics
[email protected]
To be ubiquitous is to be all pervading, ever-present, common. How can mapping become ubiquitous? The term derives from ubiquitous computing where the computer is subsumed into the common objects of everyday life. Mark Weiser, Technologist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), first articulated the term in 1988.

He said, “in the near future great number of computers will be omnipresent in everyday life, which will be interconnected in a ubiquitous network. Ubiquitous computing is invisible, everywhere computing that does not live on a personal device of any sort, but is in the woodwork everywhere. Maps are highly stylised models of spatial reality. Since a map is a 2D scale model of the 3D reality, identification of reference features on the map in the real world and vice versa is a difficult task for a casual user.

Ubiquitous mapping overcomes these problems by providing an environment in which a user can use mapping or, if the need arises, create a mapping task to meet a specific need at a specific time. Another requirement of ubiquitous mapping is real scale mapping. Here, reference points in real space are used to locate synthetic representations of real objects in the mapping environment.


If we look back into the history of aerial photography and remote sensing from space, we can discern the first steps towards ubiquitous mapping. During the World War, aerial photography provided the information on ground troops and targets and on the results of bombing raids. If we deconstruct these events, we see that two of the requirements are satisfied. Firstly, aerial photographs provide a real world perspective, albeit from the top, and they provide repeated time slices – as near as it could get to real time information. Similar features are provided by low resolution weather satellite imagery for navigation. However, it is the high resolution imagery that provided the drive to ubiquity as illustrated by Google Earth and its imitators and value adders.

Four technologies have been used for Google Earth: broadband Internet, high resolution imagery, distributed geographical information systems and Web 2.0 technology. Google Earth allows users to locate features, overlay conventional maps, derive driving directions and compute distances from point to point. Feature location can be by latitude and longitude or by place names or, in some cases by using the postal address. An underlying digital elevation model allows 3D views of the terrain but not objects. This is overcome by using 3D city models overlaid on the 3D terrain. This still stops short of the real world and this lacuna is overcome by using street view, a 360 degree photographic panorama at ground level which is linked to the map location. This gives a real world view and is very useful in identifying features and facilities. For example, a map may show the location of a Metro station but it does not show on which side of the road it is located, how to access it, what is the signage. Only a street view can show as it appears to a person at ground level.

However, where Google really scored is in ‘mashups’. As the term suggests, users can mash up their personal georeferenced data with Google Earth and create new information which can be shared with others. Third parties like Wikimapia used Google Maps and Web 2.0 to create a spatial canvas on which users could point out places of interest and add tags and descriptions. Many used it just to say ‘here is my house’. Google Earth went a step further and allowed place marks, user comments, direction from and to and photographs and thus enhanced the utility of the old push-pin it first started with.


Google Earth is limited by the need to have a fixed location with broadband Internet and a desktop computer. The availability of 2G and 3G mobile communication services brought in the next revolution, that of mobility. Google Maps can be accessed on a GPRS enabled mobile phone and if the phone has a built-in or attached GPS receiver, then Google Maps automatically locates the user to the correct place. However, there is another clever innovation for place location even when a GPS is not available. Google uses information about the location of the nearest mobile phone tower to locate the user within a circle of 800 metre diameter. To do this the software queries the tower for its ID and matches it to its spatial database. This is one of the best examples of real scale mapping where the tower locations are used as reference points to transfer the real world location of the user to the map.

In situations where communication links are not available, mobile services can still be provided by using a Personal Digital Assistant equipped with a digital map and a GPS. Car navigation systems use this concept and reinforce it with voice commands. Thus, after the desired destination is set by the driver of the car there is no need to look at the on-screen. The voice instructions indicate exits and turns and distances to specific way-points. Here the mapping is represented by the voice instructions as well as an onscreen map. Both are

Where Google really scored is in ‘mashups’. As the term suggests, users can mash up their personal georeferenced data with Google Earth and create new information which can be shared with others.

real time and ephemeral in the sense that one cannot store it, copy it or pass it on to a second user.


Ubiquitous mapping is generally applied to a human context. However, there is an area which is in the realm of the military but which depends on all the aspects of ubiquitous mapping. The first example is that of the navigation

A conceptual model of ubiquitous mapping (from T Morita, UPIMap2004, Tokyo)

of cruise missiles which use stored information about its intended course and matches this in real time with radar information collected as it flies; it also matches a stored real world view of the target with its own acquired imagery to be able to detect the actual target. This is one of the best examples of ubiquitous mapping.

With a view to create machines which can operate autonomously in a battlefield, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, USA, has formulated the Urban Challenge. The challenge is described as follows (DARPA Grand Challenge: Urban Challenge Rules 2007):

“The Urban Challenge course tests the “

Web 2.0 has seen the emergence of social networks where people with common interests group to chat and share their interests.

vehicle’s ability to operate safely and effectively with other vehicles in and around an urban environment. The course will be nominally 60 miles in total distance, with a time objective of six hours. The road surface will range in quality from new pavement to potholes and broken pavement. The vehicle may negotiate sharp curbs, downed branches, traffic barrels, drains, rocks, construction equipment, power line poles, and other stationary items likely to be found in an urban environment. Traffic on the route may be provided by manned vehicles, tele-operated vehicles, and other autonomous vehicles.

Along some road segments, there may be significant distances between waypoints, requiring vehicles to use their sensors to stay in the travel lane. To complete the Urban Challenge, a vehicle must negotiate all hazards, re-plan for alternate routes, and avoid static and dynamic obstacles while completing a complex, multi-part mission at speeds of up to 30 mph, resulting in an average speed of at least 10 mph.

It is interesting to note that this challenge has been met and conquered by no less than six teams in November 2007. While the stated objective is military, it can be easily extended to situations like disasters where such vehicles can be sent on reconnaissance and rescue missions. Thus ubiquitous mapping is not only applicable to individuals but also to machines. Further the field of applications can stretch from consumer applications to civil defense.


Web 2.0 has seen the emergence of social networks where people with common interests group to chat and share their interests. Applications like Plazes and Dodgeball add a spatial dimension by showing the member’s current geographic location and alerting friends through instant messaging or SMS to the possibility that some of them may be nearby.

This could be a new twist to the old technique of paging a person where the pager and paged can reveal their geographic positions. Such a facility has many applications in an emergency scenario. For example a doctor could be located by his patient and vice versa. Some photographic cameras are now equipped with GPS so that the image can be annotated with date, time and place.

The phrase ‘wish you were here’ takes on an entirely new meaning with such devices. An interesting example of social application is the use of PDA with GPS for reverse mapping. This was illustrated by a project called ‘Neighbourhood Mapping’ where school children used PDAs equipped with a GPS to create maps of their neighbourhood and annotated it with their points of interest.


In all these applications, the technologies are common. It is the configuration and usage that is innovative. Ubiquitous mapping is about interaction of maps with humans. It is about map communications. Thus remote sensing, GIS and GPS are important spatial technologies. 2G and 3G communications, WiFi and WiMax are important communication technologies. Internet, distributed computing and GRID computing are important networking paradigms. Putting them together to solve a human problem by humans without bothering them with arcane technobabble is the challenge. This is illustrated in Figure 1.


Ubiquitous mapping is a great democratisation process. The easy availability of high resolution imagery, multipurpose mobile phone, Internet and Web 2.0 put the power of maps in the hands of the common man. The concept of a map has been inverted. Instead of a person using a map, the person becomes a part of the map – a data point if you will. For many, this poses uncomfortable questions. Google Earth raised the hackles of governments as high resolution imagery was freely accessible. Street View raised privacy issues so much so

that Microsoft is developing software to remove humans and identifiable transient objects like cars from the imagery. Do people really want to be tracked all the time as in Dodgeball? May be that is why Plazes and other such sites have not really taken off. Similarly, mapping endemic crime areas or disease sites could adversely affect the residents.

Be that as it may, ubiquitous mapping presents a challenge to cartographers. It is less about convention and more about invention. New interactions between data and its users have to be evolved. In fact, new ways of interaction are also needed. Can we think of ubiquitous mapping for the visually impaired? There is a need for a new look at data analysis, discovery and design to be able to present data as meaningful information tailored to meet an individual’s need at a given time.

Democratisation also involves community participation in issues affecting their lives. Location of facilities, alignment of roads and siting of plants increasingly require community approval. Ubiquitous mapping should enable such participation. Ubiquitous mapping should free us from the tyranny of maps and a multiplicity of systems and interfaces. A map may replace a thousand words but what if the need is for only ten?

SP Chatterjee Memorial Lecture, Presented at INCA 2008, Gandhinagar, India


• Kazy Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin, “The invisible city: Design in the age of intelligent maps”, . com/designcentre/thinktank/tt_varnelis. html

• Jessica Clark, “The new cartographers”, https://www.inthesetimes.com /article/3524/the_new_cartographers/

• Takashi Morita, “Theory and development of research in ubiquitous mapping”, Lecture Notes in Geoinformation and Cartography Location Based Services and TeleCartography, ed. Georg Gartner, William Cartwright and Michael P. Peterson, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2007

• ICA Commission on Ubiquitous Mapping,

• The DARPA Grand Urban Challenge .