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The Shape of Alpha

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Aaron Cope (Flickr)
Location: Regency Ballroom
Presentation: The Shape of Alpha Presentation [PDF]

“The truly amazing part of this process is how the “community” has the authority to provide areas previously unmapped … members have the power of further shrinking our world through greater visual access and understanding of locations one might not be willing or unable to visit.”—Adam E. Anderson [1]

History and geography remain powerful anchors through which we orient ourselves to our communities and the world at large. This is reflected in the practice and evolution of story-telling, the interpretation and naming of place and the disputes that sometimes follow. As locative technologies play an increasingly important role in all aspects of daily life so too will the ability to interpret and contextualize the abundance of data produced in the precise but distant language of machines.

For its nearly 100 million geotagged photos Flickr store up to six Where On Earth (WOE) IDs. These are unique numeric identifiers that correspond to the hierarchy of places where a photo was taken: the neighbourhood, the town, the county, and so on up to the continent. This process is usually referred to as reverse-geocoding.

If all the geotagged photos associated with a particular WOE ID are plotted on a map is there enough data to generate a mostly accurate contour of that place? Not a perfect representation, perhaps, but something more fine-grained than a bounding box. It turns out there is.

As we begin to create and finesse a shape of the world using collaborative tools like Flickr’s reverse-geocoding and geo-corrections (presented at Where 2.0 2008) what is the intersection between the community of authority and the authority of community?



Aaron Cope


Aaron Straup Cope started making hand-drawn maps of drunken wanderings at an early age eventually joining the Flickr team in 2004 where he is now a senior engineer responsible for all the server-side geo wrangling. He is also a frequent contributor to the open source Modest Maps project and writes often about the “papernet” as bridge between analog and digital technologies.