Disappearing from the Grid

This holiday season one of the GPS device is being touted, along with plasma screen TVs and Nintendo Wiis, as the hot gadget to have. As I pointed to about this time last year, navigation technology has experienced a healthy boom in 2007 - with consumer nav devices, with Web-based maps, and location-based services alike. There is a downside to this boom however -- the resulting desire of some to disappear from the location grid altogether.

This is not just another indicator of people wanting to live the simple life and "de-tech" their existence, but a reaction to problems created when software, and its users, have just enough information to be dangerous, but not enough granularity of detail to know it.  According to a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, truck drivers carrying their loads across the UK, sometimes from the far side of Europe to a local destination, are relying too heavily on their on-board GPS to find short -- and theoretically more efficient and cost-effective -- routes to their destination. And with many coming from as far away as the Western edges of Asia, they have no other local knowledge against which to check their routes.

The results? Speeding lorries enter villages where roads shrink from major thoroughfares to single-track lanes, often careening off bits of building or parked cars or, worse yet, ensconced in a narrow turn or alleyway. As a result of the nav system-driven mayhem and damage, representatives of some local UK councils want to be taken off the map and have vehicles rerouted. But that isn't so easy, and on the other side of the conflict sit technocrats claiming data is data and that "locals" want to change the "reality" reflected in the maps to suit their own convenience.

Of course, this is a luxury available to governments at a higher level, but not at the local level. In a globalized world where hyper-transparency and local knowledge does not always reflect context, the outcomes here are somewhat predictable, and occasionally tragicomic, as was the case with my "trip" to Kazakhstan last year, courtesy of the locative application Plazes and an SAS flight equipped with wi-fi. More often than not in coming years, however, they will be increasingly problematic. 

Open source mapping at the consumer level would be chaotic if not controlled closely -- residents of many high-traffic suburban areas would probably vote to disappear from the map if given the choice. Building in facility for collaborative annotation (something like the beta Orbitz Traveler Update service that allows travelers to provide on-the-ground information about delays, parking, weather, etc.) would be complex and costly, but it may be the direction consumer and business mapping goes in order to avoid these kinds of problems in the future.