Pinwheel, Outmap and the literally global web


When I said my final goodbyes to my team at Curverider and switched off for the day, I sat on my sofa and asked myself: what am I going to do next?

I had the beginnings of an answer already. People were beginning to take the web out into the world, rather than consume it at their desks. It seemed reasonable to create a geographic database of stuff – everything from photos and notes through to scientific readings. I called it Outmap. You would be able to browse these thematically, share them privately, or just see what was near you. Free users could post simple pre-defined kinds of content (which could be commented on and shared, of course). Paid users would be able to create new fields and potentially store entire databases with Outmap as their core. Each set of notes could be crowdsourced (e.g. to create a map of free wifi hotspots) or published (for your own notes, memories and photos).

Technologically, it was the right moment. Google Maps had become one of the most-used APIs on the web. The iPhone 3G had come out the previous summer, and was the first really mass market smartphone to have onboard GPS. And the HTML5 geolocation API had just been released, allowing any web page to ask for the current physical location of the user.

Business-wise, I had strong interest from environmental organizations, rights groups, top-tier universities and other great enterprise users. But alas, for non-technical reasons too irritating to get into here, I had to shelve it. (I did briefly reuse some of the back-end code for Onflood, an experiment in geotagged conversations.)

Three years later, enter Pinwheel.

I don’t know the team and had nothing to do with the product. Nor do I want to imply that this is what I would have released – Pinwheel looks beautiful, and the team (one of the co-founders is Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr) seem to have imbued the concept with a scrapbooky, airy quality that complements the name. But I am pleased that someone has built a service with a similar thought process.

I can see people leaving notes for their friends around the cities that they love. I can even see sending a set of mapped notes to Celia (“do you remember when we ..?”). It’s a lovely concept, that is one great use for the location web.

We’ve been so focused on social for the past ten years or so, that we seem to have forgotten the other networks that tie us together. Locations are interesting: you can represent them as discrete data (a latitude and a longitude), they have strong ties to who we are (where we were born, where we grew up, where we had our first kiss, our favorite view, etc), and can be used with social information to allow you to both express yourself and discover new things and places. Review sites and apps like Foursquare have only scratched the surface; in the future, the location web may be a new fabric of information that almost literally sits on top of everything.





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