Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Geotags and Geotrails

At the moment I am sitting in a German IC. I'm doing "Duivendrecht" ... "Apeldorn" ... "Hannover" ... "Berlin" and if I had a GPS that was logging my position, you would see that I was doing a certain trajectory at a certain speed. For me there is something soothing about sitting in the train watching Germany roll by. You've made the decision to go there and now all you have to do is wait and it will happen. In this state of doing nothing while doing something, I can unleash my thoughts, do a bit of mental housekeeping and just general feel like I'm absorbed into the German landscape. It's always been like this for me, and I can highly recommend it. If you try it within the Netherlands, you probably have to go to Groningen since the other trajectories would be too short.

In the last entry I mentioned Creative Tourism. This train ride to Berlin is my way of really feeling in touch with Germany -- a way of living and a way of being. If your reading posts in chronological order, you'll recall that our Near2Me concept links up two places people. If enough people take pictures at places with two different geotags, then the place must be related. If you like one, then you like the other. But what I am doing right now is not associated with a single geotag, it is associated with an entire trajectory and also a very specific "train speed". Perhaps our systems will be richer if we include "geotrails", a path with parameters of time and space. These are the doodles we draw and redraw in our travel experiences, patterns that represent something we like to do, but might also represent the type of thing that we should try in the future when we feel inclined to "branch out".

Two other examples for which geotrails could be helpful come to mind. The discussion about chocolate that I had with the taxi driver that drove me to the airport in Dublin on Saturday really stuck with me. But it is one of the things that strikes me nearly every time I am there. You can really talk to the taxi drivers. Not always, but sometimes you have these amazing conversations and that seems to be more important to them than the tip. Once I had a Dublin taxi driver refuse the tip.

I had one conversation where the taxi driver asked me what I did and I said I worked in a multimedia information retrieval lab. "So what do you do there?" I didn't know where to start, so I described to him one of the systems at our lab that processes videos of soccer games and does highlight detection. He thought that was interesting, and I then asked him what he thought counted as a highlight in football. Is it only the goals and the penalties, or what other parts do you want to see if you are watching a summary to the game. He gave a thoughtful answer to this questions. If you would look at my Dublin geotrails, there are a series of characteristic doodles, often ending at the airport that represent these experiences I have had in taxis.

My Amsterdam geotrails, on the other hand, show me giving the taxi stand wide berth. The taxis will drive you in circles there. They have to, sometimes, given the geometry of the city, but they'll add their own embellishments that drive your final price up. The only place that is worse is Brussels.

In Amsterdam, I prefer the bike. You'll see a lot of bike doodles. These are slower than the taxis and also go on roads where cards don't drive. Biking is the authentic Amsterdam experience. Visitors to the city often participate in the local culture by renting bicycles and riding around. This is Creative Tourism the way it was conceived to be carried out.

However, you would see the difference in the geotrails. Amsterdamers bike every day from point A to B and back again. Maybe there is C and D as well, but in general they know their routes, every stop light, every bump, every place where another bike might come out from an unexpected directions. They also know their routes at the time of the day that they characteristically ride them, for example, in the early morning, there was always a characteristic amount of traffic when I biked out from the Lelygracht in the center of Amsterdam where I used to live to the Science Park. Routes are optimized so that they do not take minute longer than they absolutely have to.

Slipping here back into the topic of my last blog, I would like to make the point that the tourist geotrails are totally different, they are slower, different times of the day and involve indirect routes. Tourists wobble a bit, they maybe haven't ridden a bike since they were kids. They stop unexpectedly to consult their maps. They stop for puddles -- and Amsterdamer has seen the route dry the week before and knowing exactly how deep the puddle is going to be rides through it. Tourists also stop for red lights -- Amsterdamers know which lights are conventionally ignored by bicyclists.

Don't recommend to me a quick straight shot to the Science Park if I am on vacation. I want to do the trail with a little wobble that ends me up at the Van Gogh Museum. Is that the authentic Amsterdam experience? Maybe not. But if you push the limit, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. For the Amsterdamer, the authentic bicycle culture consists of complaining of how badly tourists ride bicycles. Take away commercial tourism and the city loses some of its characteristic spirt, the tension between those that live there and those that play there. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this would affect Amsterdam's charm.

This is Part II of the "Irish Chocolate Discussion", reflections on the conversation I had with a Dublin taxi driver and how that relates to finding things and search systems in general.