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Don’t ask what. Ask where.

The Google StreetView cars have mapped over six million miles of road around the world. And depending on your perspective, that’s either a ton (240 times around the equator) or barely getting started (just a tenth of the world’s possible 60 million miles of road.)

An article in a recent New York Time Magazine shared this information along with an interesting commentary on the state of digital maps. Adam Fisher, the article’s author, claims that over 20 percent of searches made using Google are “where” related and growing. It’s no longer just a matter of  searching for the “what” – it’s becoming increasingly important to know the where. The StreetView cars, and the data they collect, are the new Google Search.

And it’s not just where. It’s something called “location-awareness,”  the sort of geographical information that our phones and other mobile devices already require in order to function.

In the future, such location-awareness will be built into more than just phones. All of our stuff will know where it is — and that awareness will imbue the real world with some of the power of the virtual. Your house keys will tell you that they’re still on your desk at work. Your tools will remind you that they were lent to a friend. And your car will be able to drive itself on an errand to retrieve both your keys and your tools.

While it’s not exactly clear how or when we’ll get from what we have now to that sort of future, one thing is clear:

. . . maps are required. Tomorrow’s map, integrally connected to everything that moves (the keys, the tools, the car), will be so fundamental to their operation that the map will, in effect, be their operating system. A map is to location-awareness as Windows is to a PC. So the competition to make the best maps, the thinking goes, is more than a struggle over who dominates the trillion-dollar smartphone market; it’s a contest over the future itself.

It’s clear, says Tim O’Reilly, Silicon Valley mapping guru, that

. . . the guy who has the most data wins.

I think that there are some interesting parallels here between the push by Google (and others) to control the location-awareness market and with social studies / geography instruction. The kids who leave our classrooms with the most data – and the ability to use that data – win.

But I’m not entirely convinced that we’re doing the best we can to give our kids that data and skill set. And I think it’s because we don’t always use the right tools.

I get the chance to work with a lot of teachers around the country. And the low percentage who say they use some sort of digital mapping tool as part of their instruction continues to surprise me. Very few teachers are aware of the instructional capacity of tools like Google Maps and Google Earth. Few are aware of OpenStreetMap. Fewer still use location-awareness apps like FourSquare, Waze, or Geocaching.

In a world in which the question of where is becoming more important than the question of what, we need to do a better job of training kids to use these sorts of tools.

So how to start?

Google recently published a new website called Treks. Using their awesome and weird StreetView gathering tools, they created Streetviews of places such as the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and the Great Barrier Reef. And uploaded those views to Treks. It is an awesome way to view a particular place.

Treks is a natural continuation of Google’s extensive “off-road” StreetView collection. Be sure to head over there to get close-up views of places like Notre Dame, the St Louis Arch, the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Mosque, Mount Rushmore, the National Mall, Yellowstone, art museums, NASA, Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Stonehenge, Versailles, the Acropolis, and highlights from a whole range of European countries.

national mall

You get the idea. Head over to Treks or any of these StreetView collections,  add some Google Earth / Maps lesson plans, and you’re on your way. You not only take your kids to places many of them will never visit, you’re also training them to be high-level users of the kinds of digital geography tools that they will be using five, 10, and 20 years from now.

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