Disaster Prediction, Social Networking Boosted by Geo-Data Feeds

Joab Jackson
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2006
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

As any geologist knows, figuring out when a tsunami might strike means monitoring major earthquake activity around the globe (related news: "Tsunamis: Facts About Killer Waves" [January 14, 2005]).

So when the European Commission created a new software program to predict tsunamis, the agency established a link to a frequently updated earthquake report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The USGS feed of quake data uses an emerging technique known as GeoRSS—a computer standard that attaches geographic coordinates to photos, text, and other digital information.

GeoRSS allows the tsunami program to automatically ingest new data—including the exact location of a given quake's epicenter—without human intervention, according to Mikel Maron, a computer programmer who participated in developing the project.

Although still very new, GeoRSS has the potential to become the "quickest way to tag some information with geography," predicted Raj Singh, one the developers of GeoRSS.

Singh, a staff member at the nonprofit Open Geospatial Consortium, says that the GeoRSS service will extend the capability to create such location-based tags—a concept known as georeferencing—to anyone with an Internet connection.

"For GeoRSS, we came to it more from the point of view that everybody's got information that works well for them, and [they] just might have a small need to add a little geography to it," Singh said.

Geographic Layers

The GeoRSS volunteer development team, described by Singh as "a loose federation of people who met at conferences from the industry," posted the first version of the format last month after about a year's worth of work.

GeoRSS harnesses a popular application called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, that delivers Internet news feeds to personal computers.

Many online news sites have buttons marked "RSS" that tap into their feeds, which are simply lists of headlines linked to news stories or other documents.

Using a Web browser or a stand-alone RSS reader program, users can subscribe to various feeds, creating their own customized pages of clickable news headlines.

Today's RSS feeds don't carry much descriptive information—each entry usually contains only a title and a Web address.

GeoRSS adds additional fields to the RSS format for latitude and longitude coordinates.

"When you add GeoRSS to an RSS feed, you add a geographic layer to your content," said Olathe, Kansas-based software architect Tim Hibbard, who uses GeoRSS on his Web site.

Hibbard, who travels the U.S. Midwest quite extensively, developed a customized GeoRSS feed to show where he is at almost any given moment during the day.

A specialist in Web-based tracking technologies, Hibbard rigged his cell phone, which has global positioning system capabilities, to automatically send its coordinates to a Web site every 15 seconds.

The server hosting the site puts those coordinates on a map that can be viewed by visitors. It also generates a list of recent locations where Hibbard visited.

Of course, Hibbard doesn't assume that most people care about his whereabouts. He set up the feed as an example of what GeoRSS can do.

For instance, social networking sites such as MySpace could use GeoRSS in a similar way to allow users to submit their own location feeds.

Their friends "could then be alerted when somebody [they know] is within a given distance of [their] current location," Hibbard said.

Future Applications

The Geograph British Isles is another early adopter of GeoRSS capabilities.

The Web-based, volunteer-led project aims to collect representative photographs of every square kilometer (about 122,000 square miles) of the United Kingdom (U.K. map) and make them viewable through a map-based interface.

Today about 40 percent of the U.K. has been covered, thanks to the efforts of more than 2,600 contributors.

To help contributors keep tabs on their progress, the site's developers have started a GeoRSS feed of new entries to the project.

Some people have used the feed to populate their own maps, says Barry Hunter, a Snowdonia, North Wales-based developer who is one of the volunteers for the site.

In the future, GeoRSS could link in to existing news RSS feeds, allowing users to customize their news by geographic location. Readers could even link news items to their own version of a Web-based map the same way that the Geograph British Isles map links to georeferenced photographs.

While software companies have long offered customizable mapping products, using such applications can be expensive and requires significant technical training.

Using Google Maps, for example, to generate customized maps involves learning the Javascript programming language or going through a third-party service with its own technical limitations (related news: "'Neogeography' Blends Blogs With Online Maps" [April 25, 2006]).

In contrast, GeoRSS provides data in a plain-text format that almost any software program could digest, its developers say.

GeoRSS could also work as a community's early warning system for natural disasters, project co-developer Maron notes.

The feature could, for example, pinpoint areas being threatened by a quickly approaching tornado and alert residents of impending danger via their computers or cell phones.

Also, Maron notes, when a tornado or hurricane strikes, GeoRSS could provide an easy way for emergency response teams to pool information onto one central map.

"GeoRSS, by providing an easy and easily agreed-to data format, would enable greater sharing of crucial information on the ground," he said.

Now it is up to software companies to incorporate the standard into their products. Already industry giants Microsoft and Yahoo! have taken an interest, Singh says.

"I think," he said, "we're going to see a ton of new uses."

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