Geotagging of physical places

QRcode stuck on a bridge in the town of Monmouth
QRcode stuck on a bridge in the town of Monmouth

“Geotagging” or “mobile annotation” can be understood as the practice of attaching information to physical places, through new technologies of location (e.g.: QRcodes, NFC, RFID). Geotagging is just one of the categories of locative media, which has been used for arts, transparency government, mobile shopping, historical legacy and digital graffiti purposes. I will illustrate the possibility of digital layering the physical world with a real short story and then I will also present some cases of what has been developed in this field:

The physical world is ripe with information. In order to better understand this premise, one should imagine this scene: Michelle was an exchange student at The University of Texas at Austin, in the south of the United States. She used to live in the popular housing area for university students, West Campus, within walking distance of the university. Every day while commuting to campus she would wonder who lived in the big houses in this neighborhood. The houses seemed different to her, in the sense that they were big enough to house a big family, with beautiful and large gardens. For her, they looked as huge as White House. However, she never saw any family around any of them. Michelle kept this curiosity to herself for a couple of months. One day, in a conversation with a local Austin resident, who was a good friend of hers, she raised the subject about those buildings. Michelle asked her,  “What are those houses around my building? They are huge but I never seen any family around them”.  Her friend asked her if the houses had Greek letters – an icon of sororities and fraternities – on the facade. She did not even notice the pattern of Greek letters and she did not know how to respond.  After some exchanging of impressions, Michelle’s friend told her then that those buildings were fraternities and sororities, which are fraternal social organizations/residences for undergraduate students, something that didn’t exist in Michelle’s country culture and with which she was not familiar at all. She had no clue about them. Michelle’s story illustrates many aspects of the importance of physical geotagging as well as how people relate to their surroundings, including:

1) She was ignorant about the environment where she was living, as many people are.

2) The only way to access this kind information would be through social interaction (asking someone as she did)

3) This kind of information reflects the power of local knowledge.

If some of these houses were geotagged, we could imagine different results:

1) She could have learned about her surroundings, because her curiosity would drive her to look for the information on the spot, which could have enhanced her sense of place.

2) If this geotag was connected to social media, she could have read stories about people’s experiences about what means to live in a sorority or fraternity.

3) She would have an available channel to access local knowledge, as was never possible before.

One might say that this kind of information does not matter, because everyone knows what a sorority or fraternity is. The main point, however, of attaching information to places is about taking the story embodied in a building for passers-by who are curious to know more about their environment, while on the move.

This possibility, recognized as geotagging, along with other emerging tools within locative media field (tracing, tracking, mapping, barcoding), have triggered a number of questions regarding people’s sense of place and space, augmentation of the physical world and a refreshment of the concepts of “locality” and “proximity.”

Current Examples: A number of projects of physical geotagging have been emerging lately. Below are some of them:

1.  Manor City Hall (outside the greater Austin metropolitan area) deployed a project to tag information, through QRcodes, to landmarks and also physical objects, such as police cars, in order to provide local citizens with real-time information. The project was one of the pioneers in the US. The QRcodes were up until 2011, when one of the creators of the project left the city government and the codes were taken down.

2. Monmouthpedia: Monmouth, a town located in southeast of Wales, became the first location-based “Wikipedia town” to tag all notable places, people, and flora through the technology of QRcodes. Locals and tourists with smartphones are now able to scan barcodes at points of interest (the picture of this post) and have information about the landmark sent to their mobiles phones. Monmoutpedia enables the user to choose the information they want while standing in front of a location (e.g: a school, a church, a tree).

3.  The city of Klagenfurt, Austria, created a public library embedded in the physical real world. Stickers for NFC (Near Field Communication) and QRcodes were located all over the city and individuals can download the works that are in the public domain. The novelty of this project is the exploration of geotagging, after all the stickers have been placed in strategic locations that link to volumes that are related to the spot in which they can be found. For example, near the police station, readers can find the sticker for the killer, by Arthur Schnitzler.

4. Florida: Tampa Bay residents and visitors also can experience downtown Tampa’s unique architecture through a self-guided walking tour using QR codes. The tour was launched as part of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Institute of Architects‘ Archifest in October 2011. Twelve new sites were added in August this year, bringing the total to 23. The tour is free and both phone and tablet-friendly, making it attractive to people visiting downtown. Participants can start the tour by visiting Tour Tampa Bay Architecture, where they will find maps of the sites and pictures showing where the QR codes can be found. Some codes are obscure, whereas others stand out on windows and can be found while passing by. The website also includes historic sites in Ybor City and Hyde Park. Future plans include site enhancements such as professional videos to provide more information about the buildings.

5. New York: The City Council unanimously passed a bill Monday that requires every city agency that has inspection, permit, license or registration information online to post a QR code linking to it. Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the bill was created to complement open data laws requiring all city agencies to have that information online by 2016. Anyone with a smartphone would be able to scan the permit’s tag and instantly be taken to the agency’s website, which would display the data.

6. New York (Central Park): Agency Magma and NYC Parks and Recreation developed a campaign that made innovative use of QR Codes, allowing this Iconic location to present itself in today’s marketplace. The campaign involved turning the park into an interactive board game.

7. Australia: Tourists using the quick response codes will be guided through 37 of The Rocks’ historic sites. Sydney’s oldest district, The Rocks, receives a significant amount of tourism every year, and the government of New South Wales supported the development of the interactive tours to help to enhance the experience and make it more informative than any physical plaques or signage would allow. The Rocks now feature a QR code at each of the 37 locations.