Wikipedia and geographical coordinates

These days if you visit most articles on wikipedia about a physical place you will find some geographical coordinates on the top right.  If you click on them for say London you get taken to a toolsever page which provides links to that coordinate on various online maps. This has the obvious advantage that it answers the “where exactly is thing you are talking about?” question.

Less obviously but in my view more excitingly it can also be used to answer the question “what stuff that wikipedia has articles on is near me?”.  At the very least combined with the increasing popularity of smart phones this allows wikipedia to act as a virtual tour guide although this tends to work better in cities. The addition of compasses to smart phones now allow them to tell you what is in the direction you are pointing them.

I would argue that the greater significance is that it provides a another entry point into wikipedia. At the moment the main entry point into wikipedia is people typing what they are looking for into a search engine or wikipedia’s search box. Some also enter via weblinks. Entering via search engines requires the reader to have a pretty good idea what they are looking for and navigating via weblinks makes you very reliant on third parties. Accessing via your smartphone telling you what is near you (this is sometimes referred to as an example of augmented reality) is far more free-form than normal weblinks while allowing for less reader clarity than search engines.

Part of the aim of wikipedia should be to provide people with the information they want when they want it even if they are not sure what they want until they see it. Geographical coordinates are a step in that direction. There are though still issues with the current system. It can only really be used for objects at least a few meters in size. I would also love to add geographical coordinates to the Mallet’s Mortar article (the things are big enough) but their are two of them and the current system doesn’t really support their being more than one of something too well. Another problem is that geographical coordinates are points which causes problems for long thin features like canals where potentially the nearest relevant geographical coordinate could be over ten miles for the bit of canal you happen to be standing next to.

Various solutions to these problems have been proposed and to an extent exist and I hope to blog about those at a latter date.

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