I first got interested in the relationship between technology, travel and place back in 1991, when our 16 year old daughter Chloe returned from a British Schools’ Exploring Society’s expedition to Iceland. Her description of a 12 day hike across Europe’s largest glacier sounded a bit scary. “How did you know where you were?” I asked her. “Easy. We carried a big GPS on a sledge. Worked like a dream.”

Since then we’ve got satnavs in the car, handhelds for walkers and Google Earth, but I’ve thought there must be other uses Geographical Information Systems (GIS) could be put to for local communities. Thus my enquiries about what the technology centres and others in the US and Canada are doing with GIS for the disabled and the environment when I was researching Digital Nations in the making.

Up in West Cumbria last week, I was out on the fells on two successive evenings and it got me thinking a bit more about the relationship between technology and people. At the West Cumbria Orienteering Club’s first summer meet in Grisedale Forest, I found 80 people after work enthusiastically tackling graded routes on tracks, trails and through the ‘fight’ (dense forest). Advanced technology in the form of customised large scale OS maps with information about clearings and plantings, updated by members, plus finger entry data clocking at each of the waypoints made it all possible. A great evening I thought, safely and efficiently organised.

On the Friday, again after work, I did Catbells to catch the sunset and got crystal clear views from north Lakeland’s best vantage point. I could almost touch Sergeant Man to the south.

Derwentwater, with Keswick and Skiddaw in full view looking to the north.

The surprise? I had the mountain to myself. Yet there’s enough up there to rivet anyone’s attention for hours. Mining, enclosures, big peaks, England’s highest sessile oak forest, a farm in continuous occupation by the same family since the 17th century, Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of Little Town (see below) for the tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle. Is there a technology solution waiting to be found here, which could bring this rural scene alive for thousands in the way that Orange’s Urban tapestries project has experimented with mobile phones in cities?

Little Town, below Catbells.

One interesting development on this front I’ve just found is a scheme to create an Open Source map of Manchester which is being organised for the weekend of 13-14 May by Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins at the University’s School of Environment and others. It could lead to some interesting projects. They are looking for volunteer citizen cartographers, so I’ll try to get along. The event is being hosted at the offices of the Manchester Digital Development Agency at 117-119 Portland Street, Manchester M1 6ED, where drinks and a sandwich lunch will be provided.

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