What is distance? What is distance when you’re on the last leg of a weekend climb to the top of a mountain? What is distance when the weather is miserable where you live in Western Washington but you have only three days of vacation? What is distance when you’ve got as much vacation time as you want but only $500 to spend?
In the first scenario, I might say distance is the 200 meters I have to keep walking before I reach the top; in the second, it’s as far south as I can get in 1.5 days; in the third, it’s a function of money—how far can I get on $500? It’s space, sure, but it’s also time and money.
A person with a stricter understanding of language would insist that distance is only ever the space between one place and another, but it’s hard to deny that the meaning of distance—how we experience distance—is much more. It’s time, and it’s money, and it’s how we use technology to change the relationship between space, time, and money. You remember the lesson on the transcontinental railroad from eighth grade history class don’t you? The opening of the railroad didn’t shorten the physical distance from New York to Sacramento, but it did dramatically cut the amount of time it took to travel that physical distance. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the West.
Traditional maps have been very good at helping us find the physical distance from place to place, and more recently, network-analysis based mapping services like Google Maps have acknowledged with options for car-travel, foot-travel, public transport, and biking that the ways we understand and use knowledge about distance is highly contingent on how we move from place to place.
A couple of recent mash-ups have developed the idea that the meaning of distance is not always so much about space as it is about how we experience space. Probably my favorite mash-up of the season is Mapnificent, featured a while ago on Flowing Data and also shown to me by AKC. For certain cities, it shows you where you can get from a central location in whatever amount of time you specify when you’re traveling on public transportation. This map shows me where I should look for apartments if I want to be able to get to class in Condon Hall at UO in 15 minutes or less:
The shape of my 15-minute bubble is influenced by physical geography (the river is a definite barrier) as well as the built environment (where are the major roads) and things like public policy (who determines the bus routes or the speed limits?). Beautiful isn’t it! Mapnificent also releases its API, which is kickass if you’re a developer.
A second mash-up that’s a little less cool but still worth a look is a flight-finder from the Hungarian airline Malev.
Enter your starting location and the amount of money you’re willing to spend on a ticket, and the map returns every city you can fly to for less than that price.
God bless creative minds in possession of sweet web programming skills!