Vernacular geography is the sense of place that is revealed in ordinary people's language. Current research by the Ordnance Survey is attempting to understand the way people talk about their spatial environment and say where things are within it. It is understood that people commonly describe space in terms of area or place names and also landmarks, streets, open spaces, water bodies, landforms, fields, woods and many other topological features. These commonly used descriptive terms do not necessarily use the official or current names for features; and often these concepts of places don't have clear, rigid boundaries. For example, sometimes the same name may refer to more than one feature, and sometimes people in a locality use more than one name for the same feature. When people refer to geographical regions in a vernacular form they are commonly referred to as imprecise regions. Regions can include areas of a country such as the American Midwest, the British Midlands, the Swiss Alps, the south east of England and southern California. Commonly used descriptions of areas of cities such as a city's downtown district, New York's Upper East Side, London's square mile or the Latin Quarter of Paris can also be viewed as imprecise regions.
There is an increasing need to represent such imprecise, vernacular regions within the resources used by geographic information systems for local searches and mapping, particularly as non-specialist users of such systems are more likely to use vernacular geography. Place names play a key role in formulating queries for geographical information retrieval. Gazetteers provide the main source of knowledge with which to define a footprint associated with place names in a query addressed to a GIS. Place footprints are often just a single point, but they may also be a bounding box or a polygon. The majority of gazetteers are compiled from the content of topographic maps that are produced by national mapping agencies and as such they represent a relatively “official” or administrative view of geography. This is problem for geographic information systems that use these conventional gazetteers because people often use vernacular place names that are not recorded and hence result in failure to process a query that contains such a name. This is a particular issue for the emergency services responding to calls, so the detection of new or different place names is becoming a crucial aspect of building and maintaining gazetteer services.
A "vernacular region" is a distinctive area where the inhabitants collectively consider themselves interconnected by a shared history, mutual interests, and a common identity. Such regions are "intellectual inventions" and a form of shorthand to identify things, people, and places. Vernacular regions reflect a "sense of place," but rarely coincide with established jurisdictional borders.
The World Wide Web is a major source of geographical information submitted by non specialists. The British Ordnance Survey is sponsoring research at the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield. The aim of which is to study the use of vernacular geography and to investigate how information mined from the Web can be used to generate an approximate spatial boundary for an imprecise region. The existing technology for accessing geographical data is not well adapted to the unstructured, largely text-based resources of the Web. Spatial information on the web can be categorized geographically according to the textual content but a major problem for GIS developers wanting to use this resource is the vague and imprecise nature of place names that are commonly employed within web documents.
In pursuit of delineating vernacular regions, trigger phrases are used by the researchers to capture regular linguistic patterns, which identify relationships between geographic locations. e.g.the trigger phrase “X is located in Y” can be "Birmingham is located in *" or "* is located in Birmingham". The completed trigger phrase is then submitted to a search engine. For each search up to 100 results are retrieved. Duplicate results are then removed based on the URL and snippet text and the search result is used to find candidate region members.
From these results, geo-references are extracted and assigned spatial coordinates. A bounding box is then applied and the bounding box is used to find coordinates of other regions and points, apparently lying outside the candidate region. Thus it is possible to compute a boundary for the imprecise region using the points inside and outside.
Public Participation Tool
Cardiff University launched a web questionnaire together with mapping tools to capture people's perception of Vernacular Geography in Great Britain.
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