Geomena: Could this be the Wikipedia of geolocation data?

[HTML2]You ever have one of those posts where you’re really excited by something that you can’t seem to explain sufficiently? Where—conceptually—you get it, but you don’t feel like you’re doing the subject matter justice?

Well, that’s where I’ve been for the past few days with Don Park’s latest project, a fine piece of Portland geogeeking called Geomena, a creative-commons licensed access point location database—or as Don so eloquently puts it “the Wikipedia of access point locations.”

And that, my friends, is a subject which I have not been able to justice. But I’m going to try.

The name? Well, it’s inspired by the word “Phaenomena.”

A name has been chosen – Geomena. Based on the Phaenomena or an ancient catalog of stars. Since stars were used for navigation, it makes sense that this catalog of access points or radio beacons or stars has a similar name.

What’s it do? Well. That’s where I’m struggling.

Let’s step back about a decade or so. Like in the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody. You’ve still got all of the knowledge you have right now, but you’re going to be in 1999.

Now, imagine yourself trying to explain to someone from 1999 that one of the most useful sources of information on the Web will be a site with an open front door that practically anyone can edit at any time. Not only that, but that wide open freely editable site will become a trusted resource for information. And it will be maintained by people for free because those folks will be passionate about defending their areas of expertise on any given topic.

Might sound a little utopian. But it happened. That site is, of course, Wikipedia.

Okay, Sherman. Jump back in the machine and head back to today.

Today—just as that encyclopedic information used to be controlled by book publishers and academics—we’re a bit hogtied by location-specific information.

If you want to hook into geolocation data, you use Skyhook. No, not the company who is going to send the terminators to eradicate us. The geolocation database that provides wifi and GPS location information to mobile phones. Or you use Google Maps data.

But what if that data is wrong? What if you want to change it? Good luck with that, kiddo.

And that got Don to thinking. What if we took the trapped geolocation data and made it accessible and editable just as Wikipedia had done with encyclopedia information?

The Geode API from the W3C that allows browsers to determine their location by using the MAC address of the router or wifi access point is a quantum leap for geolocation services on the web. The location providers I know of are google and skyhook. I propose a geode-compatible web service as an alternative.

That’s Geomena, an open resource for defining and sharing access point location data.

Now, admittedly, the current working version is a little rough. And you need to jump through some hoops to get it to work.

But the concept? Brilliant.

Enter the MAC address for your router or access point and then drag the little map pin to the right location. Boom. You’re done. And the location is right.

If your router moves? Enter the MAC address and change the location again. If you’re in a location that’s not mapped? Add it. All on the fly.

Not only can you edit the information, but people can hook into the information provided by Geomena to drive location based apps. So instead of looking to a closed proprietary source for which they have to pay, they can look to an open source of information that’s free.

So, for example, if you’re running the latest version of Firefox with location aware browsing, you can use Geomena as your location reference for Geode. So when applications like Shizzow ask you for your location, they’ll be able to read the Geomena information.

And that’s a big step. Will it be perfect? No. But it’s a great start. And just remember, Wikipedia sounded a little crazy in 1999.

How to start mucking with Geomena

You’re going to have to do a little digging to start playing with Geomena. But it’s worth it.

To edit your location information:

  1. Get the MAC address for your access point. You can do this by following these instructions for Mac OS X or these instructions for Windows. If you’re on a flavor of Linux, I’m assuming you’ll now how to get your config info. (You could also do this from an iPhone, but there is no copy and paste in the settings window, so it’s a bit kludgey.)
  2. Copy the MAC address.
  3. Head over to Geomena and paste that string of characters into the text box.
  4. Submit the query and you’ll be taken to your presumed location according to the information in Geomena.
  5. Not right? Drag the pin around until it is correct. Or type in the exact latitude and longitude.
  6. Hit save.

Voila! You’ve just updated your location information in Geomena. If you’re feeling really plucky, start driving around to different access points and making sure their locations are correct.

To use Geomena as your geolocation reference in Firefox:

  1. Boot up the latest version of Firefox.
  2. Type about:config into the location bar.
  3. Dismiss the scary warranty message.
  4. Filter on “geo” and look for the term “geo.wifi.uri.”
  5. Double click that entry and enter “http://geomena.org” (without the quotes) into the prompt.
  6. Say OK and close the config.

Congrats! You’re now running off of Geomena as your geolocation provider.

Get your geogeek on

If this sounds at all interesting to you, please take some time to muck with this and build it out. I think the concept has a lot of merit, but it will take some use to begin building up a reputable base of geolocation information.

And while it’s hard to imagine location information becoming as contentious as some Wikipedia entries, I can imagine some fervent geogeeking discussions—and some pretty awesome apps—being fueled by Geomena.

For more information on the project, follow Geomena on Twitter, visit the Geomena site, or read Don Park’s blog.


  1. It’s laborious to seek out knowledgeable individuals on this subject, however you sound like you already know what you’re talking about! Thanks
    You should participate in a contest for probably the greatest blogs on the web. I will recommend this website!

  2. Also, one update – the Windows and OS X instructions are how to the mac address of your own laptop, which is not what geomena needs. The location is based on the mac address of the access point being used at the time.

    A desktop app is being planned so that its easy to feed new access point data to geomena.org.

  3. @jmartens For what it’s worth, the Shizzow reference was mine. Don actually demonstrated the location awareness on another one of his apps that I’ll cover later. But since I can’t talk about that one yet, I picked Shizzow. 😉

  4. Tons of potential here, great work Don!

    Nice work on the random Shizzow reference, they can always count on you for that!

  5. Thanks Don. Yeah, I’d love to learn more about it. I love the idea. I bet you could come up with something interesting to put up on the site after I enter my info that would demonstrate the potential. Like “you’re the 52nd person in Portland, Oregon to enter your location data into Geomena. 15% of those people were within one mile of where you are right now. The most popular neighborhood in Portland for Geomena users is Gresham.” Something like that. Good luck with it though.

  6. Marshall – the “now what” is when you’re using firefox on a location-aware site and you can see that the new data you entered into geomena.org shows up inside that website. As far as which CC license – I’m gathering input from people who have experience in that area to help nail down the licensing.

    Geomena will be presented at Wherecamp PDX and will have more meat on it by then. I’d be glad to meet with you and show you how it works currently.

  7. Marshall Kirkpatrick September 4, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    What CC license are you using Don?

    Ok, so I just submitted my info but *now what?* Some level of UI, some interesting value add for me, would sure be nice if the project is going public now. Specifically, I’d like to write about this myself but I’m not sure there’s enough meat on the dream yet to do so.

  8. Thank you for such a complete post on this project! It hit all the important ideas and I’m excited to see where it will go next. One area is to get new access point data into the site with an iPhone and Android application that is always listening for access points and feeding geomena.org.

    Also for those interested in the implementation, all the sourcecode is online (see geomena.org) and the storage engine is couchdb.

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