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Read/Write Maps
There was a time, not very long ago, when the best way to prepare for a trip like this one was to order one of AAA’s custom TripTiks, map flip-books in which actual humans traced AAA’s recommended routes by hand with highlighter pens. You can still order a hard-copy TripTik, but since the mid-1990s it’s been faster to build it yourself on the association’s website or visit a site such as MapQuest.

And now consumers have access to advanced geographical visualization tools such as Google Maps, launched by the search giant in February, and Google Earth, released in June. With their combination of detailed aerial and satellite maps, high-powered graphics and animation, comprehensive local search functions, and hackability – it’s child’s play for programmers to display their own data atop Google maps – the new programs make paper maps and previous generations of online mapping tools seem primitive.

“I describe it as a browser for the earth,” John Hanke, general manager of Google’s Keyhole group, says of Google Earth. Keyhole, where Hanke was CEO until Google acquired the company last year, developed the software upon which Google Earth is based, mostly for customers in defense, engineering, and real-estate investing. Now that Keyhole is part of Google, the idea is to use geography as a fundamental structural principle for the entire Web. “The interesting part is not necessarily the core map but the information from the Web that’s now being organized geographically, so that you can get to it and understand it in its proper context,” says Hanke.

It’s such a potentially lucrative idea, in fact, that Microsoft has followed suit, introducing its own search-and-mapping service called MSN Virtual Earth. The service offers satellite photos, zooming and panning abilities, and interactive search listings resembling those of Google Earth, but it may actually reach a wider audience than Google’s product, since it runs inside a browser window rather than needing to be downloaded as a separate application. Yahoo, too, is in the game: last year it introduced maps that provide, say, the locations of all the coffee shops with Wi-Fi hot spots within a particular neighborhood.

Crucially, each company has released instructions for out-side programmers – called application programming interfaces (APIs) – that let them build online services that tap into the company’s own map programs. Developers are taking advantage of the new APIs to put out geospatial applications such as geobloggers.com and chicagocrime.org. The fact that these “mash-ups” are so easy to make is giving rise to a community of mapmakers and map users who are busy geotagging every piece of place-related information they can put their hands on. And the more information on the Web that’s tied to geographical coordinates, the better the results – and the better targeted the ads – that can be served up in response to location-driven searches.

The mapping revolution could, in short, change the way we think of the World Wide Web. We’ve long spoken of the Web as if it were a place – with “sites” that we “go to” – but as places go, it’s been a rather abstract, disembodied one. Now that’s changing. Geotagging means the Web is slowly being wedded with real space, enhancing physical places with information that can deepen our experiences of them and making computing into a more “continuous” part of our real lives (see “Social Machines,” August 2005).

For example, users of smart phones and wireless PDAs with location technologies such as Global Positioning System chips may soon be able to automatically retrieve stories, photos, videos, or historical accounts related to their current locations, along with ads and listings for nearby shopping, dining, entertainment, and business outlets.

And the information is already flowing both ways: users can upload their own texts, photographs, and other data to the Internet and pin them to specific latitudes and longitudes. “Historically, maps were a ‘read-only’ medium,” says Schuyler Erle, chief engineer at Locative Technologies and coauthor of Mapping Hacks. “Maps were only created by professional cartographers and professional GIS [geographic information systems] people. What has happened because of Moore’s Law is that people now have the computing power on their desktops to manage the vast amounts of data that are required for digital cartography. Maps are increasingly a ‘read-write’ medium. That changes how we interact with them and the impact they can have on our everyday lives.”

Many details of the emerging geospatial Web have yet to be worked out. No one knows which location-finding technologies are right for consumers or which will be endorsed by cellular carriers and device makers. Only a few of the U.S. cellular networks currently sell phones with GPS chips, and only one, Nextel, actually makes its phones’ GPS functions accessible to software developers. Outside North America, the mapping revolution may take longer, since some foreign governments maintain strict control over map data or charge exorbitantly for it.

But none of that is damping excitement in the community of Web developers and e-commerce managers. In June, more than 500 executives, programmers, and professionals, including some from traditional GIS companies such as San Diego’s Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), converged on San Francisco for Where 2.0, a new conference organized by tech-book publisher O’Reilly Media. Participants spent two days admiring one another’s latest mapping creations and strategizing over how to convert geographic information delivered over the Web into actual transactions – from simply clicking on an advertisement to buying a house.

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