Geography Goes Online

The quest for new maps

Online maps date to the early days of the Web, and accurate signals from the Global Positioning System have been available to consumers for half a decade.

But until just recently, there wasn’t much overlap between these technologies: very little of the information on the Web was keyed to specific geographic coordinates, and anyway, few people carried the location-aware devices that could retrieve such information. But that’s beginning to change: an increasing number of wireless Internet-connected devices have built-in GPS and other location-finding technologies, and – just as important – the Web itself is being restructured to complement the actual geography around us.

That means that long-touted visions of “location-based services” are coming to life, but with a populist twist. Yes, the cafe you pass on your way to work every morning will be able to send a coupon to your cell phone, if you opt to receive such offers. And search-industry heavyweights Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are building nifty new platforms that organize local search results – and, of course, advertisements – according to geographic location.

But at the same time, as we explain in “Killer Maps,” average Web users can now upload their own geographically tagged content to the Web. This allows other users to download content that is pertinent to wherever they happen to be at a given moment. This ongoing “annotation of the planet,” to use technology columnist John Udell’s felicitous phrase, has the potential to deepen everyone’s experience of place.

If you have a GPS-enabled camera phone, for example, it can automatically tag your photos with the latitude and longitude of the location at which they were taken and upload them to a website where they’ll appear in the appropriate positions on a map. And that’s only the beginning: Web developers are using the new mapping platforms and emerging standards to “geotag” Web pages, creating entirely new location-based social and political forums, artworks, games, and community knowledge banks.

It’s one of the most advanced examples of what, in a recent issue, we called “continuous computing”: the far more extensive, yet less obtrusive, way in which information technology is beginning to permeate our daily lives, thanks to advances in mobile devices, wireless networking, and Web development standards. Mapmaking, once the exclusive realm of cartographers, is now part of that permeation – and it is taking its overdue place alongside other forms of digital mass communication.

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