Online Maps

29 November 2010

Author: jeff.hack

Online Maps


Online maps are getting more and more pervasive these days, thanks in large part to the brilliant engineers at Google and Microsoft, and no less the nascent neo-geographer movement and the overall democratization of maps. I get a lot of questions nowadays about online maps in Georgia along the lines of: Why are you mapping Georgia? Why isn’t Georgia on Google Maps? Will we have Google Street View in Georgia soon? Why doesn’t the government take care of this?

These are all big questions, and I find it hard to give small answers. So here goes an attempt, in a three part blog series, to answer some of these questions and convey a bit of the basics of online maps. 

This first part will cover the online mapping world, the big players, and how the pieces fit together. I’ll be focusing on street maps in this series, the kind of maps you find on Google and Bing. There’s a whole other world of online GIS (Geographic Information Systems) popping up, but that’s another story. In the second and third parts, I’ll look at how the different maps compare, and try to answer some of those questions I mentioned above.

Part One – The Players

Google Maps, a New Hope 
A long time ago in a country far, far away…

At the end of the last millennium, teenagers started to get “wired in” to the Internet. In the United States, we thought we were pretty cool. AOL for instant messaging. Yahoo for searching the Internet. And when we learned how to drive, everybody knew to get directions on MapQuest. Web enthusiasts can be pretentious at times, and we couldn’t believe that anyone wasn’t using these tools that we’d just recently discovered. “Oh mom, oh dad, you mean you’re still using paper? How silly.” 

MapQuest was king when it came to maps. Enter a start point, an end point, and they’d tell you exactly how to get there and send you a tiny little map image with a line showing your route. You’d click print and follow the directions, carefully trying to avoid major traffic collisions as you constantly referred to your map. I’m not aware of any statistics, but I expect MapQuest caused a lot of accidents back then. 

MapQuest was not particularly easy to use, but it was all there was until 2005, when Google Maps was launched. Google already had a lot of fans, having already transformed search (and somehow the Internet) from an information super-waste-dump into something sleek and powerful and simple. Google Maps blew everyone away, being so drastically better than everything before it. 

“Mom, dad, don’t be ridiculous. Why in the world are you still using MapQuest?” 

Google dominated much of our Internet lives – search, mail, and maps, and the empires of the past had no idea what to do. 

Bing Strikes Back

The technology giants had fallen. AOL, Yahoo, even mighty Microsoft was waning. Microsoft was paying out billions of dollars because the courts thought that they were inhibiting competition in the marketplace and creating a monopoly. Meanwhile Google came and killed competition in a different way – not by shady business tactics, but by creating products so vastly superior that the old companies must have been standing with their mouths open in awe. 

For years it seemed like there would never be a competitive product to Google Maps, or anything else Google for that matter. I would laugh when mom and dad would set as their homepage, and tenderly encourage them to use Google. 

I was shocked when, after years of trying, Microsoft finally came out with something that came close. They titled it Bing, and it wasn’t terrible. Bing Search was quite impressive, and Bing Maps were actually tolerable. Finally someone had innovated as much as Google. Microsoft caught up, and I dare say, even went beyond. 

Return of the Geo-di (a bit of a stretch, I know) 
Meanwhile, on another planet…

Google and Bing built partnerships with the big map companies – TeleAtlas, Navteq, and AND. This brought the world easy access to maps (streets and street names) and imagery (satellite photos from the sky). All this data that had been accessible by relatively few was now available easily through a web browser, or in Google Earth. 

But there were some people who saw problems. First, the maps weren’t always great. There might be errors, they might be incomplete, or in many countries there might not be any maps at all. Second, all of this data was owned by TeleAtlas, Navteq, Google, or even the government, and while you could use their services, you couldn’t get your hands on the data itself. 

Several projects emerged in 2005 with the same idea – what if we take the Wikipedia model, where people all around the world can contribute and edit information, and do the same thing with maps? Then we would have open data that we can do anything we want with, and it’s owned by everybody, not just a single company!

The project that succeeded was called OpenStreetMap, which did just this. Contributors from around the world would get together, using imagery or GPS devices, and create maps of their areas. With enough people contributing, OpenStreetMap data grew and grew, and in many places became far more detailed than Google or Bing. 

Not to be outdone, Google launched a platform called MapMaker which, in principle, is mostly identical to OpenStreetMap. The tradeoff for contributors is interesting however – MapMaker is easier to use, and the data may eventually go into Google Maps, however Google then owns all the contributions, so the data is not open.