July 27, 2007

With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking


SAN FRANCISCO, July 26 - On the Web, anyone can be a mapmaker.

With the help of simple tools introduced by Internet companies 
recently, millions of people are trying their hand at cartography, 
drawing on digital maps and annotating them with text, images, sound 
and videos.

In the process, they are reshaping the world of mapmaking and 
collectively creating a new kind of atlas that is likely to be both 
richer and messier than any other.

They are also turning the Web into a medium where maps will play a 
more central role in how information is organized and found.

Already there are maps of biodiesel fueling stations in New England, 
yarn stores in Illinois and hydrofoils around the world. Many maps 
depict current events, including the detours around a collapsed Bay 
Area freeway and the path of two whales that swam up the Sacramento 
River delta in May.

James Lamb of Federal Way, Wash., created an online map to illustrate 
the spread of graffiti in his town and asked other residents to 
contribute to it. "Any time you can take data and represent it 
visually, you can start to recognize patterns and see where you need 
to put resources," said Mr. Lamb, whose map now pinpoints, often with 
photographs, nearly 100 sites that have been vandalized.

Increasingly, people will be able to point their favorite mapping 
service to a specific location and discover many layers of 
information about it: its hotels and watering holes, its crime 
statistics and school rankings, its weather and environmental 
conditions, the recent news events and the history that have shaped 
it. A good portion of this information is being contributed by 
ordinary Web users.

In aggregate, these maps are similar to Wikipedia, the online 
encyclopedia, in that they reflect the collective knowledge of 
millions of contributors.

"What is happening is the creation of this extremely detailed map of 
the world that is being created by all the people in the world," said 
John V. Hanke, director of Google Maps and Google Earth. "The end 
result is that there will be a much richer description of the earth."

This fast-growing GeoWeb, as industry insiders call it, is in part a 
byproduct of the Internet search wars involving Google, Microsoft, 
Yahoo and others. In the race to popularize their map services - and 
dominate the potentially lucrative market for local advertising on 
maps - these companies have created the tools that are allowing 
people with minimal technical skills to do what only professional 
mapmakers were able to do before.

"It is a revolution," said Matthew H. Edney, director of the History 
of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. 
"Now with all sorts of really very accessible, very straightforward 
tools, anybody can make maps. They can select data, they can add 
data, they can communicate it with others. It truly has moved the 
power of map production into a completely new arena."

Online maps have provided driving directions and helped Web users 
find businesses for years. But the Web mapping revolution began in 
earnest two years ago, when leading Internet companies first allowed 
programmers to merge their maps with data from outside sources to 
make "mash-ups." Since then, for example, more than 50,000 
programmers have used Google Maps to create mash-ups for things like 
apartment rentals in San Francisco and the paths of airplanes in 

Yet that is nothing compared with the boom that is now under way. In 
April, Google unveiled a service called My Maps that makes it easy 
for users to create customized maps. Since then, users of the service 
have created more than four million maps of everything from where to 
find good cheap food in New York to summer festivals in Europe.

More than a million maps have been created with a service from 
Microsoft called Collections, and 40,000 with tools from Platial, a 
technology start-up. MotionBased, a Web site owned by Garmin, the 
navigation device maker, lets users upload data they record on the 
move with a Global Positioning System receiver. It has amassed more 
than 1.3 million maps of hikes, runs, mountain bike rides and other 

On the Flickr photo-sharing service owned by Yahoo, users have 
"geotagged" more than 25 million pictures, providing location data 
that allows them to be viewed on a map or through 3-D visualization 
software like Google Earth.

The maps sketched by this new generation of cartographers range from 
the useful to the fanciful and from the simple to the elaborate. 
Their accuracy, as with much that is on the Web, cannot be taken for 

"Some people are potentially going to do really stupid things with 
these tools," said Donald Cooke, chief scientist at Tele Atlas North 
America, a leading supplier of digital street maps. "But you can also 
go hiking with your G.P.S. unit, and you can create a more accurate 
depiction of a trail than on a U.S.G.S. map," Mr. Cooke said, 
referring to the United States Geological Survey.

April Johnson, a Web developer from Nashville, has used a G.P.S. 
device to create dozens of maps, including many of endurance horse 
races - typically 25-to-50-mile treks through rural trails or parks.

"You can't buy these maps, because no one has made them," Ms. Johnson said.

Angie Fura used one of Ms. Johnson's maps to help organize the Trace 
Tribute, an endurance ride on trails near Nashville, and distributed 
the map to dozens of other riders. "It gives riders an opportunity to 
understand what the race is like, and it allows them to condition 
their horses in accordance," Ms. Fura said.

Until recently, most Web maps were separate islands that could be 
viewed only one at a time and were sometimes hard to find. But Google 
and Microsoft have developed tools that make it possible for multiple 
layers of data to be viewed on a single map. And Google is working to 
make it easier to search through all online maps.

Now, a tourist heading to, say, Maui can find the hotels and 
restaurants on the island and display them on a map that also 
superimposes photos from Flickr and users' reviews of various beaches.

The same information is quickly moving from two-dimensional to 
three-dimensional renderings. Microsoft, for example, has created 3-D 
models of 100 cities worldwide and aims to have 500 models in the 
next year.

"You will have a digital replica of the world in true 3-D," said Erik 
Jorgensen, general manager of Live Search at Microsoft.

For the Internet search companies, these efforts are part of a race 
to capture the expected advertising bonanza that will come as users 
browse through these maps in search of businesses and services.

In the process, they are creating technologies whose impact could be 
similar to those of desktop publishing software, which turned 
millions of computer users into publishers.

"The possibilities for doing amazing kinds of things, to tell stories 
or to help tell stories with maps, are just endless," said Dan 
Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project 
affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and 
the journalism school at the University of California in Berkeley.

Some of Mr. Gillmor's journalism students are working with a 
researcher at Dartmouth to add photographs, videos and interviews to 
a map-based project documenting the house-by-house reconstruction of 
a section of New Orleans. Mr. Gillmor wants local residents to 
contribute to the project, which uses Platial's map service.

"The hope is that the community will tell the story of its own 
recovery with the map as the dashboard," he said. "We have just seen 
the beginning of what people are going to do with this stuff."