Home' Technology Review : October 2005 Contents 58 FEATURE STORY
graphic data they could collect and share using their GPS units.
After all, a consumer-grade GPS receiver could now distinguish
between one side of a street and the other, determine which
storefront a user was walking past, or guide someone to a hidden
"geocache" using only its published latitude and longitude (see
"Roamin' Holiday," September 2005).
Unfortunately, when it came to making online maps, there
weren't a lot of options to choose from. Since its launch in 1996,
one website---MapQuest---had dominated this niche. And while
many Web developers wrote programs that copied MapQuest
maps for redisplay in other contexts, they couldn't program
more sophisticated tricks, such as overlaying their own data on
MapQuest maps. "The rst-generation Web ser vices in the
mapping space---ESRI, MapQuest, MapPoint---have had APIs
for quite some time, but they weren't hacker-friendly," says Tim
O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media and creator of the Where 2.0
conference. Eventually, MapQuest prohibited even the repur-
posing of its maps. This created a demand for reusable map
data, a demand that would eventually be met by companies such
as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.
Along the way, however, a few other things had to happen.
First, computers needed enough processing speed and storage
capacity to handle the multigigabyte data sets and complex
mathematical transformations that displaying and manipulat-
ing digital maps require. As Locative Technologies' Erle notes,
Moore's Law took care of that.
Second, the sharing-oriented mindset of the open-source-
software community, along with an awareness of the possibilities
of the Web, had to penetrate the walls of traditional GIS compa-
nies like ESRI. ESRI had long focused its products on industries
such as nancial ser vices, urban and regional planning, and de-
fense. Its emphasis, understandably, was on building accurate
maps to convey critical data, not on tinkering with code or put-
ting fun, interactive maps on the Web (see "Do Maps Have Mor-
als?" June 2005). But over the last several years, conversation
within industry standards groups like the Open Geospatial Con-
sortium (of which ESRI is a leading member) and the World
Wide Web Consortium at MIT has led to agreement on basic
standards for mapping-software APIs---and on additions to the
Web's central language, XML, that make it easy to tie Web docu-
ments to geographical locations. Embedding the XML tags <geo:
lat>38.888</geo:lat> and <geo:long>-77.035</geo:long> in a
Web document, for example, lets mapping or browsing software
know that the document is about the Washington Monument.
Third, owners of large, valuable, proprietary databases on the
Web needed some time to arrive at the idea that granting outside
access to their databases might actually be good for business.
Amazon was one of the rst companies to put this idea into prac-
tice, releasing an API in 2003 that allows programmers to tap into
its product database, pull out whatever information they want,
and present it on their own websites in any format they choose, as
long as any resulting purchases are directed back to Amazon (see
"Amazon: Giving Away the Store," January 2005). The basic idea
of Web ser vices---that the software and databases powering
e-retailing, online photo-sharing, and the like should be built ac-
cording to standards allowing other parties to tap into them---was
still radical even three years ago. Today, however, it's the guiding
principle of an increasing number of open-source developers and
By early 2005, then, the hardware, the standards, and the col-
laboration models were in place for a burst of innovation in Web
mapping applications. All that was needed was a starting gun.
The gun red on February 8---the day Google Maps went online.
Even on the surface, it's clear that Google Maps goes much fur-
ther than older interactive map sites. The stunning satellite
views, along with the ability to drag the map in any direction
without having to wait for the page to refresh, are the most
obvious advances. The shaded pop-up balloons pointing to the
locations turned up in local searches---Google calls them "info
windows"---are also a pleasing touch.
But it's what's under the hood that really excites program-
mers. Within hours of Google Maps' release, programmers had
reverse-engineered it, discovering that most of the interactive
features relied on simple miniprograms or "scripts" written in
manipulate the maps---for example, making their own content,
rather than the usual Google search results, appear in the info
windows tied to speci c map locations.
Almost immediately, programmers started building ser vices
atop Google's map infrastr ucture. Computer graphics expert
Paul Rademacher, for example, launched HousingMaps, a site
that pulls real-estate listings o the popular classi ed-ads site
craigslist, uses the addresses of the listed homes and apartments
in a given neighborhood to gure out their latitudes and longi-
tudes, and lets users view the properties on a Google map.
HousingMaps has no a liation with craigslist or Google;
Rademacher built the hybrid site simply by guring out how to
write coded requests that would grab the appropriate data from
the two companies' public databases. Fortunately, the compa-
nies take a mostly benign view of such mash-ups.
Google is so eager to let outside programmers experiment
with its mapping platform, in fact, that it released an o cial API
on June 30, meaning hackers would no longer have to waste time
on reverse-engineering. That's led to an even bigger wave of
Google Maps creations, from the practical to the disturbing. At
ahding.com/cheapgas, you can see gasoline prices from Gas-
buddy.com plotted on a Google map, directing you to the lowest-
priced pumps in your area. FloridaSexualPredators.com,
meanwhile, shows place marks for the homes of every sex of-
fender listed in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's
public database. Clicking on a place mark brings up an info win-
dow with the o ender's name, address, and mug shot.
Geography as Context
To use the Google Maps API, developers must agree not to use
the service for commercial purposes, and so far, even Google has
refrained from placing ads on Google Maps pages. But for com-
panies exploring the Internet for the next big business opportu-
nity, the geospatial Web is the equivalent of a virgin continent
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