A World At Your Fingertips

A host of Internet links are taking online maps in new directions

January 06, 2008|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun Staff

Nearly two hundred years ago President Thomas Jefferson sent explorers Lewis and Clark west, following the Mississippi and other rivers to the edge of the Rocky Mountains and then on to the Pacific Coast. The purpose was to map a path through the Louisiana Territory, the vast tract the United States had purchased from France.

In that era and the years that followed, maps were powerful tools created to economically exploit the lands they described. Good maps produced significant wealth. But making maps better was an expensive labor-intensive enterprise, generally pursued only by large corporations or governments.

But now all of that has suddenly changed radically. Over the last year the tools needed to make and share valuable maps have been placed in the hands of virtually everyone who owns a personal computer and simple and cheap hand-held devices that allow users to determine their exact latitude and longitude anywhere in the world.

Using Google Earth, the free global mapping software distributed by Google Corp. and these devices, hundreds of thousands of individuals have created and shared an extraordinary array of useful maps. These maps have been combined in "mashups" with other Internet databases, including photos, social, economic, scientific and historical information to do everything from guide tourists through a strange city to shop for a new home, find cheap gas or assess the dangers of local crime.

Academics are using Google mashups to assess social trends, and chart archaeological digs. Developers are creating them to help spot the best business locations. Governments are using them to chart infrastructure problems. News organizations are using them to provide users with detailed information about everything from wildfires to traffic jams. And ordinary citizens are using them to define their personal worlds and enrich their lives.

Thousands of busy mappers are feeding the data they collect or create into the Google Earth system, where they are sharing it with friends or offering it to Google to help map, layer by layer, a richly detailed mosaic of the world.

This creative burst comes at an opportune time. Thanks to the rapid development of the Internet, we are all in danger of drowning in a sea of potentially useful information. Information experts believe maps can be an important part of the answer -- helping to sort and isolate useful sets of information from a sea of irrelevant data against the backdrop of our physical world.

One day last week Sun photo editor Jerry Jackson took a moment out of a busy day and retrieved a photo-realistic recreation of a mountain biking ride through Patapsco State Park just south of Baltimore a few days before. Jackson had used a Christmas present -- a Garmin Edge 305 touring bike computer with a wireless heart rate monitor to track the path of his ride, his speed, distance and heart rate through the ride. He uploaded the data to www.motionbased.com, which combined it with Google photo maps and exported it to Google Earth to create the 3D tour.

The results on the computer monitor on his desk were breathtaking as viewers could track his path, speed and heart rate at an apparent altitude of 50 meters above the terrain he had crossed.

In its early days digital mapping was a fairly static process. Maps took an extended period of time to create on a computer and would be used extensively before an updated version was completed and distributed.

According to Douglas Richardson, executive director for the American Association of Geographers, the big recent change in the industry has been the development of means to give average people the ability to utilize real-time geographical information systems (GIS) and geographical positioning systems (GPS) that took decades to develop.

Today, with the help of satellite and geospatial technology, digital maps provided from companies such as Navteq Corp. and Tele Atlas NV, are regularly updated to include the most recent changes to roads and landscape. And because of companies such as Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., most home computer users have unprecedented access to sophisticated mapping and satellite technology.

Users can also access digital maps through cell phones or their automobile's navigation devices to find a wealth of information including detailed driving directions, the location of city's hottest eateries, or a detailed, real-time traffic reports.

The growing power and value of digital mapping has spurred corporate efforts to make digital maps more accessible and useful to the average consumer.

In July, TomTom NV, a company specializing in portable navigation devices, agreed to buy Tele Atlas NV, the world's second-largest maker of maps. Then in October, Nokia, the world's biggest mobile- phone company, agreed to buy the Chicago-based Navteq Corp., gaining access to the digital maps of 69 countries.

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