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Google's New PDF Viewer

June 15, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

Austin Bicycle Map imageMany of us have seen and used bicycle maps—those pretty PDF documents with bike lanes and whatnot drawn on them. (Here is the Austin Bike Map) They help us get from Point A to Point B in relative safety.

Well, now we can almost view them using Google Docs. I say almost because the new feature is still pretty limited— you can’t zoom in on the PDF yet, for instance, making it pretty much unusable as a potential online bike map viewer. And you also can’t share PDFs publicly yet; to share  you have to send Google Docs email invites out. But I suspect these things will (may?) change in the not-too-distant future.

This feature could make getting bicycle directions just a bit easier, because we could avoid having to download and install and figure out how to use Adobe Reader - the free-but-bloated PDF viewer that I suspect most folks are familiar with. (Adobe created the PDF file format)

Viewing a PDF can sometimes be a hassle. You may have to save a PDF to your hard drive before you can open it. You can get different “Download” vs. “View” behavior depending on which browser you’re using, or which computer you’re using. You can get annoying popups from Adobe telling you that you need updates, or that you’re missing some piece of their software, and so forth. In short, viewing PDFs can be a royal pain. I figure it’s possible that Google Docs’ new support for PDFs might help alleviate some of these issues. At a minimum, it could be one less piece of software we have to install on our computers to get the information we need.

So what does this mean for our efforts? Well, not necessarily a whole lot at the moment, but it does represent something: one more step that Google has taken to help “organize the world’s information,” and it could help us bikers in several ways.

By allowing PDFs to be easily viewed online, we’ve taken the extremely valuable data that is locked in PDF-based bike maps and made it easier for people to access. For our particular efforts, of course, we’re most concerned with having easy access to bicycle route information. We want bicycle navigation on Google Maps, but there are plenty of things that can make our lives easier in the interim. This might be one of them.

If you use a mobile device like a Blackberry or an iPhone, this should make it easier for you to pull up a bicycle map when you need it. It seems as though there are PDF viewers available for those devices already, but again, this could be one less piece of software that we have to worry about installing (It’s possible this feature is not available for Google Docs on mobile phones, yet.).

I feel like this small feature of Google Docs also helps to reinforce this very positive notion of making public data freely available, and making it easier for people to use. We’ve talked before about how much free GIS data there is available, at least in America, and how Google is now working with companies like ESRI to make that data easier to access, understand, and use. We’ve mentioned efforts to push governments to open up public data to….the public.

In summary, a seemingly-small step, but a worthy one, nonetheless.

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