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Take Control of Your Maps

May 27, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Bicycle Maps

That’s the title of an article written by Paul Adam Smith. Paul is a co-founder and developer at EveryBlock—a very cool mashup-type application that might have implications for the reporting of street closures, potholes, crime reports, and other bicycle- and pedestrian-related issues. EveryBlock’s co-founder, Adrian Holovaty, presented at Where2.0, and during Adrian’s talk he mentioned this article by Paul; that’s how I found out about the article. I looked it up, and it’s really good.

The article, a very good introduction to internet-based map building, suggests that rolling your own maps—that is, not using Google Maps, Mapquest, or another big map player as your base toolset—is possible, and even possibly desirable:

We live in the era of Google Maps. What started off as an impressive refresh of Mapquest-style maps now fuels web mashups. With APIs official and unofficial, Google Maps is simple enough for front-end designers to embed and for back-end programmers to target. Along the way to becoming nearly ubiquitous, it has played a major role in the “democratization of mapping.” For the practical developer who wants to add geospatial information to a site or application, the Google Maps API has been an easy call.

But, perhaps no longer. As websites mature and the demand for geographic applications grow, the old mashup arrangement is starting to chafe. Mapping components are more and more vital, and so we demand greater control, expressiveness, and functionality from them.

Fortunately, as in many aspects of internet technology, an ecology of open-source online mapping tools has emerged alongside the market leader. It is now possible to replicate Google Maps’ functionality with open source software and produce high-quality mapping applications tailored to our design goals. The question becomes, then, how?

Hopefully we won’t have to build this for ourselves, as we want it available on the main Google Maps interface (that’s of primary importance, I would argue), but if we do have to do it ourselves, this article points us to a lot of useful information.

For starters, I had no idea that geodata was so difficult to get in some parts of the world, such as outside the United States. Here is the relevant part of Paul’s article:

Street beat

As I mentioned above, many mapping applications require a streets layer. Streets are a primary way that people orient themselves—the closest thing we have to a practical coordinate system in the world. As you might imagine, a database of streets is a large, complex, and valuable asset. Companies, such as NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas employ a fleet of vehicles to scour the world’s roads, arterials, and expressways, amassing the exact coordinates of each street they travel. You can purchase a license to use this type of commercial database for your own applications—usually at a per-page-view rate. It can be expensive, but if your organization can afford it, you’ll have the benefit of a constantly-updated, high-quality streets layer, with near-comprehensive coverage.

You may recognize Navteq (wiki) and Tele Atlas (wiki) from copyright signatures in the bottom-right corner of lots of Google Maps layouts, depending on the location being mapped. Navteq is being bought by Nokia (wiki), and that may help push pedestrian navigation into mobile phones a bit quicker. No word on bike navigation yet.

In addition to being able to license street data from commercial companies, folks interested in mapping American streets can use the Tiger/Line database for free. It’s not perfect, but it’s not too bad, either. European countries don’t have similar freely-available databases of street data collected by the respective governments. I would presume other Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia and South Africa and India share similar government policies, but I don’t know.

PublicGeoData.org and OpenGeoData.org are websites/organizations aimed at open and/or free access to all public geodata. If you live in or are interested in Europe and mapping/navigation projects, you’ll probably want to be familiar with initiatives surrounding INSPIRE—The Proposed European Commission Directive on European Spatial Data Infrastucture. Check out INSPIRE’s website.

All of the discussion surrounding publicly-available geodata has helped me recognize the significance of projects like OpenStreetMaps.org—a site we’ve had listed on our Other Efforts page for a while.

Paul Adam Smith, the author of the article we’ve been talking about, is also a co-founder and board member of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, “a 501(c)3 non-profit grassroots organization advocating for the conversion of the unused Bloomingdale railroad in Chicago into a multiuse, elevated linear park.” Go check it out and get involved if you can.

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