The What and Why of Where

by Daniel H. Steinberg

In a way, the O'Reilly Where 2.0 conference continues the exploration or remixing services on the web from the Emerging Technology and Web 2.0 conferences. Information placed in context is always more useful. As conference chair Nat Torkington pointed out, the confluence of available GIS (Geographic Information Systems) tools and mapping platforms means that information can be filtered and presented based on location.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., pointed to the unlimited possibilities available when working on a platform not controlled by a single vendor but instead one built out of discrete pieces with well-defined communication. He said that even in the first iteration of web services, there was often a star schema with many companies centered on a single company. Contrast that with the ecosystem that he refers to as Web 2.0, which will be built from a network of cooperating data services.

What made the possibilities of Web 2.0 real for O'Reilly was the Housing Maps site, which combines the data for housing available from Craigslist with the maps available from Google Maps. The site explicitly warns that it "is in no way affiliated with Craigslist or Google," and yet it provides a compelling service by integrating the data from the two sites.

This world of remixing and discovering synergies is familiar in many non-technical settings. The legal issues, business models, and rules of engagement have not yet settled around how web-based mash-ups will work. O'Reilly explained that the location-based services in the Where 2.0 subset of Web 2.0 are leading the way in "teasing out the principles" of how best to build small pieces that can be combined in unanticipated ways. The rules will be different than they were for first generation web services in the mapping space. ESRI, MapQuest, and Microsoft MapPoint offered web services APIs and had a lot of usage, but they were not hacker friendly.

Where 2.0 Conference.

The mashups with Google Maps have exploded. Examples include Jon Udell's walking tour of Keene, New Hampshire, the Google Sightseeing site, and the Flickr mashup, "My childhood, seen by Google Maps." O'Reilly noted that "Google may not have intended all of these uses, but once they saw it, they said it's giving us street cred and ideas." He explained that letting the users add value is central to these Web 2.0 applications and that a differentiator in services is with those who are better at harnessing their users. He encouraged the audience to think about software above the level of a single device.

Mapping as a Platform

The recent explosion of interest in location-based services seems to have followed the introduction of Google Maps. Mapping systems aren't new. "The GIS industry has been building and displaying maps for decades," said Where 2.0 conference chair Nathan Torkington in his opening address. "What Google did differently was to embrace the inadvertent Web 2.0 nature of their application: they didn't try to force their platform back into an app; they let it go to see where it would end up."

Torkington said that the influences are the open source GIS tools and the mapping platforms from Google and other internet search companies. He pointed out that "The mapping operators are nervous because this race will end when most of the value has gone out of displaying maps. The value will move to the applications around the maps: the data on top of the map. As Schuyler Erle says, cartography is becoming a read-write medium, and the value will be the data you put on the map. He who has the most and best data wins."

O'Reilly has been saying that Navteq is the "Intel Inside" for the mapping industry. Torkington pointed out that Google is offering their service for free while having to pay Navteq for the data they use. The revenue model then comes from the "local search" features. The big search companies can tailor their results to where you are which adds value to what they can offer to both their customers and to their advertisers. Local listings are now dynamic; the results change depending on where you are.

The Evolution of Maps

Related Reading

Mapping Hacks
Tips & Tools for Electronic Cartography
By Schuyler Erle, Rich Gibson, Jo Walsh

David Rumsey opened up the conference by providing a historical look at maps which concluded with some examples of what modern technology can do to help these maps tell their story. He explained that a key attribute of maps is that they "always have attitude and are never completely neutral. The way they offer the facts shows a point of view." Mercator projections from the 1800s, for example, tend to exaggerate Europe and North America revealing the biases of the map makers. Maps around that time began to show connections from place to place including roads, railroads, and canals. This meant that maps that emphasized the railroads often only included town names for those along the railroad with stations.

Rumsey demonstrated that "maps become especially useful when they are compared, remixed, and mixed together. He showed maps of the same area and faded from one to another to show the changes over time. Maps which included graphical information on buildings in big cities showed how housing and businesses moved in to a location or migrated over time. These temporal mashups result in a large scale, time-lapsed view of a location that can convey various aspects of the history of that location.

Rumsey showed, by comparing maps, how they influence each other. He shares thousands of maps online in the David Rumsey Map Collection website. His passion for cartography was apparent in his message to the Where 2.0 audience that "maps can be informative, playful, or just unusual. Maps can also just be very beautiful."

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.

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