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June 21, 2006 10:29 am

Chris Nuttall: The world is my sandwich

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Have you seen the recipe for an earth sandwich?

First, take the mash-up of Google Maps available at www.zefrank.com/sandwich that shows two different parts of the globe.

Next, carefully drag and zoom the left-hand map so its pointer is directly over where you live. Watch as the map on the right moves in sync to the opposite place on the globe.

Zoom that map in on the pointer to reveal where you would emerge if you dug a hole straight down through the centre of the earth.

Now, place a slice of bread on the ground at your feet.

Next, contact a friend where the opposite pointer is located and ask them to place a slice of bread on their patch of ground.

Voilà! A perfect earth sandwich.

Sadly, this doesn’t work for North America – the Indian Ocean is opposite. In fact, New Zealand and Spain are perhaps the prime opposites to complete this planetary snack.

But the concept does show how the Google Maps website and its companion program Google Earth have spawned mapping applications undreamt of a year ago.

And it provides an apt metaphor for how Google is trying to capture the whole globe in its information sandwich – its mission statement is to make all the world’s information universally accessible.

Maps are also proving to be one of the most effective data visualisation tools for presenting information, as they move beyond simple directions and locations.

A map is far more attractive and intuitive than pages of search results and it offers infinite free flowing movement now that programmers have mastered dynamic web pages that constantly update instead of making you click on an arrow to load the next square kilometre.

Merging satellite images and adding aerial photography, relief, 3D imagery and street-level photos is also bringing maps to life, allowing Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon with A9, multi-dimensional ways of presenting and making money from local “Yellow Pages”-type information.

Google’s decision to offer Google Maps and Earth free and to open up its application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers – 30,000 now and counting – has been central to the success of mapping tools and the source of thousands of mash-ups – combining data with maps.

More than 100m people have downloaded and used Google Earth and the developers among them have added layers such as fboweb.com’s live 3D flight tracking of airlines, or National Geographic’s mapping of its database of features to their locations on the globe. Click on the place and the article and photos appear.

Google Maps’ early mash-ups combined apartments for rent on Craigslist with their map locations or gave a visual breakdown of crime incidents in Chicago.

Now, you can play golf on satellite images of courses at gmapgolf.com or bypass train timetables in Dublin by watching icons of the engines moving on the tracks between stations as dartmaps.mackers.com picks up their GPS positioning data. Many more examples are at Mike Pegg’s gmapsmania.com.

More established services such as the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which provides detailed and up-to-date mapping for business, may pooh-pooh the Google movement as eye candy, but even ESRI is making its features available online, joining Nasa’s World Wind and other GIS (Geographic Information Systems) companies.

Many of the issues were discussed at the recent Where 2.0 conference in Silicon Valley and at Google HQ, where executives introduced attendees to Google Earth Version 4.

What appear to be lacking are sophisticated tools for ordinary users to participate imaginatively in map-making the same way that they are contributing to Web 2.0 social websites such as Flickr’s photo-sharing and the MySpace community.

Frappr and Flagr, two small start-ups, have been leading with such tools
and Google has announced KML (Keyhole Markup Language) for Google Maps, which makes it easier for users to transpose their information and photos on to maps.

Wikimapia.org is the most promising collaborative effort – similar to Wikipedia, it allows users to annotate maps with details on places of interest. It had 50,000 annotations within 10 days of launch.

Maps could be the basis for geo-browsers of the future: you could do online banking in a 3D re-creation of your local branch and read a newspaper story about football fans fighting in Germany by zooming to the virtual city where the incidents took place

As Larry Page, Google co-founder, said, only half-jokingly, last week, until Google masters teleportation, virtual maps will be the next best thing.

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