Make open source mapping and location tools work for you

Free tools can add geolocation tools your business

The online mapping world is an exciting place to watch these days, thanks to a combination of open source tools, the rise of hyperlocal search, and ubiquitous and cheap GPS devices. There are applications galore, including some recent innovations that corporate IT managers should pay attention to.

These three trends are coming together in new and interesting ways: now just about every smartphone comes with an onboard GPS, further driving down their costs. Hyperlocal search is becoming more important as businesses try to forge better ways to connect with their customers in a specific geographic area: witness the rise of apps such as Foursquare, Facebook Places, and Gowalla, which allow you to "check in" your location and find out where your friends are located within a few hundred feet. Another example of this trend is Everyblock.com, a hyperlocal news site that is currently available for 16 different cities around the US. On this site, you can search on a particular address and pull up events happening nearby, calls for city services, crime reports and properties for sale.

And the number of open source mapping tools is also on the rise, making it easier for programmers to add mapping features to their apps without having to tie themselves to a particular mapping provider.

Online mapping used to be simple: go to a Web site, enter an address, and view the street map of the surroundings. Then came a series of innovations from Google, who sent out teams of drivers with car-mounted cameras to capture the street view, showing homes and other buildings as they drove by. (Google also got into trouble with capturing open Wi-Fi networks as they photographed things, but let's not get into that imbroglio right now.)

All that has changed lately, and the mapping arena is getting more complex. Innovations are happening literally all over the world: Take a look at this sample video from Nokia's Ovi mapping unit (or check out the screenshot below), showing you a more natural three-dimensional view flying over San Francisco where you can see buildings and terrain much as you would in real life.

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And there's another app from Pete Warren that takes all the data from where your iPhone has been (you did know that it stores this information for the past year, did you?) and consolidates it into a map.

Maps also quickly go stale as the physical world changes: new streets are added, buildings are built or torn down, and floods and other natural disasters change the face of the planet. So mapmakers are looking to outsource these updates to the people who live nearby and who are interested in keeping things up-to-date.

Google recognized this and announced in April that anyone could submit an update to its maps with its MapMaker service. These updates are posted to the main Google Maps collection, starting with US-based locations; Each entry will be reviewed before being posted for accuracy. And, this being Google, you can watch in real-time as people add points of interest to Google's maps. This is a clever enhancement, because it means that Google's maps are getting more detailed and accurate every minute, as hundreds or thousands of users annotate and update the maps.

But Google isn't the only one making it easy to add crowd-based content to its maps, and indeed Microsoft's Bing, Yahoo Maps, and MapQuest have their own collection of maps. The open source community has also gotten behind mapping, and there are a number of tools that make it easy to collect geographic data from mobile phones and publish it across the Internet, including Crowdmap.com, OpenStreetMap.org, and MapServer.org. These services promise to do to maps what WordPress and Blogger did for blogging and Web sites in general. A good comparison of several mapping services can be found at Wikipedia.

These tools make it easier to do things such as collating all pictures taken at a given landmark, showing the progress over time of development of a particular block. You could also easily create a map that pinpoints all of your corporate office locations so that customers can find the closest one by either entering their ZIP code or clicking on a map. Before open source mapping came along, you would have to learn Google's or MapQuest's particular programming interfaces and write code that would only work with that individual mapping provider.

As an example of what is possible from the open mapping interfaces, take a look at the iPhone app Skobbler. It provides spoken turn-by-turn directions (unlike Google's iPhone app) for free (unlike most turn-by-turn apps for the iPhone).

Not all is rosy with the mapping world, though. One of the weakest links is the GPS satellite network itself. There are a number of GPS jammers (illegal in US and many other countries), which are now commonly available at numerous online electronics stores for $250 or less. The issue is two-fold: GPS signals are easy to block, given that the satellites don't put out much power to begin with. And the jamming sources are very hard to locate, also because they don't radiate much power to do their dirty work. One jammer -- a trucker trying to get around paying tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike -- located near Newark Airport took months to track down. A trucker who was trying to get around paying tolls on the adjoining New Jersey Turnpike would interfere with a new system that the airport was trying to deploy.

To prevent this, the Defense Department has proposed a smartphone app to detect GPS jammers that people can use to report problems. Of course, then we all have to be persuaded to keep these apps running (and suffer the battery life consequences on our phones too).

What can you do?

If you have a retail business, or are looking at ways to better engage your customers, then you should certainly consider what these new breed of map providers have to offer. As a corporate developer, there are a number of steps you can take.

First, take a look at one of the open mapping sites and try your hand at putting together your own map to see how the process works. You can see my own primitive attempt to put together my own map here, using the Crowdmap interface. (Please don't laugh too hard: I just cobbled together a few things to show you what is possible with the site.) As you are constructing your own map, take note of how your data is input and what interfaces are required to post the map as part of your own Web site.

Second, spend some time using the location-aware social networks such as Foursquare and others to get a feel as to what is available, how your potential customers might be using these services, and whether you have a retail product or service that lends itself to promotion on these networks.

Third, think about what you are trying to accomplish with your map, and how your customers and partners will interact with your maps when they are done and eventually integrated into your site. Do you want to allow for user-generated updates, as Google has begun to do with their MapMaker site? Do you want people to use the Facebook Like button? Do you want to integrate with Facebook Places?

Fourth, understand the power of visualization. Warren's iPhone locator app, mentioned earlier, takes the longitude and latitude and time stamps in a database -- something that is almost meaningless to most of us -- and places dots on a map so you can see where your iPhone has travelled, which is much more meaningful, and potent.

Finally, a good place to keep track of the most current happenings is the O'Reilly Where 2.0 conference. The schedule from the 2010 edition of the conference, with links to the papers presented, will give you a sense of the state of the field. Good luck making your maps!

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