Thursday, July 13, 2006

GIS...More to maps than just directions...

From Fast Company...Forget point A to point B: Internet-powered maps are moving from simple driving directions to richly layered landscapes of living, breathing information. More than 1,000 new map-based Web sites have launched in the past year, with 3 to 4 more debuting every 24 hours. VCs are throwing money at any of them that promise to transform industries such as real estate and local shopping. And people are map hungry. In a Pew Institute survey last April, cell-phone users named maps as their most desired feature. (Instant messaging was second.) We're not just talking about better maps: Digital maps are the Internet equivalent of a Dairy Queen Blizzard. They let users blend vast amounts of previously disparate data and display them however they please, and even add their own images, videos, comments, or other content. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft all see this as huge; they're spending millions to add both high-res satellite photography and street-level images to maps. But all the frantic activity leaves one nagging question: Can these developers and corporations chart a path to profit? If you want to understand what an Internet-map-powered world might be like, look to Europe, where there's a higher adoption rate of mapping technology. In the United States, for example, commuters get traffic updates from frenzied helicopter pilots shouting over muddled AM radio; it's literally a top-down model. Many Europeandrivers enjoy a more elegant solution. TomTom, Europe's leading in-car navigation company, dynamically updates traffic conditions on the maps in users' GPS devices, including which roads are congested because of an accident or roadwork and even the location of speed traps, all with the help of its subscribers. In effect, travelers are forming instant communities to cooperatively learn about their environment.

In the United States, people are just beginning to catch on to the power of these communities. Traditionally, in real estate, you'd have to go to the county records office or the police station, and pore through dusty file cabinets, to get the information that a Web site such as can display in a couple of clicks. "We want to organize information geospatially," says Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman, "so people seeking a home can capture the gestalt of the neighborhood." For example, the home seeker can ask why a house is more expensive than others in the rest of the neighborhood, and the seller can respond by adding information to the map about recent renovations, even posting before-and-after pictures. Such features keep the average user on Redfin for an impressive 72 minutes a week. "The map is basically a centerfold--it's pornographic," Kelman says.

People who hang out for long periods of time, contributing their knowledge to a local community, also have developers and advertisers excited about new opportunities in online search. "Maps enable immersive search," says Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft's MapPoint division. "You can actually see the real world as you understand it." Microsoft recently debuted map technology called Virtual Earth, featuring bird's-eye, 3-D photography. Groups of like-minded users can add ratings and reviews, sharing customized maps with others. In addition, it's testing an even more ambitious application, built from thousands of street-level photographs, which lets visitors maneuver through downtown Seattle and San Francisco. Both map-based search tools will offer businesses an unprecedented type of targeted advertising. Imagine, a retailer will be wooing any customers panning over its location.

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