Book Review: Google Maps Hacks

By Adena Schutzberg

_Google Maps Hacks
By Rich Gibson, Schuyler Erle
O'Reilly Media, 2006

It's only somewhat amusing to say that one of the biggest challenges facing Google Maps Hacks is that it's a book. But it's true. This book, started not long after Google Maps debuted last February, is dated. Google Maps is now known as Google Local. Throughout, we hear about how the software is beta and how the API was not released officially until July, at the Where 2.0 conference (more on that later). That does not make the book useless, far from it; but it makes the reader well aware of "Internet time" and "book time."

Subtitled "Tips and Tools for Geographic Searching and Remixing," the book is very much what I expected from two of the three authors of Mapping Hacks, (reviewed here) released last year. There's a quick run through of how to operate Google Maps (I'll use that term as it is used in the book), an investigation into the URLs it creates, and a look at the basic application programming interface (API). Those early chapters will save even the most accomplished programmer some time (and alas some of the fun) of teasing out the gory details.

Then, there's a romp through a variety of hacks, from classics like Chicagocrime.org and the CraigList mashup to more clever ones that help you understand the size of areas based on areas you know (like comparing the Bay Area to the size of Delaware, page 107). As a geospatial industry watcher I was familiar with many of the hacks. That said, the real value here is in the "how it works," "the code," or "hacking the hack" sections that illuminate each of these apps. For it's in those sections that the "cookbook" aspect that many readers seek, shines through. With these examples as "recipes," programmers can go to town.

I do have a few quibbles that detract not from the value of the compendium, but from its presentation. First, there's just a bit too much love for Google in these pages. Yes, Google is a fine company, and yes it offered something new and revolutionary with Google Maps, but we need not read about it beyond page 2. If we were not sold on Google and Google Maps, we'd not have purchased the book, would we? Second, the book is filled with contributions from a list of authors found in the opening "Credits." Unfortunately, in reading a hack, it's only at the end of the section that I learned that one of those people, say Adrian Holovaty in the case of Chicagocrime.org, wrote that section. When I see the term "I," I want to know who is speaking without having to flip to the end of the section. Please put contributor names at the beginning of their contributions in the future! Third, at times the authors let Google Maps off with a "pass" when going further might have been more appropriate. For example, on page 4 the authors locate O'Reilly headquarters and note the "Empire is centered in a parking lot median strip." The joke is carried to an image caption, but there's no attempt at an explanation. Later, the hidden roof of the White House on an image is noted, but not explained. Fourth, there's some material in the book that might be a bit "outside the scope," in particular a section on how to use del.icio.us to "keep up with Google Maps." In contrast, RSS is mentioned, but there is no tutorial, just a "run off and learn about it yourself" statement (page 32). It seems to me that such resources should be described at the O'Reilly website, instead of being included (or not included in the case of RSS) in a book on Google Maps hacks. Finally, it's worth noting that all the graphics in the book, unlike Mapping Hacks’ pretty colors, are gray scale.

I found a bit of breathlessness in the regular references to Mapping Hacks and Web Mapping Illustrated and citations of what happened at Where 2.0 (page 68, for example), a conference held for the first time, by O'Reilly, in 2005. I do not deny that some important things were announced at that event; these references just feel self-serving.

All these little points aside, this is exactly the book you want if you are ready to bang on Google Maps. There is a bit on Google Earth, but the focus here is on the wonders of Google Maps.


Published Thursday, February 2nd, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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