Latest Mapping Technologies: More than Meets the Eye

By Adena Schutzberg

Here at Directions Magazine, we've been chewing over the implications of Google Maps, Google Earth, Yahoo Maps, A9 and the upcoming MSN Virtual Earth for some time.Last week's Where 2.0 saw the announcement of "official" application programming interfaces (APIs) for two of these resources which raised yet another round of discussions.

The more experience and perspective I gain on these technologies, the more I believe there are many layers to what's going on.While my initial knee jerk reaction was to ponder the implications of these services for the traditional GIS industry, I think that perspective was a bit too parochial.There's more to these new offerings than we might see at first glance.

Data Sharing
Spending a bit more time with Google Earth, I came upon the MyPlaces area.This is where users can save their own "points of interest" with notations (Plus and Pro users can save and share paths and polygons).More importantly, users can save those points of interest to files and share them via a Keyhole Bulletin Board Service (BBS).Now, the process is very clunky and there's no effective way to search for interesting data, but the idea is spot on.

I recall a conversation I had with Don Cooke of GDT (now Tele Atlas) about this very topic some three years ago.How would, we asked, the car rally folks share their rally routes? How would the kite fliers share their great flying spots? To be fair, there are websites with lists and even maps of such things, but they are not interoperable. There have been ways to share geodata from DXF, toE00, to shape files, to SDTS, to GML for some time.None have "taken off" in the consumer space we were pondering.

And, that's the key part of it.As Tim O'Reilly is fond of saying, having the masses participate in the creation of content is a key part of Web 2.0.He points to reviews on Amazon or sellers on EBay as examples.So, here's the great opportunity for a "standard" consumer way to share geodata.Google Earth (even the free version) can create the Keyhole Markup Language (KML) files and view those of others.KML is an XML grammar and file format for modeling and storing geographic features; at V2, the extension is KMZ, z for zipped.Once Google cleans up the process for uploading new data, finding data and using them, this could well be the "killer app"/Web 2.0 part of this new generation of tools.

It's worth noting that some in the GIS industry have highlighted data sharing as a limitation for these services since the offerings don't support projections, etc. Fair point, and for the GIS professional that is very important.But is it for the citizen who will likely be making and using data from the "Google Maps" projection? Further, how much longer will we need to wait for some clever hacker to write the "dump out data to KML in the Google projection" (and read in KML) from your favorite GIS? Once this happens, dare I suggest that such a resource could send ESRI's Geography Network and even GOS 2 for a loop?

Mapping or GIS?
Recently, I read an editorial which noted that these services give programmers all the tools they need to make maps.Indeed.It may be time again to explore that age old question: what's the difference between map making and GIS? The former is about presentation ("a map is a representation of structure, and a structure is a set of elements and the relationships between them"). While paper maps are not interactive, electronic maps may be, but that does not make them components of a GIS.GIS, its proponents argue, is more than just mapping; it's analysis; it's exploring what if; it's using models; it's developing more intricate visualizations.Certainly, a good deal of energy from the GIS vendors has leaned toward these topics.GIS vendors may be moving further away from "just making maps" to highlight their distinction.

And, while today the battleground of "map vs.GIS" is the Internet, not long ago it was the desktop.Directions Magazine was launched just before Microsoft rolled out its desktop MapPoint product.There was unease in the GIS marketspace. What was this new product? Was Microsoft entering GIS? MapPoint was and still is a great product.Did it eat GIS vendors' lunch? Not even a bite, I'd offer.

Why? It, and many other consumer/small business focused mapping solutions are about mapping.To be fair, you can create maps with a high-end software package, but it may offer far more functionality than is necessary.And, high-end vendors would rather sell those high-end products to those who really need them since those customers are more likely to need (and purchase) the company's other high-end tools!

So, the question comes back to this: Are these new online service and developer platforms just offering mapping or could the tools be tweaked by developers, as one poster suggested, "to do GIS"? That remains to be seen.I can just see Google Maps hooked up to ArcEngine for some high powered analysis...

New Tools and Government
What about the largest users of GIS technology in the world: governments? Will the new technologies change their ways? Maybe.It's currently unclear what sort of business models the companies behind the offerings have for commercial or public sector use of their services. Let's assume there will be a fee to do a merging of local data with their services/data.Is it possible that the city of Cambridge, Mass. (I pick on that one since I live in the next city over) might drop its Web mapping solution and simply present its data on one of these new services? It's fair to ask if they might do so with an "old school" service like MapQuest or ArcWeb Services, too.

There are issues, to be sure: where will the city-owned data reside? Will they be on a city of Cambridge server? Or on one of Yahoo's servers? Will ads be shown to pay for some or all of the service? Will users be able to seamlessly pan over to neighboring Somerville and see its corresponding data layer? Dare I suggest that should such things be worked out that a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) might emerge? Perhaps a global one? I do not know; I'm simply playing out the scenario.

In that scenario, the traditional GIS vendors would still have a piece of the pie: there would be a few heavy duty GIS seats where data is created and updated and where any heavy analytics were done.There would still be GIS professionals with jobs.

And, what of standards? When Bret Taylor, Google Maps Product Manager, was asked at Where 2.0 about plans to support OGC standards, he reportedly said he was not familiar with the acronym.(A similar question at the Location Technology and Business Intelligence conference received basically a "no" answer.) Is an open API and an XML-based "storage format" or an RSS-based tagging procedure all it takes to set aside the work of a formal standards setting body? Or, perhaps we'll have one set of standards (de facto?) for the consumer set and another for the professionals?

The traditional GIS industry is measuring its response to the hoopla of the last few months.Perhaps it's hype.Perhaps it's just mapping. Still, the simple existence of these elegant end-user Web experiences, along with published free-to-explore APIs and gigabytes of good data, has changed expectations across the entire geospatial industry and more importantly, beyond its walls.

Published Saturday, July 9th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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