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Internet Mapping Revolution
by Jay Evans


Free data mapping services signal a revolution and a call to action.
Until the June 2005 announcements by Google and Yahoo that their respective mapping application programming interfaces (APIs) would be available free of charge to publishers of those websites that are freely available to the public, putting data-driven maps on the Internet was an expensive proposition. Although JEC previously helped clients use an Open Source solution (e.g., MapServer) to save on licensing fees, clients interested in commercial packages found that the "mapping engine" software alone cost thousands of dollars per license and typically required hefty annual renewal fees and updates. Potentially, the new solutions reduce both the up-front and on-going costs of the software and site maintenance-especially, of base maps. But, perhaps most importantly, the offerings help to eliminate excuses for not planning location-aware enhancements to websites. Indeed, the announcements signaled a potential paradigm shift, where mapping is an inexpensive and essential feature, rather than an expensive, optional whistle.

Public Websites Only, For Now

The buzz generated by the announcements was significant. Business articles in newspapers and magazines trumpeted the arrival of the products. It was a little amusing to us because Internet mapping has been around for years and to read some articles you would think that Google invented it. But, before now, mapping was the realm of companies with deeper pockets. The catch, for now, is that the current Google and Yahoo APIs are only free for websites that are freely available to the public. This means that the most exciting business mapping applications (e.g., location-based metrics) are not yet able to be put on these platforms.

For now, Intranet spatial data analysis applications will still need to rely on commercial software or similar techniques as before. However, it would seem that the developments with Google Maps and Yahoo Maps could foreshadow a shift in the availability and cost of private-use mapping platforms in the near future. Furthermore, it would suggest that becoming familiar with the power of such tools early on may pay dividends later as others will have to try to play catch-up.

Google API

The Google Maps API uses JavaScript, XHTML, and VML and can easily be incorporated in a website (once a key is obtained from Google). A unique feature is the incorporation of a satelite imagery base map option. This allows users (or programmers) to view or overlay data on the sattelite photograph. This might be useful for developing walking maps, however it should be noted that sattelite images are often not as up-to-date as the standard graphical basemaps.

Yahoo API

The Yahoo Maps API incorporates technology based on RSS 2.0 and W3C geo extensions which are both open standards. The Yahoo service does not have stated limits on bandwidth use and allows connection to other location-based Yahoo services for enhanced applications. In addition, the Yahoo Maps API has built-in address matching capability for ease of use. However, maps are limited to 100 plot points each and are generated inside a Yahoo-themed page that cannot be re-styled. The basemap data should be of equivalent accuracy as that of the Google system.

Others

Microsoft is said to be readying its answer to the mapping call-to-arms but has stated that it intends to cater to "developers," suggesting a different cost structure. A risk of this strategy is that the "way cool" applications will find their way to the free services and Microsoft will be left to play catch-up. MapInfo appears to have boosted the advertising of its existing API, but as stated in the introduction, it is not free. Mapping APIs are available for license from ESRI and Caliper as well.

Next Steps

We believe the introduction of the new products is an exciting development in the area of Internet mapping and will lead to an even greater level of mainstream adoption of spatially aware decision support tools among businesses. Jay Evans Consulting LLC (JEC) has been developing Internet mapping applications for several years and will be producing demos with both the Google Maps and Yahoo Maps APIs. Our proprietary mapping system using the Open Source product, MapServer, is currently available through Modal Logic Corp.


August 2005

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