October 29, 2007

Tracking the trackers

Filed under: mobile, random, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:08 pm

Runners just past the 10 mile mark

My friend Jason ran in the Marine Corps Marathon yesterday. The marathon, like many races, uses a chip on runners’ shoes to track times.

The Marine Corps Marathon also offered runner alerts: you could sign up before the race to get alerts when your runner hit the 5-, 10-, 13.1-, 15-, 19-, 22- and 26.2-mile marks. A chip reader would scan your runner and then send a text message or email. It makes it easier to position yourself to find your runner in the crowd, just camp out a mile or so ahead of the checkpoint and the system would let you know when to keep your eyes peeled.

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, the system failed miserably. We got an alert when Jason crossed the 5-mile mark. More than 90 minutes later, we were still waiting for the 10-mile alert. Did Jason get hurt? Did we miss him? I called a friend to check the Web site. Same data. We looked up another friend and the system showed that she’d crossed the 15-mile mark. Uh oh.

We continued to wait and eventually saw him just before the 16-mile mark. Still no alerts past the original.

The alerts eventually showed up. After the race, the system blasted numerous duplicate messages: 96 Jason alerts to one phone.

The race announcer said more than 200,000 people had signed up to receive alerts. Multiply that by 96 and that’s a lot of text messaging revenue. made good use of simpler technology. Runners can watch three hours of video of the finish line. Now if they’d start geotagging their photos, you could create cool maps like this.

More on: geotagging, newspapers

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October 26, 2007

Trying new ways to cover fires

Filed under: geotagging, journalism, maps, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:22 pm


Crises force people to think differently. Faced with a rapidly moving story, media outlets in Southern California have done an outstanding job in adopting Web 2.0 tools to keep readers informed during the tragedy.

SignOnSanDiego, the Web site of the Union-Tribune, has a regularly updated map of the fires in San Diego (screenshot above). Fire perimeters are shown on the map. The map also includes geotagged pictures and videos. Click a ZIP code and you can see which structures burned in that area on the map. The page also provides updates on evacuation orders.

SignOnSanDiego started a new blog on Blogger with the latest in fire news. Blogging platforms are more conducive to getting news out fast and in a way that is clearer than traditional content management systems. They also come with built-in notification tools. The wildfires blog has 425 posts so far this week. An accompanying help blog lists offers of assistance for area residents.

The site is also making good use of user-generated photos and videos. The tools and UI are crude, but pictures like this one do a good job of telling the story. Embed code is provided for the videos.

KPBS has a Twitter account with important updates such as “Boil Water Order issued for Barrett Valley.” The account has 969 followers. With Twitter, residents can subscribe to get alerts via SMS.

Such alternative distribution is important when people have evacuated their homes, as well as for those with relatives in the area.

The Los Angeles Times has its own fire map, user-generated photo gallery and Twitter account. A fire-damage database allows users to search for homes that have burned. They’ve also teamed up with other media outlets for an evacuee database.

Many of these things are impossible or not very useful in print. It’s great to see so many outlets experimenting.

Update: The Google blog has a list of fire maps.

More on: maps, newspapers

GPS as the cure to roadside blight

Filed under: gps, local search, maps, satellite navigation — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:51 pm

Waffle House sign

Creative Commons image by Eye Captain via flickr.

It’s a staple of American road trips: signs all along the interstate inviting you to grab a bite, fill up or spend the night. You’re likely to see hundreds of these signs on any given trip. (More if you’re passing through Breezewood, Pa.)

These come ons are likely to become less effective as the penetration of navigation devices increases. I took a road trip recently with my friend Tricia. I was getting hungry, but couldn’t see anything on the signs that I wanted to stop for. She had a nostalgic craving for Friendly’s. I entered that into my Magellan GPS and found one just off the interstate a few miles ahead.

My GPS also has an “Exit POI” mode that shows businesses close to the interstate. If you don’t know what you want, you can browse an exit before you get off the freeway.

On the way back, another friend wanted to go to Buffalo Wild Wings. It wasn’t in the POI database on the Magellan, so I called Google 411. I got the address by text message and entered it into the Magellan.

As navigation devices become connected, you’ll be able to do more than find a business. You’ll be able to see the gas prices ahead and find which hotels have availability. No more getting off the interstate and driving in an unfamiliar area looking for vacancy signs. And, of course, eventually Google AdRoads.

One disadvantage of navigation devices is that they search and sort based on radius. If you find a business that’s 1.3 miles away, it could be 1.3 miles back the direction you just came. I haven’t yet seen a “search along my route” option that would restrict results to upcoming businesses in your path of travel.

More on: gps, maps, satellite navigation

October 23, 2007

Google Maps gets social

Filed under: facebook, google, local search, maps, social networking, yelp — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:12 pm

Google has added a profile page for its My Maps and local reviews products. The profile page allows users to roll up their maps and reviews onto one page. Here’s a screenshot of my profile page:

Google Maps profile page

In addition to links to the reviews and maps that I’ve created, there are a few fields to tell people a little bit about myself. It’s not as robust as Yelp’s profile page, but it shows the beginnings of a social bent to Google’s local properties.

Among the things I’d like to see:

  • People-friendly URLs. The URL for my profile page is On Yelp, my URL is
  • The option for people who use my maps to leave comments. The feedback options on flickr and Yelp are important drivers of continued participation; if I hear from people who find my work useful, I’m more likely to contribute.
  • A Facebook application that distributes my maps and reviews to my friends. Google has already released a Google News application and a third party has created a Google Reader app.

More on: Google, maps

October 20, 2007

Forgetting our freedoms

Filed under: fun, journalism, media, newspapers, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:22 am

Very few occupations are constitutionally protected. Journalism is one of them. The first amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It’s easy to take these freedoms for granted. Last night, I helped judge the second annual trivia bowl for the Asian American Journalists Association. The competition consisted of teams from various media outlets around the D.C. area.

One of the questions asked the teams (of up to 10 people) to name the five protections in the first amendment. Check out which freedom The Washington Post team missed:

It begins with

The team captain’s name has been removed to protect the guilty.

At least their opponents on the team got it right.

More on: newspapers

October 18, 2007

Google Satellite View, the hard way

Filed under: fun, maps, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:57 pm

From the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, a book of pictures of London taken from a balloon. The book covers eight square miles.

Balloon View of London

The quest for buried treasure in mapping

Filed under: aol, geotagging, google, maps, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:50 pm

I wrote the other day about MapQuest’s new beta launch and how they’ve so far missed the mark on mapping innovations that have occurred in the last two years.

Maps can serve many purposes. Finding a business or a place and then getting turn-by-turn directions to it is just one purpose. This is an area where most of the mapping sites do a “good enough” job. Whether you’re using Google, MapQuest, Yahoo! or MSN, you’ll usually find a business and get directions. There are differences in the freshness of data, the quality of the user interface and enhanced features (like Street View). This kind of mapping is increasingly turning up in our cars and mobile devices.

MapQuest, more than any of its competitors, has focused on basic maps and driving directions. But maps can do so much more than get us from Point A to Point B.

Maps can help us to better understand our world. There are many examples of this in the offline world: historical maps that show us how the country grew, the red-and-blue maps that the TV networks show on election night to illustrate how divided the country is. Online, this type of map is largely dominated by mashups with Google Maps, as developers have overlaid data onto maps using Google’s APIs. Some examples of this are Slate’s Map the Candidates and Chicago Crime Maps. Trulia’s Hindsight, built on Microsoft Virtual Earth, lets you see how housing patterns developed.

Maps can help us to connect better with communities of people that share our interests. At Platial, you can collaborate with others that share your interests to build community maps, such as this musical map of London or the world of bugs. Hikers, bikers, kayakers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts can share maps with detailed route information and pictures at Everytrail. With tools like these and Google’s My Maps, anyone can create a map covering the smallest niche.

Lastly, maps provide us an easy way to explore our world from our computer screen. We’ve been able to do this to a limited degree in the offline world with travel guides, but tools like flickr’s map and Panoramio allow you to get up close and personal with a country, city or even one of the wonders of the world.

Great pyramids

The king of this market is Google Earth, where you can layer just about anything onto high quality satellite imagery – pictures, videos, census data, congressional districts. My two favorite layers are GigaPan’s panoramic images and Rumsey Historical Maps.

What’s next for maps? The biggest thing I see is real-time or near real-time data on maps. You can already overlay movie showtimes, buses, airplanes and traffic. Imagine pulling up a map and seeing parking availability or which restaurants have tables available. If the information is tied to a location and can be collected and digitized, you’ll be able to see it on a map.

More on: maps

October 14, 2007

A new MapQuest beta with not much new

Filed under: google, local search, maps, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:35 pm

The latest beta of MapQuest shows how far behind MapQuest is in the functionality race with Google and Yahoo! There are two big improvements in this release:

  • MapQuest finally supports a single search box for entering addresses. The current version of the site requires you to break an address in to four components: address, city, state and zip. For those manually entering data, it’s a slight inconvenience. But for users who copy and paste addresses from emails and Web sites, it’s enough of a hassle to warrant using another product.
  • The number of ad links has been dramatically reduced compared to the version at, from 26 to 15 by my count.

This beta has done nothing to address a number of innovations that have come to mapping services over the last several years:

  • Basic user interface. One thing I love about both Google and Yahoo! maps is that they intelligently size to your screen. If you have a big screen, they take advantage of it and present more map data. If you shrink your window, the map shrinks so you don’t have to scroll. Both also have inset maps to help you orient yourself. With Google, you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in and out. The maps themselves are still ugly compared with Google’s and Yahoo’s.
  • Venue information. Despite having access to AOL’s terrific CityGuide data, MapQuest ignores user ratings and reviews. (I suspect that this is because AOL has all but killed CityGuide.) Google has long crawled other Web sites for ratings and reviews and added its own review feature in June.
  • Changing routes. Google allows you to drag a route line to change the routing, for example if you want to take the more scenic route.
  • Public transit. Google and Yahoo! show subway stations on maps. On Google, you can search for businesses using subway stations as a reference point. For example, “restaurants near foggy bottom metro“. Google also offers the ability to get directions using public transit.
  • Street View. It’s not in all cities and some find it a little creepy, but it can be valuable to get the feel for a neighborhood.
  • Embeddability. Google allows you to embed their maps on your own Web site.
  • Traffic. Both Google and Yahoo! offer live traffic. Google even offers estimates of traffic delays during rush hours.

The biggest problem with MapQuest is that it’s still stuck in a Web 1.0 world. (AJAX to support map panning notwithstanding.) MapQuest is too dependent on InfoUSA to provide the point of interest data that is searched.

Google and, to a much lesser extent, Yahoo! have made an effort to incorporate data from the wider Web into the listings. Google provides extensive tools to create and share your own maps and the data from these maps can be used to improve the overall quality of Google’s data.

MapQuest has also done little to get its maps and data used by other sites. Although MapQuest offers an API, when was the last time you heard of a MapQuest mashup? Google’s APIs are the defacto standard for startups looking to incorporate maps into their sites.

TechCrunch reports that some of these features will be coming to MapQuest over the next few months.

MapQuest’s biggest asset remains its brand. When we did focus groups and usability testing, one of the things we’d ask was where people would go to look for specific types of information. Among the various things we asked — movies? weather? news? research paper? — the answer was almost invariably “Google.” The only question that got a different answer was “where would you go for maps and directions?” People stuck by MapQuest.

That advantage is going diminish as the core maps and directions business moves from the desktop to navigation systems and mobile devices.

Disclosure: I worked at AOL (MapQuest’s parent company) and launched AOL’s Local Search product in 2005.

via TechCrunch

Technology’s effects on our language

Filed under: email, fun, im, instant messaging, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:25 am

Wright Brothers telegram

I was at the Wright Brothers National Memorial a few weeks ago and struck by the telegram that Orville Wright sent to his father announcing the success of the first machine powered human flights. The message was kept short, probably to keep down costs. It was likely dictated to a telegraph operator, hence Orville’s name is misspelled on the document marking the important occassion.

With all of our new ways of communicating, we’re constantly evolving the language. And despite communication being virtually free — there’s pretty much no additional cost for sending a longer email or chatting with your friends on the phone — the language has gotten more concise. We write as little as is takes to get the message across.

The difficulty of text entry on cell phones is one of the culprits. Short cuts like “r u there?” and “k” save us valuable thumbstrokes. This shorthand has made its way to IM and email.

Even T9, the predictive text entry system on many phones, is a factor. I received a message from a friend saying “Going to beans morgan for a bday party you are more than welcome to john if you want” I knew she meant adams morgan and join. She just kept typing and used the first word T9 guessed.

I often get lazy with T9 and if I think a word isn’t going to be in its dictionary, I use one that I think will be. My friend Patricia Tricia isn’t happy about this. I’ll type “are you there?” because the T9 dictionary doesn’t have textese of “r u.”

I’m also resorting to picture messaging more to make sending messages even easier.

What would the Wright Brothers message look like today? It’d probably be something like: “success 4 flights thu am against 21 mile wind from level w engine power alone. avg spd in air 31 miles. longest 57 secs. tell press. o” Of course there’d be a link to a YouTube video.

And Engadget would be liveblogging the whole thing.

October 13, 2007

What’s the most screwed up media business?

Filed under: journalism, media, movies, newspapers, television — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:11 am

Among television, movies, newspapers and music, which industry is the most screwed up when it comes to adapting to the new world?

The newspaper business won some serious points this week in the “screwed up” race with Roy Peter Clark’s piece “Your Duty to Read the Paper.” Clark implores journalists to spend more time reading newspapers:

It is your duty as a journalist and a citizen to read the newspaper — emphasis on paper, not pixels. …

I’ve been reading the paper more closely lately, spending at least 15 minutes in the morning, and then picking up some longer stories and features in the evening. The experience has reminded me of something I forgot along the way: that there is no substitute for the local daily newspaper if I am going to live as a full-blooded citizen in a place that I love.

Why knock the newspaper industry for Clark’s essay? Clark is a “senior scholar” at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, considered by many to be the most prestigious “think tank” for the newspaper business. If Clark were Jason Calacanis or Robert Scoble, I’d chalk up this piece as linkbait. Sadly, I don’t think Clark knows what linkbait is or its purpose.

While Clark has been spouting the sanctity of the printed newspaper, I’ve been consuming television content.

Not watching television, mind you, but watching television content. I watched CNN’s Reliable Sources and NBC’s Meet the Press on my iPod while on trains and planes. I caught NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup streamed onto my laptop on Friday night. (I’m visiting my brother who doesn’t have a TV.) These are shows I wouldn’t have been able to watch otherwise.

Unfortunately for Clark and the newspaper business, those were potentially prime news reading opportunities. I hate it when people shove their broadsheet pages in my face when I’m crammed into a seat for five hours, so I try not to do that to them. Television won out because they provided content I wanted to consume in a format that was convenient for me. I can nitpick the details of NBC’s implementation or their fight with Apple, but at least they’re trying a lot of different things.

Same with the movie industry. I was interested in seeing I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With from IFC Films. It’s in limited release, so I can’t see it at the theater. No problem, it’s available for $6 through Comcast On Demand. The movie business as a whole is still stuck in the distribution window mindset with staggered releases to different channels, but those windows are rapidly collapsing. Comcast is now getting many On Demand movies at the same time they hit DVD.

That leaves the music business. It’s the industry that came up with the Ringle, one of the dumbest ideas I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also the industry that has been the most aggressive at suing its customers. At least newspapers haven’t done that yet.

Disclosure: I attended a Poynter Institute leadership seminar in the mid-90s and had a great learning experience, though I can’t say the same about the St. Petersburg Hilton Motel 6.

More on: newspapers, television

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