The quest for buried treasure in mapping

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.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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