Online Maps: Everyman offers directions

Online Maps: Everyman offers directions


Hintz, a 62-year-old engineer who lives in Berkeley, California, has tweaked the locations of more than 200 business listings and points of interest in cities across the state, sliding an on-screen place marker down the block here, moving another one across the street there. Farther afield, he has mapped parts of Cambodia and Laos, where he likes to go on motorcycle trips.

Hintz said these acts of geo-volunteerism were motivated in part by self-interest: he wants to know where he’s going. But “it has this added attraction that it helps others,” he said. Hintz is a foot soldier in an army of volunteer cartographers who are logging every detail of neighborhoods near and far into online atlases. From Petaluma to Peshawar, these amateurs are arming themselves with GPS devices and easy-to-use software to create digital maps where none were available before, or fixing mistakes and adding information to existing ones.

Like contributors to Wikipedia before them, they are democratizing a field that used to be the exclusive domain of professionals and specialists. And the information they gather is becoming increasingly valuable commercially.

Google, for example, sees maps playing a growing strategic role in its business, especially as people use cellphones to find places to visit, shop and eat. It needs reliable data about the locations of businesses and other destinations.

“It is a huge shift,” said Michael F Goodchild, a professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is putting mapping where it should be, which is the hands of local people who know an area well.” That is changing the dynamics of an industry that has been dominated by a handful of digital mapping companies like Tele Atlas and Navteq.

Google is increasingly bypassing those traditional map providers. It has relied on volunteers to create digital maps of 140 countries, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, that are more complete than many maps created professionally. “They have coverage in areas that the big mapping guys don’t have,” said Mike Dobson, a mapping industry consultant who once worked at Rand McNally.

Some people think map data is so valuable that it should be free. OpenStreetMap, a nonprofit group whose mission is to make free maps that can be reused by anyone, has some 180,000 contributors who have mapped many countries in varying levels of detail.

The maps are used on a White House Web site that tracks community service opportunities and in many iPhone applications, among other places. Another collaborative project called WikiMapia is creating its own annotated maps, layered on top of Google’s. Traditional mapmakers are seeking to adapt by tapping their own citizen cartographers. Tele Atlas, which TomTom bought last year for $4.3 billion, now uses feedback from users of TomTom’s navigation devices to update its maps.

But Tele Atlas says its customers, who might be in delivery trucks or emergency vehicles, can’t rely fully on community-created maps, any more than historians can rely on Wikipedia. Defenders of the amateur approach point out that professionally created maps often have errors and can be slow to add road closures and other updates. Google has moderators who try to verify the accuracy of users’ changes, unless they are very minor, while OpenStreetMap relies on its members to police changes.

John L Kittle, a 55-year-old engineer, was one participant. In the past, Kittle has corrected street names in Atlanta and improved the map for his home town of Decatur, Ga. Recently an acquaintance mentioned that she lived in a new condo development, and Kittle added it to the map.

Some of the most remarkable efforts of amateur map makers are in countries where few, if any, digital maps existed. Google first tested a tool called Map Maker in India, where people immediately began tracing and labeling roads and buildings on top of satellite images provided by Google.

When Google released the tool more broadly last year, Faraz Ahmad, a 26-year-old programmer from Pakistan who lives in Glasgow, took one look at the map of India and decided he did not want to see his homeland out-mapped by its traditional rival.

So he began mapping Pakistan in his free time, using information from friends, family and existing maps. Ahmad is now the top contributor to Map Maker, logging more than 41,000 changes.

Maps are political, of course, and community-edited maps can set off conflicts. When Ahmad tried to work on the part of Kashmir that is administered by Pakistan, he found that Map Maker wouldn’t allow it. He said his contributions were finally accepted by the Map Maker team, which is led by engineers based in India, but only after a long e-mail exchange. A Google spokeswoman, Elaine Filadelfo, said Google sometimes blocked changes to contentious areas “with an eye to avoiding back-and-forth editing.”

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