Maps on the Web

This week’s CBC Web column…

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Jokes about how hard it is to fold a highway map use to be a staple of slice-of-life comedians. Well, highway maps are probably just as hard to fold as they ever were—but you don’t have to fold them, or even use them, if you don’t want to.

These days, more and more people are finding their maps on the World Wide Web. Whether you’re planning a trip or just want to find out where something you’ve heard about on the news occurred, the many map sites on the Web can provide directions, sometimes accompanied by aerial photographs.

Now, I’m a guy, and aside from the difficulty of folding up highway maps, the other standard travel-related joke is how guys hate asking other people for directions. (My theory is that it’s all related to evolution: we’re afraid if we show weakness by asking directions, other, more competent, males will be able to convince our mates to follow them instead of us. Which would probably be a smart thing for them to do, since we’re obviously lost.)

But no guy has a problem asking a piece of technology for advice, and thus: Maps on the Internet.

There were probably some local maps scanned and posted online very early on after the World Wide Web made its debut in 1991, but the first extensive map service was probably one that’s still going strong: The National Atlas of Canada. Today, that site boasts all kinds of maps. You can find topographic maps, a map of time zones, a map showing national parks, a map of historical Indian treaties, coastline maps, maps showing the lakes and rivers of Canada, and even a drainage basins map, should that float your boat (so to speak).

Some maps are simply images you can view online or download. Others are interactive. You can zoom in and out, search for specific features, and measure distances.

You could use the National Atlas of Canada to plan a trip, but that’s not really what it’s meant for. Instead, you’d probably want to use one of the other map services, which not only show you maps, but give you directions.

The first popular address-matching-and-routing service was probably Mapquest, which appeared in 1996. It’s owned by America Online, and it traces its ancestry back to a company founded in 1967, called Cartographic Services. The company started making maps with computers in the mid-1980s for its customers, and it adapted its software to create the Web service. In 2006 Mapquest sold off the division that still published traditional maps on paper to concentrate on its online service.

Using MapQuest (or any of the Web-based web mapping services) is easy. To see a map, just put in as much information as you know about the address. MapQuest will do its best to figure out what you mean. You can then zoom in or out to adjust detail as you see fit.

But the really cool thing you can do with online mapping services is to get directions. For example, if I ask for directions from the University of Regina (3737 Wascana Parkway) to CBC Regina (2440 Broad Street), it tells me:

1: Start out going NORTH on WASCANA PKWY toward UNIVERSITY DR N. (1.0 miles)

2: WASCANA PKWY becomes BROAD ST. (0.8 miles)

3: Make a U-TURN at COLLEGE AVE onto BROAD ST. (<0.1 miles) 4: End at 2440 Broad Street. It gives me a total estimated time (five minutes) and a total estimated distance (1.97 miles). It also, however, tells me to make an illegal U-turn at the corner of Broad and College, which is not going to go over well with any cops—or other drivers—in the area. So let that be a valuable lesson in using online maps to get directions: take them with a grain of salt. There are oodles (that’s a technical Web term meaning “lots”) of other map services online. Yahoo and Microsoft both have their versions, too. Yahoo Maps gives the above directions as…well, actually, Yahoo Maps couldn’t even find 3737 Wascana Parkway, and didn’t recognize the name University of Regina, so it was pretty much useless. Still, for travel in the U.S. (where it found all sorts of other Reginas) it’s probably as good as the others.

And then, of course, there’s Google Maps, because there’s a Google everything. Its instructions:

Drive: 2.7 km – about 4 mins

1. Head north on Wascana Pkwy toward University Dr N – 1.1 km – 2 mins

2. Continue on Broad St – 1.5 km – 3 mins

3. Make a U-turn at College Ave 0.1 km.

Oops, there’s that U-Turn again. So again, the maps are useful—but you still have to exercise common sense.

Microsoft also has a map service, through its Windows Live site. And, yes, its instructions include the U-turn, too, although the way it phrases it sounds legal but would certainly confuse you if you didn’t know the intersection: “Turn LEFT (west) onto College Ave, and then immediately turn LEFT (south) onto Broad St.”

The services don’t just provide written directions: they actually draw the route on a map. And, though the details vary from service to service, you can usually then take a look at the route and alter it as you see fit, often just by clicking on the line marking the route and dragging it elsewhere, or adding waypoints to it so that it follows a route you may think is better—one that avoids that U-turn on College Avenue, for instance. You can then print new written directions that reflect your changes.

Map services increasingly are also providing aerial or satellite photographs of the areas they cover—and now, for some major areas, even ground-level photographs.

MapQuest actually offered satellite photographs early on. It took them down for a while, but is now offering them again. The real leader here is Google. Although the resolution varies from place to place, in major centers you can get quite high-resolution aerial images that can help you find particular buildings or locations. And recently Google has begun collecting ground-level photographs, so that in certain locations you can actually “drive” along the streets as you would if you were in a car, and get a better sense for the city you might be planning to visit—or have always wanted to visit but can’t actually get to.

These photographs, collected by specially equipped camera-carrying cars, have prompted some privacy concerns, since people could be photographed doing something they’re not supposed to be doing—sneaking out of work to have a smoke, for instance—and could conceivablly be seen and identified by someone using Google Maps at some later date.

If it sounds like soon the whole planet will be available online in virtual form—well, it already is, in a way. Google Earth is a whole virtual globe you can explore, zooming in from outer space to anywhere on the planet. Google Earth features overlays, which point you to places of interest and provide information about them (for example, the new Seven Wonders of the World), sometimes with additional photographs, or other related files. Many of these are generated by Google Earth users, who are also populating the globe with 3-D models of various structures.

That’s not the only virtual Earth, either. Appropriately enough, since these virtual worlds are built around satellite photographs, NASA has one called World Wind that lets you zoom from satellite altitude into any place on Earth, and shows you that place in 3D. And NASA has gone one (actually, several) better: there are also virtual versions of the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and more available to explore.

Just don’t try to get driving directions to Jupiter. You just know that you’ll be asked to make an illegal U-turn at Mars—and those interplanetary traffic tickets are expensive.

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    • Edward Willett on August 10, 2007 at 3:12 pm
    • Reply

    No, I’d missed that one. Thanks for the pointer!

    • Marcos on August 8, 2007 at 2:03 pm
    • Reply

    Ever heard of Strange Maps?

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