Point of Beginning

From the Ground Up

October 1, 2005
Earlier this year Google introduced the beta version of Google Maps, a free tool that combines maps and satellite imagery with a search engine...



Technology continues to drive innovation in mapping applications. Earlier this year Google, one of the World Wide Web's leading search engine providers, introduced the beta version of Google Maps, a free tool that combines maps and satellite imagery with a search engine and basic GIS tools. As Google states on its Maps website, "Google Maps is a Google service offering powerful, user-friendly mapping technology-including business locations, contact information and driving directions-to anyone searching for results in the United States, Canada and the UK (more locations coming soon)."1 The site, located at www.maps.google.com, offers powerful technology, and impressive maps and satellite imagery.

Google Maps combines maps from digital map data provider Navteq (Chicago) and digital mapping leader Tele Atlas (Boston) with orthorectified satellite imagery from geospatial and imagery companies Digital Globe (Longmont, Colo.) and Earthsat (Rockville, Md.). Users of Google Maps have the ability to toggle between a background consisting of the maps, satellite imagery or a hybrid view, which superimposes map data-including street names and landmark information-over the satellite images. I was impressed with how well the two sources of information came together in the areas I viewed.

Some areas of the country have very crisp imagery. For example, San Francisco, Chicago and New York City all have high-resolution data sets. Other areas have only coarse satellite imagery at this time. But remember, this is the beta release, and significant improvements including more imagery are slated for the future.

The system is quite easy to use. Users simply provide a search request in the Google Maps dialog box found in the upper left portion of the screen. The results of the search will be displayed along the right portion of the screen as text while the main display will provide a mapping background with pushpins that correspond to the search results. If a user double-clicks on one of the pushpins, that location will be centered. The user can then zoom in or out by sliding the scale at the upper left of the map display.

Another great feature of the Google map system is the ability to drag the maps to see adjacent areas without long delays for refreshing the seamless imagery. User simply click with a mouse and drag the maps left or right, or up or down to create the view wanted. This update occurs in real-time using a high-speed connection.

The site also has the ability to create detailed driving directions to any address. Google Maps will plot the route. Moreover, users can click on any part of the written driving directions to get a detailed map or satellite view of that portion of the route.

A search for free WiFi locations produces valuable information.

Business Uses

Sure, it's nice to use Google Maps to find all the golf courses or Italian restaurants in a travel destination, but what about uses in professional practice? What about locating all the free WiFi locations in a hometown or at the location of a new project site? In my professional practice, my laptop is never far from my side and my need to share large data files with the office while I am on the road continues to increase. A free wireless broadband connection is always a nice discovery on a trip-and Google Maps provides a great tool for finding these hotspots.

The site can also provide invaluable information from an aerial view of a potential project site. Google Maps provides surveyors and contractors with pictures of potential project sites, and makes it handy to find ways into and out of the site. Users can also see firsthand the density of vegetation in the area. I had to prepare a proposal in August for mapping a number of golf courses around the country. I needed to know the layout of the courses, the geographical extents of each, and the amounts and types of vegetation on each of the courses before finalizing my proposal. But a site visit to the courses was out of the question since the sites were located throughout the country. Google Maps provided the perfect tool for this proposal effort. I believe other users will find the site considerably valuable for many types of surveying, mapping and engineering projects.

In this application, data from the 2000 U.S. census is displayed using Google Maps as the mapping engine.

Use as a Mapping Engine

It didn't take all that long before hackers started to take advantage of Google Maps and use the system's mapping capabilities to power their own sites. On June 29, Google moved from tolerating this use to openly promoting it. Google now publishes the full version of the application programming interface, or API, for Google Maps. "We certainly can't think of all the innovative things we can do with maps," said Bret Taylor, product manager for Google Maps.2 By publishing the APIs, Google is actively helping others develop powerful web mapping applications.

Users have been quick to make use of the APIs in using Google's mapping engine for their applications. For example, census data is available at www.gcensus.com. This site includes census data from the 2000 United States Census and uses Google Maps as the mapping engine for the visual display. Census data is available at seven geographic data levels ranging from the entire country to individual census blocks. By zooming into the maps, users can view census data summarized by states, to counties, to census tracts. This site is not a creation of the U.S. Census Bureau; it was designed by a University of Mississippi graduate student who chose to construct the site as part of a class assignment earlier this year.

Another one of the many innovative uses of this mapping engine can be found at www.housingmaps.com powered by craigslist and Google Maps. This site provides information on housing for rent or for sale for some of the larger metropolitan areas of the country. Google Maps provides the perfect visual display of significant amounts of information making it easy for the user to gain perspective on the location of these properties and quickly narrow in on areas of interest.

Future Innovation

Google Maps is not the first site to provide free aerial imagery. It also isn't the definitive site for the best aerial or satellite imagery coverage for all of the country. But it is a truly innovative blend of a search engine with GIS capability and mapping technology. Google Maps continues the move we have been seeing over the last few years in scientific areas from tabular or textual data display to visual application.

Possibly the most exciting thing, however, is that Google Maps is in its infancy. Remember that Google Maps is currently a beta version. Significant improvements will be coming soon in terms of new and better imagery for more areas of the country, more application tools, and more data behind the applications. We are also certain to see additional third-party applications that make use of the mapping engine within Google Maps. The near-term competitive environment between Google and its direct competitors should be exciting, and that competition is likely to provide lots of new tools for us to use in our business practice.

Sidebar: Other Mapping Sites

There are numerous other websites that provide free mapping information. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a site dedicated to the national map at www.nationalmap.gov. There is a tremendous amount of imagery on that site. NASA has recently launched software it terms World Wind. Users can download it at worldwind.arc.nasa.gov/. NASA provides the following explanation of the site on the World Wind 1.3 homepage: "World Wind lets you zoom from satellite altitude into any place on Earth. Leveraging Landsat satellite imagery and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data, World Wind lets you experience Earth terrain in visually rich 3D, just as if you were really there."

In July, Microsoft unveiled its competitive product, MSN Virtual Earth, which can be downloaded at virtualearth.msn.com. And to further complicate matters, Google recently rolled out Google Virtual Earth, which can be downloaded at http://earth.google.com/. Unlike Google Maps and the National Map site, which allow you to work from your browser without the installation of specialized software on your PC, the World Wind and both Virtual Earth sites require you to download and install software that then takes advantage of a broadband connection. One of the most interesting additional features of these other sites is the ability to render topographic information and create oblique views, which are significantly different from the vertical shots found on Google Maps.