Friday, June 30, 2006

Tech: Google Maps: The new web 2.0 in action

Last night I attended a W3 Consortium meeting. Most of this page will discuss Google Maps, but there’s a little at the end about W3 activity.

The best value was in the presentation by Lars Rasmussen from Google Maps (here's a Wikipedia description of the concepts). Now I’ve used this gadget a few times, and it struck me as interesting, but how useful? It’s a mapping application (based on satellite images and map data) which allows you to search, navigate, and zoom. Particularly powerful in that:
a) you can drag the map around, rather than navigating and waiting for a reload. Makes a big difference;
b) you can choose a hybrid satellite/map format - overlays actual pictures with streets/names. Try it - find out how useful that is. (As one who likes to get one's bearings, I find this is the new geography! I could navigate from my house all the way to Trafalgar Square in London.)
c) you can search for an address and it will point to it. However, Although this works for the US, it doesn't yet work for too many other places (I had no luck with Australia, New Zealand, or England).

Lars’ talk was a very good illustration of the rapidly changing nature of the internet, and how Web 2.0 heralds a radical ramp-up in technology. Just when you thought you’d come to grips with what you can achieve, another paradigm shift is here to wow you.

Any inaccuracies in the following reflect the quality of my notes taken on the night. I’m open to corrections.

Lars gave a story of an application in search of venture capital. They’d spent a couple of years working on the mapping application, and hawking it around. Then they spoke to Google. The spark was a passing comment from one of the Google blokes, that it would be cool to see that application in a web browser. The developers frantically converted their C++ application to a web-based application (from a client-based to a server-based mechanism), and won over Google.

A few days after it was released to the world, they found a blog which took it apart and detailed exactly how it worked. A few days after that, another blog described how anyone could import it to a web site and create a mashup, that is, overlay your own data on theirs. Now we’re starting to see the power in the Web 2.0 concept: collaborative power.

All this without specific authorisation from Google, however they were happy to come to the party, and made available the API details (that’s the programmatic hooks into it), and instructions on how to apply it. In fact, they followed the instructions on the original blog that worked it out!

Conceptually, my favourite application is to be able to attach photos to particular geographical locations. Powerful!!

Although detailed mapping data is currently focused on the developed world (North America, Europe and Australasia), there are already 30,000-odd sites that provide mashups.

Lars: “When you work for Google, it’s enough that someone likes it – you don’t need to do the market research”. He added that current directions for Google Maps are based on the strands of development that are most popular at the moment. Tracking by Google noted that one site that has consistently rated high is one that identifies the exact antipode of any given point on the globe – that is, where you’d end up if you drilled to the other side of the world. Meaningless, but popular.

Lars then mentioned one site Quik Maps – which uses vector graphics to allow people to draw on a Google Map on the fly. This used a Vector Markup Language, VML, that Microsoft had hidden in Internet Explorer. It’s apparently quite buggy, but can be useful if you work around the bugs.

They’re currently working on allowing non-programmers to do mashups by simplifying the API; as well as latitude/longitude issues. All this is free to the public, with the proviso that the applications developed are in turn made freely available to the public. They’ve developed a “Google Maps for Enterprise” package, that provides service and support, and allows internal business uses – eg intranets.

Lars commented that this sort of [collaborative] work is putting more life into the web, and will speed up dramatically. He’s very much looking forward to this future.

For some examples of good Google Maps mashups, look at this page: it has a "top ten" (US-centric, but try Tagzania as well), and lots of pointers to resources. Also look at this page at it's got more description of the concept, pointers to some good sites, and resources for implementing mashups - for programmers and non-programmers.

I can think of a couple of applications I’d be immediately interested. The most useful would be applying this to genealogy: marking a map with significant locations in an ancestor’s life. This can be a powerful visual aid in some of the detective work involved in genealogy, as well as simply presenting a good overview of someone’s life.

Dean Jackson from the W3 Consortium then discussed standardisation of new tools – here, this means enabling a common language to make life easier for developers, rather than simple ‘enforcement’. For example, providing descriptions to enable VML and web widgets to be implemented in any browser.
This is pertinent to an earlier comment of Lars’, that it’s easier to update a web site than to distribute client application updates to millions of people.
There’s no telling where the browser can take us.

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