By Elinor Mills
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Little did the computer graphics expert know that his HousingMaps.com, which combines a Google map with house listings from the popular Craigslist community, would be the start of an Internet phenomenon. Although Rademacher created his site about two months before Google publicly released its application programming interface—the secret sauce that allows developers to create their own recipes with its maps—the company wasn't angry.
In fact, Google hired him shortly thereafter.
"Now we see that all along there has been a huge amount of interesting information tied around location," Rademacher said. "Before, they had no way of expressing that and doing anything useful with it."
With such "mashups"—hybrid software that combines content from more than one source—digital maps are quickly becoming a centralized tool for countless uses ranging from local shopping and traffic reports to online dating and community organizing, all in real time and right down to specific addresses.
Online mapping is evolving into a historic nexus of disparate technologies and communities that is changing the fundamental use of the Internet, as well as redefining the concept of maps in our culture. Along the way, map mashups are providing perhaps the clearest idea yet of commercial applications for the generation of so-called social technologies they represent.
They are, in a very real sense, bridging the gap between the virtual and physical worlds.
"This information has been on the Web for years," said Mike Pegg, a Canadian programmer who runs a site called Google Maps Mania. "The map is all of a sudden bringing this information to life for us. I think it has inspired a lot of people."
So prolific has the mapping movement become that Pegg has dedicated his site to documenting the staggering growth of mashups. He estimates that at least 10 mashups are created every day, each providing data that pop up in info balloons from the digital pushpins dotting various online maps.
Not surprisingly, this unprecedented interest is forcing change at old-world cartography institutions. Just last week, Rand McNally announced a new online mapping service of its own called MapEngine, which will allow businesses to integrate maps, directions and location search functionality into their Web sites. But such established companies will increasingly compete with free applications that have sprung up organically on the Web.
Already, hundreds of mashups overlay maps with everything from such practical information as gas station prices, hurricane movements, hot springs sites and crime statistics to the more entertaining if not frivolous, including photos of urinals, UFO sightings, New York movie locations, taco trucks in Seattle and Hot People by ZIP Code, a mashup of Google Maps and the HotorNot.com Web site.
This wildfire popularity has touched off feverish competition among the major portals that provide mapping services, especially since Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and Google all released their map programming software to the public. But another reason cited for the boom in map mashups is one of hardware, specifically the processor speed and storage capacity needed for satellite photos and other resource-hogging images.
"They are taking off because the hardware has gotten to the point where it is possible and the software has achieved a bit of maturity, especially with Google Maps," said Rich Gibson, co-author of the book "Mapping Hacks." "Until very recently you couldn't effectively do mapping work on a personal computer."
Hardware and software aside, however, it is the ability for anyone to add information to a map that is increasing the usefulness exponentially and has inspired the mashup wave.
A case in point is Gmaps Pedometer, a widely distributed mashup that records distances traveled during a running or walking workout.
"You can plan a jogging route and it calculates when you should take rests," said Bret Taylor, product manager of Google Local, which includes Google Maps. "It amazes us how popular this site is."
The "about" section of Gmaps Pedometer explains: "As a runner training for a marathon for the first time, I found myself wishing I had an easy way to know the exact distance a certain course is, without having to drag a GPS or pedometer around on my runs. Looking at Google Maps, and knowing there was a vibrant community of geeks hacking it, I knew there had to be a way. So here it is."
Real estate and travel mashups, which inherently lend themselves to geographically specific information, are proving particularly hot. Some examples: Darmaps, for real-time locations of commuter trains in Dublin, FBOweb.com, for tracking airline flight status, and TravelPost.com, which allows travelers to post journals and photos on maps, as well as get hotel reviews.
"Travelers often have a world map on their wall with thumbtacks of where they've been," TravelPost.com Chief Executive Sam Shank said. "I wanted to carry that online. I thought it was an incredible metaphor for travels."
For those not worried about a housing bubble, HomePriceRecords.com lists how much people paid for their homes, while real estate mashups Trulia.com and HomePages.com combine data on homes for sale with detailed neighborhood information such as park and school locations.
Other mashups have a distinct community or social perspective, such as CommunityWalk.com, which allows people to create and share maps, WeFixNYC.com, which features a map showing the potholes in New York City and tracks how long it takes to fix them, and Zvents.com, which lets people search for events according to type, date or location.
Still more are combining photos and maps, such as SmugMaps.com, which allows people to do location-based searching for photos around the globe, and Amazon.com's A9 map service, which shows street-level photos for specific addresses.
"Taking a picture and putting it on a map ties it to the real world in a way that the Internet hasn't been able to do yet," said Jared Upton-Cosulich, founder of CommunityWalk.com. "In general, the Internet has not been good at giving this information. What's near me? What's in my neighborhood? A map makes that information easy to digest."
One Web site called KMaps, has created software built on top of Google Maps that allows people to get location-based information on various mobile devices, such as the addresses of nearby restaurants and directions to get there. Developers have already expanded the applications to include the ability to quickly find a date in the neighborhood and other social networking uses.
As with all successful technologies, of course, commercial interests are never far behind, and mapping is no exception. While mashups typically are labors of love created by passionate people who want to share information with others, businesses see the potential for highly targeted advertising and other lucrative applications.
"If you can build an interface and database that is useful, you can serve contextual and geo-targeted advertising against it," said Greg Sterling, an analyst at The Kelsey Group.
Because they are linked to relevant information, search- or keyword-based advertisements are more effective than traditional "display" ads designed simply to promote a brand. Targeting ads not only to a keyword search but to a person's specific location could be even more effective.
It can be assumed, for example, that someone searching for restaurants in a particular neighborhood may well be planning on dining there. That kind of specific behavioral prediction is exactly the kind of incentive that can lure local merchants, who have declined advertisements to global readerships in the past because they were not worth the relatively high price.
Local search is expected to grow from being a $418 million market this year to $3.4 billion in 2009, according to a forecast from The Kelsey Group.
Yahoo is selling sponsorships to certain merchants for placement on prominent buttons that appear below a map that will show locations of stores, wireless hot spots and other sites. Yahoo Maps also includes a feature that shows traffic conditions and a SmartView feature that allows people to pinpoint on the map various destinations such as Chinese restaurants, hospitals and hiking trails.
To improve its mapping service, Yahoo Japan has been accepting information from the public about information in their neighborhoods, such as the opening of new stores—another illustration of the value of social technologies and networks.
Yahoo Local directly integrates user content and places it on a map. Typing in "best margaritas" and a city and ZIP code, for instance, brings up three sponsored results followed by reviews and ratings written by customers.
"Yahoo, in particular, has seen maps as another doorway into local information," Sterling said. "I have historically used Yahoo Maps because I can plot a point and find a hotel in proximity to that location, within walking distance. That kind of information is hard to get a sense from most text links or standard searching."
Companies are looking at subscription and pay-per-transaction strategies, but so far advertising has been the "most tried and tested" business, said Jeremy Kreitler, senior product manager for Yahoo Maps and Local.
"For example, Holiday Inn can be plotted on a map and provide links to do bookings and get more information," he said. "Those are good for getting brick-and-mortar advertisers engaged."
Justin Osmer, MSN Search product manager, agreed. "The advertising model is the one that will take the lead. Pay-for-call is an interesting model. With a pizzeria example, if you click on that ad maybe MSN Virtual Earth gets 5 cents from that call. It's taking the click-through model one step further."
MSN Virtual Earth allows people to layer multiple searches on one map, for instance, pinpointing locations of restaurants, movie theaters and hotels. Microsoft is looking into business models that would allow merchants to add photos of their stores, hours of operation and other information, Osmer said.
In addition, real estate mashups provide opportunities for local agents to advertise and list, said Matt Heinz, senior marketing director of HomePages.com. "Real estate is a killer app for aerial mapping."
Alternative ways of making money are being tried on a small scale. On his GeocoderUS site, author Gibson lets people enter an address and find the longitude and latitude for free, but he charges businesses $50 for 20,000 queries.
"There will most likely be a shakeout down the road as methods for monetization evolve and those with a solution survive," Kreitler said.
In all likelihood, it is far too soon to tell what mapping services or mashups will prove the ultimate successes. Driven by the power of collaborative grassroots thinking, technology is advancing too rapidly on this front to predict with any certainty—commercially or otherwise.
Online maps are quickly becoming far more dynamic than ever imagined and will soon enter new phases of development as other technologies are mashed into the mix. Pegg of Google Maps Mania cited the street conditions as one fertile area, where truly real-time data would drastically change their usefulness with such alerts as traffic accidents and storm damage.
"For a really killer map interface, the only thing left is a live video satellite," he said. "That's the only thing that is missing—up-to-date mapping."