Archive for 'Web Mapping'

Last week was a big week in the web and mobile mapping world on at least two fronts.
First, Amazon announced plans to release a mapping API to support the Kindle Fire HD.  That alone would have been significant news but to some extent it was overshadowed by Apple’s release of iOS6.  The fact that Apple’s new OS would include a built at home mapping application replacing Google Maps was not news.  The plans have been known for a while but this was the first time Apples’ users had a chance to test drive the application.  And what a ride it got.  I can’t imagine how many blog posts have been published about Apple’s new mapping application. Apple has been greeted with comments about lack of functionality, aesthetic differences as well as out and out errors.  There have been plenty to comment on.  Websites have been set up to post user discovered flaws and they have chimed in.

In little more than a decade since Google released Google Maps users and developers have come to expect well-designed functional mapping applications.  Mapping applications have become a part of our everyday use.   We depend on applications that are built on them with the expectation that certain functionality and information will be present.  Functionality such as geographical search and navigation are now imbedded in our personal and our business lives.

For the most part, we take web and mobile mapping capability for granted.  Our expectation is that the applications will be there, they will work and they will work well.  That’s why the response to Apple’s product has been so immediate and vociferous.  The fact that building and maintaining a mapping application is extremely complex is lost on most people.

Circling back to Amazon.  What does Apple’s experience mean for their foray into the world of mapping?  Their API is now in beta, accessible to Kindle application developers.  Presumably they are providing Amazon feedback that will allow them to address the sorts of issues Apple has experienced.  But the task is not trivial.  Leaders in the mapping world have invested substantial time and effort to provide seamless data and a complete set of mapping tools.  Drew Olanoff provides a great TechCrunch summary of some of the inner workings of map database creation.

At a higher level, I think an important question is to what end should hardware developers be investing in proprietary core mapping capability?  It has to be a question that developers need to consider.  The cost of developing applications having to deal with different mapping applications is not insignificant, nor is the ongoing support and enhancement effort. To what extent can consistent user application experience be maintained across platforms? Does it matter if there are differences?

And what about third party providers positioning themselves as independent brokers?  At least one – deCarta has convinced itself there is an opportunity to be had.

It will be interesting to see how Apple responds to the community response to their mapping application.  How will Amazon fare?   What strategy will application developers take to accommodate the differences they face?

Not doubt there is more to come in the world of mapping APIs.

Google Maps and Microsoft Bing Maps offer free and commercial (paid) licensing arrangements that enable governments, non profit organizations as well as commercial entities to leverage map technology for data visualization in a way never so easily accessible in the past.

Both companies offer base data, tools for advanced geospatial tasks such as geocoding, routing, etc. as well as API’s for map creation and publishing.  All of this seems particularly attractive when one considers that it is free.

But as the saying goes “there’s no such thing as a free lunch….”

So what should one consider when considering building map visualization applications on top of one of these platforms?  Are there risks associated with going down this road?

Consider that:

  • In both Google and Microsoft’s case, the services the offer are “as is” with no commitment to long term availability, level of service or that these services will continue to be offered free of charge;
  • Use of the free services prohibits you from charging for the use of your application;
  • Google and Microsoft retain the rights to include advertising with applications/mash ups utilizing their mapping services;
  • Both companies retain the right to use your data for their purposes; and
  • You are required to indemnify Google and Microsoft against any claims that might arise from a user of your application.

And, the two companies may impose other constraints around issues such as the number of geocodes you are allowed to make, the use of their service for mobile applications, numbers of users that can access the application, etc.

None of this is to say that choosing to build your application on Google Maps or Bing Maps is a bad idea – just that you need to consider all the implications.

In some cases, you may elect to use their commercial (paid for) versions or consider other alternatives.

Mapping APIs and Mashups

Application APIs are an invaluable extension to many software products, providing a means to quickly and conveniently integrate applications and data to produce value added results for specific purposes.  The resulting derivations are often called mashups.

The creation of mashups belies the convenience they bring to a broad range of applications.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the online mapping arena where software APIs are allowing users to fashion extended applications.

Mapping APIs are abundant – and resulting mashups even more so.  A recent survey of ProgrammableWeb’s directory of APIs showed 130 mapping related APIs out of a total 2,198 APIs.

Interestingly of the 5,271 mashups in ProgrammableWeb’s database, 2,354 fall in the mapping category.  Of the 50 most recently added mashups, 24 utilize a mapping related API exclusively or in combination with other APIs

Looking at the most popular APIs in terms of mashups utilizing them, 8 of the top 50 APIs fall in the mapping category.  Overall, the GoogleMap API is far and away the most popular with 2,100 mashups in the directory utilizing it compared to the Flickr API, next most popular with 552 associated mashups.

There are lots of ways to measure the extent or impact of human or natural disasters but sometimes it is challenging to gain a true perspective on their scope.  The current oil spill impacting the Gulf of Mexico and the nearby coastal areas is a case in point.  Morgan Brown whose blog I follow largely for his insight into internet marketing and related topics posted an example of how web-based mapping an imaging tools can help frame events like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in terms that are familiar to us.

He points to a great Google Earth application built by Paul Rademacher that allows you to compare the spatial extent of the oil spill to a geography you are more familiar with.  For example, here is a clip from the application overlaying the spill over the area where I live – including many of my favourite fishing spots!   Give it a try.  A great example of how spatial technology can help us understand what is happening in the real world.   And hopefully in this case will galvanize us into action!

The location of information sources is useful information itself. Where information is published can be valuable in many ways. Hyperlocal news services are one example. They benefit from the ability to aggregate news information based on the source of that news.

Another interesting application is in mapping source information about a particular subject. I came across an interesting blog post from InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies Diseases and Disasters). Their recent blog post illustrates the value of mapping source information on a map.  In the post they show recent information tagged with ‘influenza’ by location.  They have then overlain a representation of  the data using what is called a heat map.

It should be clear that in this particular example the InSTEDD results are not necessarily pointing to events of influenza itself but they do show patterns of information dissemination that tell their own story for those knowledgeable in this field.  Depending on the nature of the source posts, the mapped results could provide useful information about the underlying issue or simply provide insight into the patterns around the actual post sources themselves.   In either case, map representation can aid in the interpretation of the results.

One of the underlying requirements for mapping data is the need to somehow attach a location to data – in this case the location of sources who published information about influenza.  This location information has to be in a form that will allow an association with a point or region in order for it to be represented on a map.   The technical term for this is geocoding and it is fundamental to all location based services or applications.

There are a number of ways in which geocoding can be accomplished.  They vary in method, degree of difficulty, accuracy and cost.  In a future post, I intend to discuss geocoding in more detail and provide and overview of various approaches that are being used.

When you combine appropriate organizational structure, defined roles and responsibilities and appropriate processes that are properly linked to a mission or business model, an organization can be comfortable that it has a proper governance structure to guide its operations.

Put another way, the key elements of a governance model are:

  • Build on corporate level mandate
  • Define authority
  • Establish and enforce rules of operation
  • Manage change
  • Measure results and optimize

So how is this relevant to an organization’s implementation of web-based mapping applications?

In the rapidly evolving world of technology the only thing that seems certain about the future is that it will be different from today and the degree of difference is proportional to the time scale.  I would suggest this picture applies to the current state of web-based mapping technology.

For an organization considering or already engaged in the development of a web mapping application, the challenge of making choices today that remain valid tomorrow can be daunting – and particularly so if the organization does not see its strengths in the world of technology.

Is it just me or do the terms governance and technical innovation seems at opposite ends of the cool spectrum?

All too often, inadequate attention is paid to constructing an application-appropriate governance structure to ensure the long term sustainability and evolution of web-based mapping applications.  My observation is that even though web mapping is a relatively young area of endeavour, many applications have a tendency to flag or grow stale over time.

The areas an appropriate governance model will touch on include:

  • Application alignment with corporate goals
    • Definition and refinement of application objectives
    • Budgeting/resource procurement
  • Definition of performance criteria
  • Application lifecycle management
    • Management of the initial service/application functionality
    • Data management
    • Application enhancements
    • Internal staff resource management
    • User training
  • Monitoring of application services performance and effectiveness
    • Application use
    • Service uptime/downtime or underperformance
    • Benefits to user organizations
    • Benefits to information users

The objective should be to strike a balance between a sufficient level of governance to provide direction without it becoming overbearing and bureaucratic.

As Kim Guenther has stated “… governance structures are most noticeable in their absence and seem invisible when working effectively.”