Maps took over the web in mid-2005, shortly after the first Where 2.0 conference. They quickly moved from fancy feature to necessary element of any site that contained even a trace of geographic content. Today we’re amidst another location and mapping revolution, with mobile making its impact on the web. And with it, we’re seeing even more geo services provided by both the old guard and innovative new mapping platforms.
Though the map itself continues to be important, other geographic data is having a larger impact. Providers are making this data, such as driving directions and business listings, available in increasingly open ways.
The old guard
Google had the first mapping API and continues to keep its lead by adding useful new features. The company’s Maps V3 was originally optimized for mobile, but in May Google made it the go-to platform for the web as well. With this move, Google showed that the mobile web is at least as important as the web we access from our homes and offices.
Yahoo has done little to expand its mapping platform in recent years, though it is almost as old as Google’s. Due to Yahoo’s more lenient terms, its auxiliary geo services, such as geocoding and static maps, get consistent interest from developers. And the company has made improvements, such as its next-generation geocoder, PlaceFinder, which it announced in June.
Yet, with Yahoo’s tremendous potential, the mapping platform remains untouched. There’s hope, given the recent deal with Nokia to provide maps on Yahoo proper. Both Yahoo and Nokia are mum on whether the deal will extend to Yahoo’s developer platform, which makes me wonder if it will leave behind an industry it helped create.
Bing may seem like a strange newcomer, since Microsoft has had a mapping API for some time. Previously called Virtual Earth, it was re-branded in 2009 along with the launch of Microsoft’s new search engine. But it’s not just surface-level changes. Microsoft has continued to launch new developer services with Bing.
CloudMade is a company built upon OpenStreetMap, the project creating a wiki-like map that anyone can edit. Using this open data, CloudMade’s API gives you access to the Open Street Map tiles in a way that is more reliable — and style-able — than the project itself.
Where have all the hackers gone?
With so many official mapping APIs available, it’s easy to forget that the map mashup culture was founded upon hacking. Paul Rademacher created HousingMaps to show Craigslist rentals and homes for sale on a Google Map before Google had an API. Adrian Holovaty made Chicago Crime to show crime data (which he scraped from the police bureau’s website) on a hacked and embedded Google Map.
Rademacher joined Google in 2005, created the Google Earth plugin and now is part of the team that makes Google Maps. Holovaty’s Chicago Crime project became part of EveryBlock, a local news aggregator that sold to MSNBC last year. Ironically, EveryBlock doesn’t use any mapping API, instead opting for using its own minimalist map tiles.
The mapping hackers of 2010 have also gone server-side, away from the APIs. Using tools like Mapnik, they’re styling their own maps, almost always with OpenStreetMap data. Sometimes it’s for fun, like Brett Camper’s 8-Bit City. And when an earthquake struck Haiti, map hackers responded.
Mapping the future
Mapping providers will likely make it easier to create your own customized maps. Already Google Maps V3 has simple styling via CSS-like code. And the process of creating OpenStreetMap tiles is greatly simplified by Tile Drawer.
But it’s not just making the map itself that needs simplification, but storing and accessing the data on top of it. For years developers have had to set up their own databases of locations, which raises the bar for the type of developer who can use maps. Now there are tools like SimpleGeo to make the process easier. However, it would be useful to see these tools baked into the mapping APIs and we likely will soon.
Similarly, we need easier ways of expressing data without just adding more markers. Graphic overlays, such as choropleths (regions shaded based on data) and heatmaps, are not accessible to most developers. The processes need to run on a server capable of geo-referencing the graphic it outputs. And services available to do this tend to charge. The open government movement is already tied closely to mapping. Hopefully projects for the greater good will fill in feature gaps where mapping providers don’t see business opportunities.
Obviously, mobile will play a huge role in the future of mapping. Already we’ve seen an impact, yet there are far fewer sites taking advantage of the user’s location than could. Expect the next generation of store locators, for example, to be much more exciting. But that’s just the beginning.