Nearly two hundred years ago President Thomas Jefferson sent explorers Lewis and Clark west, following the Mississippi and other rivers to the edge of the Rocky Mountains and then on to the Pacific Coast. The purpose was to map a path through the Louisiana Territory, the vast tract the United States had purchased from France.
In that era and the years that followed, maps were powerful tools created to economically exploit the lands they described. Good maps produced significant wealth. But making maps better was an expensive labor-intensive enterprise, generally pursued only by large corporations or governments.
But now all of that has suddenly changed radically. Over the last year the tools needed to make and share valuable maps have been placed in the hands of virtually everyone who owns a personal computer and simple and cheap hand-held devices that allow users to determine their exact latitude and longitude anywhere in the world.
Using Google Earth, the free global mapping software distributed by Google Corp. and these devices, hundreds of thousands of individuals have created and shared an extraordinary array of useful maps. These maps have been combined in "mashups" with other Internet databases, including photos, social, economic, scientific and historical information to do everything from guide tourists through a strange city to shop for a new home, find cheap gas or assess the dangers of local crime.
Academics are using Google mashups to assess social trends, and chart archaeological digs. Developers are creating them to help spot the best business locations. Governments are using them to chart infrastructure problems. News organizations are using them to provide users with detailed information about everything from wildfires to traffic jams. And ordinary citizens are using them to define their personal worlds and enrich their lives.
Thousands of busy mappers are feeding the data they collect or create into the Google Earth system, where they are sharing it with friends or offering it to Google to help map, layer by layer, a richly detailed mosaic of the world.
This creative burst comes at an opportune time. Thanks to the rapid development of the Internet, we are all in danger of drowning in a sea of potentially useful information. Information experts believe maps can be an important part of the answer -- helping to sort and isolate useful sets of information from a sea of irrelevant data against the backdrop of our physical world.
One day last week Sun photo editor Jerry Jackson took a moment out of a busy day and retrieved a photo-realistic recreation of a mountain biking ride through Patapsco State Park just south of Baltimore a few days before. Jackson had used a Christmas present -- a Garmin Edge 305 touring bike computer with a wireless heart rate monitor to track the path of his ride, his speed, distance and heart rate through the ride. He uploaded the data to www.motionbased.com, which combined it with Google photo maps and exported it to Google Earth to create the 3D tour.
The results on the computer monitor on his desk were breathtaking as viewers could track his path, speed and heart rate at an apparent altitude of 50 meters above the terrain he had crossed.
In its early days digital mapping was a fairly static process. Maps took an extended period of time to create on a computer and would be used extensively before an updated version was completed and distributed.
According to Douglas Richardson, executive director for the American Association of Geographers, the big recent change in the industry has been the development of means to give average people the ability to utilize real-time geographical information systems (GIS) and geographical positioning systems (GPS) that took decades to develop.
Today, with the help of satellite and geospatial technology, digital maps provided from companies such as Navteq Corp. and Tele Atlas NV, are regularly updated to include the most recent changes to roads and landscape. And because of companies such as Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., most home computer users have unprecedented access to sophisticated mapping and satellite technology.
Users can also access digital maps through cell phones or their automobile's navigation devices to find a wealth of information including detailed driving directions, the location of city's hottest eateries, or a detailed, real-time traffic reports.
The growing power and value of digital mapping has spurred corporate efforts to make digital maps more accessible and useful to the average consumer.
In July, TomTom NV, a company specializing in portable navigation devices, agreed to buy Tele Atlas NV, the world's second-largest maker of maps. Then in October, Nokia, the world's biggest mobile- phone company, agreed to buy the Chicago-based Navteq Corp., gaining access to the digital maps of 69 countries.
Navteq Corp. currently provides maps to Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. who use them as part of their free, user-friendly internet mapping applications.
As the technology for consumer-friendly mapping programs has evolved, so have the uses for them. By far the most important innovater has been Google.
With the release of Google's My Maps application last April 5 and Street View on May 27, users have been given the unique opportunities to create their own maps using tools to locate their own home, workplace, favorite restaurants, and more. Businesses, small and large, have been aggressive in using My Maps to develop new tools to improve operations and serve customers.
"We are setting partnerships with the data," says Michael T. Jones of Google Maps. "We've actively tried to make the map a living document instead of a static one. The My Maps feature is based on the idea of using a map as a framework for understanding other things. These maps identify where things are and provide links to more information on whatever the map is identifying such as a restaurant, a park, a movie theatre or a new hotspot in town. Data can be built upon not just by Google or the creator of the maps, but by other users who view the map."
When a user creates a map, they choose who has access to the map and therefore control who can comment on it.
"It's similar to the role of blogging," says Jones. "There are consumers gathering their own map input because the content either concerns or interests them. It's a hub to organize activity or discussion."
In recent months, users of the My Maps application have been constantly discovering new uses for their maps.
The power of such maps was evident during the spate of California wildfires last October. San Diego's KBPS television station and the Los Angeles Times newspaper used Google's My Maps application to plot the fire perimeters, evacuation areas and shelters, road closures, smoke advisories and local assistance centers.
Although the fires ravaged 508,000 acres of land in several counties, leaving 14 people dead and 1 million displaced from their homes, the application was a reliable vehicle for delivering invaluable, updated information on the fires, possibly saving countless lives. It demonstrated the importance of such a of an application. Google's Street View is another application that brings an entirely new dimension to mapping.
Users who have never been to a particular city can essentially see what it's like to walk through the streets, view famous landmarks and navigate their way into different parts of a city. This kind of application creates a feeling of interconnectedness with a city that one has never visited.
Yet, with the further development and user availability of GPS systems, satellite technologies and application such as Google's Street View, there are growing concerns about surveillance and individual privacy.
According to Richardson, aside from the common worries about government surveillance, commercial surveillance (tracking travel and purchasing habits) and individual surveillance (the tracking of children and spouses) are viewed activities that could violate someone's personal privacy.
Richardson says that these concerns need to be taken seriously and that the potential for abusing these applications must be limited.
"Questions regarding locational privacy are broadly known, but the regulatory structures are not yet in place," says Richardson. "If the technology is going to be used for the beneficial applications, there naturally needs to be something to regulate it."
Getting started with Google maps
If you would like to explore the world of Google mapping, the steps are easy.
First, download the latest version of Google Earth. Then go to the "My Maps -- Google Maps Users Guide" for instructions on how to start building your own map. You can embed photos, videos and other information in your map, share it with others and open it within your Google Earth program.
If you want to get a richly diverse taste of what can be accomplished with My Maps, visit Google Maps Mania at http:--googlemapsmania .blogspot.com/ It is an unofficial Google Maps blog tracking the Web sites, mashups and tools being influenced by Google Maps.
Among the many other interesting map blog sites (you can find them by typing their names into Google search):
Google Sightseeing: A blog that shows "the best tourist spots in the world."
HousingMaps: Craigslist apartment lisitings plotted on Google Maps
Google-Traffic.com: Maps traffic data onto Google Maps
Cheap Gas: Find cheap gas prices, powered by gasbuddy and Google Maps.