Wall Street Journal – As Apple takes plenty of heat for its decision to offer its users a second-rate maps application on their phones (“the maps experience in iOS 6 is a downgrade,” wrote one of the company’smost prominent online fans), plenty of attention is being paid to the business motivations behind the company droppingGoogle GOOG +0.80%’s maps and choosing to build its own.
The move means customers are now paying a kind of “strategy tax” – the cost imposed when a company’s business model clashes with its ability to produce the product its customers want. For Apple, removing Google’s tentacles from its phone is more important than giving its customers the best mapping application there is.
But beyond the Apple-Google wars, there is another battlefield worth paying attention to: maps themselves. The art and science of cartography is, like plenty of other arts whose practitioners are moving online, becoming inextricably linked to the web, its roots as an ink-and-boot-leather trade becoming increasingly quaint. At the same time, maps themselves have become central to the modern Web, and the map makers are enjoying something of a renaissance. What comes next? A world, perhaps, where mapping the world inch-by-inch is done as much by the masses and their touchscreens as it is by the few with their smart cars and satellites.
“Cartographers these days are mostly dealing with the world of the Web,” says Jonathan Levy, a freelance cartographer based in New York who has worked on a bunch of interesting online mapping projects. “I’m moving toward being more of an interactive designer.”
In a recent project for a start-up Internet company, Levy had to re-map every neighborhood in New York, street by street, even though the company already had a good set of maps up on its site. Instead of licensing map data from one of the big well-known providers like TomTom/Tele-Atlas or Navteq (a pricey proposition) or embedding Google’s maps as many sites do, companies often choose to pay a cartographer to make their own proprietary set of maps.
“The thing that I often hear from clients is ‘I want something like a Google map but I don’t want it by Google,’” Levy says.
That is a surprisingly common sentiment, map makers say, and one that often baffles those outside the industry. “A lot of people say ‘why do you need to make more maps?,’” says Jeff Warren, a co-founder of The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, an open-source community that is working on building a set of super-detailed maps generated by members of its community – the mapping equivalent of Wikipedia.
The problem, he explains, is that there is no single, publicly-available map of the U.S. that is good enough for what the Web demands of it. The most common reference point is the US Census Bureau’s TIGER map set, but the data within it is full of small errors, and needs a whole lot of massaging to make it usable. “We’ve spent a great deal of time sifting though that data and improving it,” Warren says. ”People really do kind of take maps for granted.”
In early September, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal was given an exclusive look – interestingly timed, given today’s news – inside the engine room of Google’s vast mapping operation, which is also built with the TIGER data at its core. But the company has added vast, almost unimaginable layers of detail on top of the publicly-available data. As Madrigal wrote:
“Let’s step back a tiny bit to recall with wonderment the idea that a single company decided to drive cars with custom cameras over every road they could access. Google is up to five million miles driven now. Each drive generates two kinds of really useful data for mapping. One is the actual tracks the cars have taken; these are proof-positive that certain routes can be taken. The other are all the photos.”
Those photos, when stitched together, form Google’s street view system. But eventually, when the computers get smart enough, they should be able to let you run a kind of Google search of the real world – enter the name of a store, for example, and the search engine matches it to the text on the store’s front window. Or, perhaps, to every billboard advertising the store. Want to see a heat map of where a particular presidential candidates campaign posters are most densely located, perhaps? It’s not possible now, but it’s coming.
The data generated by the volunteers working with Jeff Warren’s Public Lab – who map and photograph their own communities using everything from floating balloons to bicycles and canoes – is open source, and sucked up into the Google maps database along with information from many other sources. But Warren says a goal of the lab is to produce user-generated maps of the country that, thanks to the Wikipedia-like powers of the mass internet hive mind, are more detailed than anything even the biggest corporations can compete with.
“Because it’s open, everyone feels like they own it, and they’re mostly mapping the places they live and the places they care about. So the quality of the map is remarkably higher,” he says. “Ultimate what they are going to do is influence the canonical reference map of the world, and for local citizens to create that representation is a big change.”