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Published: Friday, 8/12/2005

Google mash-ups can help Toledoans find their way

BY MEGAN GREENWELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sitting in his hotel room in Bangkok, Mike Pegg struggled for words to explain the significance of the Google maps phenomenon.

It s huge, he marveled. I don t even think people understand. This is going to change every...

He trailed off.

It s completely transforming how information is presented.

Mr. Pegg, a 28-year-old computer programmer from Waterloo, Ont., is the chief scribe of the growing trend of Google map mash-ups, which make it easy to find the cheapest gas, the nearest cell phone tower, or the hottest date in cities all over the country, including Toledo. With a few lines of programming language, a generation of 20-something computer programmers are ushering in a new way to display information on the Internet.

When Google first released its mapping program six months ago, a group of Mapquest devotees began switching teams, pledging allegiance to the information giant s simple interface and satellite images of any neighborhood in the world. Meanwhile, computer hackers were hard at work trying to crack the code that would allow them to meld maps with printed data from other Web pages.

Last month, Google made that task considerably more simple, moving Google map hacking into a much easier to understand realm. By releasing its application programming interface, Google s executives effectively put the stamp of approval on a fleet of Web sites that combine online maps with information that ranges from phone books to real estate listings to personal ads.

This is stuff that doesn t take a whole lot of computing power, but it s allowing programmers to be creative, said Joshua Fraser, a 21-year-old Clemson University student who created a type of reverse-phone book using Google s mapping capacity.

Microsoft and Yahoo have similar mapping sites, but only a handful of individual programmers are forgoing Google s offerings. Several hackers online and in interviews with The Blade cited the simple interface, intuitive layout, and powerful search functions behind Google s maps and those satellite images are pretty cool, too.

One of the original Google map mash-ups, a real estate guide, has also served as a template for many of the newer sites. Its creator, Paul Rademacher, combined real estate postings from the popular for-sale site Craig s List with maps of three dozen cities nationwide.

Listings are displayed with brightly-colored push pins on a city map, and clicking on a push pin brings up an address, price, and photo of the house or apartment.

Now Mr. Pegg, who created a catalog of all the map mash-ups in cyberspace, is having trouble keeping up. Since Google released the code to its site in early July, hundreds of mash-ups have appeared on the Internet.

Mr. Rademacher s site does not cover Toledo yet but scores of other sites reach even small towns. One of the most useful plots the least expensive gas in a given city.

You mean that updates all the time? asked Toledo resident Mark Miller as he looked at the gas mash-up on a wireless Internet connection while paying $2.39 a gallon at a station on Monroe Avenue. I should check it before I go to work, and then I can find a station between my house and my office.

On Mr. Fraser s site, visitors can type in a street name and get the name, address, and phone number of anyone who lives there. The senior computer science major at Clemson in South Carolina created the site as a project to learn how the Google interface works.

Mr. Fraser has not publicized his site by any method other than word of mouth, but thousands of people visit each day. He just purchased his own domain name so he can move the database off the Clemson server.

Right now I m limited in how much I can grow, he said. Clemson s site will freeze up if I get too many more hits.

Some of the mash-ups are more whimsical than practical. Jeff Marshall combined the popular personal ad site hotornot.com with a Google map to facilitate people finding their dream dates right around the corner.

Other mashups include:

• A map of wireless phone towers separated by service provider, complete with reviews of cell phone strength on specific street corners

• A database of restaurants that can be listed by type of food as well as zip code

• A jogging route planner that allows a visitor to draw the exact route he wishes to run and calculate the distance traveled

• A map of the hometowns of every soldier killed in the Iraq war

Since sanctioned Google map hacking is still in its infancy, some of the most pioneering sites are limited to the city in which the creator resides. Adrian Holovaty, a 24-year-old programmer in Chicago, linked the Chicago Police Department s crime log with a map that shows the locations of the most recent crimes.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Holovaty was hired into the newly created editor of editorial innovations position at The Washington Post. He will remain in Chicago but will develop new technologies many of which will involve map mash-ups for the Post s Web site.

I was looking for a fun side project that would give me a good challenge and help the community at the same time, Mr. Holovaty said. I ran across the Chicago Police Department s Citizen ICAM Web site, which includes raw crime-report data, and I saw an opportunity there.

Mr. Holovaty, like many of the programmers that have created mash-ups, is eager to talk about hacking Google maps as the future of the Internet.

Releasing the free map [interface] was a monumental move on Google s part, he said. Practically overnight, putting a simple map on a Web page turned from an expensive, laborious ordeal to an accessible, easy task.

Though the mash-ups are almost exclusively created by individuals for free use, the concept could have billions of dollars worth of impact on the form taken by web-based advertising. Ads for specific companies could be plugged into the maps as highlighted push pins based on search results, programmers said.

And when the advertising dollars begin to flow, the wave of the mapping phenomenon may begin to crest. Releasing the interface, Mr. Pegg said, is a step in transforming the Internet to provide information in more interactive ways.

In the place that the Internet s at right now, we re bound to use what we know as Web sites, he said.

Technology blogs are abuzz with chatter about the potential for mapping mash-ups. The first annual Where 2.0 conference, sponsored by technology publishing company O Reilly Media, brought dozens of speakers to San Francisco in June to discuss applications of mapping technology.

For example, the global positioning system used by Google Earth, a satellite image program that runs off a computer desktop, is being used to track objects on the move. A bus fleet in Denver added a GPS monitor to each vehicle that provides central dispatch with a constant stream of images of its buses driving around town.

We could even go to the extent of putting them on kids, Mr. Pegg said.

Contact Megan Greenwell at: mgreenwell@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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