Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ruminations on the 5th Birthday of the Maps API

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the 5th birthday of the Google Maps API. We celebrated again the next week. In a transpacific video conference, the Geo teams in Mountain View and Sydney ate cake and drank champagne. Speeches were made, memories recounted.

In particular, Paul Rademacher gave a brief history of Housingmaps, the first known Google Maps mashup, created initially before there was even an official API. It was thanks to the work of Paul, and several other mashup creators, that Google saw the potential to create something really special.

I often say that Google had two choices at the time. We could either sue Paul and others who reverse engineered the API and created mashups. Or, we could go with it. We went with it. I say "we" btw, as if I had anything to do with it, but it wasn't until a year later that I started at Google.

As I recounted that story at WhereCamp Socal on Sunday, I asked people what our choices were, and Tim Craig shouted out "Kill him or hire him!" Maybe that's the difference between ESRI and Google :-). (Tim is actually a great, gentle guy. As far as I know...)

It's hard to remember a time before mashups now. It's not that Google Maps was the first mashup ever, but it was the first monster mashup platform, and still the biggest. And it is having repercussions beyond people putting maps on their sites. As soon as people figured out that they could mashup maps with data, they started looking for data to do it with. And putting pressure on governments and companies to make that data available. Or simply going out and generating their own.

OK, those of you old enough to think back that far, try to remember the web before all these mashups. Still a cool thing, but not nearly as exciting. I'm old enough to remember a time before the web, of course, but that's beside the point. The fact that we can put a map with high resolution satellite imagery on our web site for free is amazing in retrospect.

The impact on the mapping community was also pretty profound. I think we're still figuring out what the implications of that are. Neogeography, the geoweb and all the other things many of us hold dear, they take off with the Google Maps API.* It is hard to imagine this, but 5 years ago who would have thought this would happen? I know it's a cliche to say that about the web in general, especially for those of us old enough to remember before the web, but 5 years. 5! Can you imagine going to a site for a retail store and not seeing a map to their location?

But there's a lot more here than putting dots on your map, showing where your store is. That's important, revolutionary indeed, but think beyond that.

Maps mashups have been used to map election violence in Kenya, report potholes in the UK, show reports of people in need after the Haiti Earthquake, convey comprehensive data about Africa, and much more. Creating advocacy maps, informative maps, or fun maps no longer requires a professional cartographer. Nothing against cartographers, but put the power in the hands of the people.

So, what happens when you start mashing up data? You start looking for more data. The confluence of the Open Source movement with the mashup community produced a call for more open data. And because of the power of these mashups to put data in front of the people's faces quickly and easily, governments had to respond. In the US, in the UK and around the world, more and more data is being opened up by governments, NGOs, and to a lesser extent corporations. Bringing data to the public is a democratization. Knowledgeable, informed citizenry can respond to their governments, and help out as we saw in the case of the CrisisCamps that sprang up after the Haiti earthquake.

We still have a long way to go. Good tools are developing, but most people aren't programmers, to take advantage of the API, or know much about geographic data. That's why I'm excited about GeoCommons and Fusion Tables, because they allow people to use tabular data (say, in a Excel), probably the most used "databases" in the world.

But all those involved in mapping on the web, pat yourselves on the back. Look where we are compared to 5 years ago. I'm guessing most of those reading this blog are involved in Geo in some way, and so I'm saying to you: Thank you, you've done a great thing for thing for the world. You're bring democracy to the world. I know that sounds hyperbolic, and I know it's not the only thing driving increased access to information. But mashups, driven by mapping mashups (Google and otherwise) are helping change the world.

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