Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mapping the world - from housingmaps to foursquare

This is the map generated using part of the controversial consolidated.db from my iPhone.
Yes, the above picture was generated using the pretty much talked consolidated.db file from my iPhone. I'm not planning to write a post about such controversy, a lot has already been said. I want to rather use this map to start talking about web mapping applications and applications that leverage the use of geo-data and two entrepreneur stories that have amazed me.

When I found about this iPhone-tracking-your-every-move controversy, as a good geek I tried to get the map of my recent movements and downloaded an application that some good developers had already put online. From the map it seems that I have yet left to explore Nassau County and the boroughs of New York, especially Brooklyn and Queens which are closer. I have mainly been visiting places in Manhattan and around Stony Brook in Suffolk County like: East Setauket, Smithtown, Selden, Centereach, Lake Grove and Port Jefferson.The consolidated.db file also successfully recorded my visit to Fire Island in the south shore of Long Island and another recent visit to Coney Island in the south of Brooklyn. Looking at your data on maps is a nice experience because even though you might have been to a lot of places, it is hard to have a picture of how much you have explored until you see your data in an actual picture! 

An interesting related note I found is that there's a group of researchers in the New York Times Company Research and Development Lab asking for people to donate their iPhone consolidated.db data for the benefit of all [see openpaths.cc]. More interesting to me than the applications on transportation, epidemiology or land use that they suggest is the fact that The New York Times Company has a full research lab. I like the idea that research is so important these days even for a media company best known for distributing one of the most popular newspapers.

Now I will talk about the first entrepreneurship story. Undoubtedly two mapping applications that changed things on the web were Google Maps and Google Earth, both cited as milestones in the history of web mapping compiled on the Wikipedia. They both started from the minds of very keen engineers and entrepreneurs but there's another story on top of that. They allowed people to start mapping anything without the effort of installing your own geographical information system. But most people might not know that this was not the case in the beginning of Google Maps where you didn't use to have a nice API.  One research engineer working in the field of Computer Graphics and trying to make computer generated images more realistic spent some of his research time on an aside project later known as housingmaps.com, where he merged the information from craigslist (housing advertisements) and Google Maps. This application didn't go unnoticed, it became so popular that people often believe this as one of the reasons for Google to release a full developer's API. The next year he was named one of the TR35 (Top innovators under 35) [link here] for creating this web application often regarded as the first maps mash-up. What I like about this story is the fact that his big idea came from an aside project and the fact that coding this application probably didn't take longer than a month.

Foursquare Badge rewarding
people for visiting three times
any place above 59th street in
New York City. 
The second story concerns another application that uses geo-data although it doesn't include maps itself: foursquare. A mobile application where you voluntarily reveal your location and moves through checking-in into different venues. It pulls your latitude-longitude coordinates from your mobile device so that you're one click away from shouting your location to the world or your friends. More recently you have the option to upload a picture about the places you visit. Chances to collect some fine-grained image dataset about places some day? [like the im2gps project]. Well, the story about foursquare is that it was developed by engineers who had previously worked at Google. But there are quite a few startups founded by former Google employees you might say. The interesting part is that these guys had already developed before joining Google another location based application called dodgeball, which was acquired by Google. Some time later they left Google and started again but this time they came up with this thing called foursquare.

My friends often ask me how to do stuff with the Google Maps API because I did an internship at Google in one of the Google Earth/Maps teams. Although I did indeed worked with one such team, my work was mostly concerned with server-side programming of image processing routines for aerial images. I in fact used the Google Maps API a bit for displaying results and also on my own time just for fun but I don't have vast experience with it and I know they have kept adding lots of features to it. I will end this by just wondering what else is left to do with maps and how many other useful linear information can be nicely mapped.