Annotating the planet

When I finished making the interactive version of my neighborhood tour, along with a screencast, it was clear that Google Maps is every bit as revolutionary as my first instincts told me. Not because Google invented a new geospatial engine or compiled better data. They didn't. But simply -- and yet profoundly -- because Google Maps is a framework we can all use to annotate the physical world.

In the very near future, billions of people will be roaming the planet with GPS devices. Clouds of network connectivity are forming over our major cities and will inevitably coalesce. The geoaware Web isn't a product we buy; it's an environment we colonize. There will always be markets for proprietary data. But the real action will be in empowering people to create their own services, with their own data, for their friends, family, and business associates. Google Maps isn't just a service, it's a service factory.

Radical openness is the key. It's been only two weeks since it launched and already the colonization has begun. Thanks to open XML data formats and open Web programming interfaces, people have figured out how to animate routes, create custom routes with their own GPS data, and display GPS data in real time.

Microsoft could have enabled these same kinds of things years ago. Its TerraServer has been up and running since 1998. But despite Steve Ballmer's infamous monkey-dance chant, developers haven't flocked to TerraServer. What's Google's secret? Web DNA and no Windows tax. [Full story at]

As Sam Ruby pointed out, all this Google Maps hacking makes an ironic counterpoint to the AutoLink brouhaha:

While it seems like half of the weblogging world are going bonkers over Google's new AutoLink, we have a few technicians quietly laboring over in a quiet corner of the Internet, creating bookmarklets which add links to pages served from Google's site. [Sam Ruby: Klein Bottle Walking Tour]

Here's one more Google Maps hack worthy of note, by the way. Ted Mielczarek's Google Maps Live creates a local service that receives GPS coordinates on a socket and uses them to drive Google Maps in realtime.

About three years ago, when this blog was just starting, I pointed to a site called Mr. Beller's Neighborhood -- an interactive map of New York City with locations linked to stories about the city. Around the same time I pointed to a this now-lost article at on a similar theme: messages addressed not to individuals and groups (e.g., email), or to virtual spaces (e.g., blogs), but to physical locations.

When the world becomes a 3D bulletin board, anyone can post a messages to a latitude/longitude/elevation coordinate, and anyone else can read it. But the most interesting scenario involves the sender and receiver actually being at the location, albeit at different times. Here's a mundane example. You're in the woods, you see a bear, you report it. Conversely, you're in the woods, and you check your immediate surroundings for recent bear sightings. There are zillions of scenarios like this one. Individually none is a killer app. But collectively they're huge.

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