The internet has spawned so many unforeseen good things. Map mashing is one that's hard to explain in words but certainly worth a look.
On one hand, a mash-up is just the marriage of one or more databases to a map so you get an overlay of data points. But it's one of those web phenomena you really have to experience to appreciate. Good news: Now you can--for free and with minimal effort. Easy-to-use mashing tools are popping up on big portals like Google and Microsoft, as well as on new entrepreneurial sites like Placebase and Platial.
Mashing has mostly been the pastime of programmers and other digerati for a couple of years--maybe because you've had to jiggle APIs and new file formats like KML. But now it's being swept up in the portal giants' battle for eyeballs--just like news, search, shopping and messaging before it. The portals themselves are mashing the aforementioned applications together but giving the bundle a new dimension with various degrees of map-it-yourselfness. Mash-ups connect our search and messaging activities in the virtual world to satellite and aerial views of the physical world for a better sense of both. After all, we live and work in both now.
So far, mashing has been mostly a because-we-can phenomenon whose long-term business case isn't entirely obvious. Most entrepreneurial sites mash as a means to other services, rather than as an end. Most are ad-supported, but now that plain folks are recombining maps, text, photos and videos, the Web 2.0 content-sharing model is clearly in the mix.
Citizen mashers are bringing forth multitudes of multimedia biking and shopping itineraries, bohemian travelogues and walks down memory lane. More business-oriented communities are mashing common tasks like market analysis or statistical distributions.
View From Space
It's not exactly a new idea. Companies like MapInfo have been marrying data points to compass points for a long time. But it used to be a big-company, big-budget, big-hard-drive proposition. When the internet came along and put unlimited storage and databases out there, websites began delivering on-the-fly driving directions on flat, 2-D street maps--useful, but kind of boring.
The watershed was the 2005 rollout of Google Earth, which put amazing satellite reconnaissance maps, aerial photos and 3-D graphics within easy reach. Besides being a technical break-through, Google Earth is just a fun way to waste hour after hour gliding over the Grand Canyon or scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro. And with more than 100 million copies downloaded so far, I must not be the only one wasting time.
The free, 11MB application includes easily wielded tools like 3-D tilt-and-rotate views of terrain and buildings and the ability to blaze your own trails with pushpins. Also mashed in are search, directory listings and directions plotting via seamless links to Google Maps and even Google Maps Mobile. A sidebar provides a clearinghouse for contributions from mash-up communities.
That's pretty much the template Microsoft and, to a lesser extent, Yahoo! have followed. Microsoft has mashed its former 2-D mapping product, Live Local, (with its 3-D desktop program, Virtual Earth.) It includes some nice features, like lower zooming with clarity in the free version. But it gets slow and fussy without Internet Explorer and certain graphics hardware and drivers.
So far, there have been fairly predictable uses of the technology. Have you noticed local TV news and weather zooming in from space onto some local traffic accident or downpour? And a growing number of sites such as HomePriceRecords.com, HousingMaps.com, Trulia and Zillow will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about homes and rentals in neighbor-hoods for which data is available. Sites like Yelp add reports from the locals on schools, restaurants, hair salons and what have you.
These sites represent a huge advertising opportunity for local businesses--basically, space on virtual billboards. Microsoft's Virtual Earth includes classifieds, too. Everything is connected now: Sign up for a spot on Google Maps, and your profile is available across all search venues.
Mashing could also provide new business insights and add value to your website. Turn-by-turn directions is an obvious application. How about on-the-fly mapping of delivery/sales destinations--maybe mashed with inventory and purchase order information? Or would it help to plot where the highest-margin versions of your widgets are being purchased?
Embark on a high-traffic mash-up venture, and you'll probably need the active cooperation of the big tool/data providers. But they're anxious to get small-business mash-ups that won't bog down resources. They'll host yours for the enjoyment (or puzzlement) of others--and nobody says mash-ups can't be a teeny bit self-promoting.
We are at the threshold of mashing's potential. The buy-in is so low, it could add a new dimension to your business--or be your next business. It's exactly the kind of thing that gets the entrepreneurial juices flowing.
Mike Hogan (email@example.com) is Entrepreneur's technology editor.