Online Mapping Sites

Caitlin Dempsey


Online mapping has become an essential tool for most people today.  From providing virtual geography to driving directions, most people use some form of web mapping on a daily basis.

While many people using online mapping without much thought to the underlying geospatial technologies and limitations of the data being used, there has been significant debate among researchers regarding the pros and cons of these readily available and user-friendly geographic applications.

“Welcome to the Age of Intelligent Maps”

The Adobe Think Tank has an interesting article by Karzys Varnelis and Leah Meisterlin entitled “The invisible city: Design in the age of intelligent maps”. 

Citing the rise of GPS, online mapping, and other digital formats for cartography, Varnelis and Meisterlin discuss the implications on design as they herald, ”Welcome to the age of intelligent maps.

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“Today’s intelligent maps don’t just represent spatial relationships, they reveal conditions in the city that were previously hidden in spreadsheets and databases. And it’s not just a new representation of the city that emerges out of this data; its a new hybrid city, part physical texture and part data-driven map.”

Varnelis and Meisterlin make the case that maps have become the media for analyzing much about our society, economics and politics, more intelligent design and innovation is called for.

As maps become richer, more complicated, and less predictable, cartography becomes less a matter of convention and more a matter of invention. Our age of intelligent maps demands intelligent map design. The role of the designer in contemporary mapping cannot be overstated. Aesthetics and readability have real-world implications both in use and in meaning. The choice of what to show and how to show not only impacts appearance, it can reframe arguments. Graphic considerations such as cropping, line weights, and even color or typeface translate into statements on territory and boundary, economy and politics.

The authors also take on the a parallel discussion initially raised by Nicolas Carr in his Atlantic Monthly article which asked “Is Google making us stupid?.  Varnelis and Meisterlin pose a similar question by asking if the easily available Google Maps is pulling people away from a deeper geography found through atlases and other printed sources.

The article also delves into what the authors refer to as mapping to  “to make the invisible visible. ”  Interventionist mapping is cartography that is argumentative, conclusive and provides answers.  It is cartography that can move people to action.

Technology Behind Web Mapping

How Taxi Drivers Are Helping to Create More Efficient Driving Directions

November 10, 2010: Microsoft is using the collective wisdom of taxi drivers to improve its online map directions.  The study used GPS data that tracked over 33,000 cab drivers in Beijing over a three month period to learn the subtleties of navigating through a major city to get around driving headaches such as congested roadways and traffic signals.  

“These factors are very subtle and difficult to incorporate into existing routing engines,” says Yu Zheng, a researcher at Microsoft Research Asia. The approach is called T-Drive , and is the collaborative effort of Yu Zheng, Jing Yuan, and Xing Xie.  

The authors are presenting their methodology at this week’s International Conference on Advances in Geographic Information Systems, in San Jose, California.

The system was tested against traditional online map directions which provide time estimates based on the posted speed limits and some limited traffic information.  The study field-tested the T-Drive directions against online mapping providers.  

The study found that 60% of the routes suggested by T-Drive were faster than routes based on posted speed limits.  The study found that for each 30 minutes of driving, T-Drive saved the driver 5 minutes compared to traditional online mapping directions.

Read more:

Top Causes of Errors in Online Mapping Systems

Spatial data errors in online mapping and GPS navigation systems can send travelers off on the wrong route sometimes with comical but sadly, sometimes deadly results. 

An orange traffic sign that says" TRUCKERS; Your GPS is LYING. Big Rigs WILL NOT make it up this road.
Online mapping directions aren’t always accurate. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Having been burned by trusting online driving directions before, Chris Silver Smith from Search Engine Land reviews the top reasons online mapping sites have bad data

Reasons he lists for bad data include inaccurate base data, accuracy of geocoding, lag time to incorporate newly developed areas and difficulty in interpreting variations on addresses.

Online Mapping and Driving Direction Web Sites

Driving directions and trip planning sites available on the Web. Find out how long it will take you to get to your destination, plan multiple stops and check traffic conditions.

Google Maps
One of the more popular driving directions web sites, Google maps was one of the first to offer satellite and aerial imagery as a backdrop.  Along with trip planning, you can now check traffic and drag and drop multiple stops and routes.

MapQuest offers driving directions as well as the ability to browse interactive maps for cities around the world. Started back in 1967 as the Cartographic Services division of R.R. Donnelley & Sons in Chicago, MapQuest humble beginnings originated from creating road maps for gas stations to hand out. Found out more about MapQuests evolution into an online mapping application with over 40 million users each month.

Microsoft’s Bing Maps
Microsoft’s Bing Maps allows for driving directions either based on shortest route or shortest distance. Also handy is the ability to toggle back and forth between calculating distance in miles or kilometers. Microsoft has teamed up with Pictometry to offer oblique aerial views so once you map a destination you can toggle back and forth between the “map view” and “bird’s eye view.

Provided by Michelin, create driving directions, get maps and find rest stop information for locations in Europe.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.