Google Maps are indispensable to people on the go. Planning routes, identifying streets or important landmarks, getting directions while driving, even images of places… GM helps you do all this and more. And it's for free, says Geeta Padmanabhan
The wedding invitation came with a Google map. The familiar red balloon looked odd on the card, but gave clear directions to the unfamiliar kalyana mandapam. To buy the gift, I accessed a Google map of my area, keyed “jewellery shops” into the box and voila! I had all the information and pictures of the shops nearby. One more example of how Google maps have become so much part of our mobility — terrestrial or upward.
Google-Maps (GM) and its map-based services take you far. You have GM website and Transit. GM is an urban business locator in many countries. Using GM API (Application Programming Interface), you embed maps in your website, follow street maps for landmarks and plan your route (My Maps) whether travelling on foot, bike, car, train or public transport. “I simply stored GM's Ooty road routes and drove the kids around,” said techie Narayan. “In the U.S., maps show points of interest such as electricity-charging stations and flu-shot vaccine centres.”
GM's Adobe Flash applications retrieve static map images, web services geo-code and give driving directions and elevation profiles. Its satellite images are high-resolution. Take the Hawaii Island virtual tour with 360-degree panoramas, all linked to GM. Awesome!
GM on cell phones
On your cell phone (Android?), GM Navigation searches places by voice, offers traffic/satellite/street views and a car dock mode. Google Latitude lets you share your physical location with friends through cell phone triangulation. Choose friends well...
Siddharth Hande, co-founder, Reclaim Our Beaches and researcher at TransparentChennai, uses GM for directions, to view 3D-scapes and read informative blogs. He finds GM indispensable for his activist work. “TC uses GM to disseminate information on issues such as sanitation so civic groups can make better demands of their government,” he says. “ROB's maps of trash-filled areas on Elliot's Beach made a stronger case for dustbins and toilets on the beach.” He accesses historical images through the interface to see areas developed over a period of time. Adds Nithya Raman of TC, “We've put a great deal of information on top of these maps. GM empowers activists!”
Sid loves GM's geo-referenced imagery. “The projection system welcomes other spatial software. Through user interfaces you can add fun things while keeping place-reference points real.” The most revolutionary thing for him is it's all free. “Earlier, satellite imagery was hard to find, expensive and often had poor resolution. These guys have opened a fun, democratic way for people to experience the world.”
Great, but map accuracy is debatable. “On Google maps, there is a fantasy second route between Coonoor and Kotagiri via some completely impossible topography!” cries “Dacoit Chief” in IndiaMike.com. “Someone should tell GoogleMaps their digitisation is botched up!” The heat generated by maps of our north-eastern borders is well-known.
“In a basic layout with no topographical features or contours, the accuracy level of Google maps is somewhat off,” agrees Karthik Kumar, co-founder of an internet services enterprise. Satellite maps, however, depict what the satellite ‘saw' on the day Google added the image to its database. Labelling initially left us laughing because Google crowd-sourced the info, but it “mended its ways and now resorts to using official records.”
Talking of official records, if you can't locate ‘Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Road' in Chennai, it's your problem, right?
Street level maps are different. “Like satellite maps, they dutifully reproduce what Google's mapping crews ‘captured' on the street,” says Karthik. However, accuracy is limited to the date of filming, unless Google is monitoring street views on a 24X7 basis. Adds Sid, “They are accurate in the sense all the imagery is geo-referenced on a particular co-ordinate system.” Meaning, if you had the longitude/latitude of a place and if it's in the same projection system, type it and GM will pinpoint the location. “As in many parts of the world, India has a community of mappers to create detailed map-data through Google Mapmaker,” says Nithya. “As more people map, more inaccurate markers will be identified and set right.” In a macro sense, road directions are accurate, insists Karthik. Micro level accuracy is as good as human fickleness (one-ways, traffic diversions) allows it.
Infringement-of-privacy is a bigger bugbear. In European cities, Google's Street-View 360 degree-camera cars have been attacked, fought in courts for “accidentally collecting personal data over unsecured WiFi networks” and street-view filming stopped. As for address location, “How is this personal information different from those in GPS, PAN/ration card, passport, IT-returns, Demat account?” asks Karthik. Sensitive areas are blurred or blocked out, says Narayan. “If pictures of our civic habits go up on the Net, some good may come of it!”