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"Neogeography" Blends Blogs With Online Maps

Joab Jackson
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2006
 
Need to know where to find a mountaintop castle in Japan? How about the best fried cheese sticks along U.S. Route 66?

Now, thanks to a unique mashup of cartography and blogs, you can find what you need to know just by looking at a map.

Online maps such as those offered by software firms Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have become ubiquitous tools for finding directions from Point A to Point B.

But creative travelers around the world are now embracing the "pushpin" features of such maps to post information, from the location of hidden tourist gems to the city spot where they shared their first kiss.

"It is as if we shipped a map to someone and they stuck pushpins in it," said Bret Taylor, product manager for Google. "We provide the map, and other people put in the pushpins."

The trend has been dubbed neogeography, and some enthusiasts predict it could spur a revolution in electronic cartography.

Do-It-Yourself Maps

Last year Google opened its mapping service to the public so at-home programmers could use the maps on their own Web pages.

Taylor says the codes for the maps are simple enough for even beginner programmers to use.

Tokyo-based librarian Eric Obershaw used the Google service to add an interactive map to his Guide to Japanese Castles Web site.

The map pinpoints 63 sites around the island nation featuring surviving or ruined castles (related photos: Japan's Imperial Palace). Users can click on a pushpin to read more about the structures, including Obershaw's own musings.

Dublin, Ireland, resident David McNamara created a map that shows where the city's commuter trains are at any given moment.

Although he hasn't heard of anyone using the site for planning a trip, he has gotten emails from office workers near the rail line exclaiming that trains have appeared outside their windows at the same time they appeared at the same location on his map.

"Even the most casual of Web site creators can get started relatively easily and have something to show in minutes," McNamara said.

Such ease "allows people to bring their ideas to life," he says.

Other Web services make the job of customizing maps even more straightforward.

A Web site called Platial allows individuals without any programming skills at all to build personalized maps.

Users fill in an address or click on the map where they want to add a marker, and the site automatically adds a pointer on that spot. Then they simply fill in the details, such as text and photos, of what makes that spot unusual.

Platial co-creator Di-Ann Eisnor, who coined the term "neogeography," says she and fellow creator Jason Wilson got the idea for the site after returning from an extended stay in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

When the pair had out-of-town visitors, they created hard-copy maps detailing local sites to see. But once the pair was back in the United States, their maps were of little value.

"We pined for a way to keep them in a more permanent fashion, and to make them more sharable," Eisnor said.

"We hope [Platial] will grow into something with millions of points of interest plotted by thousands of users around the world," she continued.

Map Diaries

Already the free site has several thousand registered users who have mapped more than 200,000 places. Anyone can look at the maps others have created.

At first, participants will typically map where they live, where their friends live, or where they went to school, Eisnor notes.

Eventually, though, the mapmakers may design diary-like maps detailing places they visited, or "become local guides" by pointing out places of interest.

Sacramento, California, resident Guinness Wieland created a Platial map to pinpoint great breakfast restaurants in her hometown.

"I had just returned from one of my frequent breakfast outings when I read about Platial. I just wanted to test it out," Wieland said.

"Turned out it was fun to use, and I've been updating it regularly ever since." She is now exploring Sacramento eateries she hasn't been to so she can continue making updates.

Chicagocrime.org plots crime reports published by the Chicago, Illinois, police department, mapping incidents by street, date, zip code, or other categories.

And an Albuquerque couple has embarked on a mission to "eat" Route 66, posting restaurant reviews and plotting the results (wallpaper: along Route 66).

"No longer will people have to think, Oh, where was that place we went to in Peru," Platial's Eisnor said. "In addition to keeping it [on a map] so you'll remember, you can share it with your friends or other people going to Peru."

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