No doubt you’ve already used Google Maps for scampering around to conferences or finding the nearest coffee shop. But there’s so much more you can do with mapping technology. In this week’s Thing, we’ll look at some unusual applications, including time travel and museum visiting. We’ll also investigate how you can create your own online map and contribute to collaborative mapping projects.
If the thought of navigating an airport or large shopping centre throws you into a panic, check whether there’s a Google indoor map available. Using the same technology as Google Street View, you can navigate a 3D version of the space and work out where you’re going. And you don’t even need to leave your armchair. Some large cultural institutions are also using indoor maps to encourage remote visits. You can view exhibits at your own pace, and there’s no chance that you’ll get stuck behind a rowdy group of tourists. The British Museum is one of the participating institutions. As you can see here, even a virtual visit is still designed to ensure that you leave via the gift shop:
Navigating with your mouse can be a bit unpredictable, but it works very well with keyboard commands: +/– for zooming in and out, and the arrow keys for moving up, down, left, or right. You can also use the control in the bottom right-hand corner for moving between floors.
Google Street View has attracted a great deal of controversy for regularly photographing residential areas. Although it’s often annoying for residents, it’s a boon for stickybeaks and researchers. The time travel feature allows you to slide through the years and view the changes:
This is very useful if you’re tracking the process of gentrification or home improvement fads.
For a different time travel experience, visit the TARDIS in Earl’s Court and use Street View to have a poke around inside.
If you’re using geography in your research, creating a map is an easy way of explaining your ideas. You might also use a map to get a sense of a writer’s life or the experiences of a literary character. For instance, if an author wants to give a sense of time passing, she could write that the hero walked the length of Oxford Street. Unless you’re familiar with London’s West End, this is meaningless. With Google Maps, you can plot the hero’s trajectory and also calculate the distances.
In this example, Google Maps has been used to plot the locations mentioned in The Angel of the Revolution, a lively Victorian novel in which a group of socialists defeats capitalism with dirigibles. Viewers of the map can zoom in for more information, use the ruler tool to work out distances, and also see images related to each location.
There are more examples in the Google Maps Gallery, along with instructions on how to create your own.
Alternative to Google Maps
If you’d rather not contribute any more data to Google, there’s now a major alternative: OpenStreetMap. Inspired by Wikipedia, OSM is an example of volunteered geographic information and offers a free editable map of the world. Anyone can contribute information or reproduce it. As it’s crowdsourced by a large community, some neighbourhoods are represented in more detail than they are by commercial cartographers. Consequently, OSM is now favoured over Google Maps by many companies, including FourSquare, Craigslist, and Apple.
Maps aren’t just for the intrepid. There’s lots you can do with mapping technology to present your ideas and to explore other realms, all within the safety of your home.