The Geography of the Internet: An Internet of Maps, and Maps of the Internet

June 27, 2011 2 Comments


Online Maps Emerge

The internet has changed the way we do everything in our lives, and the world of maps and geography is no different. With the internet becoming more available to people across the planet each day, finding our way around has gotten a lot easier with online maps. For some time, only static maps were available on the web, making it difficult to find the information you were looking for.

The first web mapping site to allow the user to interactively select the map’s extent was Xerox PARC Map Viewer in 1993,

with its technology built on CGI/Perl. The usage of online maps skyrocketed when MapQuest’s online map service launched in 1996. While MapQuest’s functionality was limited by today’s standards, it was still easier for many people to access than traditional maps.One of the biggest advantages for MapQuest users that greatly contributed to their success was the ability for address mapping and routing services.

Mapping Online Today

Since that time, web mapping services have grown, become better, more accessible, and more popular. Now, Google Maps rules the web mapping kingdom, with other services such as MapQuest, Bing, Yahoo! , and OpenStreetMap competing to provide the best service possible.

While these services meet most people’s general mapping needs, many more specified services have developed that make use of various APIs.

Here at Applied Data Consultants we have made use of these services as base maps for our WebGUIDE Xtreme and EAGL-I products.

Online Geographic Communities

With geographic services flourishing on the web, it wasn’t long before communities were formed that promote the development of these services. Specifically I am referring to efforts made to build large map databases by crowdsourcing (outsourcing a task to a large community of people). The most notable example of this is the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community.

With over 400,000 registered users, OSM has created an extremely detailed map that is free and available for anyone incorporate into their own mapping service. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the OSM community took up arms and in a matter of days built the most complete and detailed map of Haiti’s roads in existence, and one of the most detailed maps in the world. Google recently took note of OpenStreetMap’s success and unveiled their own version of crowdsourced mapping with Google MapMaker.

Mapping the Internet

The internet has also provided geographers with a wealth of information, just waiting to be mapped. The folks over at floatingsheep, a group of academic professionals specializing in internet geographies, have created some popular maps using data they have mined off of Google (be sure to check out the Beer Belly of America map).

Social networking has also provided information for geographers to use, especially Twitter since it is easy to track where user’s Tweets are made from. Trendsmap is an interesting way of visualizing what words are being tweeted the most throughout the world. Another interesting map using Twitter data is this profanity map of the US, visualizing where people are or aren’t using “strong language.”

On the fun side, the creator of the webcomic XKCD has given us a map of online communities, visualized as if they were actually physical landmasses.

There are many more examples of maps and geographic services utilizing data from the internet, and who knows how geography and the internet will blend in the future. There are a lot of new technologies such as mobile phone GPS, photo geotagging, HTML5 and more that will help to bring geography to everyone’s home.

By: Tom Koehler

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2 Comments to “The Geography of the Internet: An Internet of Maps, and Maps of the Internet”
  1. Lindsay says:

    Nice blog post Tom!

  2. Mercator says:

    Quite informative!

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