Customizing Google Maps

An increasingly popular tool for web services has been Google’s flexible Maps feature. Easily implemented in a variety of applications, they help web developers to display large amounts of data in a surprisingly organized way. But Google recently shut down a service that used its maps. Is Google going to cut of this new development tool?

Google Wallpapers (Google Wallpaper), which was a tile stitching program to turn the Google Maps satellite images into one background image, was taken offline after receiving a cease and desist order from Google.

The order cited a breach in the Google Maps terms of service, likely referring to the following:

The photographic imagery made available for display through Google maps is provided under a nonexclusive, non-transferable license for use only by you…Google and/or its licensors (if any) retain all ownership rights in the imagery. The imagery is copyrighted and may not be copied, even if modified or merged with other data or software. (Google Terms)

It’s possible that Google has a specific problem with letting other organizations use the satellite imagery because of licensing on the images. Perhaps any other service that uses the satellite imagery is fair game as well. Or else Google may be pursuing any terms-of-service infraction.

There are some great customized uses of Google Maps out there, and they serve a variety of purposes, though all are likely running without explicit permission from Google. Google has made it easy for developers to change how the maps work. The XML interface apparently makes maps very customizable.

One of the best uses of Google maps is attaching real estate listings to a map. When I was looking for rental properties, I wish I would have known about this. As it was, I searched many properties and entered them all into Google Maps anyway to see where they were.

There are a few services that automate real estate mapping. They use the flexible XML map system, and when users click on a location, a text bubble can pop up with information and pictures on the listing. One service is Cytadia (cytadia.us). Apparently, it’s free to list houses on and free to shop for houses. They don’t display ads either. If they did, they’d more likely be a target of Google’s legal department. Anyway, the first thing you do on Cytadia is enter information into the box below.


Cytadia

After you’ve entered the information, you will arrive at a page like he one below. You can navigate the Google Maps and click on the pushpins to display listings. 


Cytadia

Although Cytadia uses only Google’s maps and not their satellite imagery, Housing Maps (housingmaps.com) does allow users to view satellite imagery. Perhaps that will put this service at risk of receiving the next legal letter from Google. After clicking on a large city in the region you are house-hunting, the site uses a popup bubble to allow you to chose what you are looking for : For Rent, For Sale, Rooms, and Sublets. After that, the results page comes up, which looks like the one below. What’s cool about this is that it displays all the houses in the area on the right side, and you can click either the sidebar listing or the pushpin on the map to see the results pop up. Yellow pins mean there are images for the listing; red ones mean it’s just text.


housingmaps.com

The most noteable thing about the service is that it doesn’t even have its own housing directory. The service basically connects the houses and apartments listed on craigslist.com and plugs them into Google Maps. The idea is so simple, yet so cool. Below is an image of the listings on a satellite map. Notice the options at the top, which can sort by city and price range.


housingmaps.com

Chicago Crime (chicagocrime.org) website locates exactly where all police crime reports happen. It includes as much as possible to show prospective home buyers what kind of neighborhood they may be moving into, or show residents what pool halls might be best avoided. The map has a legend of crime types, which determines what color pushpin is used on the map. The website allows you to filer the crimes by a few criteria: the type of crime committed (armed violence, bribery, homicide), types of locations (CTA Bus, Pool Room, Warehouse), district of Chicago, and finally the date and time of the occurrence.


Chicago Crime

Florida Sexual Predator (floridasexualpredator.com) shows where sex offenders live throughout the state. Not all areas work, but the metropolitan areas do: Orlando, Miami, Pensacola, and St. Petersburg. Yellow pushpins are where sex offenders are. Red ones highlight sexual predators. Clicking on the pushpin bring up an image of the offender, personal information, and a notation of whether the victim was a minor or not. The site harvests the information from public records, and it posts the information to the map.


floridasexualpredator.com
(the image has been altered for use on Developer Shed,
but the actual website shows all information clearly
)

Google Sightseeing (googlesightseeing.com) is a site dedicated to people posting links to Google’s satellite imagery of well known lad marks and historic building, such as pyramids and the Eiffel tower. The top-down view aerial view gives a much different perspective than you may be used to seeing in magazines and photographs. The site is quite a bit of fun, and uses the slogan, “Why bother seeing the world for real?” Yep, just one more reason you don’t need to leave your house.

Google’s Maps are even being used by personal blogs. “My Childhood Seen by Google Maps” (website) is basically an interactive map. The blogger took satellite imagery from Google of places he used to live. The he implemented a mouse-over system so that when a person rolls their pointer over certain buildings or areas, text bubbles pop up. The text bubbles have little pieces of personal history relating to the area.


My Childhood Seen by Google Maps

Apple’s OSX Dashboard also has a widget for Google Maps (Google Maps Widget). The widget allows Mac users to connect to Google Maps via their desktops instead of needing to open a web browser. Although it appears not to have driving directions integrated into it, it does give users the choice of viewing the maps or the satellite imagery.

Designing not only a product, but also a platform for people to develop on, is becoming a superior strategy for developers. It establishes a particular developer, and it also stimulates innovation.

Making products double as an object to use in development puts the power in the hands of individuals. While a lot of advanced computer applications these days are designed by large companies (AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft Office, Yahoo, etc.), software engineers and marketing experts can only try to predict needs for software that they can fill. These traditional companies may also simply look for ways to accommodate people by supplementing existing programs, not developing a very useful resource.

People of all sorts who personally have a need to fill can be the sources of truly useful innovation. When trying to do something specific and not finding a program that works adequately, people are forced to design the project themselves (or hire somebody). They know the entirety of what their program needs to do for them, unlike large companies trying to predict usage. If they distribute their program, it is unique and fits a niche market, perhaps even establishing a new market. For instance, Napster has changed music and raised the controversy of large-scale file sharing; although Napster is gone, many similar programs have sprung up. The Napster trend was all started by a university student, who wrote the program when there weren’t others like it.

Some companies have been designing software that allows users to customize it. Video game companies like id Software saw the importance of user customization years ago. They have made games that are easily modified by customers. The tweakers can even implement new lighting systems, add features not in the original game, design new levels, and change textures and models. Essentially, they can build their own game without working at a software development lab, and they effectively make the existing game more playable. Many games, such as Doom 3 and far Cry, now come with level editors as part of the retail package. Products that are easily customized also allow software companies to lease their technologies to other developers, as id Software does when they charge other developers to use their game’s engine in other 3D shooters.

Google is on the verge of something much more useful than a game. The way that their services are being adopted into many different applications shows that its XML platform is easy to adopt and integrate into other applications. Some of these customizations of Google’s Maps have found unique and very helpful ways to present information. This adaptive technology should be a model for web services, as this is what promotes innovation.

It would be a shame to lose the flexibility of these maps due to terms of service conflict. Understandably, Google is probably protecting their own licensing agreements with the satellite imagery and is trying to control their bandwidth and intellectual property. If this service cannot be provided freely, perhaps Google can institute a licensing system to legally allow the tweaking.

Google’s ads are already displayed across the internet, even here on Developer Shed. Perhaps Google could charge a licensing fee for the technology to distribute it in much the same way as the ads. Or perhaps they could create an exchange system that allows sites to utilize Google’s features of they allow Google to place a box of ads at the top of the page. Anything would be better than restricting people to only using features that Google can implement on its own.

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