- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Digital maps produce so much more than driving directions these days.

You can pull up satellite and aerial images, discover neighborhood jazz clubs and

check traffic conditions. You can get rail schedules and, perhaps one day, tips on foot and bike trails through parks.

As features are added, mapping companies are having to build better technologies and find better sources of data, including their own users.

Microsoft Corp. is working on a mechanism that would have avid mountain bikers, for example, collectively plot good trails. Yahoo Inc. is appealing to its users to add information on local businesses and places of interest. Yahoo recently bought Upcoming.org, a collaborative calendar of events.

“More and more data has to become available to provide these kinds of great offerings,” said Jeremy Kreitler, Yahoo’s senior product manager for maps. “These kinds of information will come from people around local areas contributing.”

Online mapping is hot and competitive. Nielsen/NetRatings recorded a 28 percent jump in visitors last year, with one-third of Web users visiting at least one mapping site in November.

Microsoft, Yahoo, MapQuest and Google Inc. receive their primary data from two companies, Navteq Corp. and Tele Atlas NV, both of which have been canvassing the nation’s highways and byways to keep their databases complete and accurate.

Data companies typically are paid for each map consumers generate. Christian Dwyer, MapQuest’s director of operations, estimates that driving directions cost his company a penny apiece and a static map much less — expenses recouped through sales of ads displayed at the site.

To distinguish themselves, mapping providers must decide individually which of the various attributes provided by Navteq and Tele Atlas to emphasize: Is speed limit more important than distance? Would it make sense to take a highway for just one exit?

MapQuest, for instance, assigns scores to various route alternatives based on the number of turns, distance and other factors and, unless you tell its software engine to avoid all highways, it presents the route with the lowest score.

Mapping companies also must decide how much information to provide. Zoom out, and data on local streets only clutter the map, even if the information is readily available.

Yahoo employs consumer focus groups to help it figure out the proper balance. It also dispatches motorist guinea pigs onto the road with driving directions, while employees tag along and watch how they fare.

“This is where it’s more art than science,” Mr. Kreitler said.

The basics have changed little since MapQuest’s site opened nearly a decade ago, on Feb. 5, 1996. How mapping providers differentiate themselves, then, is in the distinct features they offer.

Yahoo provides information on subway stations and is testing multiple-point directions, in case someone wants to stop to buy a gift on the way to visit a friend. Yahoo, along with Microsoft, also provides real-time traffic information for some cities.

Google and Microsoft have satellite imagery from private and government sources. Microsoft also is testing aerial and bird’s-eye-view images and is working to create 3-D maps over Web browsers. Google does these through free software called Google Earth.

The mapping providers also are working to get their products on mobile devices. To make their services more useful, they have been merging maps with data on local businesses such as shops, restaurants and theaters.

All this will require data well beyond what Navteq and Tele Atlas alone can provide.

Microsoft has bought aerial images from a company called Pictometry International Corp., which provides bird’s-eye views, taken at 45-degree angles from four directions. Microsoft also is shopping for altitude data required to create models of city buildings in 3-D.

As Microsoft tries to fill in coverage gaps outside North America and Western Europe, it is looking for potential vendors in China, Japan and other countries, said Tom Bailey, director of marketing for Microsoft’s mapping products.

Beyond that, there is talk of making maps friendlier for those who don’t drive.

Google has introduced a prototype of its Transit Trip Planner. The tool checks bus and subway schedules for Portland, Ore., to plot the best itinerary. Google promises to add other cities, but offers no timetable.

Expanding the planner nationwide will be tough, though.

MapQuest, which Time Warner Inc.’s America Online unit bought in 2000, has considered such an offering for five years but has yet to assemble all the required subway, bus, train and taxi data or develop the right software to make sense of them all, said James Greiner, MapQuest’s director of marketing.

Also a big challenge is creating directions for walking or biking. Even though the services are extending their offerings to wireless devices, mobile maps are geared toward driving.

It’s simple to tell the computer that it’s OK to travel both directions along a one-way street and to avoid highways; more difficult is programming the fact that you can cut through a park or along a path that may connect two dead-end streets.

Engineers still have much work to do on just the driving directions, said Bret Taylor, who oversees Google’s mapping products.

For instance, exit numbers are important in some regions, but not in California, where they have been introduced gradually, Mr. Taylor said. The challenge, he said, is to figure out what is important where and to tailor directions accordingly.

“Our long-term goal is to have our product give directions that are as good as the taxi driver,” he said. “Certainly, it’s not there yet.”

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