June 21, 2007

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Get where you’re going
Online maps get better and better
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Here’s a thing that bugs me. When you ask for someone’s street address, they respond the vast majority of the time with something else. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: So, what’s your address?

Them: You know where the big shoe store used to be?

Me: Uh, sorry, no. Can you give me a street address?

Them: OK then, just drive toward Auburn but turn about a mile before you get there. Go over the bridge, turn right and I’m the second blue house on the left.

After a few clarifications of street names, directions and just how close to blue the neighbor’s turquoise house is, I finally get a street address. It’s usually disclosed as an unimportant piece of information, to be used only if everything else doesn’t work.

The thing is, it’s just the opposite. With portable GPS devices and online mapping services — heck, with even a town map and an index of street names — I find it much more reliable and simple to get an address and figure out how to get there myself.

Online maps in particular have made huge strides recently, in both functionality and geek toys. The big players are adding new features just about every time you visit. In case you’ve been foolishly relying on directions scribbled down during a frantic phone call, here’s what’s changed in the last few months.

Traffic reports: I’m not sure if this functionality was sold simultaneously to a bunch of different mapping providers, but it has suddenly appeared everywhere. It works mostly for major roads like Interstate highways in major metropolitan areas, but exact coverage varies. Google and Live highlight major roads in green for well-flowing traffic, yellow for slow going and red for stop-and-go conditions; they both provide separate highlighting for each direction of travel.

Live and Yahoo! mark trouble spots, with Yahoo! distinguishing between an “incident” (usually a traffic accident) and construction. Hover over a marked spot for more details. Those two also tell you exactly how current the information is. All three services mark areas that have traffic information with a stoplight when you’re zoomed out.

Exit numbers: This basic level was a standard feature of first-generation online mapping from Yahoo! and Mapquest. For some reason, it disappeared when online mapping first became more interactive, with draggable maps and all as opposed to images that had to reload. It’s recently come back, and I have to say I’m relieved. Live’s implementation is the best, with a simple dot and number at each highway exit. Google’s labels get obscured by the traffic overlay.

Street view: Although only available in five metro areas on Google Maps as of this writing, this is kind of a cool feature. Move a little guy around the map to see eye-level, 360-degree views of what’s at a particular location. This is a nice complement to Live’s aerial photography and all services’ satellite images.

For all these features, the “best” service can depend on what area you’re trying to view. Google’s traffic reports seem to extend into smaller cities, but Yahoo! and Live sometimes display more features in other areas. Check more than one and you’re almost guaranteed to reach your destination.


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