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The Potential of Digital Maps December 6, 2009

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software tools.

The December 4th Wall Street Journal noted new features of both Microsoft Bing and Google Maps that let users insert photos and photo collages onto their respective maps (teaser here, full article requires subscription).  In Microsoft’s case, it’s a Silverlight-based application that runs inside Bing Maps and provides a street view as well as enhanced “bird’s eye” images.  While this is more of a consumer feature, it reminds me that there are many things we can do with online maps from these two companies.

Over two years ago I started using Microsoft Virtual Earth (now called the Bing Maps Platform), which incorporates an SDK that allows developers to call maps, make adjustments to and mark up the maps, and let users manipulate the maps in customized ways.

(As an aside, similar developer activities can be accomplished with Google Maps and Google Earth; I used Virtual Earth because of a better familiarity with Visual Studio.)

Further, there’s a great tool available for working with the Bing Maps Platform from Microsoft Research. This tool, called MapCruncher, lets you take almost any digital map and adjust it to fit it on top of a Bing map.  MapCruncher let you establish three or more points of comparison between the digital map and the Bing map, then stretch or compress parts of the digital map to provide a reasonable fit over the Bing map.

What good does such an overlay do?  Well, it allows you to take an ordinary map and easily give it special-purpose characteristics, including the ability for users to manipulate the map in unique ways.

Let me give an example.  I live in New England, near the Lowell (Massachusetts) National Historical Park.  I pulled a map of the park off of the National Park Service website, and used MapCruncher to overlay it on a Virtual Earth map of the city.  I then used Visual Studio to create an ASP.NET Web application, and the Virtual Earth SDK to display custom walking trails and points of interest, and devised my own photos to pop up at marked places.  I could then publish this directly to a Web site to enable users to add to their national park experience.

What we are doing today with maps only scratches the surface of the possibilities.  Combining maps with other applications to provide an enhanced experience and additional intelligence is a trend that has only recently experienced significant growth.  As an FYI, I’m going to be doing a review of MapInfo (now a part of Pitney Bowes Business Insight) in the near future, and will report further on mapping at that time.

As a long-time member of the National Geographic Society, I am increasingly amused that it continues to update and offer a paper atlas for sale.  Much as I love to travel vicariously through maps, I bought my last atlas over two decades ago.  Maps are much more enjoyable in digital form, and with innovation applications.



1. Why Does Microsoft Ignore Its Own Research? « Cutting Edge Computing - February 16, 2010

[…] concepts on the Microsoft Research site.  I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m pretty impressed with MapCruncher, and there are a number of other projects in Microsoft Research that have the […]

2. Is Microsoft Cool Again? « Cutting Edge Computing - March 2, 2010

[…] I think there are many cool projects in Microsoft Research, from Doloto to MapCruncher.  But the company chooses to keep these efforts locked up in the lab, making them freely […]

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