Start-Ups Try to Plot A Complete Picture

David Rensin of Reality Mobile in Herndon holds a cellphone, which transmits real-time video to a screen behind him.
David Rensin of Reality Mobile in Herndon holds a cellphone, which transmits real-time video to a screen behind him. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Sean Gorman can plot a map of New York bars located in neighborhoods where single, college-educated women live. He can see how bad traffic is on different parts of the Capital Beltway and, if he wanted to, he could find out if killer bees are known to swarm near his Georgetown office.

Gorman's company, FortiusOne, collects hundreds of data sets and combines them with maps available online to create what are known as mash-ups -- a new breed of application formed by mixing data from different online sources.

In the year since Google, Microsoft and others made their mapping programs available for free, thousands of Web developers have used them as digital canvases to display information. Some of these online geographers are ready to take the next step and try to commercialize their work.

"There's a huge appetite to manipulate data in ways that are relevant to making everyday decisions," Gorman said. "This puts geographical analysis in the hands of people who have never had a way to use it before."

FortiusOne at first specialized in using maps to help government agencies improve security and prepare for emergencies. When Gorman saw how easy it was to visually represent data through maps, his team last month launched GeoIQ, a Web site that lets people manipulate Census data and local listings to create "heat" maps, color-coded displays similar to weather maps, of the entire nation or a single street.

Another local start-up, Spadac, is selling its mash-ups to retail companies that need to find new store sites or conduct targeted advertising campaigns. The McLean company created an algorithm that overlays demographic and real estate information on top of images from Google Maps to pinpoint potential business growth areas.

"People resonate with it," said chief executive Mark Dumas. Google's free maps have allowed Spadac to operate with relatively little funding, he said. "Otherwise we'd be spending thousands of dollars buying expensive satellite pictures."

Building a business on the back of another company's intellectual property can be tricky. Google and Microsoft allow other companies to use the mapping tools free as long as the resulting mash-ups are publicly available. If the companies charge for access to the material, they have to pay a fee.

Those fees could grow as the mash-up business matures. And some experts warn that the combinations could lead to privacy concerns if, say, a database of names was overlaid on satellite images of people's homes.

Also, there are limitations in the mapping data itself. The images are usually too outdated and inaccurate to use for projects that require precision, such as locating buried gas lines or predicting the path of a forest fire, said Robert M. Samborski, executive director of the Geospatial Information and Technology Association. Google and Microsoft refresh their images only every 18 to 24 months.

Even so, "Google's done more to raise the awareness of using maps than the industry's been able to do in the past 25 years," Samborski said.

The proliferation of mapping mash-ups began almost immediately after Google Maps went live in February 2005. In less than a month, a Web site layering Craigslist housing listings over city maps caught the attention of apartment-hunters. It also caught the eye of Google's mapping director, John Hanke.

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