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Start-Ups Try to Plot A Complete Picture
'Mash-Ups' Add Data to Online Maps

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.

He hired the housing mash-up pioneer and encouraged other developers to create more elaborate applications.

In June, Google launched Google Earth, a downloadable application that gives people access to high-resolution satellite images. A month later, Microsoft introduced Virtual Earth, its own digital depiction of the world. AOL's MapQuest began posting satellite images with driving directions.

Microsoft and Google recently took their applications to a new level. This month, Microsoft released Virtual Earth 3D, lifelike models of about 18 cities. Google's three-dimensional version, SketchUp, lets people compile photos to create architectural models.

Google has counted more than 30,000 mash-ups of its maps. Microsoft said thousands of commercial customers are using Virtual Earth on their Web sites. Every day, about a dozen blogs catalogue new mash-ups.

A few mash-ups are already earning money. Platial, a Portland, Ore., start-up, received venture-capital investment to launch a socially networked mapping site, where people can plot and share maps of their favorite places around the world. Zillow.com stitches together Google's satellite maps to show property values across the country and has received $32 million in financing.

A Dublin-based mash-up tracks the real-time paths of commuter trains. One in Chicago catalogues crime statistics, and another in Los Angeles records the location of celebrity sightings.

As companies continue to experiment, the mapping technologies may change how people search online, drive around town and buy homes. "This is a local advertiser's dream," said Donna L. Hoffman, co-director of eLab 2.0, a research center at the University of California at Riverside that studies online consumer behavior.

Mash-ups will really take off, she said, when companies find a way to deliver the data instantly to mobile devices. "People will pay to have that kind of control over the content," she said.

That's what Herndon-based Reality Mobile is trying to do. The company overlays live video feeds on top of satellite images -- often using Google Maps -- and transmits the information to dozens of cellphones at once.

The FBI used Reality Mobile's technology to strengthen security at the Super Bowl in Detroit, and the Los Angeles Police Department is experimenting with it. The technology tracks objects, such as a suspect or vehicle, as they move across the map, so officers can secure buildings or keep an eye on specific street corners from anywhere on the ground.

"People want to know where the data we are collecting and watching exist in the world," said David Rensin, Reality Mobile's chief executive.

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