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Friday, May 20, 2005

What's cooler than ice? Google Maps

Just when I thought web applications were never going to be as rich and responsive as desktop applications, out came Google Maps to prove me wrong. To make it happen, Google used a new approach/pattern to web application design called AJAX (stands for Asynchronous JavaScript & XML). I will write a piece soon on Ajax and its technical advantages as well as its shortcomings, but let me just say that Ajax is truly transforming the Web as we know it. In addition to Google Maps, note that Google Suggest, Gmail, Amazon's A9 and Yahoo's Flickr are already Ajax-based. Orbeon is working on an incredible Ajax engine using XForms. Stay tuned!

Enough about Ajax, let's get back to Google Maps and the amazing user-driven creativity (that many call "hacks") around it. Google Maps turned out to be much more than a place people go to for directions. The addition of satellite images and the nice graphics opened up a whole new world for people who used their imagination. I am going to try and list a few hacks I thought were very cool (and most of the time useful).

- I will start with one of my favorites (already wrote a post on this one). HousingMaps is a great integration between Craigslist and Google Maps. Try it; it's simple and very useful especially when you're looking for a new home in areas you don't necessarily know well.

- This one is called ChicagoCrime. I wish we had one for Silicon Valley so I can see what's going on in my neighborhood. These guys take feeds of data on crimes throughout the city and overlay them on Google Maps by neighborhood and type and even provide RSS feeds. One can imagine combining such a service with the HousingMaps service to inform people of crime activity in certain areas which may influence their neighborhood choice.

- Gas is not a cheap commodity anymore. Check out Cheap Gas a very cool mix of Gas buddy and Google Maps. Just select your city and start saving money on Gas. Make sure you click on the Satellite link; it'll overlay the Gas stations on a nice aerial view of the area.

- The same people behind the Cheap Gas application have integrated Google Maps with the popular movie site IMDb. Make sure you try this one out.

- If you are a lazy tourist or can't afford to go to Honolulu, here is a cheap sightseeing solution for you: Google Sightseeing. Browse the best tourist spots in the world by locality or by category and Google Maps' satellites will take you there.

- A former Tivo engineer developed a Tivo interface to Google Maps. This one is kind of cool but I tend to have my computer (Wi-Fi connected) with me on the couch when I watch TV. Not sure I want to use my TV set for this. Now everyone knows I'm a couch potato.

- This one comes from the source itself (Google Labs). It's called Ride Finder and it helps you find a cab in your area. They track real time vehicle location (see the button in the bottom) so you know how close they are from you.

- How about blending Google Maps with Yahoo's Flickr to displays the location (on a Google map or a precise satellite picture) of where the pictures were taken? Daniel Catt just put it together Geobloggers. Users can plug the longitude and latitude of locations of their Flickr photos into Geobloggers and tag those photos with the name of the city within Flickr. When you are ready to document your road trip, check out this post by Mark Jaquith that provides step-by-step help to use this great service.

- This one is not necessarily a hack but it shows that Google Maps may be used for advertising. Check out this pool with a big Pepsi sign (zoom in on the pool) near an airport in AZ.

Google doesn't have an official position on these nice services hacked by individual users. They will have to come up with one soon. In my opinion they should encourage these imaginative people as much as possible by offering tools, open APIs and loose licensing terms for their mapping capabilities.

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