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Online Maps: Opportunity or Threat

Pratiksha Singh
GIS Development
[email protected]

Recent developments in mapping and Web technologies have had a great impact on the user experience. Today, a variety of Web mapping services exist, each providing an interface to high resolution maps and other GIS data. MapQuest was the trendsetter in the field of online maps followed by Google, Yahoo, Bing Maps. Rediff is the latest entrant. All these firms except Rediff provide maps of the entire planet. Rediff, along with other Indian companies like Routeguru and MapmyIndia provide online maps restricted to Indian subcontinent. Skeptics may question the glut of online maps in India, where 40 percent of the population is illiterate and about 73 percent of the population lives in rural areas (2001 census) where internet connection is patchy. But time and technology wait for none and it is a matter of time before India starts using the information available online in their day-to-day lives.

Umpteen Features
Google is the most notable among online map providers and is an omnipresent API. Rediff Maps were available for some time on trial basis. It may re-launch its maps with improvements shortly. Yahoo Maps come with a Flash interface and with several features like multipoint directions, live traffic information, and easy send-to-mobile feature. Bing Maps have an additional feature known as bird’s eye view, which adds a 3D dimension to the map image. Nokia’s Ovi store serves more relevant recommendations to a user. As these maps are also available on a mobile, a location input available either via triangulation of mobile signals or GPS will allow users to be served better.

The Need
When ML Infomap sourced data to Rediff Maps recently, a question was raised by everyone in the Press that, “Why does the world, especially Indian subcontinent need another mapping site when we have Google and Yahoo maps?” Answering this question Dr Manosi Lahiri, MD and CEO, ML Infomap says, “The demand for digital maps in India is limited. Except for a few sectors, maps as a support to any form of decision making are absent. Interest in online maps in India is new among consumers and most are still from the largest metropolises.” Taking a different stance, KM Jagadeesh, Vice-President-GIS, Reliance Tech Services says, “Demand of digital maps in India is increasing exponentially. This is due to the use of digital maps in ICT applications in various segments like utilities and infrastructure. The developments in hardware (computing speeds, capacity to handle large volumes), software, devices, space technology, communication technology, survey technologies have enabled increased use of digital maps.”

Privacy & Security
Privacy and security aspects of geospatial data have been a major concern for the defence ministry, more so in view of heightened terrorist threats from neighbouring countries and the indigenous Naxal menace. Investigations into 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks have clearly pointed at the use of Google Earth by terrorists to get familiarised with the streets of Mumbai and plan their moves. “Terrorists are at war. They use anything to help their cause: children, arms, maps, religion. Security agencies and civil society understand this. Open-to-all mapping sites are open to terrorists even. If mapping sites are helping some terrorists, they are also providing valuable information to others, including those fighting terrorism,” opined Dr Manosi Lahiri. In 2005, former president Dr APJ Kalam warned about how Google Earth can be misused. “Indian security agencies have complained that Google Earth exposed defence and sensitive installations. Other nations including China have made similar complaints regarding military locations.” Jagadeesh says, “Terrorist activities have been there even when no such map sites existed. We must try to use these sites to help more and more people to deal with terrorist activities for prevention and also in disaster management to reduce the impact.”

It’s true that terrorists’ use of online maps is only one side of the technology coin. But is a country willing to pay the price in terms of loss of lives, heritage, image of the country and more so the trauma on the nation’s psyche associated with such events? Can the same technology be used to anticipate, monitor and combat terrorist activities effective? Of course, a big YES.

One of the reasons major companies like Yahoo, Google, Rediff, Reliance, Nokia, MSN, are coming up with online maps is to attract online traffic. “Investment in maps are aimed at providing value added services like decision support and operation. Traffic is also a factor in ROI,” opines Jagadeesh. Where as Dr. Lahiri feels, “If online maps offered on a site provide the information that users are seeking, then naturally it will attract traffic. But much depends on the ability of the online map service provider to differentiate between user groups and the quality of the maps and services that are offered. A map site for businesses is unlikely to draw large traffic whereas one for consumers could be expected to draw large numbers.” Apart from the traffic, firms make good money out of this activity. Google auctions advertising space atop its maps. Yahoo also allows map users to select various chain locations to show up on a map search. Other paid advertisements are hosted at the bottom of the page, but not on the maps themselves.

Customisation and copy right
Discussing customisation and copyright related issues with these online maps, Jagadeesh says, “Customiation services are provided to meet the user requirements and choices. Users can configure using options supported.” Maps available by Google can be customised, linked and do not have major copyright issues. Dr. Lahiri says, “Digital maps and mapping software are under the purview of the Copyright Act of 1957 and later amendments. Of significance is the Copyright Amendment Act of 1994, which is specific to computer software. Like other creative products to which copyright law applies, it also applies to maps developed by any organisation. Piracy is a real problem for map developers and this law protects them from infringement.”

Future Prospects
With companies like Google and Nokia well established, it seems difficult for other players to create a mark of their own. The online mapping technology has a great future as their demand and usage is increasing by the day. “This market will grow provided broadband infrastructure in the country expands and there is widespread awareness of the added indirect value of maps in businesses and development, in planning and monitoring projects,” says Dr. Lahiri. “Google and Nokia will act as catalysts for growth. However, we would continue to have advantage in providing value added services,” Jagadeesh exudes confidence. Though the development and maintenance of these online sites is demanding, the number of companies offering online maps will grow leading to the greater usage of maps and vice-versa.