On location

by Simon Bisson

Location and mapping services open up new possibilities for your applications. Simon Bisson explores further.

HardCopy Issue: 51 | Published: February 1, 2011

It wasn’t that long ago that we all used to carry A-to-Zs, road atlases and almanacs just to find where we wanted to go. We used to go to the RAC or the AA to get dot matrix printouts of directions every time we planned a family holiday or an important business trip. That’s all changed with the advent of online mapping services, and the ability to quickly get an up-to-date map with easy to follow directions on our desktop PCs or our mobile phones.

Mapping and geolocation are now important business tools and, with a new generation of CRM and service management tools, are being baked straight into our business processes. It’s no longer sufficient to post a link to Google Maps or StreetMap – users now expect interactive mapping tools in their applications, both on the desktop and on the Web, and these maps are expected to be dynamic and responsive.

You can still write your own mapping tools, but it’s a lot easier to work with an existing framework, especially one that gives you access to regularly updated mapping material as well as the navigation features that users expect. Component and Web technologies mean that it’s possible to make these maps a seamless (or at least lightly branded) part of your application.

There’s a lot that can be done with the current generation of mapping tools. Companies like Dell are using them to change the way the company thinks about field service, giving operators in its internal call centres direct visibility of just where engineers vehicles are so that they can quickly reroute engineers to the most urgent calls. Maps power emergency services, and they can help your businesses too. You just have to look at events like Where 2.0 to see just what people are doing with mapping tools.


Bing Maps

Bing Maps builds on the Live Maps consumer service, adding enterprise tools and features. These include RESTful Web services, with Web APIs that can be accessed from most major platforms including Flash and Silverlight, as well as JavaScript and HTML or ASP.NET. There’s also a new AJAX-based map control that simplifies map deployment, with high speed map display using either HTML or Silverlight. A set of data services work with Bing Maps to give you bulk geocoding features, letting you upload and host your data on Microsoft servers, with tools in Bing Maps to help query the custom data.

Microsoft’s Bing Maps gives you a set of controls that allow you to add it to Silverlight applications or to any Web site or desktop application. While it may seem to be a new entrant, this is actually a mature product with many of the key features that developers need. The work Microsoft did in building Live Maps, and the Terra Server research project before it, means that the APIs are clear and easy to use, and there’s a wealth of data behind them.

It’s important for any map service to have tools for converting address data into locations, a process known as geocoding. Bing Maps’ geocoding facilities make use of several different geocoding tools, along with address and location data sets and a reverse IP look up tool to locate your users and the sites they’re looking for. There’s also support for reverse geocoding, allowing you to take a latitude and longitude and convert it into an address.

Bing Maps gives both developers and users a range of navigation tools. One option gives you one-click directions to any location without needing a starting address, and you can also deliver directions based on the shortest time between two points, the shortest distance, or the prevailing traffic flow. Bing Maps can provide directions in 15 different languages, and use localised mapping conventions to make sure maps are easily understood.

As part of the overall Bing search platform, Bing Maps comes with a selection of tools to simplify location search. One option helps reduce user errors, supporting alternative and similar spellings, and helping to find locations even if the user makes mistakes filling out search terms. There’s also support for international naming, recognising that ‘Firenza’ is Florence. If you’re using Bing Maps on a travel site you can let users see points of interest around their location or along their route.

Bing Maps gives you the usual aerial photography views, with the option of a map overlay. It also has its own Bird’s Eye View, a 45 degree angle view for many cities which is useful for pinpointing exact locations. If you’re delivering map data around a specific location then you can pre-load the appropriate tiles from Bing Maps which makes panning a lot faster and gives your users a much better experience.

Bing Maps is customisable and can work with data from other services using the common KML and GeoRSS formats. These let you import and reuse shapes, pins, and lines so that you can automatically generate geocoded information ready for use in a map application. You can also tweak the look and feel of Bing Maps itself. You can easily add your own 3D models to Bing Maps, and customise lines and shapes on the map, creating your own overlays to, for example, show the planned layout for roads and buildings in a new development. Information displayed on the map can be quickly created using HTML and CSS.


Google Maps

Google’s Maps give developers another option, allowing you to use a JavaScript API (recently upgraded to version 3) to quickly construct map mashups that link your Web or desktop applications to Google Maps. It’s easy to use and has a powerful set of geocoding tools, including support for elevations. There’s a lot of information and services in Google’s platform, including a very useful terrain layer and near real-time traffic data.

You can also create and add your own markers to maps, and use Google’s own local search and navigation tools.

If you’re using Flash then there’s a Google Maps API that lets you use Maps content in your Flash applications, including support for 3D map views. Google also provides a set of controls and an API for working with Google Earth data, so you can provide your users with a globe rather than the traditional flat map.

If you’re planning on using the free public Google Maps API then you need to ensure that you’re only using it for a free, end-user consumer service. Other implementations need different licences and require a commercial relationship with Google.


Ordnance Survey

While many of today’s mapping services pull information from their own and from commercial geo-data sources, for real accuracy you need to go to government sources such as Ordnance Survey. The OS recently introduced a new and simpler licensing model for its data, as a result of changes in government policy.

Working with Bing Maps

Earthware screenshot

Mapping solutions provider Earthware has been working with both Microsoft and New York-based company Foursquare to enhance the Foursquare application through a bespoke Bing Maps App. Foursquare is a location-based mobile platform that, in the company’s own words, sets out to “make cities easier to use and more interesting to explore.” Users ‘check in’ to Foursquare using a smartphone app (American users can also check in with a standard text message). Once checked in they can share their location with friends, leave comments about venues they have visited, and read comments left by other users. There are various incentive systems involving points and status, and participating venues can alert you to special offers available to Foursquare users. The platform currently boasts more than five million users across the world.

The standard Web interface for Foursquare lists check-ins and comments as they happen, and gives you the ability to see an individual check-in plotted as a place pin on a standard Google map. The experience is fairly flat as you cannot interact with the map and there are no real time updates. What Earthware has done is construct a Silverlight application that integrates the Foursquare platform with Bing Maps through their respective APIs. The result is Foursquare Everywhere, presenting users with a far more interactive map that is updated in real time as new check-ins and comments appear.

You can find out more at www.earthware.co.uk, or you can see the Foursquare Everywhere app in action at www.bing.com/maps/explore/#/1xzcw7rwxqktjpgg. Earthware co-founder Brian Norman also runs the UK Bing Maps User Group at http://bingmapsuk.ning.com.

The main changes to the OS map data licences allow commercial partners to distribute all of the OS mapping data, apart from the MasterMap Imagery Layer. This means that developers will be able to purchase OS transport network information, topographic information and 1:10,000 scale maps. There are fewer licence types than before, and they’re easier to understand. It also means that certain types of derived data from OS mapping information are free to use. Furthermore you don’t need to take out a data licence to start building your OS-based mapping applications as sample data sets are available for free.

A lot of Ordnance Survey data is also available under the OS OpenData programme which is free to use for commercial and non-commercial use under the Open Government Licence and simply requests that you attribute the data to OS in your applications. The OS OpenData service provides mapping data for Great Britain, with outline maps, overview maps, street view and boundary-line information, as well as vector mapping information. If you want more detailed maps, or topographic information, then you need a commercial licence. If you’re building a large site or an internal application that uses the Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace Pro JavaScript APIs then you also need an appropriate licence which comes with a utility-like approach to charging and no volume limits. You can use the free OpenSpace API’s for commercial applications, but they come with usage limits and must only be used for externally facing applications.


Microsoft MapPoint

If you’re building a desktop mapping application that needs access to demographic information then Microsoft’s MapPoint is a useful tool. A standalone mapping application, MapPoint 2010 can bring in business information from line-of-business and productivity applications, letting you visualise information geographically and pull out trends relating to geographical and demographic factors.

MapPoint maps can be included in Office documents, or embedded in your own applications. There’s even an SQL Server add-in which simplifies the process of adding geographical queries and reports to your own data stores and data warehouses. Microsoft sells separate versions of MapPoint 2010 for Europe and the US, so make sure you buy the right one!


Pitney Bowes MapInfo

Like Microsoft’s MapPoint, Pitney-Bowes’ MapInfo Professional is a business intelligence tool that helps you get the most from your geographic data. MapInfo Professional is at heart a visualisation tool that lets you display data on a map using a wide range of charting tools, including ring charts, spider graphs and thematic maps. You can connect MapInfo to a wide range of data sources, including spreadsheets and databases, giving business analysts the ability to quickly explore and display geographic data even if they don’t have specific geographic information skills.

MapInfo lets you create custom maps, so as well as showing geographic information, you can use it to manage property and assets – and even show where your people are. Other options let you work with infrastructure and plan how your business handles sales and logistics. Data can come from local sources, such as Excel and Access, or from remote databases including Oracle and SQL Server. Once data has been acquired, you use the built-in design and editing tools to prepare data for mapping. Maps can be divided into territories and colour-coded using calculated values, helping you see just what your data means from a geographic perspective. Once designed, maps can be published in many different formats and integrated with existing applications. You can also publish maps to the Web, either as static displays or interactive web applications.


Into the future

There are big changes coming to mapping technologies. At CTIA Enterprise, towards the end of last year, NAVTEQ unveiled a new and friendlier way of giving directions. Instead of street numbers and names, familiar landmarks become part of the directions. We normally give directions by telling people to “turn left at the pub and right at the red shop.” NAVTEQ’s tools will give our applications the same user-friendly approach.

Ordnance Survey website screenshot

You can use the Ordnance Survey’s Web site to try out its mapping products – both the free OpenData services and its commercial tools, such as its Points Of Interest database.

The opening up of Ordnance Survey data and postcode databases (and the prospect of a national address database) will mean easier access to high quality mapping data, together with more effective and less expensive geocoding tools. Services such as Microsoft’s Azure Data Market are also providing access to massive sets of geographic and demographic data, which can be added into your applications using the open OData protocol, giving you many more tools for building high-quality geographic applications.

Tied together with local search, maps are becoming increasingly important. Convenient and no-longer difficult to fold and unfold, today’s digital maps are an integral part of many business applications. Web services means they’re always up to date and always improving. Recent updates to Bing Maps improved legibility and added much higher resolution aerial imagery, and cloud-based mapping services are just going to get better. Other recent changes to Bing include the addition of a layer of map data from the Open Street Map project, a crowd-sourced mapping service that’s adding detailed information for towns and villages around the world at a level that commercial map providers can’t economically match – and that can be up to date as soon as there are any changes to the streets and buildings that its volunteers monitor.

Geographic information is a powerful tool. It can help your business analyse information more effectively, plan responses appropriately, and ensure that staff get to where they need to be as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Consumers accessing your Web sites will be able to find your premises more easily, making their journeys easier and less stressful, improving their experience and making them more likely to spend. With a wide range of mapping services on the market, and a wide selection of APIs that make them easy to integrate into Web applications, enterprise and desktop software, it’s not a question of whether you are going to use mapping tools in your applications, but which services you are going to choose.

Find Out More

Check out the full range of mapping solutions available from Grey Matter at www.greymatter.com/catalogue/Mapping/3798 where you will find details of the licensing options available for Bing Maps and Ordnance Survey.

See code.google.com/more/#google-geo for details of Google's mapping APIs.