Forget Google’s slow-updating Streetview. Forget even high-tech satellite imagery. Atlanta’s plans to become the World’s most mapped city involve good old volunteer boots on the ground, part of a large Mapathon project this weekend.
The efforts are being coordinated by OpenStreetMap and the university-based Office of Research and Policy Analysis (ORPA). The plans are pretty astounding: to produce a map more accurate than anything currently available and to make the data available to the public and companies for free. The free aspect comes via OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourcing initiative designed to compete with proprietary ownership of accurate mapping data through companies like TeleAtlas or Google.
Atlanta’s efforts begin this weekend with the Mapathon–about 200 GPS-equipped volunteers will start at freeway locations, before moving on to main roads, smaller local routes, and then footpaths. Along the way, they’ll be noting the locations of bars and restaurants, bicycle paths, emergency phones, and police precincts, ensuring that the mapping information isn’t just about traffic but is an effort to actually capture the physical elements of the city that make it tick.
Why aim to be the most mapped city? Because in our digitally connected world, working out exactly where things are is becoming a vital part of the high-tech tools we’re all getting used to. This starts with GPS for navigation then moves on to things like virtual city visits for vacation planning and then to advanced real-life data systems like augmented reality. And there’s a surprising lack of central data available about the location of many things–a situation the Obama Administration’s having to tackle by spending $350 million to map the U.S.’s broadband availability patterns before it can start to improve the system. Similarly, location-based data may well be behind Cisco’s $3 billion purchase of Factual.
Once accurate geo-located data’s in place, there’s much potential for exploitation of it in novel ways. ORPA spokesman Frank Howell noted as much to the BBC: Give the data to some local “bright minds” and “they will come up with new applications and winning innovations around that information.” One group who’ll find the data invaluable will be social research academics–it’s potential as a data set for analysis is huge. And of course augmented reality systems like Layar or the London and Paris maps would be able to tap into the dataset too.
Oh, and here’s a funny thought: While those self-same volunteers are risking their lives in traffic while trotting Atlanta’s streets, I wonder how many of them’ll be carrying a digital camera, snapping the scenes as they go? Because once they get home, they’d be in a great position to populate the 3-D virtual buildings in Google Maps using Google’s recently-released Buildings app. Or, er … maybe not.