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Caught Mapping

How MapQuest helps the lost generation find itself.


Back in the pre-digital era, when a wireless phone was a busted phone and three television networks ruled the airwaves, when darkness covered the earth and man was but a lowbrow savage still reeking of the primordial ooze, the weary traveler got his directions at a gas station. In between checking the oil and tires and, yes, squeegeeing the windshield, a pump jockey in grease-stained coveralls would gesture wildly with his hands and warn the motorist to take the turn beforehe got to the rendering plant if he ever wanted to see the interstate again.

In 1967, the cartographic-services division of R.R. Donnelly & Sons, a major Chicago printer, started publishing road maps for free distribution at gas stations. A modest promotional gesture, to be sure, but one that set great things in motion. As demand picked up, the custom mapping division moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and developed maps and related content for academic and travel publishers. In 1976, the company created the first maps ever published in a telephone directory. By the late 1980s, it was working on mapping applications for Apple computers.

In 1994, the mapping enterprise was spun off as an independent company called GeoSystems Global Corporation. The following year, GSGC opened an office in Denver, with the express aim of taking its mapping expertise online. A few months later, MapQuest.com was born. In 1999, as the Internet boom was reaching its surreal peak, the company changed its name to match the website and went public. Within a year, America Online bought the whole shebang for $1.1 billion.

For its money, AOL not only acquired a site with impressively mounting traffic, but a viable means of exploring what was, at the time, one of the great untapped markets of the Internet: local advertising. Consumers trying to get places -- and consume things -- are the logical audience for advertisers situated around those places. And it would be hard to imagine a site with more local content, yet more far-reaching, than MapQuest, with its millions of miles of maps spanning thousands of cities and dozens of countries.

The key to the site's popularity is its ease of use, Greiner says. When you enter a starting address and a destination into the search fields, the software assigns a latitude and longitude to each point, a process known as geocoding. Then, using what Greiner refers to as "proprietary algorithms," MapQuest figures out the best driving route between the two points and generates text directions and maps. "The quality of the directions is really dependent on the accuracy of the start and end points," he points out.

Over the years, the company has refined the options it provides its users -- avoid highways, take the fastest route, that kind of thing. But glitches do crop up when you're generating millions of maps a month. It's not hard to find folks who say that MapQuest dispatched them on a super-highway goose chase when surface roads would have been easier, or that they were sent hurtling toward a gated community with no warning about the gate.

Officials in one Florida burg took exception to MapQuest's choice of a narrow bridge with no guardrails as the ideal route from one side of town to the other. A few years ago, according to the Boston Globe,Beantown motorists who followed MapQuest's notion of a crosstown jaunt found themselves snarled in alleys, tunnels and construction sites far from the beaten path -- but then, Boston may be the trickiest place to navigate this side of Baghdad. A colleague who followed MapQuest's directions from Jackson, Mississippi, back to Denver got a tour of the wilds of northern Louisiana rather than the more efficient run through Little Rock or St. Louis. (The recommended route has since been changed.) Even in Denver, the company has occasionally lagged behind new developments or has listed streets that don't yet exist.

Only a tiny fraction of the company's directions turn out to have problems, Greiner says. MapQuest corrects routes when users report errors, and the company relies on its data vendors, who employ aerial photography, and driving teams to constantly update its information. Still, it can take six months to a year to authenticate maps of new subdivisions. "I'd love for it to happen in real time, but there are dangers to doing it too quickly," he adds. "We want to make sure it's the most accurate data possible."

Accuracy is only part of what consumers seem to want from their mapping services these days. They want the computer to be smarter than they are -- and a lot more intuitive. They want to be able to find driving directions to "Mount Rushmore," even if they don't know what state it's in. They want to be able to find the new brewpub in Golden, even if they don't have the name or address -- and they want to know where there's a coffee shop down the street to sober up or a hotel to sleep it off. They want aerial photos and 3-D mapping of the neighborhood surrounding the house they're thinking of buying, so they can examine their potential investment from all angles.

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