MapQuest's new error-reporting tool for "neighborhood watch" not quite error-free

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MapQuest, the AOL-owned online mapping service with strong Denver ties, has unveiled a new site that's supposed to encourage users to contribute data and correct errors in its maps -- a kind of cartographic Wikipedia, or what MQ is calling a "neighborhood watch" concept. It's a great idea -- if the company ever gets past the balkiness of the open site's beta phase.

In the battle to dominate on-the-go personal navigation, MapQuest has faced some stiff competition from Google and other heavyweights -- and attracted a horde of haters who bitch about wrong-way directions, clunky interfaces and other problems. Their data could badly use some user input about neighborhood attractions, closed roads, construction delays, hidden hazards and so on.

But a visit to Open MapQuest left me more lost than found. I thought I'd start with the address of our office, 969 Broadway in Denver, and see what features might be missing in the surrounding area. But I couldn't get there no matter how I tried. Address, city and zip just gave me random segments of Broadway. And some of the options weren't even Denver's Broadway.

I soon found myself on Broadway in Keenesburg -- a strip about seven blocks long, miles from just about anywhere except the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

I'm not quite sure what happened next. The zoom feature went postal, I suspect. In any case, I was soon on something called Ponderosa Drive. In Colorado, I think, but so far from anywhere that no amount of adjustment could divine my exact location -- beyond a general marker somewhere between Nevada and Missouri.

MapQuest hopes to make the open site a "hyper-local initiative" that will allow consumers to "easily add content and details that make the map more specific and useful," with "easy-to-use tools that are seamlessly integrated." The company already has dedicated open sites in ten countries and a growing base in the United States.

But after fooling around with the not-so-easy-to-use tools for thirty minutes or so, I was ready to break out the Rand McNally.

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