With Google Maps, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single click -- and where it ends, nobody knows.
Earlier this year, when I heard that Google had announced Google Maps Beta, its free online map service, I tossed my compass and sextant into the junk drawer and threw my charts out the window.
Sure, I'd tried using online maps before, but I was left wanting every time. You only have to drive to New Hampshire from Boston one time by way of Rhode Island to know that your mapping software is inadequate.
After that experience, I went back to my old ways, squinting at a large paper map and rotating it slowly before me, trying in vain to orient myself. Every trip to a new place ended up as my very own trail of tears.
And then came Google Maps. This thing has a nifty route planner that incorporates an easy-on-the-eyes visual display with step-by-step driving directions. And it boasts draggable maps of the entire globe--except the poles. With a single click, I can toggle between a map and satellite or aerial photos of the same area. Click again and I can zoom in or out. Sure, I know this feature isn't new. Microsoft's Terraserver has zoomable satellite images as well, but Google's look and feel are much slicker.
One of Google Map's neat features is how it helps you find stuff. For example, type "wifi" and a zip code into the search bar, and Google Maps displays the free hotspots in the vicinity, with phone numbers for each location right there on the same page.
But what's really caught my attention recently are the cool applications that developers have come up with by working with Google's API. Now that they've have had some time to tinker, developers are delivering scores of practical and thoughtful tools and toys.
I like this one a lot: GMaps Pedometer tracks the route you've run or walked (or are about to run or walk) and instantly calculates the distance. If you want, it will even estimate how many calories you burned. This app was created by a Hoboken runner training for a marathon, who didn't want to lug around a GPS or pedometer. And no, you don't have to live in Hoboken for it to work. You can live anywhere.
Too tired to run? Get New York City subway information or hop in the car and drive to your destination. But first, make sure there are no traffic snarls ahead. Should you run afoul of the traffic laws, Google Maps might even vindicate you, as this fellow happily found out.
And if crime's your thing, check out what Chicago-based Web developer Adrian Holovaty did. He used Google maps to manipulate publicly avalaible crime statistics. The result is ChicagoCrime.org, a Web site that allows users to search for reported crimes in Chicago by date, location, or type of crime.
Even stronger social commentary can be found on a site that maps U.S. casualties of the war in Iraq. Again, the data is culled from publicly available records and integrated with Google's maps for a powerful visual statement.
When you're ready to lighten up, take a look at this mash-up of Google Maps and Hot-or-Not, a popular social site. Hot-or-Not, like Google Maps, has released its API. Thanks to some clever developers, it is now possible to enter a ZIP code to locate, er, "hot" people near you.
Were your ancestors hot? Hot or not, this site will plot your forebears on a map, and a family tree.
Whether you're looking for an apartment or a date, or planning a road trip to the moon, Google Maps adds depth and dimension to plain paper maps, and improves tremendously on what other online mapping sites can currently do. To be sure, there are many kinks, but I'm eager to see how Google Maps evolves and how developers create more and better applications for it.
In the meantime, I've bookmarked this Lifehacker resource page and will keep checking it for updates. Because with Google Maps, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single click.
Cora Nucci is a senior editor at TechWeb.
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