The Race of the Digital Cartographers

By: Sewell Chan
By: Sewell Chan

The competition to digitally map New York City is heating up. This week, both Google and Microsoft started new Web features that allow readers to get a bird’s-eye, street-level view of many streets and intersections in Manhattan and in parts of the other boroughs.

On May 28, 2007, Microsoft announced that Microsoft Live Search Maps now contained “three-dimensional, photo-realistic views of New York City buildings and landscapes, with perspectives that few people - apart from Superman - have ever seen.”

The views of the city’s “iconic locations” are accompanied by local listings, ratings and reviews, along with driving directions and ways to share information to others on the Web. The Microsoft project will include Austin, Texas; Cape Coral, Fla.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Northampton, England; Ottawa, Canada; Savannah, Ga.; and Tampa, Fla.

On May 29, Google announced the unveiling of Street View, a new feature on Google Maps that allows users to scan 360-degree views from a given location. Users can zoom in on a bus stop or a street sign, for example.

“By clicking on the ‘Street View’ button in Google Maps, users can navigate street level, panoramic imagery,” Google said in its announcement. “With Street View users can virtually walk the streets of a city, check out a restaurant before arriving, and even zoom in on bus stops and street signs to make travel plans.” The Street View project also covers the San Francisco Bay area, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami.

Jack Eichenbaum, an urban geographer and an adjunct professor at Hunter College and Queens College, said the new digital tools were natural outgrowths of the proliferation in geographic information system technologies, known as GIS. How useful the tools will be remains to be seen, he said.

“For this to be more than an informative toy, it will all depend on how easy the data is to use,” Mr. Eichenbaum said in a phone interview. “If you get good data, people will be able to do research on their desktops. Otherwise, it will be primarily useful for navigation, seeing the city in 3-D.”

He noted that while visual data for the city is available from commercial vendors, “the best data on New York City comes from the flyovers commissioned by the city government.” Those images are rarely released to the public, and “a lot of data is not easy to obtain, particularly after Sept. 11, with the security restrictions,” Mr. Eichenbaum said.

Are these maps useful for research or more of an informative toy? Perhaps both.

To try out Google Street View, click here and for a demo, be sure to click here.

To try out Microsoft Live Maps, click here and for a tour, be sure to click here.

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