GPS, Google Maps, and Web 2.0

August 6th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


The topic of this essay is GPS (the global positioning system) and Google Maps. By extension, we will touch on a few other ideas, but there is plenty to know about these topics.

The fact is, people always have had a need to know where they are and how to get from point A to point B. We have evidence today that many ancient peoples followed a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, and navigation of some sort was often crucial to survival. As people began to explore farther and farther afield, their need for good navigation aids only increased. Today we are able to use technology to find our way almost effortlessly.

So, how do we find our way around? What is it about our brains that allows us to navigate our daily lives, even when things get pretty complex? The following readings will help understand the complexity of the issue from a psychological perspective:

The first article is an 84-page PDF, which sounds like a a lot of reading, but it actually includes several blank pages and lots of illustrations. Because it is a review of literature, it gives a good overview of the various avenues of research in this field. The section in the middle about individual differences in “wayfinding” abilities and strategies might be the most interesting for most of us. The second article address the way humans and animals seem to construct mental maps for use in navigation.

GPS – Global Positioning System

First we will address the GPS, the Global Positioning System. These units have become very common today–so common that they might pop up in places you didn’t expect. Most of us know we can have these installed in our cars as a pricey option, but airplanes and ships use the technology extensively. Many car and truck fleets owned by companies have them installed, sometimes without the knowledge of the people driving the vehicles, to track the productivity of the employees. They can come in handy when delivery trucks need to find destinations, and they can be real lifesavers when installed in emergency vehicles such as ambulances and firetrucks. On a more mundane level, there is a good chance that the last taxi you rode in was equipped with a GPS. A quick look at this Google search for the terms “GPS” and “fleet” shows what a big business this has become.

It goes way beyond that, though. Fishermen can get electronic sonar fishfinders with GPS units attached. This allows them to display their position on the same screen as they use to look into the depths below their boats. Find a fishing hotspot? Just mark it in your GPS so that you can return another day. Runners and bicyclists can chart their courses and routes, keep up with their speeds, and save their routes for later outings. Sailors can keep track of their VMG, their “velocity made good,” toward the next mark, which is especially important in this kind of racing. Hikers on the Appalachian Trail can keep track as their elevation above sea level changes along their route. A quick look at the Web site for The GPS Store will give you an idea of the variety–and price range–for the various popular applications of this increasingly popular technology.

And it’s not just a matter of dedicated GPS receivers, either. This technology can be built into other devices such as cell phones and walkie-talkies. Many handheld devices such as PDAs come with the technology built in. One company has developed “Cloudberry” technology for the purpose of tracking and managing large networks of GPS-enabled cell phones anywhere in North or Central America.

So, how do these units–whether installed in a vehicle, mounted on the handlebars, or worn on the wrist–do what they do? Well, triangulation is the key concept, and a system of special satellites are the unseen necessity. The Federal Aviation Administration has a lot to do with the system as it exists today. They have provided the FAA GPS Site with loads of information on the specifics. Look especially at the GPS Basics part of the site. Various companies in the field also have attempted to explain it all. GPS maker Trimble has worked up this nice GPS Tutorial, complete with Shockwave animations, and Garmin has provided its own GPS Tutorial. See which one suits you best!

You might be wondering what other activities you can do with a GPS-equipped unit. One hobby that appeals to some people is geocaching. In this activity, people put out caches of little “treasures” and momentoes for other people to find. They usually are in out-of-the-way places, whether urban or very remote, and then they publish the GPS coordinates of the cache so that other people can find them. The finders then contact the person who left the cache or post on their Web site somehow, so it all becomes a social activity, even though it doesn’t sound as though it would be, necessarily. This Wikipedia article on geocaching will fill in the details, as will this article from on the topic.

If the GPS is to be an adjunct to social interaction, ideally the GPSs need to talk to each other, too. That has been covered extensively. publishes a current Up-to-Date List of Free GPS Software, much of which is devoted to the interaction between devices. The trick is to find some kind of standard by which the data on waypoints and routes in a GPS unit can be transfered from one unit to another. This would allow a group of people to follow along in the footsteps of someone else who had found an interesting hiking/biking/running/birdwatching/you-name-it route.

Google Maps

One of these is GPX (the GPS Exchange Format), a “light-weight XML data format for the interchange of GPS data (waypoints, routes, and tracks) between applications and Web services on the Internet.” GPX is sort of the transition point between the discussion of GPS technology and Google Maps. This standard allows people to chart their routes and waypoints on a Google map so they can easily be shared with others. Do the devices “speak different languages”? Use gpsbabel to make the “translation.” And of course, as is often the case with computers, there is always another way. People can use the GPS Route Creation Demo to do the same sort of job.

Sometimes the application of this GPS-to-Google Maps technology is sort of silly as in Wheres’s Tim Hibbard? This person works for one of those fleet management companies, and he has figured out how to publish his whereabouts (or at least those of his GPS) to the world by taking the real-time data from his GPS and putting it on the Web through the Google Maps API.

An API or “application programming interface” is a set of rules programmers need in order to program for a given application–a sort of “rules-of-the-road” guide. Google Maps released their API in the middle of 2005, which led MapQuest to do the same. It also led to a revolution in Web-based applications that has been dubbed “Web 2.0.” More on that later.

Of course people don’t have to use Google Maps to put their GPS data on a map. A quick reference to GPS Visualizer shows that we have many other options, but Google maps is the hot technology of the moment. What differentiates Google Maps from other maps is the ability to drag the map around in the window and even to zoom the map with the wheel-mouse if you have one. This behavior is made possible by use of a standard called “the XMLHttpRequest object, a main component of the Web 2.0 phenomenon; again, more on that later.

One necessity of using the Google Maps API is the ability to nail down locations on the earth’s surface by latitude and longitude coordinates. True, you could go to the location with your GPS and take a waypoint or read the location directly from the unit. That is often impractical, however, so the alternative is to use the geocoding approach. This system allows you to enter an address and then deduce the coordinates of the location. Geocode America,, and several other free geocoders will handle the job. If someone needs to find several points at the same time, he or she could use

Unfortunately, these geocoders often only get close to the exact location, sometimes missing the exact location by a few hundred feet or yards. Another, more accurate (and really cool) option is Flash Earth, with which you can navigate to a given location visually, as you would by dragging and zooming on Google Maps. When you click on the exact location you want, the front door of your home as seen from space, for example, the exact coordinates print out for you. These can then be input into the Google Maps API for a reliable guide to the exact location.

Of course, people don’t have to use the API; they have other map-making options. Map Maker Desktop Mapping provides a commercial and a free version of their map-making software. The Google Maps API is not all that hard to use, though, and it offers many advantages, the accesibility of publishing your final result to the Web primary among them. As with most things on the Web, there are plenty of tutorials to help you along. You should probably start with the Google Map API Documentation. Here you’ll find out how to sign up for an API key, which is required for your “map mash-up” to work. Then there is How to build a Maps Mash-up, How To Make Your Own Web Mashup, and the Google Maps API Basic Tutorial. Another good learners resource is GoogleMapki. You could also “cheat” and use Map Builder.

The process is not that difficult. Time-consuming, yes, but that can be said for so many of these tasks when you first learn them. Anyway, even I managed a little mash-up. I mapped out the schools in my district, which you can see HERE.
(WARNING: It is not much to look at. Just a proof-of-concept kind of thing. As you see, you first arrange for the map to center and zoom to the appropriate view of the area. Then you arrange for the little markers to appear on the map in the appropriate locations, which I did by including little XML files in the correct syntax. Then you sort out what will appear in the little balloons that appear when you click on the markers or sidebar items. Then you configure the sidebar.

Educational Applications

These technologies have natural educational applications. With GPSs and Google Maps, certain abstractions in the Earth Sciences take on a much more “hands-on” feel. Students who use a GPS to see their elevation change as they traverse a landscape with a topo map in their hands all of a sudden get a feel for what all those squiggly lines on the map really mean. Students who are able to navigate to a given location and see a satellite image of it all of a sudden get the feeling of having really been there, whether to study a geologic landform or to visit the setting of a work of literature. This is the sort of thing the National Council for Geographic Education is interested in. A couple of other sites offer a load of resources. Cornell’s Geoscience Information System Pages and The GLOBE Program, “an exciting, worldwide, hands-on education and science program,” are worth a look. Our own North Carolina Department of Public Instruction offers Geocaching Project Home page, which looks like a fun set of activities for students.

With the social context possible with these activities, one sees the potential for the constructivist approach to education. A group of students collecting data with their GPS units, whether far from home or right on the school campus, are able to see how the abstract data they record actually relates to something real from their environment. If they then are able to use that data to construct a Google Map and publish it on the Web, the whole experience becomes an opportunity to solve real-world problems and produce real-world results that anyone can see for themselves. A creative teacher can put his or her classes through some meaningful project-based learning activities that can occur outside the normal classroom environment and really add some flair to the students’ school experience.

Web 2.0

As promised, I will finish with a discussion of the current buzzword–Web 2.0. This refers to a new approach to coding for the Web that makes us of certain techniques that do away with the old requirement for a Web page to refresh between operations. This technique makes use of XMLhttpRequest, a key part of the AJAX style of programming. AJAX stands for “Asynchronous JavaScript And XML,” and what it allows for is a stedy connection between the server and the Web browser on your computer. This method had been around for a while but little used until Google and Google spin-off GMail began using it a few years ago. It is the key feature that allows such previously unheard-of behavior as the ability to drag maps around inside a browser window. The map is being continuously refreshed by this communication with the server, so the page does not need to be reloaded for changes to appear.

This has given rise to many new applications on the Web. It even could lead to a decline in other desktop programs as Web-based applications take on more and more of the features we associate with our regular programs we run on our computers. Flickr, a Web site that allows users to store, share, and use their photos interactively on the Web was one of the first “early adopters” of the technology. This has led to a raft of off-shoots such as Frappr and Flickrmap. These have to be seen to be believed. They are all parts of the new trend called the “social Web” that gave rise to Facebook and Myspace. Then there were Digg and, and now there is a combination of those two called DiggLicious. You really have to check this one out. When have you ever seen a Web interface refreshing and adding new content without any interaction from you? Yet another social Web site is 43 Things; look for help doing things from people who are trying to do those same things!

Need a place to stay? Check out HousingMaps. Birdwatching in New York City? Try Central Park Birding Locations. Find a cheap watering hole in Atlanta? There’s always Atlanta Drink Specials. Want to stay abreast of the newest and coolest in Web 2.0 applications? You can do that, too, with Complete List of Web 2.0 Products and Services, the Web 2.0 List, and Everything Web 2.0 – The LIST

That just scratches the surface, but it may be enough to get you interested. I am reminded of a line from an old Bob Dylan song here–and I am old enough to have heard it when it first came out. “There’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Well, no one can say that to you anymore, now can they?

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