Google Maps Adds More Detail, Takes a Cue From OpenStreetMap

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By Scott Gilbertson October 9, 2009 Categories: Software & Tools

Google has announced a major update to its Maps service which adds detailed data from several U.S. government databases and improves the system for users to report errors and make corrections.

With this week’s update, Google Maps has added more detailed map information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Census Bureau to more accurately show map results in non-road areas, including parks, college campuses, hiking trails and bike routes.

Google Maps has also made it easier for its users to report problems, taking a step in the direction of crowdsourced projects like OpenStreetMap. Of course OpenStreetMap, which offers wiki-style, user-editable maps, is well ahead of Google when it comes to letting users to contribute roads, locations, routes, place-names and photos to maps. The new Google Maps feature stops short of allowing you to do the actual editing of street-level data. Rather, it simply gives you a channel through which you can report a problem, which is then edited by someone at Google.

To alert Google of an error or problem on a map, just right-click on the area in question and the drop-down menu will have a new option to “report a problem.” It’s not nearly as slick as OpenStreetMaps, which allows you to simply correct the problem right then and there, but Google does promise to resolve any reported issue within a month.

Far more useful than correcting Google’s mistakes is the additional data that’s been added to the maps, pulling in information on public parks, trails and paths. Even better, the Google Lat/Long blog says the new trails and paths data and the new cycling directions will eventually be added to Google Maps’ route planning features. Google Maps has also added building maps for many college campuses and now offers parcel maps in many U.S. cities.

It’s encouraging to see Google and the U.S. Government collaborating to make Google Maps more complete. But while the new features are incredibly useful in some context — finding all the bike paths in a nearby park, for example — the sheer amount of data being gathered into Google Maps verges on overwhelming.

In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons many developers are turning to solutions like OpenStreetMaps.

While Google’s new features are a welcome addition, the maps offered by Google lack much of the flexibility found in OpenStreetMaps. Unlike Google, which provides all its geographic data in a single layer, which is then displayed on the map, OpenStreetMaps allows you to pick and choose which layers are displayed in your maps. For example, if your map application needs to show trails, you can highlight that layer. If you’re just interested in streets, then you can omit the trail data.

The result is a cleaner, more customizable map that provides only the data that interests your users. The trade-off is a more complex interface, though projects like TileDrawer are helping to make OpenStreetMaps more accessible to developers.

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