It’s a Mad, Mad, Mapped World

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We haven’t exactly been searching for a mapped-out musical bike tour of Seattle, or a map that plots the public bathrooms of the world (nicely named Crap, I gotta go!) But social maps, where users can “geotag” photos, text and video with location data and pin this info to an online interactive map, are weirdly addictive to both make and explore.

mapawards.gifThe examples above are some of the more-popular quirky finds from startups like Platial, Flagr, and Frappr, which have started growing a dedicated community of users over the past year. To celebrate the New Year, Platial posted its 2006 Map Awards, including categories like Mapper of the Year, Best Storytelling Map, and Best Indie Business Map, curated out of the company’s 15,000 geotagged maps in 2006.

The audience for geotagging is still small, but the trend started to creep into the mainstream in 2006. Always-on broadband networks, mobile devices that capture both photos and location data, widely available online maps and the rise of user-generated digital content means content can easily be tied to location and shared with the rest of the world. While cell phone services that use your actual real-time location for various applications, have long been overhyped, geotagging offers a more subtle way to use location as tool to share content and create a community.

Already big companies like Yahoo see the potential. This year, Flickr added geotagging with a drag-n-drop interface with Yahoo maps. A day after the service went live, Flickr said 1.2 million photos had been geotagged — check out the more recent map of Flickr’s geotagged photos here. Next year, we’re thinking more mainstream photo-sharing services will better leverage location data and geotagging maps.

platial2.gifIt’s not too hard to set up now that interactive online maps are widely and cheaply available across the web. Thank Google for its open API of Google Maps, which all of the startups from above are using for their map interface. Other mapping companies like Navteq and TeleAtlas are providing mapping services for the more high powered services like GPS navigation.

Sophisticated mobile devices are one of the biggest reasons why geotagging became a talked-about trend this year. Cameras have become a standard cell phone feature, and carriers and startups are starting to use mobile location data for various purposes. The ideal application is that on-the-go wireless users capture images, automatically tag them with location data, and upload them to a photo sharing service with one device and a few easy steps.

Nokia, always ready to oblige, hooked up with Flickr and announced devices like the N95 that will make geotagging and uploading to Flickr easier. Yahoo also has a research division working on a mobile application called Zonetag, which makes it easier to tag and upload photos from a wider array of camera phones. Next year we expect to start seeing people actually using these and other mobile services and devices to geotag content, given few people are actually using them now.

This year location — whether it’s from GPS, cell tower, WiFi access point or manual-entry — was a hot topic (as it seems to be every year). While a lot of the mobile LBS applications like kid-tracking and friend-finder services that debuted this year, got a lot of hype, some, like GPS navigation are actually going gangbusters. But set apart from those real-time mobile tracking applications, geotagging is a more subtle way to leverage location as a way to share content or connect with a community. Location is the context, not the end goal.

It’s also a lot cheaper and easier to enable. Startups like Meetro and Skyhook Wireless are adding location in a similar way to geotagging to enhance various online services like social networking, instant messaging, and local search.

Finally behind all Internet and mobile trends there are the high speed broadband networks that are doing the heavy lifting. A camera phone photo will stay stuck on the device if you can’t send it and share it somewhere, and you don’t really need to tag a photo with location if it’s not going to land in a searchable community.

And that’s really what geotagging is all about — adding bits of the real, geographical world to a virtual community to help members share relevant information. With all the time we spend online chatting, working, and hanging out, we, for one, are glad that the real world is starting to make its way back in.

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