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Then he was five, Saroo Munshi Khan was separated from his family in true Hindi film fashion. He was travelling from his hometown to Burhanpur by train with his brother. On the way back, Saroo and his brother Guddu were separated and Saroo found himself in Calcutta. The years passed and Saroo was adopted by an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley. As he grew older, WSaroo never forgot his hometown, where a river flowed over a dam like a waterfall. Vanity Fair magazine reported on Saroo's search for his distant home and how he spent hours poring over satellite pictures of India, searching for places with a warm climate where Hindi was spoken, all within a 960-km radius of Calcutta. Saroo finally found his hometown and was reunited with his long lost family. His biggest partners in his search were Google Earth and Maps.
In a more sinister use, Fasih Mahmood, the Indian Mujahideen man accused in the 2010 Chinnaswamy stadium blast, allegedly used Google maps to study the stadium and identify locations where bombs would maximise collateral damage.
Maps have always been more than geography. Once upon a time they were stories of conquests and war, of exploration and discovery. Then they trickled into classrooms and geography lessons where bored students learned to mark copper mines in Singhbhum and Hazaribagh.
Like almost every other knowledge-based industry, the mapping industry has been changed beyond recognition by technology. Maps are now interactive and enable data analysis. They are used in mashups. They are platforms for multimedia content. Maps have become stories again. Do you want to compare the Northern and the Southern states in the American Civil War and the way they voted in the US election? There's a map for that. Want to see what a 2? Centigrade rise would mean for low-lying cities around the world? Want to find "The creepiest place in the world?" There are maps for that too.
Ashwin Mahesh, who is on Wired Magazine's 'The Smart List' for 2012 (a list of 50 people who will change the world), runs Mapunity, a company that combines Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Management Information Systems and mobile technology to tackle social and developmental issues. Mahesh believes that by itself, the map is not very different from a whiteboard. It's only when it's combined with datasets that it truly becomes powerful.
"The map is just a way of organising information and a way of building in location awareness, " he says. "Let's say that I'm interested a solid waste management system, " he elaborates, referring to Bangalore's recent problems with garbage. "I want to set up a system that processes solid waste, but I have no clue how to do it. What I would like to do is to go online, pull up a map of the city and search for the nearest solid waste management system. It's when doing something like this - allowing communities that are involved in similar activities to get in touch with each other - that mapping applications become really effective. "
At Google's offices in Bangalore, the reception area is dominated by a 56-inch flat-screen TV displaying, in real time, edits that users make to Google maps. Names flicker as the view shifts from country to country. User AH1 updates Duc Pho, Quang Ngai in Vietnam. User Mahonned classifies Al Etihad university in Manbij, Syria as a private university. GattoArturo adds a new route called Via Traversa in Lodrino, Switzerland. Nasir Bashir adds Umer Colony to the map of Lawaypora in J & K, India.
Lalitesh Katragadda looks like a student at one of the IITs - and he was once. Now he heads Google's India Product division and is the man behind the search behemoth's hugely popular Mapmaker application. Mapmaker is the tool that Mahonned, Nasir and others use to tag features on Google Maps.
In 2002, Katragadda was inspired by the works of Hernando De Soto, the noted Peruvian economist, to come up with an idea for a product that would serve Google's stated mission of "organising the world's information" and have an impact on local communities as well. "We wanted the maps to benefit not just those who are online, " he says. He reels off the ways in which Google maps have been used in India. Local businesses benefit when their locations and descriptions are tagged. In Maharashtra, maps are used to determine optimal locations for schools in rural areas. Aid reaches emergency locations faster, he says, giving examples of a Pakistani NGO that was able to cut hours off its response time to reach children in need, and the case of an injured resident in his own apartment complex which had an ambulance find the location in eight minutes.
He proudly shows off a letter from Francisco Pisano of UNOSAT (The UN organisation that uses maps and satellite imagery to aid relief organisations) saying "approximately 800, 000 people received assistance that may otherwise not be delivered to them, due to the availability of MapMaker data".
Google Maps is the confluence of several products - Google Earth provides the satellite imagery, Google Maps (the service application that underlies the maps website), the MapMaker application, the Streetview technology, Google public transit and many others. There are other mapping products as well. Nokia was one of the early providers of mapping technology on the mobile phone with its Smart2Go application. The Finnish company launched its first GPS based mobile phone, the 6110 Navigator five years ago and paid USD 8. 1 billion to acquire digital map supplier Navteq. After its mapping application faced a poor reception, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologised and Scott Forstall, head of software for the iPad and iPhone, resigned.
Sandeep Nayak is a 30-year-old software engineer and a regular map user. He purchased a mobile phone with GPS support. "I wanted to use offline maps in it and discovered that Google map data is not available for offline use, " he says. (Google has since made it possible to save maps for offline use) Looking for alternatives on the Android market, he discovered OpenStreetMap (OSM). OSM maps are created using free sources and the data is available under the Open Database License. While he occasionally uses Google Maps, he regularly works on updating OSM maps.
"It didn't take a lot of time for me to start liking the idea of open, community driven maps, " he says. "When I explored OSM, saw that lot of mapping data was available for Indian metros, but not much for tier 2 cities/towns. " To him, it became a matter of principle to increase the accuracy of OSM maps. "Now whenever I visit a new place or a place for which data is not present in OSM, I mark it in my device and then update it on the OSM, " he says.
This crowdsourcing of map information is one of the biggest developments in mapping since Martin Behaim created the first globe. And with an army of amateur cartographers updating every little corner of every connected country, Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski's famous dictum that "the map is not the territory" may soon be proved wrong.
DIGITAL CO-ORDINATES : MAPPING INDIA
Location, location, location
Google started taking maps seriously only around 2004, but has since invested a lot in getting it right. The result is that its maps are about as good as it gets online for most users. Especially if you're looking for a free service. In India, Google's map services currently include a satellite view, live traffic updates, transit information in select cities and navigation.
Getting you out of a jam
If there is one company that can match Google's maps in India it is Nokia. It started building maps way back in 2001, and offers maps with good traffic and navigation services. The company's maps cover over 4, 000 towns and cities across the country.
Bitten off more than it can chew
Apple unveiled its maps this year, after having relied on Google so long. The company's maps offer traffic updates, navigation as well as a 'flyover mode' (similar to Google's Street View) to give users a bird's eye-view of the area. However, Apple maps currently lack the details or accuracy found in Nokia and Google maps.
Catching up to do
Microsoft's Bing map service may be better than Apple's but it still has a long way to go before it can catch up with Nokia or Google. Though available on smartphones, for which Nokia and Microsoft have hooked up, the service uses Nokia's maps so that Windows phone users can get access to vital navigation and live traffic updates.
TomTom, the Dutch automotive navigation major's services are available in India through paid apps on smartphones. They can also be used in tablets and navigators that the company sells.
The firm works on a model similar to that of TomTom's. It syndicates its maps and also sells tablets and apps to give end users access to its location services.
Free & Fun
Built entirely by users, OpenStreetMaps (OSM) is also entirely free to use. The project uses software like Google's Map Maker to give its users the ability to add details to maps, which means OSM maps tend to be very detailed. The flipside: they lack fancy features like satellite views or navigation with real-time traffic.
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