Smash Hit

It's not just for the young and hip. State and local IT officials are tapping into a cool Google tool to create maps with new, improved uses.
by | February 1, 2007

Mashups. It could be the next monster app. Two years ago this month, the search engine Google released a mapping function that allows anyone to manipulate Google's maps for their specific needs. By inserting other data into them, they could pair two existing pieces of technological information together to form a new whole.

While it's been quite the rage among the YouTube and MySpace set, several government and government-oriented sites have begun mashing up maps from Google, Microsoft and others with existing data to create customized new uses. In Ohio, for instance, the Public Safety Department's Highway Division is now merging fatal crash data with the mapping technology. Boston transit stations are part of a mashup that allows riders to find the shortest distance between two stations or figure out the fastest way to get point to point, both walking and using the train. A private site in Chicago is blending Chicago Police Department data with Google Maps to allow the public to see crime statistics online and sort the data in different ways.

Michigan didn't have a word for it when it started looking at mingling the state's high-quality spatial data with Google Maps. All Eric Swanson, director of Michigan's Center for Gegraphic Information, knew was that he was very interested in combining a tremendous amount of highly accurate state data with Google technology. Once he was introduced to the word, he latched on to it. "We're smushing and smashing together," he says. "We're doing a little mushing and mashing. If that's a legit term, I'm going to start using it."

With all that smushing and mushing, computer users can now gain access to what used to be locked-up, back-room data and find it the same way they do when they tap into Google for any information. For those who would like to try this at home, "How to Make Your Own Mashup" is available at programmableweb.com.

Perhaps the best part of mashups is that the Google tool is free, and it solves a problem technology officials have been talking about for decades: finding a way to mix pieces and parts, and share technology components and ideas. With Google dropping the solution in their laps, state and local agencies are beginning to learn how to take advantage of it - and produce something that's more useful than the original data.

Ohio's mashing of its fatal crash information with Google Maps, for instance, not only lets the state and residents know where the crashes are, it personalizes the scene. Residents can type in their home address to see whether a crash was in a rural or an urban area, what intersection, how close it was to their neighborhood or if it was alcohol-related. Armed with that information, they could, if they had a case to make, lobby for traffic changes or to get better lights at dangerous intersections.

Chicagocrime.org - the site maintained by a private user - presents crime information viewable in many ways and is based on police department data. By mashing it together, the site allows users to find crimes by type, street, ZIP code, ward, date - down to an hour-by-hour list - and location, such as at an ATM, on a CTA train or at a gas station. Having this kind of mashup put out by a private party worries some government officials. There are concerns about how trustworthy the data is, the manipulation of that data and whether the mashup could be used for questionable purposes, such as pinpointing ethnic populations.

Those questions aside, Michigan's Swanson was anxious to incorporate the ease of Google searches into government data searches. He saw the mashup as a significant advance to the state's offerings, making them more universally accessible. "You, as a consumer, are going to have a thousand more things to click on, and it's going to be just like riding a bike," says Swanson, referring to the ease of use. People wouldn't have to know what department to go to for the information they want. And, if someone doing a Google search lands on Michigan data, that information could come straight from the government's own servers.

Once citizens find the government information on, say, water quality, they can then incorporate Google's information about nearby businesses and residences, all of which now exists. "I'm not going to try to reinvent the world," Swanson says. Instead, he wants to take the best of what the private and public sectors are doing already and turn that into the "best of everything.

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