Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Washington DC city & transit guide Google Maps mashup

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Express is a daily tabloid style newspaper that is distributed (although not exclusively) at metro stations throughout Washington DC. Each morning between approximately 6-10 AM commuters scan its stories during their commute, which typically lasts 15-20 minutes. The Google Maps API has enabled the online version of Express (ReadExpress) to serve readers beyond this short morning perusal. By employing the skills of a innovative Google Maps geodeveloper they have created a transit and city guide mashup for Washington DC called Metro Links. I had the chance to talk with the folks over at ReadExpress (A Washington Post Company) thanks to Search Engine Lowdown's Garrett French. It was an interesting chat.

"We were trying to use Metro Links as a way to give people an easy way to access crucial information for their hyper-local neighborhood" explains Washington Post's Chris Ma, a driving force behind ReadExpress and the Metro Links Google Maps mashup. When Chris and his team had the idea to create this map they went out and recruited talent straight from the Google Maps developer community. They found Jason Yang, creator of Google Maps mashup DCHomePrices, who together with his brother built Metro Links. Chris mentions that Jason was brought on to the project "because of his experience with the Google Maps API."

Metro Links combines many things. It's a city and transit guide mashed up with Google Maps and blog postings from Window Shopper, Free Ride and Top Stops. The technical ingredients that Jason used included the Google Maps API and PHP interfacing with a Movable Type blogging platform and MySQL database. The result is a mashup that lets anyone local to any transit stop browse bars, restaurants, theaters and events local to their specific transit station.

What sets the transit aspect of this map apart from others in Washington DC is its attention to specific station stop detail. Read Express Web Editor Michael Grass told me about the challenges presented with plotting the locations of each stop. "If we would have gone with a pre-determined list of Metrorail lat/longs or WMATA-provided addresses, I think there would be some pretty significant inaccuracies, something that I would not have felt comfortable letting go live." With Michael's self proclaimed "geographic sixth sense" he, through much trial and error and various lat/long finder services and satellite imagery, pinpointed the exact spots where he felt comfortable placing the stations on the map. In many cases the exact station entry point (doorway) has been pinpointed, not just the address of the station that is provided by the transit authority. This is something very unique in comparison with the many transit mashups that I have reviewed here on Google Maps Mania. This detail in conjunction with the orientation of information for the user makes Metro Links a very unique mix of news, city and transit information - all brought together using a great mapping interface.

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