MapCruncher – a prototype technology from Microsoft Research that makes it easy for users to create their own, personalized mash-ups – may revolutionize the way people use online maps.

REDMOND, Wash., May 16, 2006 – “We love maps,” says Jon Howell – and it shows.

It shows in the office of Microsoft Research’s Jeremy Elson, where Howell is visiting one recent afternoon. As they chat, they are enveloped in maps. Every wall in Elson’s workspace is festooned with a variety of mapping imagery: here, a schematic representation of the Los Angeles metropolitan area; there, a King County (Wash.) bicycling map; on another wall, aeronautical charts of the U.S. West coast; pinned to a corkboard, maps of Microsoft’s Redmond campus. There’s even a “found” map of the United States on which the previous owner had painstakingly delineated a lifetime of travels.

It shows in the excited energy Elson and Howell display in discussing their cartographical devotion and the various ways in which a good map can rouse the imagination.

And it shows in MapCruncher, prototype technology they’ve developed that promises to revolutionize the way people use online maps.

"Mash-Up" Maps

There’s nothing else quite like it. MapCruncher enables a user to take existing road maps and aerial imagery and overlay particular, specialized maps to create unique mash-ups tailored to the user’s specific interests.

It’s quick, it’s easy, and – judging from the enthusiasm displayed by this pair of map aficionados – it’s fun.

“MapCruncher empowers anybody in the world to take whatever data is important to them,” explains Elson, the project lead, “and share it with everybody else in a format that makes all of these types of data interoperable.”

Adds John Douceur, who manages Elson and Howell and who, along with fellow researcher Danyel Fisher, made key contributions to the project: “We’re allowing people to take map data and overlay it to create a new interactive Web map.”

Labor of Love

The project represents a true labor of love. Howell, Elson, and Douceur work for the Systems and Networking group within Microsoft Research’s Redmond lab. Mapping technology is not exactly that group’s prime focus. But Microsoft Research scientists enjoy a certain latitude to pursue promising interests, and MapCruncher is a happy byproduct of that freedom.

“I’m an avid commuting cyclist,” Howell says, “and Jeremy also likes biking to work. He moved here a year and a half ago, and he asked, ‘How can I get to work?’ ”

They took a look at a county cycling map and found a promising route. But at one point along the way, it appeared the route was interrupted by a freeway. The cycling map recommended the route, but how was a cyclist supposed to cross the freeway?

By registering the cycling map with aerial photography from Microsoft Research’s TerraServer database, the answer became obvious: Upon zooming in on the aerial view, they could clearly discern a pedestrian bridge crossing the freeway.

“In fact,” Elson says, “I use this route all the time now.”

He and Howell share another interest: Both are pilots. They make regular use of aviation charts – detailed, specialized maps used for instrument or visual flight navigation. So it was no surprise that they were fascinated when they discovered that somebody had posted Web versions of those charts that aligned them with satellite images.

“It made it very easy,” Elson says, “to look at an airport and click a button to view a satellite photo and see what the airport looks like. Then you could click the road view and see which roads lead to the airport, so you would know where to walk or drive after you fly there. That was such an incredibly useful thing.”

Inspired by those experiences, they devised a way to facilitate the creation of similarly enhanced maps. Barely 60 days later, MapCruncher was ready to be shared with the world.

Set the Crosshairs

So how’d they do it?

“We mostly use magic,” Howell laughs. But given that magic largely consists of making a challenging trick appear deceptively simple, he’s entirely correct.

MapCruncher consists of two panes and a left-side control panel. The right-hand pane provides Virtual Earth aerial imagery from Windows Live Local. The center pane is where you navigate to a map you want to mash up with Virtual Earth. Once that map is in place, you zoom to an appropriate level, set a superimposed pair of crosshairs on a specific site on the right-hand pane, set the crosshairs on the center pane at the corresponding point, and click Add.

Once you’ve registered three corresponding landmarks, you can lock the tool, and then, when you move one of the maps, the other follows, at an identical zoom level. This enables the quick addition of more corresponding points, and once you’ve got 10-15 registered, you are able to render a new composite that overlays the detail of the center-pane map with the Virtual Earth imagery. Suddenly, you’ve got a combination of photographic images and explanatory map detail.

It’s that quick.

“It takes 10 minutes, basically, to do the whole thing,” Elson says. “For a complicated map, it might take 20.”

And it’s that easy.

Thinking for the Non-Map Maker

“Traditionally,” Elson adds, “the whole process of taking geographically registered data and generating new maps has been the purview of geographic-information-systems professionals, people whose job it is to think about maps. Our goal was to try to make it so simple that everybody in the world who had some map they cared about would be able to trivially convert it into a format that would be easy to share and combine with other people’s maps.”

MapCruncher even includes an error-correction feature that flags possible mistakes in establishing correspondences, so a user can fine-tune a composite to the degree of accuracy desired.

The MapCruncher Web site includes a full tutorial and a gallery of example mash-ups, such as one consisting of bike maps in the Pacific Northwest. A road map would identify streets but would be devoid of detail about the best routes for cyclists. The Virtual Earth imagery would reveal a different set of information, but the images would be unidentified. But using MapCruncher to overlay a cycling map atop the aerial imagery produces a map with physical features, road information, and structure identification – all combined into one, easy-to-use composite.

But the technology isn’t limited to such purposes. Its power lies in the fact that it can be personalized to a user’s specific interests.

“The interesting thing,” Elson says, “is that you can stitch maps together in ways people wouldn’t be able to predict. Somebody could say, ‘My hobbies are salmon fishing and bicycling,’ stitch together a map of hot salmon spots with a bike map, and take a bike route to a salmon-fishing spot.”

Adds Howell: “One of the things that make this whole application compelling to me is that it isn’t designed to help you create maps. You have a map to start with. It’s a publishing tool. It’s to take maps that were designed for the last century and publish them on the Web in this new, interoperable format.”

Viewed in that context, MapCruncher is analogous to earlier software developed to make challenging tasks simple.

Map Publishing for the Masses

“It’s the tool that we’re creating more than the product,” Howell continues. “Microsoft Word processors made it easy for anybody to create documents that look good and distribute them to everybody in the world. Web-authoring tools like Microsoft FrontPage made it easy for anybody, even without technological expertise, to produce content that was then exportable to anybody in the world. Maps are not in that state right now; you have to be an expert, and we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to make it so that anybody who has interesting data can publish their map to the world.”

Within Microsoft, the response to MapCruncher has been wildly enthusiastic, so much so, say the developers, that one of their biggest challenges has been to stay focused while being bombarded by a wide array of suggested uses.

“Once people started to see it,” Elson says, “they wanted to use it in so many different ways we hadn’t predicted that the hardest part has been keeping up with the community of people who want to use it and trying to get it to support all of these different features.”

If MapCruncher proves to be a big hit, which seems entirely possible, it could engender a snowball effect.

“In the future,” Howell says, “you’ll be able to just take all these layers and put them together yourself in a browser and bookmark it. Adding layers to each other will be as simple as bookmarking something in your browser today. Once all of these things are placed into the global coordinate system, they can all be combined with each other in ways that the people who created the data never even envisioned.

“When you start to see map layers that are not created by a single person, but become a group effort by lots of people interested in the same thing … When we start to see that, I think then we’ll know it’s caught on.”

Douceur fully expects that day to come.

“I think this is going to be truly popular,” he says. “In a couple of years, this is the way people will look at maps. Why should you look at them in any other form? Overlay information on top of the same map you’re using for everything else.”

For Elson and Howell, it’s exciting to see their pet project released into the wild.

“For somebody with esoteric hobbies,” Elson says, “this is a dream come true, because now you can take all of the data that you care about and make it easily accessible to other people just like you.

“I think this could change the face of mapping. That’s probably what I’m proudest of.”