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Improving the world, one map at a time

Heather Kelly, CNN
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, an app lets users find real estate using very specific parameters.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, an app lets users find real estate using very specific parameters.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Developers around the globe are using Google Maps to address local problems
  • When floods hit Thailand, an app can show how far above sea level your home is located
  • A Kenyan start-up creates and sells interactive maps of political and environmental data

(CNN) -- After last year's record floods ravaged Thailand, developer and entrepreneur Vachara Aemavat had an idea for helping people find higher ground. He built a tool, using Google Maps elevation data, that lets people in the Asian nation look up their homes' locations and see how high above sea level they are. They can share the information on social media to ask for help or offer others a dry place to take shelter.

Aemavat's story is one of six being featured as part of a new push by Google called More Than A Map. It promotes Google Maps Application Programming Interface products, which allow outside developers to tap into Google's rich map data and tools for their own products and sites. It comes at a time when many are bemoaning the loss of Google Maps on Apple's new mobile operating system.

Bangkok, where Aemavat is the co-founder of a company called Computerlogy, was the second stop on one industrious Google employee's eight-day trip around the world. Carlos Cuesta, the Google Maps API product marketing manager, turned a round-trip business trip to Australia, where part of the Google Maps team is located, into a dash around the globe to visit international developers using the service.

Cuesta dropped in on each country for about a day and caught up on sleep on the planes. He visited Bangkok, Thailand; Nairobi, Kenya; Hamburg, Germany; and Sao Paulo, Brazil with a backpack filled with recording equipment. He spent a day with each developer or company, checking out their diverse work spaces (living rooms, offices, on computers powered by generators) and gathering information on how they use the maps APIs.

"It's important for us to see how what we're creating affects the rest of the world," said Cuesta. "Making sure we're making products that are internationalized."

What's impressive about many of the developers Cuesta met with is how they're using maps to solve local problems. Upande Limited uses maps and Google Earth to share a variety of important information about the country, including which local politicians have paid or not paid taxes, wildlife migration patterns, weather, and water quality. It sells those maps to governments, U.N. organizations and companies.

A map from Virtual Kenya shows acceptable distances to water access points.
A map from Virtual Kenya shows acceptable distances to water access points.

For the water quality project, developers are working with an Android app that counts the number of bacteria colonies based on a photograph of water. The results are uploaded to a database and cataloged, the results shared with the government so that it can take action.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Cuesta dropped in on a company called Epungo, which has a site that maps real estate in the sprawling and often chaotically laid-out city. Working out of one of their apartments, the co-founders created interactive maps that allow users to set very specific parameters for the type of real estate they're looking for, and check out the neighborhood up close using Google's Street View.

The More Than a Map project, while an interesting counterpoint to the recent Apple Maps app flap, was actually started back in July as a way to promote the Google Maps API. At that time, the service was working hard to keep developers from defecting to less-expensive alternatives.

There is a free version of the Google Maps API. But under certain circumstances, such as if a company plans to charge for its final product, it has to use Google Maps API for Business, which starts at $10,000. The final price tag can be steep for many start-ups, especially if they have a lot of traffic.

Back in March, a pair of well-known Google Maps clients left, following a price hike for the APIs. Location check-in service Foursquare switched to MapBox, which is powered by OpenStreetMaps. After realizing it would be out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with the Google Maps API, StreetEasy also moved away from Google and built its own maps using a combination of other services and tools.

Competition is cropping up all over, and not just from Apple or open-source services. There are also maps APIs from Microsoft Bing, Nokia, Amazon and MapQuest.

Google's slick new site is a sales pitch, showing off features like customized map styles, Street View, elevation information and data visualization. But the stories of developers creating important, problem-solving apps and websites are an even better pitch for the ability of smart programmers, entrepreneurs and maps to make a difference around the world.

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