How can a science that studies the features and characteristics of a space (e.g. the Earth) improve our websites? In this article I will provide an overview of methods we can use involving geography to improve site usability by adding unique visualization to our sites.

Getting started

The term spatial can be defined as of or relating to space. Everyday activities require us to think spatially. Consider these three simple questions:

  1. How did you get to work this morning?
  2. Where is your coffee cup right now?
  3. Where do you live or where are you from?

We can answer these questions spatially, such as:

  1. I drove down Chert Pit road, hopped on the freeway, headed North, drove over the river...
  2. On the shelf; right next to me; or in the dishwasher
  3. I live on the West side of town, near the mall, but I am from a town 15 miles away

Presenting content is a part of the purpose of every web page, whether that page is part of a knowledge portal, intranet, extranet, or sports forum site. We typically present such content using some form of text. We also use graphics, symbols, or icons that convey the same meaning (hopefully) as text, within accessibility guidelines.

Using basic geography

We can server content spatially by using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. GIS contains data organized to describe spatial properties of specific locations or points on the Earth, as well as objects like roads, water pipes, and political boundaries. GIS software is typically expensive and therefore not easily attainable by the generable public. Recent breakthroughs in GIS technology have resulted in access to GIS via the internet, using only a web browser. The most recognizable form of GIS that we use are those handy maps from MapQuest, MapPoint, Yahoo!, and others.

A simple way to add geography to a site is to use maps of physical locations whenever the site displays an address. MapQuest.com will let us use their maps for free. See MapQuest's Linking Policies for guidance on linking or displaying a map to a simple address. For sites that maintain user information, we can go a step further using MapQuest and provide driving directions from the user's home to a location of interest. A sports forum website might provide a logistics page that lists sports venues of interest. By using Yahoo! Maps the sports site can make a link next to each venue that automatically request driving directions from Yahoo! Maps! The driving directions include text-based directions as well, so all users can benefit from this feature. See http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/maps/maps-24.html for terms of use.

More than maps

Maps of addresses and driving directions are just the beginning. Spatial interfaces can be applied in many situations. Tracing internet routing has came a long way since the early Unix days. MemeStreams (among many others) has an excellent program called VisualRoute that will map and trace routes. When I visit eVolt.org, for instance, I can see my route bouncing through Atlanta, Denver, and Northern Virginia. Check it out for yourself at VisualRoute's Live Demo page.

Realtor.com uses a spatial interface--in addition to the text-based interface--allowing one to find potential homes by navigating a map. We can select a state from a US map, a city from the state map, and then an area within the city from a map of the city. See Realtor.com's Map Search feature. Though not a feature of Realtor.com, GIS technology could allow us to select all homes for sale within 15 miles of where we work. What would really be nice is if Realtor.com had a geography layer of aerial photography, allowing us see photographs of houses matching our search criteria. TerraServer.com is well known for acquiring wide-scale aerial photography and making it available to the public. I found a picture of my house on that site. The TerraServer site is at http://terraserver-usa.com/.

These sites only scratch the surface for using GIS in web sites. Beyond displaying an address map or searching for homes, intranet and functional sites use web-based geographic components for managing environmental data, facilities information, public works inspections, and more. Also, many cities today have property parcel systems available on the internet. In addition to traditional search methods for property (e.g. owner, address), we can also navigate to the parcel by moving and zooming in a map-based interface. What a great way to learn my neighbor's names or research property!

Implementation

For simple web sites, we can use static images and image maps to show maps. This technique works great for searches and menu navigation. For more complex features, including driving directions and interactive maps, we must use server-side GIS software. Popular server-side GIS softare includes ArcIMS by ESRI, GeoMedia WebMap by Integraph, Autodesk MapGuide, and Mapserver (an open-source solution). This software reads data prepared by desktop GIS software and stored in sometimes-proprietary databases.

To be continued

While using geography and maps on a website will never replace text, it can certainly improve usability. Maps must have accessible alternatives, however, to ensure all users have access to the same information. We will explore techniques to add advanced GIS to our websites in our next article, including evaluating server-side GIS software. In the mean time, to learn more about GIS and web-based GIS, see http://www.gis.com. For questions or comments, please contact me at acarter@glothin.com