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Mashing Up Using Virtual Earth
Geographical mash-ups are made easy with the Microsoft Virtual Earth mapping API.
by Peter Varhol

September 15, 2006

I've always been fascinated by maps and geography. Despite being digitally connected to the world, I have a lifelong fascination for physically knowing where I am. It goes well beyond that, in fact. In my youth my family never traveled, so I used maps to travel in my imagination around the world. Today, I am somewhat better traveled, but still spend my downtime browsing maps as others might browse the news headlines.


I became interested in Microsoft Virtual Earth when I sat in on a lunchtime session about this new technology at TechEd 2006. Virtual Earth is a part of the Windows Live hosted application and service site. When Microsoft first announced Virtual Earth, I felt that the company was simply copying an idea conceived of by Google—and doing it in a second-rate fashion.

The former might be true, but Microsoft delivers on its reputation of taking existing ideas and improving upon them. Virtual Earth combines traditional online maps with aerial and satellite photos to provide an experience that takes you seamlessly from maps to photos as you zoom in on a location. And Virtual Earth seems to have more high-resolution photos than its Google counterpart, making it more fun to play with.

In addition, Virtual Earth has a highly functional and easy to use API for writing your own map-based applications. You start by learning about the Virtual Earth Map Control, which is now at version 3.0 (although, the Virtual Earth site is incongruously labeled beta). The Map Control is called from Windows Live's developer site. This API provides many methods for manipulating the map, incorporation location, size, and other characteristics.

Virtual Earth's many digital sources of geographic data also make it a great platform for "mash-ups," or applications that combine components from different applications and data sources into a single use. Geographic mash-ups are particularly valuable, because the whole is more than the sum of the parts. That is, activity and location data combined are far more effective than both provided separately.

It is important that you approach development of your mash-up cautiously. Many developers think that a mash-up is about the applications used, but it is truly about the user experience. In order to create a successful geographic mash-up, you must find out what type of information makes sense for your users and how to present it geographically.

For example, in my own mash-up—which I explain in detail below—I tried to provide information that would be useful to Fawcette Technical Publications, Inc. (FTP) conference participants. With perhaps 10 or more conferences over the course of one year, FTP sends participants to a variety of different cities for conferences on a diverse range of topics. I wanted to provide FTP participants with relevant information on the locale so that they can settle in faster and have a better overall experience.

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