A new technology from internet search behemoth Google Inc. is making innovators out of some educators, who have begun envisioning practical uses for the company’s new Google Maps feature to make previously unavailable graphic representations of everything from school district bus routes to geography lessons.

Educators aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the technology. Others also have discovered how to tinker with the search engine’s mapping service to graphically illustrate vital information that might otherwise be ignored, overlooked, or not perceived as clearly.

“This is pretty interesting for organizations, such as school districts, that have maps that provide boundary information and such,” wrote Tim Lauer, principal of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Portland, Ore., and a frequent contributor to eSchool News Online’s Ed-Tech Insider, a blog for educators and technology advocates. “Imagine a district map that showed bus stops combined with Google content. Families could punch in their home address and easily find the closest stop.”

At the Hopkins Independent School District in Minnesota, technology integration specialist Tim Wilson demonstrated to a group of social studies students how Google Maps can be manipulated to display satellite imagery of their homes, compare geographic regions, and even zoom in on their school building.

“I opened a couple browser tabs and loaded a view of the Twin Cities metro area on one and the Phoenix area on the other,” wrote Wilson about the experience. “After switching to the satellite view and doing some zooming in and out, the differences in landforms were obvious, and I think it really made sense for the students. They also really got a kick out of zooming in on a satellite view of their school and finding their homes in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Yahoo and other sites also offer maps, but Google’s four-month-old mapping service is more easily accessible and manipulated by outsiders, advocates of the technology say.

As it turns out, Google charts each point on its maps by latitude and longitude–that’s how Google can produce driving directions to practically anywhere in the nation.

Not surprisingly, schools aren’t the only places considering innovative uses for the technology.

Seasoned developers have figured out how to match these points with locations from outside databases that can contain vast amounts of information–anything from police blotters to real estate listings.

Thanks to Adrian Holovaty, 24, who overlayed Chicago Police Department crime statistics on a Google map, house-hunters in the Albany Park neighborhood can pinpoint all the sexual assaults in the district between May 19 and April 19 on a single map. With each crime marked by a virtual pushpin, Chicagoans can quickly learn which dangerous train stations, pool rooms, and alleys to avoid.

Holovaty hopes to make the maps more current by persuading Chicago police to provide the data directly, rather than forcing him to glean the information from the department’s web site.

Community activist James Cappleman is already impressed with Holovaty’s Chicagocrime.org: No longer do citizens have to trust politicians crowing about safer streets.

“We’ve never been able to track trends before,” Cappleman said. “Now, when we tell police there is a problem, we’ll know what we’re talking about.”

Visitors to Floridasexualpredators.com, which combines Google Maps with data on convicted sex offenders, can call up maps of their communities and click on the pushpins to see the name, last known address, and mug shot of each offender.

All these sites are operating without Google’s permission, clearly violating the company’s user agreement. But none charges any fees, and Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, which declined to comment through a spokesman, has made no effort to shut them down.

“Why would they?” asks Kenneth Tan, who works for a Chicago-based media research firm and is relying on Housingmaps.com to find a new place to live in New York. “This is fantastic publicity for the company.”

But some familiar with the use of Google Maps in schools have questioned how long the company will give people free reign over its proprietary technology.

“As far as I know, Google hasn’t made it perfectly clear what kinds of uses they are going to allow in the long run, so it is probably too early to build serious applications around Google Maps,” noted former school technology coordinator Tom Hoffman, who now manages an open-source software project called SchoolTool and is a frequent contributor to the Ed-Tech Insider.

Doubt hasn’t kept some private-sector opportunists from moving ahead with their projects.

James Brown, founder of Floridasexualpredator.com, charted the home addresses of every registered sex offender in Florida’s Megan’s Law database, then wrote a software program that automatically converts addresses to the correct latitude and longitude.

Holovaty requested data from the Chicago Police but never heard back–so he wrote a program that automatically retrieves crime location data each time the department’s web site is updated.

Why go to this much trouble?

The sites’ creators said it was for the love of discovery and a chance to help their communities.

Brown came up with the idea for his site after watching television reports about a kidnapped girl with his father, a former policeman in Ocala, Fla.

None said they did it for the money. But their efforts are certainly getting attention. San Francisco is among cities interested in whether Holovaty can develop crime-mapping sites for them.

“I would be happy to help them set it up,” Holovaty said. “The world is a better place whenever you provide more information.”

A similar kind of enthusiasm appears to be driving the adoption of Google Maps among schools. Some educators, including Wilson, say they like the idea of having the technology on hand to answer quick questions, seeing it as just one more application that helps integrate technology into the fabric of daily learning.

“Having the technology in the classroom, ready to use at a moment’s notice, makes it possible to blur the line between learning about technology and learning with technology,” Wilson wrote in a recent blog post on the topic. “I get excited when I consider the kinds of questions that these students can ask and answer on their own with the Google Maps site alone.”

Links:

Google Maps
http://maps.google.com

Ed-Tech Insiders
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/etiintro1.cfm

Hopkins Independent School District
http://www.hopkins.k12.mn.us

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School
http://lewiselementary.org

Crime locations
http://www.chicagocrime.org

Sex predators
http://www.floridasexualpredators.com

Doubt hasn’t kept some private-sector opportunists from moving ahead with their projects.

James Brown, founder of Floridasexualpredator.com, charted the home addresses of every registered sex offender in Florida’s Megan’s Law database, then wrote a software program that automatically converts addresses to the correct latitude and longitude.

Holovaty requested data from the Chicago Police but never heard back–so he wrote a program that automatically retrieves crime location data each time the department’s web site is updated.

Why go to this much trouble?

The sites’ creators said it was for the love of discovery and a chance to help their communities.

Brown came up with the idea for his site after watching television reports about a kidnapped girl with his father, a former policeman in Ocala, Fla.

None said they did it for the money. But their efforts are certainly getting attention. San Francisco is among cities interested in whether Holovaty can develop crime-mapping sites for them.

“I would be happy to help them set it up,” Holovaty said. “The world is a better place whenever you provide more information.”

A similar kind of enthusiasm appears to be driving the adoption of Google Maps among schools. Some educators, including Wilson, say they like the idea of having the technology on hand to answer quick questions, seeing it as just one more application that helps integrate technology into the fabric of daily learning.

“Having the technology in the classroom, ready to use at a moment’s notice, makes it possible to blur the line between learning about technology and learning with technology,” Wilson wrote in a recent blog post on the topic. “I get excited when I consider the kinds of questions that these students can ask and answer on their own with the Google Maps site alone.”

Links:

Google Maps
http://maps.google.com

Ed-Tech Insiders
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/etiintro1.cfm

Hopkins Independent School District
http://www.hopkins.k12.mn.us

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School
http://lewiselementary.org

Crime locations
http://www.chicagocrime.org

Sex predators
http://www.floridasexualpredators.com