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All Things Google: Google Maps Labs

Map of MassachusettsAt the recent THATCamp Southeast, I had a chance to teach a hands-on session for building interactive, geospatial timelines. The timelines are powered by some very amazing code that originated at MIT’s SIMILE Project that has since become an open-source “spin-off” know as SIMILE Widgets. What’s great about these timelines is that they are lightweight and the data that powers them can live in a Google Docs spreadsheet. That means that you can have multiple people contributing information to a dynamic visualization. This is exactly what I’ve done in a number of classes, and the results are pretty amazing. (I like these timelines well enough to have written a step-by-step tutorial, in case you’d like to build your own.)

My timeline assignment (adapted from one that Jason wrote) gives my students an opportunity to do something different in an English classroom setting, and most of them find that it’s fairly straightforward. The trickiest part was helping them find the latitude and longitude—which must be in decimals—to map the events. I had found a workaround that involved looking at the long links that are generated in Google Maps. As I was showing this workaround to the THATCamp crowd, a Camper said that there was an easier way, if I would just use Google Maps Labs.

Google Labs are experimental features that Google tries out on a number of its different services. I had previously written here about some Labs features in Gmail, but I had had no idea that Google Maps had gotten its own Labs section. And it turns out that one of the Labs makes my old system for finding latitude and longitude much, much simpler.

To access Labs in Google Maps, simply click on the gear in the upper right corner and choose “Maps Labs.”

Google Maps settings panel

You will then have a pop-up screen with ten current additional functions for Google Maps that you can choose to enable.

Maps Labs options

Some of the labs options allow you to measure the distance between two points or of a path with a number of points (which is useful when you want to get measurements between two things that do not have street addresses), to zoom in on an area by drawing a box on the map, and enable a Smart Zoom, which will prevent you from zooming in so far that you get the dreaded grey splotches that read, “We don’t have imagery at this zoom level.” Another, less useful Labs feature allows you to add the word “Beta” back to the Google Maps logo, in case you miss it. Another lets you play a geography game, where you have guess a country’s name based on satellite imagery.

Then there are the two Labs features that I learned about at THATCamp: LatLng Tooltip and LatLng Marker. Enabling the first allows me to find the latitude and longitude—in decimals!—by hovering the mouse over the map and holding the shift key. Enabling the second lets me right-click on the map (control-click on a Mac) and drop a marker with the decimal coordinates. This second option is ultimately the more useful as I can read the numbers without holding the shift key and the mouse. Better still, with the marker, I can select and copy the decimals, which makes it even easier to add to the spreadsheet in Google Docs. There are of course other ways of getting latitude and longitude for a location, but Google Maps is by far the easiest way, and these new Labs features make it that much easier.

It’s worth mentioning that the tools in Google Labs are experimental and may not be around forever. Then again, they may eventually be folded in to the regular Google Maps experience. But until either of those happen, it’s well worth your time looking at what these add to your experience.

Have you been using the features in Google Maps Labs? Which is your favorite? Share your tips and tricks with us know in the comments?

[Lead image by Flickr user Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL / Creative Commons licensed]

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