Social atlas sites let you map your life

No plain-vanilla mapping site knows your favorite haunts as well as you do. New online services tap that information by enabling you to share your knowledge and memories of your most beloved locales--in your hometown or on the other side of the globe--with the rest of the world. I looked at five of these services: Flagr, 43 Places, Platial, Plazes, and Wayfaring.

Built on conventional mapping data from services such as Google Maps, these sites let you add digital pushpins that link to personal descriptions of the locations. While any visitor can peruse the contributions of others on these sites, typically you must register in order to add content. But don't worry about having to provide credit card info: All five sites are free, requiring only that you submit a valid email address. (Note, however, that Plazes is still in beta form, and that 43 Places may eventually charge a fee.)

Looking for New York City's best street art? Want to follow the virtual footsteps of Jack Bauer, protagonist of the TV show 24? Wayfaring Media's Wayfaring has directions for both. Users can also post comments on other users' maps.

Though most contributors offer a lighthearted look at their locations, some at Platial tell dark tales, such as those tied to locations of recent shark attacks. The site, which calls itself "The People's Atlas," recently added a feature that links its maps to RSS feeds, so you can receive alerts about new annotations for places that interest you, or by other users whom you specify--giving the site a timeliness that the others I looked at lacked. Several of the sites I visited allow you to add images to your text posts, but Platial is the only one that supports video uploads.

Traveler wish lists

Anyone who has ever used Yahoo's popular Flickr photo-sharing service recognizes how tags work: Users assign keywords to categorize images. The same approach is taken by the Robot Co-op's 43 Places, which--despite its name--has descriptions of thousands of locales around the world. Along with the usual place names, you'll find tags such as "Hogwarts" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," illustrating that travel is sometimes a state of mind. The site even posts user-assigned "wanderlust ratings" for each mapped location, though it's difficult to find any spot with a rating under 80 per cent (100 per cent is the highest possible mark).

Plazes ties user-supplied data to network router locations (called Plazes), as automatically identified by free, downloadable desktop software that also lets people (all users or, at your discretion, invited friends) see where you are. You can use the service without the downloaded app to find other Plazes and users--but unless you use the software, you can't add a Plaze to the service's database, and others won't be able to see your precise location.

The least developed of the five services is Flagr, self-described as a "Sharewhere" site. It has relatively few annotated locations, and the descriptions I checked lacked detail. Flagr demonstrates that, like all sites that rely on community-created content, personal-mapping services depend on attracting a critical mass of participants.

Privacy issues

One key caveat: These and other personal-mapping sites have built-in privacy risks. Though all five of the services I tested offer some ability to control who can see your data, you are entrusting personal information to a Web server. In general, it's a bad idea to post any data you wouldn't feel comfortable writing on a postcard sent via U.S. mail.

Time will tell whether any of these ambitious services will ever become the mapping equivalent of such community powerhouses as MySpace or YouTube. But if you're going to check out just one, head to Platial, which seems to have more--and more-detailed--posts than its competitors.

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Dennis O'Reilly

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