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Lost in a city? Try Wikimapia.org

August 17, 2006 12:59 IST
How often is that you have to visit a friend whose house you have not visited in the past, in a part of town you are not familiar with? How do you get there? The way I do it is to land up at the closest landmark and then begin asking around; the corner store paanwala to parked auto rickshaw and taxi drivers.

With geo-location in India things could change. Picture this. Imagine that your friend who lives in, lets say, Nagpur, invites you over. This is your first time in the city. As you wonder how, where, he asks you log onto www.wikimapia.org. Then he says, zoom in on India and then a satellite image of Nagpur, type his name in the box and hit search.

Presto, a considerably refined satellite picture materialises with a little rectangle depicting his home and the area surrounding it. You could even make out the roads that lead there. If you are cartographically not too challenged, this might be good enough to reach his residence. Actually, you will be amazed how much of India and Indian towns and cities have already been tagged - down to grocery shops!

Try this one. Close in on Mumbai and key in Amitabh Bachchan...you are treated to a birds eye view of Bachchan's houses, both of them, in Juhu in north Mumbai. The best part is if you live somewhere close by, you could tag your name on your building as well.

Moreover, you can mail this image link-tag to anywhere in the world. So, not only can someone find you, but they can also find you in relation to, let's say, Amitabh Bachchan house. Needless to add, fans have identified and located most Bollywood celebrities' homes.

Wikimapia was launched three months ago by two young Russian programmers Alexandre Koriakine and Evgeniy Saveliev. Their objective, "To describe the whole planet Earth". The satellite images are sourced from Google.

Wikimapia is based on the same principle as Wikipedia, a free-access encyclopaedia created by the online community. For well-mapped countries like US and in Europe, Wikimapia is an additional tool, helping locate people. But in countries like India, with almost no mapping, at least digital, this is a God-send.

To find out how effectively it has worked already, try visiting smaller towns like Aurangabad, Visakhapatnam or Kanpur. Even Mangalore and Thiruvananthapuram have over 15,000 and 12,000 (yes you read it right) locations tagged. And extremely useful ones at that – like Eve's Beach in Kovalam.

Wikipedia also allows you to offer information links to places outlined. For instance, click on the rectangle representing Eve's Beach, Kovalam, and you will find a helpful link to a Kerala Tourism website! I can also see the hotel properties (including the Leela Palace) which face the sea and others which do not. Its is very relevant for first time visitors. Mumbai incidentally has 54,000 locations mapped.

There are other sites like www.terrawiki.com, www.platial.com and www.gawker.com/stalker too. Wikimapia has also come in for criticism, partly for its technology that needs to be smoothened, which am pretty sure will be but more so for the fact that it can be misused with unwanted content. It's a privacy threat and can create problems.

However, Wikimapia is a huge hit globally and from an India mapping and tagging perspective. As long as I don't have to plead with the paanwala for directions again.

Govindraj Ethiraj in Mumbai