History of online services used for locator maps

DISCLAIMER: Opinions stated on this page (as on all others located in the /data/ directory of the GCNA Website) are entirely those of the author, and have not been endorsed by the Guild.  This is a personal narrative, and is not warranted to be unbiased.  The editorial "we" sometimes indicates what the author has accomplished with the intent of supporting the interests of the Guild, and sometimes reflects the author's perspective on the events being reported.


In very early 1997, shortly after the pilot project for the GCNA Website went "live", the author began developing and implementing what might be called the "technical side" of that Website, the core of which is information about each of the carillons of North America.  From the beginning, I determined to take advantage of the free dynamic mapping services which were even then available on the World Wide Web.  Fragmentary evidence of the mapping work can be found here and there throughout all of the What's New pages which record the development of this "technical side."  (Look at the bottom of the first one to find the early years.)  But because major changes in the online mapping services have repeatedly broken the intended consistency of presentation and have effectively wasted the results of a great many hours of work, it seems important to me to lay out in one place the timeline of just what has happened and what effect those changes have had on this Website.  It is being collated and written just as there seems to be hope for not only regaining a uniformity of presentation but also adding a level of functionality that has not previously been available.


January 1997 - The starting point

Part of the process of developing a Webpage production methodology included examination and evaluation of the online mapping services which were then available.  From among several available candidates, MapBlast! was chosen for its superior functionality.  At this time, only single points could be displayed on dynamic maps, but that was still very useful.

Getting a point positioned just right on a map was partly a matter of trial and error but at least it could be done.  Some positions were simply the result of a MapBlast! search for a street address.  But many started from such a point and then were improved by the author's personal knowledge of the location of the carillon tower.  Since MapBlast offered several different icons for use, my choice of locator icon for a particular map reflected how accurately the location of that site was known to me - from "which corner of the intersection (and how far away)" to "somewhere in this town."

February 1997 - Progress

The first "live" site data pages were posted, complete with locator map links, for traditional carillons in two states.  More such pages were added over a period of weeks, one to five states at a time, as well as Canada and Mexico (though these two countries had no map links).

The first area locator map page was constructed, for the District of Columbia and Arlington VA, using a different MapBlast! service which allowed embedding multiple single-icon maps in a static Webpage.  Three other area locator map pages followed shortly, for metropolitan areas which had a moderate concentration of carillons.

March 1997 - First stumbling block

Site data pages for the last group of traditional carillons were posted without locator maps because MapBlast! had changed their map-generation process without warning.

May 1997 - Recovery and progress

Site data pages for the last group of traditional carillons were updated to incorporate locator map links using the revised MapBlast! service.

Site data pages for all non-traditional carillons in North America were installed in one batch.  However, map link construction was still so tedious that they did not receive locator map links initially.  The appropriate links were installed in those site data pages in multi-state batches over the next several weeks.  The rest of the year was quiet from a mapping point of view, as was the entire year of 1998.

It wasn't until mid-1999 that the Canadian sites got locator map links; I don't recall why it took so long to accomplish that. 

August 1999 - Another stumbling block

Minor changes in the features of the MapBlast! service necessitated revising locator map links for all 221 existing American sites. 

This was followed by the addition of locator map links for the three Mexican sites.  The remainder of the year was quiet.

March 2000 - A nice step forward

After it was discovered that the MapBlast! service now supported inclusion of up to four icons on one map, the site data pages for traditional carillons in 18 metropolitan areas were revised so that their map links displayed the locations of neighboring instruments while each page itself incorporated links to the corresponding neighboring pages.  This enabled deletion of one of the "single icon per map" area locator pages, while another was made more compact by utilization of the new functionality.  The Map Use Hints page was expanded to describe how we used this new functionality.

With this matter apparently settled, normal activities resumed.  Site data pages were added for all North American rings, and the long process of adding pages for North American chimes began.  The remainder of the year was quiet, map-wise, though geographical coverage was expanded to include all carillons in Central and South America.  Locator map accuracy was necessarily "vague" for those places, both because our knowledge of location was imprecise and because MapBlast! did not provide street-level local detail.

In early 2001, it was discovered that the MapBlast! service would now support considerably more icons per map than the previous limit of four.  This led immediately to construction of an area locator map for a region larger than a metropolis (Toronto region, actually).  That success was expected to lead eventually to other such maps; but it was not to be.

October 2001 - A major interruption

Sometime between 10 Jul'01 and 15 Oct'01, MapBlast! changed the terms of use of the particular mapping service I had been using for locator map links.  At first it appeared that the free service had been completely terminated, as all links led to a "splash" page which described all of the MapBlast commercial services.  (The service used for area locator map pages was unaffected at the time.)  Naturally I concluded that MapBlast! was no longer usable.

Embedded maps for area pages in Canada worked correctly on 24 Feb'01, but by late 2001 they no longer had any background map data.  They were correctly sized, and the icons were correctly placed relative to each other, but without any background such a map was useless.

After looking for a replacement for both of the MapBlast! services, I chose the MapsOnUs service for site locator maps in the USA.  (Maps for Canada were not then available from that service.)  Two different types of map were available, each with its own advantages over the other; I decided to install pairs of links so that the end user could choose which type of map best suited his or her needs.  I chose to install the new MapsOnUs links as additions, not replacements, because the existing MapBlast! links, though broken, incorporated icon-selection information about the accuracy of the latitude and longitude values therein, and there was no equally convenient way to avoid loss of this information.  Because of this situation, major changes were made to the Map Use Hints, now expanded beyond a single page for the first time.

November 2001 - Hopes of recovery

On 10 Nov'01, I discovered that the free service from MapBlast! had not been terminated, but had been restricted so that maps would be displayed only for visitors who had established a "MyMapBlast" account and were currently logged in (via the splash page).  With misguided hopefulness, I stopped adding MapsOnUs links to new and revised pages.

Sometime in Feb'02, I realized that the "logged-in" restriction on the free service from MapBlast! apparently had been eliminated.  It seemed that the MapBlast! service was almost back to normal.  Unfortunately that situation did not last long.

March 2002 - Hopes blasted and revived

On 7 Mar'02, MapBlast! eliminated the free map link service entirely--links to it produced only cryptic error messages regardless of the user's MyMapBlast login status.  Vicinity Corporation (parent of MapBlast!) did not respond to inquiries.

On 8 Mar'02, in the course of documenting the latest service change and testing other MapBlast! services which had not been eliminated, I discovered that a variant of the original service was still usable, and began revising existing map links accordingly.

July 2002 - Catastrophe

Some time in Jul'02, I discovered that some MapBlast! map icon codes were producing the wrong icons under some circumstances.

In late Aug'02, the MapBlast! map link service disappeared again.  In early Oct'02, just after two area locator map pages were constructed and installed, the embedded map service which supported it also disappeared.  By early October, all evidence suggested that these disappearances were permanent.

According to a news release discovered some months later, Vicinity Corporation was purchased in Oct.2002 by Microsoft Corporation, which then discontinued all of the MapBlast! online services.  Links to Vicinity Corporation were redirected to a Microsoft Webpage which encouraged former MapBlast! users to make use of MSN Maps and MSN MapPoint Web Service.  The implication seemed to be that the technology behind MapBlast! would be used to improve the functionality of the Microsoft map service offerings.  Unfortunately, I have not yet seen any evidence of that occurring; some of the most interesting capabilities of MapBlast! (e.g., visible street numbering) have never appeared in any other online mapping service, as far as I can tell.  (Postscript added in April 2008:  This statement is still true, although the Google Maps API now offers a way to re-create a few of those capabilities.)  (Postscript added in December 2009:  Earlier this year, Google Maps began showing an extremely limited selection of street numbers in the USA and in some other parts of the world, and some other mapping services are doing the same.)  (Postscript added in October 2010:  It remains true that no online mapping service presents street numbers at the level of detail which MapBlast used to do.)

February 2003 - Carrying on

In this month, I completed installation of new site data pages for all known chimes in North America (well over 600), with MapsOnUs locator map links for those in the USA. 

During this year, pairs of locator map links for that service were supplied to all revised USA pages which did not already have them; however, no effort was made to retrofit such links to pages which did not yet need revision.  That process carried on through 2004 and much of 2005.

April 2004 - Attempted recovery beyond the USA

Locator maps from Yahoo! Canada were supplied for some sites in Canada.  Because this was on an experimental basis, the Usage Hints page was not revised to cover those maps.  This experiment was deemed not fully successful, for two reasons.  Firstly, locations can be specified only by street address.  But some bell towers are not located precisely at the street address where mail is delivered to the owning institution, so that zooming in to the closest level can be misleading.  Secondly, construction of map links is indirect and tedious. For comparison purposes, a sample Yahoo Canada map remained on one site data page for some time.

In May'05, locator map links from MapQuest began to be supplied for sites in Canada.  This experiment was deemed successful; Map Use Hints for MapQuest maps were added, and locator map links based on MapQuest were added to site data pages for Canada as opportunities for revision arose from other causes.

In July'05, I added city locator maps from "fallingrain.com" to almost all existing site data pages in Central and South America, and to a new set of site data pages covering Africa and the Mideast.  Since they are only useful for locating cities, I have not yet written any Map Use Hints for them.

August 2005 - The second catastrophe

Early this month, all links to MapsOnUs locator maps for sites and areas in the USA became useless, as Switchboard.com abandoned their own mapping service and contracted to use Microsoft's MapPoint mapping service.  The new version of MapsOnUs no longer offers any capability to link to a map for a predetermined location, only the capability to produce maps on request through their forms page.  Therefore, all of our MapsOnUs usage hints are now irrelevant.  Attempting to use any of our previous MapsOnUs links will produce a confusing error message such as "URL too long" or "Page not found" - evidence that Switchboard.com failed to consider any transition for users of its previous map-link service.

In Oct'05, a new set of site data pages for the British Isles was partially equipped with locator map links based on the MultiMap and StreetMap services. 

February 2006 - A new direction

After a long period of development and experimentation, a group of revised site data pages for North America was equipped with locator map links based on both Google Maps and MapQuest.  These hold promise to provide considerable useful functionality, and are accompanied by an enhancement to the basic Location data in site data pages.

March 2006 - Current status and plans

There remain almost 900 site data pages containing pairs of obsolete MapsOnUs links, and almost 800 pages containing obsolete MapBlast links.  (There is of course considerable, though not complete, overlap between those sets of pages.)  Replacing those obsolete links with functional locator map links from Google and MapQuest will take a long time.  There will be expanded use of the MultiMap and StreetMap services as well.  So it seems unlikely that we will ever achieve the total uniformity of style and functionality that I envisioned when I began this work more than nine years ago.

April 2008 - Current status

The Website update which includes this page (edition of 2008/04/08) replaces the last of the carillon pages containing obsolete MapBlast links with versions utilizing Google Maps and MapQuest links.  (Chime pages with similar links remain to be fixed.)  In many cases, these changes over the past two years have also eliminated pairs of obsolete MapsOnUs links.  (See the March 2006 status report.)  But some remain, and I have not attempted to count them.

The experimental Yahoo Canada map links no longer do what they should, apparently because of changes in that mapping service.  Those links are being removed as they are found.

Plans for future map-related work are now described in the "Directions" block which floats in the "What's New" page.

May 2008 - Another catastrophe (fortunately smaller)

Microsoft does it again!  Following Microsoft's purchase of UK-based MultiMap, the MultiMap Website has been totally redesigned, breaking all existing locator map links for that service.  Since the redesign also removed all of the features which I found especially useful, I will be removing MultiMap locator links from all UK site data pages.

December 2009 - Current status, and a new addition

The update package which publishes this paragraph for the first time also contains the second batch of chime page changes driven primarily (for the first time) by the desire to eliminate all broken MapBlast and MapsOnUs links.  Fortunately, the number of such pages has been considerably reduced over the past four years as broken links were fixed in the course of making changes that were driven by other factors. 

This package also contains the first set of links to Microsoft's new Bing Maps service, utilizing the "bird's eye" aerial perspective views which are available for some cities.

September 2010 - Great progress in standardizing map links

After weeks of systematically reviewing the site data pages for all North American chimes, and collecting the information needed to (re)map each site properly, this month saw three very large batches of updated pages posted to the Website.  At the conclusion, all obsolete MapBlast and MapsOnUs links in this region had been eliminated, and almost all North American sites of all kinds have up-to-date Google Maps and MapQuest map links.  (The exceptions are a very few places with vague or even unknown locations.)  In addition, the great majority of sites also have links for Bing Maps birdseye views, which are not yet available for the remainder.  As a side effect of the review process, there is a system in place for rechecking that remainder to discover whether such views have become available for any of them.

With all of the North American sites in good shape, it remains to check those in the rest of the world just as systematically.

October 2010 - Another setback

Quality-checking a batch of updates revealed that MapQuest links are not working properly.  Apparently the "new" MapQuest recently dropped the format that's been used here for several years (decimal latitude/longitude, rather than street address).  Surprisingly, a complaint to MapQuest got a prompt response, which pointed me to documentation in a different place about a different method of constructing a lat/lon link.  (It seems that MapQuest has some internal planning and communication problems.)  While I'm still unhappy at having to change more than 1300 pages to use the new link format, at least our visitors who prefer MapQuest will not be permanently inconvenienced (though it will take a while to get all those pages changed).

/s/ Carl Scott Zimmerman

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