As local and state governments in the Gulf Coast struggled in summer 2005 to provide up-to-date information in Hurricane Katrina's wake, two programmers in Austin, Texas, took matters into their own hands.

Jonathan Mendez, a software engineer from New Orleans, and Greg Stoll created Scipionus.com. The Web site is a "visual wiki" -- a Google map of affected areas overlaid with dozens of site-specific comments -- in the same way that Wikipedia is a publicly produced and edited document. Individuals who were in New Orleans went to the Web site and posted statements such as, "Hynes Elementary School. 8/30. Ten feet of water inside."

Scipionus, which drew tens of thousands of visitors, is just one example of a revolution under way involving digital mapping and Web applications.

As hobbyists and Web developers gain access to mapping tools and geospatial data, they are rediscovering the excitement and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet originally spawned.

It's part of the emerging geospatial Web, which could take the form of anything from city maps overlaid with health data to maps of city subway systems developed for digital music player downloads.

New Windows

Government officials should take note, because this surge in mapping creativity could open new windows to important civic information for the public.

However, local governments' role in information dissemination isn't clear yet, said Mike Liebhold, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.

"There's enormous value in detailed map information, and Web mapping using Google maps is only about a year old," Liebhold said. "Cities and states use digital mapping for planning, facilities management, police and fire services, houses and zoning."

Still, state and local governments so far haven't done much to open that infrastructure to the public, he said.

"Soon the public will have the ability to add notes and comments to those public maps," Liebhold said.

Web developers worldwide are busy creating "mash-ups" -- seamlessly combining data from other sources with Google maps. For instance, one site -- incidentlog.com -- maps police, fire and 911 alerts in more than 85 cities across the country.

Another term being bandied about in digital mapping circles is the "geospatial Web," which Liebhold said could include a combination of digital map information and location-based hypermedia.

"For instance, [if] you're walking down the street with a wireless device that knows where it is," he explained, "you can pull up information about that particular location that is of interest to you, perhaps safety data posted by a municipality or by another citizen, such as 'Watch out for traffic coming around a blind curve here.'"

One ambitious geospatial Web project involves creating real-time maps of cell phone use in urban areas. In a demonstration project in 2005, researchers from the SENSEable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., used anonymous cell phone data from A1/Mobilkom to create electronic maps of cell phone use in the metropolitan area of Graz, Austria -- the country's second largest city.

MIT's researchers created computer-generated images of the cell-phone data overlaid with street maps of the city. The digital maps changed as people traveled around the city, offering a view of the urban area as a shifting entity rather than a fixed, physical environment.

When unveiling the maps, Director of SENSEable City Laboratory Carlo Ratti said, "[Visualizing a city in real time] opens up new possibilities for urban studies and planning."

It also could play a role for public safety officials in case of emergencies.

Mapping Civic Data

The spirit of civic Web mapping is strong in Chicago.

David Raths  |  contributing writer