Archive for the ‘mashups’ Category

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Online Real Estate Geolocation

October 9, 2006

As most of you know, the intent of the ForSaleByLocals website is to provide worldwide real estate choices in a user’s preferred language.  A growing number of influential people far smarter than me are working on building the concept of a global neighborhood.  Of course, a global neighborhood needs real estate and geolocation of properties is a key component of a “modern” real estate site.  Others have examined each of the mapping services more in depth than I’ll do here in this article  so I’ll focus on what we hope will set us apart. 

1. Worldwide Online Mapping User Interface: Online mapping interfaces with data from different sources are often known as mashups. Though  integration with Google maps, Yahoo maps or MSN virtual earth, mashups of all types are becoming quite common in the US, the choices for international users is somewhat more limited.  For instance, MSN’s Windows Live Local mapping is (as of this writing) not widely available outside the US and some select other countries.  As a result, MSN was eliminated almost immediately on this point alone.  (NOTE TO MICROSOFT: The instant that you make changes in your international geocoding availability with a decent mapping resolution worldwide, we’ll consider switching to you as our mapping provider. As a former manager in Windows division, I don’t know why MS does not offer a global capability in this area given the massive emphasis on internationalization in other products.)

Even Google has underlying limitations on geolocation even though they make a worldwide interface available.  As background, a “geocoder” is generally used to provide longitude/latitude pairs for fixed points. Basically, a geocoder translates some definition of a fixed point into the actual longitude and latitude. Most of the popular online geocoders (including Google’s GeoCoder API) use the property address to establish geolocation. This makes perfect sense in the US where such address information is generally of high quality. However, viable address information outside of the US is of varying quality and ranges from zero to full availability. Google’s own documention for their GeoCoder API references these limitations in the following statement: “The Maps API geocoder is available in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and United States of America.” 

2. Worldwide GeoCoder:  We also wanted our website users to reasonably be able to geolocate properties or themselves anywhere in the world as well as have a bit more flexibility than just an address to successfully geolocate.  We needed a system that would work in cities/towns as well as out in the countryside in places where perhaps roads dont even exist and even mailing addresses are actually often relative addresses (500 meters north of some crossroads).  We began to think about defining success for international online geolocation in terms of using other feature based geolocation information than just an address or the ability to have users estimate a geolocation relative to a known established point. 

After examining the available geocoding alternatives and costs involved, we decided to build our own geocoder as part of the ForSaleByLocals web engine (hence part of the reason for some of our release delay).  Custom GIS systems were ruled out since we are a self-funded startup and we dont have the kind of dough required for a full blown GIS solution.  Think of our solution as a geocoder for the masses (grin).   Though not completely tested for absolutely all cases, our geocoder seems to geolocate to a reasonable level of accuracy just about anywhere in the world. not bad for a home-built V1 product though we’ll see how it stands up to real users.  The team decided to build geocoding capability directly into the web engine.  This means that the geocoder is a fundamental part of the way that version 1.0 of the web engine processes almost all of the property, member, advertising, and service provider information, regardless of whether there is mapping user interface to support the underlying data.  

What does this mean for you as a seller, service provider, or web site user? The true power of the web engine lies in integrating the contextual metadata of users with a strong worldwide geolocation capability.  I’m not ready to tell all yet but version 1.0 of the web engine today almost always knows where properties, service providers, and members are in relation to each other. 

3. Custom Real Estate Geolocation Infrastructure and Integration: You may be thinking right now, “wow, these guys will have wasted a lot of work if one of the major online mapping services opens up their geocoder for the entire world.” Maybe so, time will tell. But, the challenge for any non-address based geocoder is to make the translation accurate and easy.  An address is easy…other input types in a general mapping site aren’t so easy for most non-technical users. We also will be bound by far fewer terms of use and data restrictions by having our own home-rolled solution.

Another benefit is that with our own custom geocoding infrastructure already in place, we’ll have less dependence on online mapping APIs in general to do the most basic of geolocation tasks.  We’ll also have full access to combining this data with contextual user data to provide some truly value-added services that other sites may not have.  For instance, what if your site’s flash video player knew where you had been searching for properties. The page for real estate video might allow users to indicate a search radius preference of a certain number of miles/kilometers and provide a playlist of other available real estate property videos within that radius without ever leaving the video player page.  (5 Mar 2007 Update: this feature is now available).

Not hugely world-changing…but just one simple example of the ability to use geolocation information without switching interfaces makes for a potentially more gratifying user experience.  We also intend to integrate search tag information with geolocation driven metadata. Besides, at least one of the major online mapping providers reserves the right to provide their own ads on your mapping page – I dont like that at all.  Hopefully, you see why we are trying to have a usable geolocation engine beyond simply using an online mapping interface to filter search results. 

What are your thoughts on interesting applications of geolocation for real estate? Are we on the right track or are we just re-inventing and re-hashing the same old tired geolocation capabilities?

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