ZoomAtlas—Helping You Reconnect With Friends from The Old Neighborhood

Say you’d like to look up an old friend from high school. You have no idea what happened to him after college, and you can’t find him on Facebook. But you do remember the address of his house down the street from your childhood home. What if there was a Web-based map where you could log on, locate your friend’s old house, and leave a virtual note for him to find?

That’s the scenario that Mark Sherman hopes millions of people will explore at ZoomAtlas, a new social mapping service going public today at O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Using the site’s tools, you can publicly annotate any location that has some personal meaning to you. That might mean leaving a note for someone, or it might mean reminiscing about the house where you grew up, or a school you attended, or even a restaurant where you had a good meal.

But Sherman, the president, CEO, and main funder of the Cambridge, MA-based startup, thinks finding long-lost acquaintances will be the most compelling use for the site. “There’s nothing on Facebook I’ve seen that allows you to reconnect on the micro level,” he says. “The closest thing you have is groups for school alumni—but that’s not the only place that people want to reconnect from.”

Searching for a residence on ZoomAtlasYou can think of ZoomAtlas as a cross between Google Maps, Facebook, and Wikipedia, with user-generated missives and memories as the key ingredients that—in theory, at least—will make it more than just another mapping site.

Speaking of Wikipedia, Sherman says Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the first wiki, is a close friend and an advisor to the company. In a short essay posted on the site, Cunningham says ZoomAtlas is “a perfect example” of the collaborative philosophy behind wikis. “We can make an atlas of our world that shows what we know and love, not just what a satellite can see,” Cunningham writes. “We can weave our memories and impressions together using the computer’s ever improving graphics to make a collaborative picture from our eyes and minds and hearts in equal proportion.”

The first thing to try when you visit ZoomAtlas is typing in a specific street address—say, the house where you grew up. You’ll see a satellite image of the neighborhood, with small icons representing the location of each house. Each house icon can be edited in a number of ways: you can move it in case it’s not in the right location on the property, you can give it a different look to correspond to your memory of the place, you can write an article about that address (this is the most Wikipedia-like part), and you can attach short notes for others to find. Right now the maps are 2-D, but in the future, according to Sherman, you’ll be able to go inside houses and annotate individual rooms. “Users are empowered to help detail to the map to the point that every location on Earth, no matter how small, can be defined and have attributes assigned to it,” says Sherman.

But ZoomAtlas is more than just a map-based bulletin board where people can leave notes for long-lost friends, Sherman says. He hopes it will evolve into the locus for any online conversation linked to a place. “It’s a framework on which to allow discussion of locations, whether big or small,” he says. “If there were another Fort Hood incident, God forbid, you could … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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