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.”
You 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 go to Fort Hood on the map and discuss it at that specific location.” To help expose information added to the base map, every note is stored as a page that search engines can index, meaning they’ll turn up in the general search results any time anybody Googles a specific address.
ZoomAtlas is far from the first company to organize user-generated content by geography. Google lets users create personalized Google Maps with their own placemarks—We’ve made several here at Xconomy—and sites like Platial and Everyscape let users get more elaborate, weaving geotagged photos and essays into a form of place-based storytelling. There’s even a whole Wikipedia-like site, Wikimapia, with the tagline “Let’s describe the whole world!” Sites for reconnecting with friends, such as Classmates.com and of course Facebook, are also abundant.
But ZoomAtlas may be the first site that explicitly combines maps with friend-finding. “Nobody has succeeded yet in tying location to social networking,” Sherman says. “That is what we are—we bring together microlocation and social networking.”
The startup’s team of developers, artists, and consultants is 10-people strong, with the core team working from offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center. The business is funded so far mainly by Sherman himself, who is an authentic dot-com millionaire—he developed the early Web properties MortgageQuotes.com and MovingQuotes.com in the 1990s and sold MovingQuotes.com to Monster.com for $50 million in 2000.
After leaving Monster, Sherman says he spent a couple of years fishing and golfing in Florida, then running a hedge fund. He had the idea for ZoomAtlas in 2007. “The inspiring moment for me was a return visit to the neighborhood in New York where I grew up,” he says. “I go back there every year or two just to see how the neighborhood has changed. I was thinking of a friend that I was trying to get in touch with. I tried Googling him and he was nowhere to be found. I thought I should try going and stapling a note to the post in front of his old house, so that if he ever comes back he can reconnect with me. That wasn’t a very practical idea—but it was the seed of the idea for ZoomAtlas.”
Sherman has a three-part plan for turning ZoomAtlas into a money-maker. First is the obvious one—advertising. (The site is ad-free for now, but will start showing ads once traffic reaches critical mass, Sherman says.) Second, Sherman believes that the geotagged information users add to roads, property parcels, buildings, residences, and other points of interest will be of interest to other companies offering map-based information, so the data will be made available for licensing.
Third, and perhaps most unexpected, ZoomAtlas plans to introduce a premium friend-finding service—a more friendly and civilized version, Sherman says, of the people-search tools offered by companies like Intelius. “We will go out and find somebody based on the information you provide, and broker an introduction,” Sherman explains. “Only if both parties are aware of who they’re meeting and want to be involved will we make the introduction. I’ve used the current services, just to try them out, and they are creepy. But if a trusted third party is doing the introduction, we think the receiver will not be creeped out.”
As someone who follows the online mapping business closely, I have my doubts about whether a brand-new community for map-based, user-generated content can succeed as a stand-alone site, even with the friend-finding focus as an enticement. But Sherman says that in his long-term vision, people won’t have to spend lots of time on ZoomAtlas itself in order for the business to succeed. The geotagged information that the startup is collecting could easily be separated from ZoomAtlas itself and displayed as a layer of data on any digital mapping platform, such as Google Maps or Google Earth. So in the long run, Sherman will be happy if ZoomAtlas becomes one of the dominant sites where Web users go to enter this information.
Eventually, achieving a vision of that scope will require major venture funding, Sherman says. But for now, he says, “we are going to put in all the dollars we need to, to get to the critical mass so that we are the place for reconnecting.”
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