Orbitz Mobile Traffic Maps: A Static Maps Story

Sunday, March 09, 2008 at 4:24:00 PM

It is my pleasure to be asked by Pamela to write another guest blog post; this time to discuss my experiences in using the new Static Maps API to enhance our Orbitz TLC Traveler Update mobile airport traffic page. I am pleased to report that although the API is in its early stages, it provides enough functionality to easily convey valuable geo-based information (e.g. the top 10 severe traffic incidents surrounding an airport) for our mobile users.

So why are static maps so important to mobile? Well, mobile development is kind of the old Wild West of the internet. Different phones use different browsers: some are common browsers like Opera, while others are proprietary ones written by the device manufacturer. This means you cannot count on universal support for Javascript and Ajax, and therefore there is no way to use the Google Maps Javascript API for people on cell phones and PDAs.

Ok, enough of the history lesson, click on the screenshot below to take a look at the Static Maps API in action.

Originally when starting work on this feature, I of course wanted to use things like clickable markers, custom icons, and so on. But the thing to remember about mobile users is that they are on the go and have limited time to look at your map. Therefore it is best to keep the information as simple and bare bones as possible, as to limit the amount of time needed to interpret what they are seeing.

Instead of custom icons, we used colors to contrast traffic markers from the central airport marker. We found the blue icon drew enough attention that it was the central focal, when surrounded by red icons (our traffic incidents). Additionally, the red color was enough to associate markers on our mobile version of severe traffic incidents with those found on our web site that uses a custom red triangle icon. Also by using labeled markers for the traffic incidents, and no label for the airport, we were able to further create a simple interpretation of traffic markers versus the airport maker. Finally, since most users are used to the alphabet markers signifying a list of similar points on things like maps.google.com, it was enough to help us associate the list of traffic incidents on the map with their specific traffic details located below the map.

There were only two big concerns we found when creating this mobile map: icon size and lack of numbered icons. Since most mobile devices are phone-based, screen size (and thus map size) tends to be limited. As you can see in the example above, there are several times where the icons overlap and make the map look cluttered. If a smaller version of the icons were available, it could reduce the number of overlapping markers and make clear the position of the traffic incidents. Another issue with the icons is that the use of alphabet letters as labels has an inherent limitation, in that you can only place 26 different icons on one map. Because our non-mobile version of the traffic page can list over a hundred distinct incidents, we use numbers there to label those icons. If numbered icons were available for static maps, we could display additional traffic incidents on the mobile map.

As always, the Google Maps API team and I welcome comments and questions on this article, the mobile feature mentioned, and the Static Maps API. Please leave feedback in the Maps API forum.

Disclaimer: These views are mine and not the views of OWW or (subsidiary). I am not a spokesperson for OWW or (subsidiary) and neither OWW nor (subsidiary) endorse any material, content and/or links or assume any liability for any of my actions.