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Putting Morris on the map

By Kim Ukura

UMM News Service

Many people are growing comfortable with the idea of using online maps to get directions from one place to another. At the same time, technological updates to online mapping software are making this mapping technology more available.

Developers have connected maps with digital databases to develop maps that can do everything from guide users to cheap gas prices to pinpoint crime statistics in the city of Chicago.

And now, the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce, along with the help of one University of Minnesota, Morris student, is working to bring Morris forward using this new technology.

Alex Andersen, a UMM sophomore from St. Joseph, is working with the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce to develop a customized Google map highlighting Chamber businesses and other area attractions.

When launched this summer, newcomers and tourists to Morris will be able to scroll over the map on the Chamber Web site and see the location, a picture, contact information about each of the businesses, a picture and a link to get directions to the location.

"We want to give people a sense of what Morris looks like," Andersen said.

Creating a customized Google map isn't a new idea -- anyone with a Google account has the ability to make their own maps on the site. However, the process is gaining popularity as a way for businesses and communities to make their location and services more visible to those inside and outside the community.

"Google has difficulty locating rural addresses well," said Morris Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors chair Ben Winchester. "Our two hotels north of town on Highway 28 were located by Google west of the city!"

This problem has since been corrected--as are all of the Chamber member businesses that were incorrectly placed.

"People have said they don't know what Morris looks like until they get here," said Winchester, "so this will be a great benefit to our community."

"Our board members are very excited about this addition to our Web site," Carolyn Peterson, executive director of the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce concurred. "This new map will be a continued part of our efforts to promote our community and our members."

Although Google maps seem simple when viewed online, Andersen said the project has been a challenge.

"I'm just getting started in computer science, so I spent the first couple weeks figuring out how to do everything we wanted to do," Andersen explained. "So far, figuring it out has been the toughest part."

"It has been a great opportunity to just dive into something new, sink or swim," he added.

As he finished the code that displays the customized map, and as the weather improved, Andersen has been visiting the Chamber businesses featured on the map to get a picture, short description, and contact information. All of those details will then be uploaded to the site.

In addition to creating the map, Andersen is also working to develop a how-to manual for the Chamber to update the site after he is finished with it. Andersen's map utilizes a combination of Google programs that will make updating the site after he is finished relatively easy and shouldn't involve changing the underlying code of the site.

"Having a student from outside Morris to work on this project is great" Peterson said, "because we can get the perspective of someone who is not from this community about what challenges they may have finding out information about our community and what we can work on to make this information available."

Andersen said he hopes to have the site up and running by the end of May. The map will be available at the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce Web

The project was funded through the Connecting Students and Communities program, a partnership between the University of Minnesota, Morris, the Center for Small Towns and the University of Minnesota West Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. Local units of government, K-12 schools, or community-based organizations are encouraged to apply for the program, which provides a UMM undergraduate student to help in the areas of research, project administration, or other support. Application information and questions about the program can be directed to Jessica Beyer at the Center for Small Towns by calling (320) 589-6451. Previously funded student projects have addressed issues of senior housing, storefront design, health care research, program evaluation, document design and newsletter creation, economic analysis, Internet and Web training, analyzing water and wastewater data, downtown revitalization and Census analysis.