Searching for a Sense of Place

Whether you’re looking for the London in England, Texas or on the atoll of Kiritimati, an online gazetteer can help you locate just the geographic details you need.

With all of the recent interest in Google Earth, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and other mapping and satellite imagery services, some longer established place-name services are also worth a look, especially when you’re looking for out of the way places—such as Antarctica, for example.

Start with MapPlanet, which combines a geographic search engine with a community of users who provide interesting information about places literally all over the earth. MapPlanet’s database consists of about 4,830,000 places with 8,160,000 names. Why the larger number of names? To account for spelling variations. This lets you find the city of KÖln (Germany) when you search for “Cologne,” “Koeln,” “Koln” and so on.

You can search for a place by entering its name and the country in which it’s located. The search form accepts wildcards if you’re uncertain about spelling or want to pick up variants. The wildcards are somewhat unusual: An underscore (_) takes the place of a single character, while the percent sign (%) will match any number of characters.

Results will show you a table listing matching place names with a bunch of additional information, including latitude, longitude, country, a field called “Adm1” which is typically a state, city or other type of identifier, and a category called “feature type” which indicates whether the place is a city, populated place, valley or other type of landmark.

You can sort results easily by clicking on the label for each column, in much the same way you can sort an Excel spreadsheet, in ascending or descending order.

To get detailed information about a specific place, simply click the name link for the place. This displays a page that shows you a more detailed information page about the place. In addition to basic geographic information, this page also features links to get a Google map of the place, more Wikipedia map resources for the place, as well as a link to display nearby places.

It’s fun to explore the immediate vicinity of a place using these nearby places links, and then use the Google map and Wikipedia links to get alternate views of these places.

The Wikipedia map resources provide links to many other mapping and imaging services, including Mapquest, Map24, GeaBios, the SINTEF Virtual Globe and many others, including numerous country or region specific services.

You can also browse MapPlanet by using its hierarchal directory of countries. Each country has an information page with a map flag of the country, and links to major provinces, states or other administrative regions. Click one of these links and you’ll be able to explore the country on a city-by-city level.

MapPlanet is available in English, German, Polish and Dutch; use the drop-down menu in the upper right corner to select your language of choice.

Another great source of geographic information is the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN). This service lets you search by name, place type and country, and also allows you to create very complex Boolean queries to narrow your search to more specific areas.

The TGN has data on 1,102,000 names and other information about places. Like MapPlanet, the TGN has variants on place names, but one nice feature is that among these names, one is flagged as the preferred name.

You can also browse the TGN, viewing the hierarchies of names either by political entities or physical features.

There are dozens of similar web sites that focus on geographical place name information. Some, like MapPlanet and TGN cover the entire world. Others focus on specific countries or regions. A terrific directory to many of the best of these services is maintained by Arizona State University Library on its Place Name Sites web page.

Want more? See Gary’s SearchDay article Terrific Real Estate Search Tools.

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