The Story Behind The Solaris Registrations Map

I'm one of the people who created the Solaris Registrations Map which has caught Jonathan's eye. Developing the map has been a lot of fun, and I thought I'd share some highlights here.

First off, credit where credit is due... The original idea for the map came from Steve Wilson, Vice President of the "SysNet" group at Sun. Among other things, this group runs the Sun Update Connection and the related Solaris registration service from which the map's data comes. Steve had only been on the job a few days when at small group outing he thought aloud: wouldn't it be cool if we made a Google Maps mashup of all of these registrations we're getting? As another of the map's developers would later say, to some of us Steve's question was the equivalent of chumming the water for sharks. We knew a great idea when we heard one, and we just had to make it happen.

So over the next few days and weeks, we started playing with visualizing our registration data using the Google Maps API. A few challenges quickly became apparent. Chief among these were performance and privacy concerns.

On the performance front, we quickly realized that the JavaScript-based markers often used for such mashups just would not work for a large data set such as this one (80,000 registrations and counting). So for our high-level views, we use the Java Image I/O API to create our own matrix of tile images, and then use Google Maps API calls to have those overlaid atop the normal map tiles. For example, where a fully zoomed-out view of the earth would cripple one's browser with the work of placing 80,000 individual "balloons" on a map using JavaScript-based markers, the custom tile approach means the browser just has to retrieve and position at most a handful images. Much faster and kinder to your browser.

Next, the privacy concerns... We had originally been assuming this map would only be available to a restricted audience on Sun's internal network. But soon after we started showing off initial versions, certain people were asking why we couldn't expose it on the Internet. Again, we knew a great idea when we heard one and had to make it happen. After all, Sun has jumped into the spirit of transparency and the Participation Age like no other. Making our map public could be one more step in that path, but it had to be done with care: we absolutely could not violate the privacy expectations of our users. As cool as some people might think it would be to find a dot on their exact house, others would understandably be quite upset.

And so, after consulting with Sun's privacy specialists we settled on an approach of locating registrations by nothing more specific than a zip or postal code. In other words, your dot won't show up directly on your house (unless, perhaps, you happen to live at a central post office). Instead, information from you and any of your Solaris-using nieghbors will be aggregated together and put into one marker at the center of your postal code area. As our team's Director, Eric Peterson, put it: even "Ted Nugent would be comfortable knowing that the T1000/Nevada registered to his 'Tedquarters' in Jackson, MI is untracable beyond 49202."

I think there are some interesting details deeper down in our technical approach, but I'll cover those in a future post. In the meantime, it looks like Steve has posted his own account of the map's story.

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