Brand names that become generic terms – like Kleenex, Rollerblade and Linoleum – also become part of the cultural lexicon. The fact that people use “MapQuest” as a verb just might be the clearest indication that Barry Glick’s creation has had a significant impact on American society.
Glick, BA ’74 & PhD ’81, led the company that created MapQuest, the ubiquitous online mapping tool. Having already developed a system that produced maps and driving directions for customers like auto clubs and insurance companies, Glick in 1996 saw in the new World Wide Web the opportunity to provide the same service via the Internet. They launched MapQuest “purely as a demo site” to show their customers what online mapping could do.
MapQuest became so popular within the first week of its launch that both of the company’s servers went down. Within three months, MapQuest needed 50 servers to handle demand. “We were begging, borrowing, and stealing servers and bandwidth,” Glick says, laughing. The site’s popularity, he admits, “took us totally by surprise.”
Though MapQuest’s triumph might have seemed a bolt from the blue, Glick’s history of merging geography with computers presaged a path to success. Even as a child, he’d been fascinated by maps and what they represented. He entered UB as an undergraduate geography major, which, according to Glick, was one of the two “least popular” major choices for high school seniors.
With a master’s in regional planning from Cornell and a BA and PhD from UB in geography, Glick says he “was being prepped for academic life.” But he was also a father who wanted to support his family, and he realized that academic salaries left a bit to be desired, and that the cutting edge of digital mapping was to be found in business rather than in academia. Thus, he took a job with a company doing work that matched the focus of Glick’s dissertation: medical geography, or using computer models and mapping to deal with disease and healthcare issues.
Subsequent professional moves furthered Glick’s expertise in applying computer modeling to problems that had a geographic component. Among other work, he helped develop mapping-related systems for the Environmental Protection Agency that estimated the effects of pollution on population centers. In the ’80s, he started a company with a partner, applying mapping research he’d undertaken for the federal government to solving business challenges. One program the firm developed, for instance, facilitated congressional redistricting following the 1990 Census.
Significantly, his start-up company also developed an automated-routing – or driving-directions – computer system. They knew auto clubs and other organizations that generated maps and driving directions employed time-consuming, expensive manual methods to accomplish the task. “We thought we could do it better and more efficiently,” says Glick. The adoption of the system by organizations like AAA, Allstate Insurance and others proved Glick’s thesis.
In the 90s, Glick’s company formed a joint venture with printing giant RR Donnelly’s mapping group, which then launched Donnelly Geosystems with Glick at the helm. Several years later, Glick raised the venture capital to develop new products in what he saw as an expanding market and once again became the owner of an independent company, which subsequently launched MapQuest.
Though Glick’s company didn’t have a big advertising budget for MapQuest, it got lots of publicity because it was “one of first truly interactive applications on the Web,” Glick says. “Everything was done on demand. When we added driving directions, it became even more useful.”
MapQuest went public in 1999; Glick left the firm before AOL bought it in 2000. Since then, Glick has continued in the digital mapping industry. “Today the fashionable term is location-based services,” he says, which describes information services based on location like global positioning systems, mobile communications and more. He was CEO of a European company in that industry, then began working with several U.S. startups, continuing to innovate in the field.
Even with his lengthy list of accomplishments, Glick’s most memorable professional moment continues to be “the launch and reception of MapQuest. That’s been the theme of my career – hiding the complexity behind a technology like GIS and making it useable by non-specialists. We accomplished this by having a method of getting the technology out there, and it was heartening to see that people really wanted to use it.”
Written by Grace Lazzara