So you want to make a map…

“There are a couple of steps. You acquire data through partners. You do a bunch of engineering on that data to get it into the right format and conflate it with other sources of data, and then you do a bunch of operations, which is what this tool is about, to hand massage the data. And out the other end pops something that is higher quality than the sum of its parts.” Michael Weiss-Malik (Google engineer)

Google Maps is a mapping service and database, accessible for free online and on mobile platforms. It offers an incredible range of data, ranging from satellite imagery of the entire planet, road and route planning information, local businesses locations, and a huge collection of “street-view” pictures over hundreds of cities around the world.

Google Street View cars have driven over five million miles in 46 countries. Beyond the direct utility these “human-level” images of cities have, Google is using powerful OCR algorithms (developed partially through Google Books) to extract text from signs and businesses and feeding this information back into its database.

Where does all of this information come from? The base layer (for the US) comes from TIGER data from the US Census Bureau. This is just the start- for one thing, many small details such as roads don’t exactly line up with the real world. Google employs hundreds of people to analyze imagery and make small corrections. In addition, Google often corrects errors reported in its maps from users within minutes.

Even more impressive is Google Map Maker, a bottom-up way to edit Google Maps. Anyone around the world can use this service to improve the places that they experience every day, making Google Maps a richer experience for everyone by adding landmarks and utilizing local knowledge.

Why does Google care about having the world’s most accurate and comprehensive maps? If Google’s mission is to organize and monetize all of the world’s information, it needs more than search spiders. It needs to move into the physical world, collect, organize, and make searchable the huge amount of data that the world contains. It needs to create an interface between the online and offline worlds.

One example of the ways the Google Maps database will revolutionize the world is Google’s self-driving car initiative. This project is being led by Sebastian Thrun, who was integral in the development of Street View. Google’s cars have completed over 480,000 driverless miles accident free. Google Maps will take a huge role when this service is commercialized: the cars need to know exactly where to drive if they will be useful.

7 responses to “So you want to make a map…

  1. I really liked your description of Google’s mission, “to organize and monetize all the world’s information.” I think it is strikingly accurate, and as a result, incredibly frightening.

    It seems unwise to give any company, person, or government that much power. I feel the potential for a somewhat Orwellian society emerging, where movements can be tracked, 24-7.

    Even worse is when a company like Google begins to share sensitive information with governments. We as a society need to think twice about whether it is right for Google or any other company to have and utilize sensitive information for their own use.

  2. One thing about Google maps that always concerned me were the security aspects. I was in the Marines and our base in San Diego was on Google maps. You could go on there and see how many aircraft we had, what kinds, where all the units were, where personnel lived, weapons storage etc. Anyone can access that information from anywhere in the world, which leaves us vulnerable. However, I still believe its a great product and one that should be fully explored, with maybe a few restrictions.

  3. In keeping with Google’s trademark simplicity and ease, my favorite part of Google Maps is how quickly I can go from searching a location to launching the Maps application on my phone, showing me how to get there in only one step. Using Google as my search engine, I don’t even have to go as far as clicking on the webpage of my desired destination and retrieving the address to plug into my Maps application. While I have encountered the occasional glitch in their directions, the ease makes me a returning customer.

    I also thought it was interesting how you mentioned the Google Map Maker, which I didn’t know about. It seems like the perfect example of a Web 2.0 technology that allows users to act as co-developers.

  4. This is a fantastic article and I have never heard about this before!! I basically agree with what Tim said… that Google having access to that much information about where we have gone, where we drive most often, etc. could be bad if the information got into the wrong hands.

    Also, sometimes when I use Google maps now, I get completely wrong directions… so they would have to make sure that their maps are very up to date and precise. Great article though!!

  5. I think that this article is very fascinating! I love everything about Google and have never been afraid of its power, however I do agree with Tim that if the information falls into the wrong hands, it could be potentially harmful. If placed in the wrong hands, someone could find out where you frequently go and come find you (I am mildly irrational, though).

    I am also fascinated by the statistic that Google has completed over 480,000 driver-less miles accident free. I was completely unaware that a car even had that capability right now. I guess I would like further information about how the car avoids accidents, how the car recognizes stop lights, and how the car recognizes speed limits. I look forward to seeing how this technology will advance in the future.

  6. I kind of agree with Tim here. The driving force behind Google is convenience. However, this convenience can – and will be – used by everyone, even for “nefarious” purposes. It is easy to imagine people using Google and its maps to stalk others, find personal information about someone, etc. Even more alarming is the possibilities of government control of this information, which could promote similar activities on a much larger scale.
    However, one cannot really judge the reality of the issue without delving into politics. We are lucky enough that our government system is held in a self-checked system – the kind of radical change in government that would result in the large scale tracking of its inhabitants simply will not happen overnight – but it is very likely that the government has been using search engines to track people. Even a police officer using Google maps to find the exact location of a disturbance would be an example of this. I suppose we should just vote show our opinions regarding this kind of action.

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