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.

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Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is a technology that is taking the world by, well, storm. Even if you don’t know what cloud computing is, you most likely use it in your everyday life. If you use Facebook, webmail, or online banking, you’re probably taking advantage of cloud computing.

So what is cloud computing? Cloud computing is the utilization of a network of computers to accomplish a certain task or run software. This is in contrast to say, ten years ago, if you wanted to install an application. You had to download it, then install it. And even then, it was only available on that machine. If you bought a new laptop, you’d need to install it on there.

Instead, cloud computing uses the collective power of dozens, hundreds, if not thousands of computers to bring YOU fully functional software without needing a powerful computer yourself to run it. It’s like instead of doing a math problem on your own, you write it on a chalkboard, then have dozens of math majors do the problem for you and give you the answer faster and more accurate than you could ever do on your own. All you need is a web browser or some other lightweight software on your computer.

As it can seem, this is huge. It enables access to your data all the time — I’m sure you use Google Docs, and one of the best parts of it is that you can take notes at school then go home and not have to open your laptop to get access to those notes. You are utilizing the computing power of thousands of servers to type up that document, then also utilizing the hard drives of thousands of servers to keep that file. And an advantage is that if one of those thousands of servers breaks, you don’t lose your file — it’s distributed among all of those servers for redundancy. Whereas if your computer with Microsoft Word on it breaks, well… let’s hope you kept a backup of all your documents.

In addition, it’s incredibly cheap. You no longer have to buy a computer with 10339.102 jiggawatts of power, or with 4069GB of RAM. You just need a computer that barely works. It’s one reason why tablets, netbooks, and ultrabooks are so popular. Their lower specs can be made up by still giving you full access to Gmail, Google Docs, and Facebook.

Imagine how happy companies are about this. Their infrastructure can literally be built on the cloud. And newer startups don’t have to invest thousands of dollars on computers that a cheap one can do. In fact one person in another class I took started a business that was entirely cloud based. He used Gmail for his company email, an online version of Quickbooks for accounting, Dropbox for file sharing, an online CRM to manage customer relationships… and the list goes on. He didn’t even need an actual office!

Another advantage with cloud computing is that you only pay for the space that you use. Let’s say you started your own business, and estimated that you would have 10 employees, then bought 10 licenses of Windows 7 and 10 licenses of Microsoft Office 2010. But… well, a couple months down the road, times are tough, and you have to permanently let go several employees — your workload might be a bit more, but it’s manageable. And now you have leftover licenses that you paid for, but can’t get a refund on. If you had instead just used cloud computing, you would stop paying for those employees that no longer work there.

Cloud computing makes businesses more efficient. In addition, you can downsize your IT department! If all of your employees are using Gmail, then the tech support is all on Google’s side for email — they’re the ones providing it. I believe we talked about this as one of the characteristics of Web 2.0 — the utilization of software as a service, rather than a product in itself.

Now, all of that sounds great, but it sounds too good to be true! There are downsides to cloud computing. For one: privacy issues. Since you have access to your data anywhere you go, it has to be stored somewhere that’s not your own computer — it’s stored on a server, far far away. Do you trust Random Company, Inc. with some information that could possibly be personally identifiable, or even worse, financially sensitive? I guess it depends on your aversion to risk.

For example, the file sharing site Megaupload was taken down, without warning, by the FBI earlier this year. Many users used Megaupload as a file storage site — if space on your hard drive was limited, you uploaded it to Megaupload so you could still have access to it, but not need it on your hard drive. Of course, some other people used it illegitimately and for illegal file sharing. But either way, if you had files on there, you lost it for good. Because you’re not the only one putting files on there, you can’t exactly control if the government is going to decide whether it’s legal or not.

In addition, because you’re not directly in control of your own files, if a website you are storing data with has poor security, they have the potential to be hacked and you could lose your financial information (if you were storing it there) to hackers. Now rather, if it was in your possession and your possession only, you could control how safe you are keeping it.

So what are your thoughts on cloud computing? It’s definitely transformed the corporate environment — they have the resources to utilize cloud computing to its full potential, and also have the money to buy their own equipment to ensure that they can store their own confidential information. But do you trust Random Company, Inc. with your own information? Maybe you keep your confidential information off those services — which is great, but even if you put a homework assignment on the cloud, you’re not really in control of it.

As much as I want to trust my bank with my information, the fact that online banking exists in the first place means that there is a risk (however little) that someone could steal my identify. And with keyloggers and other malware infecting websites and computers… who’s to say they don’t have it already, and just waiting to strike?

With that being said, I do love cloud computing. It’s an odd thing to think about but… even though the future wasn’t what people in the 1900s thought it would be, with flying cars and jetpacks, we basically are in the future. We have the entire Internet at our fingertips, anywhere we go, and we have software that can be accessible from anywhere rather than just the computer you installed it on. We have computers as small as our palm that are more powerful than a football field worth of computers back in the 1960s. Computers have become so powerful that it would be a shame not to use them to their fullest potential.

I think that the disadvantages with cloud computing are outweighed by the positives; I’m not denying that there is a possibility of identify theft and a loss of control, but I think that given a couple years or even already if they haven’t started now, we will start to see more and more regulations on companies that host cloud computing services to ensure that their customer’s data is safe. Hopefully it will be enough. I don’t think I’ve heard of my own bank or any other bank having issues with hackers getting in to their online system. I think it’s worth the risks. What about you?

What would you do if you knew…

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture presented by Mayo Clinic Physicians about the use of new technologies in the medical field, specifically ultrasounds in the emergency room, to better diagnose patients and save more lives.  For some reason, this presentation brought to mind a study I recently read, Scientists Find Spinal Clue to Detecting Dementia, which detailed new medical technologies that can potentially detect Dementia, and eventually Alzheimer’s, ten years before it sets in.  The scientists conducting the study examined the spinal fluid of patients who had mild thought and memory issues, and a decreased amount of a specific protein, beta-amyloid, in their cerebro-spinal fluid.  These study participants’ memory and thought processes were tracked for ten years, and the end result for nearly all of them was a prognosis of Dementia/Alzheimer’s in the near future.

While reading this article, it reminded me of a study done a few years ago about new medical technology that can detect the genes which can potentially result in Breast Cancer.  Women who tested positive for these genes, who had no history of breast cancer in their family, and no other indicators of possibly developing the disease other than this particular gene, went to extreme measures, a total mastectomywith reconstructive surgery, to give themselves the peace of mind that they will not develop breast cancer.  It was also noted that women with all the indicators: family history, one or many of the identified Breast Cancer genes, etc., never developed breast cancer, while those without any indicators did.

So this begs the question, are we better off not knowing if we are “predisposed” for certain medical conditions? Are these medical technologies for identifying certain illnesses reliable? Are the results, positive or negative, useful in creating a better quality of life?  Does the knowledge of knowing you test “positive” for, in the case of these articles, a certain gene or protein deficiency cause you to live in fear of the disease? What measures will we take to prevent these diseases if we test positive? 

Medical technology is not a bad thing, it just needs to be used in beneficial, lifesaving ways, and I’m not sure if testing someone for Dementia/Alzheimer’s, Breast Cancer genes, or other life-threatening diseases is really a good use of technology.  These tests are informative, but are they necessarily beneficial or lifesaving?

Personally, I am not in favor of these medical technologies that will indicate if you are susceptible (or not) for a certain medical condition.  If women who test positive for a Breast cancer gene are getting mastectomies, then what extremes will potential Dementia/Alzheimer’s patients go to to prevent this condition?  Suicide?  This has yet to be determined.  I feel like if I tested positive for a condition that I would live in fear of developing it, and that is certainly no way to live a happy, healthy life.  These medical technologies are not 100% accurate, and as a result, they may give you false information—either a false sense of security, or false alarm for something you will not develop.

As far as preventing certain diseases, regardless of personal medical history, I believe in preventative care.  It has worked for decades, and continues to work now, in the midst of medical technological advances.  Obviously, certain people are more likely to get certain diseases than others, and there is simply no way to avoid some medical conditions.  For someone like me with fair skin, I am already at a greater risk for skin cancer and melanoma than others, and living in Arizona only increases my chances of getting it.  I don’t live in fear of skin cancer, I just use ridiculous amounts of sun protection to hopefully prevent it.  Medical technology has advanced in a way that there are now apps for your smartphone and tablet.  These apps can help you track medications, exercise, diabetes, heart disease, and even “diagnose” your condition–WedMD in an attempt to reduce doctor visits.  I like the fact that they can help track certain things like medications, and especially diabetic’s blood sugar and diet, but I’m not sure if they are really all that beneficial in the medicine and diagnosis aspect, and many doctors aren’t either.  The WebMD app is a useful tool if you simply want to know about certain medical issues, but as far as actually diagnosing yourself, I have found that WedMD has caused me more harm than good.  It tends to take simple things like a cold and blow them completely out of proportion to the point of some incurable disease.  So, are these medical apps really a good thing? For tracking diabetic blood sugar and diet, I would say yes, but as far as self-diagnoses, I would say no. So, go to the doctor for regular exams, use sunscreen, eat right, and exercise regularly.  This will be your best bet in warding off these dreaded diagnoses.