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How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything
September 7, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

"Behind every Google Map, there is a much more complex map that's the key to your queries but hidden from your view. The deep map contains the logic of places: their no-left-turns and freeway on-ramps, speed limits and traffic conditions. This is the data that you're drawing from when you ask Google to navigate you from point A to point B -- and last week, Google showed me the internal map and demonstrated how it was built. It's the first time the company has let anyone watch how the project it calls GT, or 'Ground Truth,' actually works."
posted by SpacemanStix (44 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Warning about clicking on the link: it is like staring into eternity man, your hair will turn white and will start to raaaave...
posted by KokuRyu at 11:34 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's the first time the company has let anyone watch how the project it calls GT, or 'Ground Truth,' actually works.

There's a concept for a Pynchon novel in here somewhere.
posted by muddgirl at 11:38 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


This article lacks adequate discussion of competitors, given that it is claiming that GM is unique and impossible to replicate.

It's not at all clear to me why the author thinks that crowdsourcing at OSM can't do the same thing but without streetview...or, indeed, why MS doesn't have the money to just do exactly the same process for Bing Maps.
posted by jaduncan at 11:48 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is way cool and worrying in one killer app.
posted by arcticseal at 11:48 AM on September 7, 2012


Google's mapping accomplishments are impressive, but like jaduncan I wish the article talked more about all the other folks working in the space too. OpenStreetMap has become a really impressive accomplishment, in some areas a better source of ground truth than Google has yet assembled. Commercial users of OSM data like the new Mapquest are doing excellent cartography. And of course Google licenses data from other sources as well; in Beijing, for instance, AutoNavi is credited. But then again no one can quite touch Google's assemblage of street data combined with Street View photographs and all the aerial imagery. Google makes excellent maps.

We're at a weird time with Google Maps as a business. Losing the iPhone has to be frustrating for them. And a lot of other businesses are leaving Google for OSM based solutions in the wake of Google charging for map serving. Everyone's finally realizing how valuable geodata is, particularly for local advertising products, and the field is wide open. I'd love to read more articles about what's going on in the wider space.
posted by Nelson at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


...last week, Google showed me the internal map and demonstrated how it was built. It's the first time the company has let anyone watch how the project it calls GT, or 'Ground Truth,' actually works.

This article lacks adequate discussion of competitors...


Surely the elephant in the room is the imminent launch of Apple's own Maps app in iOS 6. The timing of this revelation seems to indicate an attempt at a preemptive strike by Google.
posted by fairmettle at 12:02 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, I guess 'or Apple' is the other obvious one. It's just that at the moment the Maps app sucks (and I do wonder how they aren't risking a trademark issue with Google Maps).
posted by jaduncan at 12:06 PM on September 7, 2012


(and I do wonder how they aren't risking a trademark issue with Google Maps)

You can't trademark a generic word like "Maps" in that way. It's not fanciful, arbitrary or suggestive.
posted by Talez at 12:11 PM on September 7, 2012


And for anyone who's curious, the example map is of the Google campus at the exit 400 set of junctions of 101, Amphitheater Parkway, Rengstorff and Charleston.
posted by Talez at 12:13 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've always been very, very impressed with Google's mapping efforts. They really blew mapquest and those other early efforts out of the water.

I've been using the iOS 6 beta for a few months. Even on the latest version of the beta, Apple's new maps don't hold a candle to Google's. They're pretty, but lack so much information that you can get at a quick glance with Google's iOS stuff (i.e., you have to zoom in several levels to discover that a street is in fact one-way). The turn by turn is ok, but the searching function is awful in comparison to Google. No idea if that is just b/c of a more sparse database of places, but google maps' ability to hook into google itself to get addresses when you just have a business name is unbelievably handy. I didn't realise how much i would miss it until i started using Apple's own maps, which basically require me to exactly input the street address i want to go to, rather than just the name of the bar. It's a real downgrade.
posted by modernnomad at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


As good a place as any to bring up the start-up I'm surprised doesn't already exist: A game engine that renders environments based off of Google Maps data. Imagine being able to race through the streets of any city in the country (recreate that one scene from Bullit, anyone?). Or a walkable 3D sandbox map of your hometown (GTA: Branson? Hell yeah).
posted by sourwookie at 12:21 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm for sure hoping there will be a standalone Google Maps app available when I move into iOS 6.
posted by sourwookie at 12:23 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


That'll be the name of my autentico umami by the bushel hamburger stand.

"Ground Truth"
posted by notyou at 12:26 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


As good a place as any to bring up the start-up I'm surprised doesn't already exist: A game engine that renders environments based off of Google Maps data. Imagine being able to race through the streets of any city in the country (recreate that one scene from Bullit, anyone?). Or a walkable 3D sandbox map of your hometown (GTA: Branson? Hell yeah).

I don't know about an entire engine but I know there's been a few indie games that have developed on a similar concept. I definitely remember one that allowed you to do some kind of auto racing.

Hell if I can actually remember any names at the moment though.
posted by kmz at 12:27 PM on September 7, 2012


One of the reasons I bought a Nexus 7 this week, the GPS and maps are worth it alone and on a nice big screen for the car.
posted by arcticseal at 12:27 PM on September 7, 2012


Apple's DIY maps stuff in iOS 6 is really seeming like a pretty bad mistake at this point. I don't see how I can upgrade unless there is a standalone Google Maps app available—and given the fractious state of relations between the two companies I am not really sure that there will be. And I say this as someone who thinks the Google Maps app really sucks in a lot of ways—it's unnecessarily slow and requires way too much work to switch contexts. But at least it is functional.
posted by enn at 12:28 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


A game engine that renders environments based off of Google Maps data. Imagine being able to race through the streets of any city in the country (recreate that one scene from Bullit, anyone?).

There was something along those lines a while ago, posted to Metafilter. Not a full blown engine, but fun nonetheless. The link within is dead now however.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:30 PM on September 7, 2012


So, we're like...what? Two, two and a half years from computers taking over the world?
posted by MoonOrb at 12:55 PM on September 7, 2012


This is interesting work for sure, but I am annoyed with the author's breathless tone. Having worked in search engine field (and, peripherally, map search field), Google's accomplishments are impressive w.r.t. execution, but they are not magic. There is very little of what they have done that cannot be readily replicated by others willing to invest a similar amount of money. Computer vision for sign recognition, massive human annotator efforts for correction, merging disparate sources of data - some of these problems are more difficult than others but none of them are Google's exclusive domain, and a relatively small number were actually invented there.

I have been getting a feeling lately that Google has embarked on a massive PR campaign, trying to reclaim the status of a company that deals in miracles (maybe dealing in miracles will make people will forget about the - er - more human transgressions, especially around internet privacy). Getting a super-friendly article like this on in The Atlantic is in itself a pretty big accomplishment for that campaign.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 1:13 PM on September 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


The logical conclusion of Google's business model is to build AI versions of all humans - infinitely many, each inside a customized virtual universe, for the sake of A/B/∞ testing advertisements on them. It logically follows that we all probably currently exist inside such a reality
posted by crayz at 1:21 PM on September 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


There is very little of what they have done that cannot be readily replicated by others willing to invest a similar amount of money.

I thought that the author was pretty upfront that what makes Google's efforts unique is in significant part the scale of them, and the amount of man-hours they're willing to throw at a problem. E.g.:
The secret to [Google's Map] success isn't, as you might expect, Google's facility with data, but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:28 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have been getting a feeling lately that Google has embarked on a massive PR campaign, trying to reclaim the status of a company that deals in miracles (maybe dealing in miracles will make people will forget about the - er - more human transgressions, especially around internet privacy).

Apple will have to sue them again for infringing on this patented technique, too.
posted by maxwelton at 1:39 PM on September 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


recreate that one scene from Bullit, anyone?

That might be difficult.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:57 PM on September 7, 2012


Impressive as this sounds, don't forget it left jessamyn in a lake for quite some time.
posted by unliteral at 2:35 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


recreate that one scene from Bullit, anyone?

That might be difficult.


But I still dream of GTA: Branson. Pretty much everyday, in fact.
posted by sourwookie at 3:46 PM on September 7, 2012


Following unilateral, I'll just mention a weird metadata problem that Google used to have and Bing and other maps still have. In Wisconsin, we have "towns" or townships which are not "towns" aka villages as in other states but divide up counties the way that counties divide up states. So a "town" here -- they have elected boards, and the option to control roads, trash, and policing -- is often a place in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. The villages and cities are separate. Confusion reigns when there is a Township and a City/Village with the same name, as with Janesville. Google eventually figured out that the location of Janesville, City of, was a location actually within the city limits, but has lost information about the Township. Bing ... oh, wait, Bing got it fixed now, too. Zillow, on the other hand, creates this "Janesville" that weirdly combines both the City and the Town. You can argue that those people are still Janesville rural routes for postal purposes, but so are three other towns that we're right in the middle of.

I'm sure many of you could come up with similar examples from your own local geographies. What we understand and what the data understand are not as often aligned as we would like.
posted by dhartung at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not at all clear to me why the author thinks that crowdsourcing at OSM can't do the same thing but without streetview...or, indeed, why MS doesn't have the money to just do exactly the same process for Bing Maps.

That's what I thought when I read it yesterday morning, but now the article does briefly mention OSM. Did I just totally miss that?
posted by oneirodynia at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2012


To be clear: I didn't notice any mention of OSM at all yesterday, which seemed like an oversight.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:50 PM on September 7, 2012


There are folks working on open source tools for automated sign recognition for OSM. It'll be nice to run it against my existing archive of photos and tracks and get speed limit data and the like. It can get pretty complex trying to map out an area with lots of turn restrictions, one ways, and other stuff that goes far beyond just roads.

What OSM doesn't have good tools for at the moment are indoor maps like what Google has recently rolled out. It's possible to map such things in OSM (IIRC, there is an agreed-upon tagging scheme), but the default renderer doesn't handle them gracefully, if at all.

I suspect that Google got a lot more person-hours dedicated to improving the map when they finally rolled out their editing tool for end users.
posted by wierdo at 5:16 PM on September 7, 2012


I'm sure many of you could come up with similar examples from your own local geographies. What we understand and what the data understand are not as often aligned as we would like.

Well, there is the small matter of a street in Berlin being named "Core Tex Records", which I doubt is its official name.

There have also been occasional glitches when some map tiles are rendered in the wrong language. A few years ago, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen was labelled in Japanese on one level of the iPhone 4 resolution map, St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London had a Hebrew label in one level, and I recall seeing the M25 ring road labelled in French as an “autoroute péripherique”.
posted by acb at 5:31 PM on September 7, 2012


I'm sure many of you could come up with similar examples from your own local geographies. What we understand and what the data understand are not as often aligned as we would like.

Well, when you apply localized ideas of geographic and government terms to larger areas, you run into issues. If I assume that townships are always exclusive of city boundaries (as they are in some places), I sort my map data differently than I do if towns and townships intersect, or are nested. Then with the map, you have to figure out how and at what level and in what style the townships will render. If you live in a place where townships never overlap city boundaries, they can render at the same level and it's not a problem. If you have towns within townships and townships within counties, you would have to take a different approach. If my map is national or global, I've got to figure out ways of dealing with all the different definitions of township, how to sort them, and how to render them so that they're accurate every place they exist.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:20 PM on September 7, 2012


I miss back when they'd sometimes tell you to drive down one of the staircases in Pittsburgh.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:43 PM on September 7, 2012


the project it calls GT, or 'Ground Truth,'

Well, it's not just Google that calls it "ground truth." Everyone who works with maps calls it ground truth.
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this the same omniscient Google that thinks I-84 through Portland, Oregon should be labeled "Quebec Route 366" and "U.S. Route 30 in Nebraska"?
posted by xil at 9:47 PM on September 7, 2012


xil: "Is this the same omniscient Google that thinks I-84 through Portland, Oregon should be labeled "Quebec Route 366" and "U.S. Route 30 in Nebraska"?"

They fixed that bug back in July. (The insane part is that it took Google 3 months to do so)
posted by schmod at 10:33 PM on September 7, 2012


There are only so many worldwide companies that have worldwide mapping data.

There's Navteq, now owned by Nokia, used by Garmin GPS's, Bing, and recently selected by Amazon to replace Google Maps on Kindles.

There's Tele Atlas, originally used by Google before Google decided to build its own system. Tele Atlas is now owned by TomTom. It is used as a source of map data for Mapquest, and was selected as the map source by Apple for their Maps app.

And there is OpenStreet, the open-source map database.

Google has advantages in that the mapping and user GPS data feeds into their advertising database, so the better the maps, the more money they make, even though it it free. Also, they not only have lots of computer driven camera cars driving all over the world, but they have their own satellites.
posted by eye of newt at 11:49 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Further searching shows that Microsoft has their own satellites too (well, more 'exclusive use of' than 'own'--this seams to be a side business for military spy satellite companies).
posted by eye of newt at 12:20 AM on September 8, 2012


seams/seems--ugh. There's definitely a high tired vs typo correlation I need to leave now.
posted by eye of newt at 12:22 AM on September 8, 2012


Wow, that OpenStreetMap site is sort of like a weird Borgesian version of Google Maps with its tiny, almost plausible deviations from reality. They have Elizabeth street divided into two streets, one running in each direction, between Prince and Bayard, which I could almost believe if I didn't live there. I'm sure one morning I'll wake up to find that Elizabeth is indeed a two lane divided street, that it has always been that way, and that Google Maps has been silently updated to reflect the new reality...

Alternate reality aside, I like how it shows pedestrian paths that Google Maps overlooks, for example how you can walk through/behind all the massive City Hall buildiings to get from City Hall Park to Chinatown.
posted by pravit at 1:03 PM on September 8, 2012


That's a striking error for the middle of Manhattan, pravit. FWIW here's the history of Elizabeth Street in OSM. I'm wondering if that error is a victim of OSM's recent redaction of stuff for license reasons? If you look on the Stamen Toner map (based on a slightly older OSM snapshot) the street is correct. Maybe it was a TIGER import with bad data, then someone edited it, but the edits got removed on July 18 because of the license shift.
posted by Nelson at 1:27 PM on September 8, 2012


Ah, that is a much more plausible explanation than a secret society of Berkeleian idealists making subtle changes to maps and encyclopedias to reflect an alternate reality that ours gradually begins to resemble.

I'd fix it myself but I don't know if OSM is like WP where you get stuck in an edit war for the most innocuous of corrections, though I did attempt to add in the restaurant tunnel between Elizabeth and Bowery below Canal.
posted by pravit at 1:46 PM on September 8, 2012


I hope they run serious analytics on this and their traffic stuff to identify design problems or reveal higher-level solutions that we may not discern intuitively/experientially.
posted by zangpo at 2:38 PM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always assumed that their mobile mapping application sent home details of when someone drove "off course" in order to know when new roads were built or when their data was wrong. There were many impressive points made in the article but I was actually a little let down to see how manual the process was. They have phones in hand running their apps all over the world yet they need someone to bother to submit a bug report to know if there are issues? Seems rather un-google of them.
posted by dgran at 10:49 AM on September 10, 2012


I can tell you that OSM is nothing like WP in terms of oversight; I have made serious errors (accidentally!) which were not immediately reverted. In fact, so far as I know, nothing I've done on OSM has been reverted.

So, go ahead and fix up Elizabeth Street! And yes, it was last edited by "OSMF Redaction Account".
posted by novalis_dt at 1:43 PM on September 10, 2012


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