How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything

Is this the ultimate map? I am not sure but it shows most of what is there – but its inherent problem is the same as all empirical representations – thy suffer from the  fallacy that Daniel  Kahneman calls WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is – which is never true – there is always more behind the things we see and the true importance of the world around us is hidden from sight -in that it is the relationships and connections we don’t see in physical space that exist only in our subjective minds and the origins of “place” in space is our shared intersubjective knowledge, connection and memory of the interactions that took place, are taking place now or are anticipated in the near future… This report on what lies behind a Google map -Ground Truth by LEXIS C. MADRIGAL –  of  The Atlantic

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.

The company opened up at a key moment in its evolution. The company began as an online search company that made money almost exclusively from selling ads based on what you were querying for. But then the mobile world exploded. Where you’re searching has become almost important as what you’re searching. Google responded by creating an operating system, brand, and ecosystem in Android that has become the only significant rival to Apple’s iOS.

And for good reason. If Google’s mission is to organize all the world’s information, the most important challenge — far larger than indexing the web — is to take the world’s physical information and make it accessible and useful.

“If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online,” Manik Gupta, the senior product manager for Google Maps, told me. “Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part.”

It’s common when we discuss the future of maps to reference the Borgesian dream of a 1:1 map of the entire world. It seems like a ridiculous notion that we would need a complete representation of the world when we already have the world itself. But to take scholar Nathan Jurgenson’s conception of augmented reality seriously, we would have to believe that every physical space is, in his words, “interpenetrated” with information. All physical spaces already are also informational spaces. We humans all hold a Borgesian map in our heads of the places we know that we use to navigate and compute physical space. Google’s strategy is to bring all our mental maps together and process them into accessible, useful forms.

Their MapMaker product makes that ambition clear. Project managed by Gupta during his time in India, it’s the “bottom up” version of Ground Truth. It’s a publicly accessible way to edit Google Maps by adding landmarks and data about your piece of the world. It’s a way of sucking data out of human brains and onto the Internet. And it’s a lot like Google’s open competitor, Open Street Map, which has proven it, too, can harness the crowd’s intelligence.

As we slip and slide into a world where our augmented reality is increasingly visible to us off and online, Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.

Or as my friend and sci-fi novelist Robin Sloan put it to me, “I maintain that this is Google’s core asset. In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world) and, oh, P.S. they still have a search engine somewhere.”

Of course, they will always need one more piece of geographic information to make all this effort worthwhile: You. Where you are, that is. Your location is the current that makes Google’s giant geodata machine run. They’ve built this whole playground as an elaborate lure for you. As good and smart and useful as it is, good luck resisting taking the bait.

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