Digitizing the globe one pixel at a time – Google Maps

A short story of Google Maps’ past, present and future

“If I had a wish it would be this: that Google Maps could take me, not to just anywhere on the planet, but to anywhere in time.” – Janet Turpin Myers

Today, Google Maps is so ubiquitous and such a vital part of our lives, that it feels odd to think that it didn’t even exist until 2005. A hundred percent of all countries have been at least partly mapped (incl. North Korea) with a total of 28 million miles of road data collected and digitalized [1]. Google Maps began life as a thought bubble in 2004 by an Australian software engineer Noel Gordon, one of the four men (Stephen Ma, Lars and Jens Eilstrup Rasmussen) who founded the Sydney-based digital mapping start-up Where 2 Technologies. Today, about a billion people use Google Maps every month, with about a billion searches a day.

Google Maps’ primary goal mirrors that of Google’s: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Just as humans hold maps in their heads and use it to navigate and compute physical space, Google’s strategy is to bring all our mental maps together and process them into accessible, useful forms. “Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge the gap between what we see in the real world and the online world, and Maps really play that part”, says Manik Gupta, the product manager. [2] As the mobile world explodes, where you’re searching from becomes almost as important as what you’re searching for. By collecting and digitizing geo-spatial information, Google Maps has made it is possible to go from any point A to a point B in the shortest and the most efficient way possible. Google Maps has not only fundamentally changed the way we travel, but also allowed us to ‘visit’ new and unknown places even before we arrive through its 360 degree street views or aerial views. We can decide which local shops or restaurants we want to visit through their pictures, ratings and reviews and even re-route our trips based on real time traffic information.

Google Maps derives its strength from gigantic geo-spatial databases that it has built over years through a combination of satellite imagery overlaid with the most efficient algorithms and the most meticulous manual labor, an effort they call as ‘Ground Truth’. As part of ‘Ground Truth’, Street view teams have manually driven GPS enabled cars for over 7 million miles, including 100 percent of all public roads in the US. [3] They also have ‘view codes’ for 6 million businesses and 20 million addresses, where they are able to use logo matching for businesses (such as for McDonald’s outlets) and make a semantic understanding of all the pixels acquired through Street views. [2] Google’s algorithms borrow methods from computer vision and machine learning to extract features like street numbers painted on curbs, the names of businesses and other points of interest, speed limits and other traffic signs, allowing the real world to be translated into the flat file digital world of Google Maps.

Pic 1- A few features that can be extracted algorithmically from Google Street View data [3]Pic 1- A few features that can be extracted algorithmically from Google Street View data [3]


Pic 2 - Map of downtown San Francisco as created by Google Street View [2]Pic 2 – Map of downtown San Francisco as created by Google Street View [4]


Unlike regular Google products, Google Maps has three core sets of customers– the advertising companies, the businesses that use Google Maps API (application program interface) and the individual end users. This powerful tool is offered for free to individual users on the back of advertising revenue via the Google AdWords program, where businesses pay to have ads placed on the map to increase the number of times consumers are exposed to their brands. For businesses, Google offers its Maps API module, charging them standard and premium pricing based on the volume of map requests per day [5]. Some of the major companies we know today such as Uber, Airbnb and Yelp are built on the solid foundation of Google Maps and it is no surprise that Google is extremely well positioned to further innovate aggressively on building its platform for use cases of the future.

Given how much ground (and space!) Google Maps has already been covered, I wonder how will they start mapping the 3D world inside buildings and walls? Perhaps, we may soon have sprawling university campuses, hospitals and stadiums showing layouts of different floors or complete malls with real time inventory displayed online. [6] Self-driving cars are already becoming a reality because of Google Maps and soon we will have Virtual Reality (VR) elements overlaid on Google Maps as we have seen in Nintendo’s Pokémon Go. Would we now have the option to preview our vacation destination in 3D using VR? How about “going back in time” for places of interest and seeing what the maps and streetscapes were like at prior times? The possibilities are endless.

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[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/10090014/The-story-of-Google-Maps.html

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/how-google-builds-its-maps-and-what-it-means-for-the-future-of-everything/261913/

[3] https://www.wired.com/2014/12/google-maps-ground-truth/

[4] https://developers.google.com/maps/pricing-and-plans/#details

[5] http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/what-makes-googles-maps-so-good/

[6] http://searchengineland.com/the-future-of-the-map-255925



9 thoughts on “Digitizing the globe one pixel at a time – Google Maps

  1. Great article! As frequent traveler I can’t imagine my life without Google Maps. It has made my life not only efficient but also easier. Talking about efficiency, I want to share a personal history. Mexico City’s traffic is CRAZY and unpredictable! Google Maps has helped me reduce the amount of time I am in the car telling me which is the most efficient rout to use at any time. Talking about how easy it is to use, let’s remember how complex it was in the past to move in a new city. You needed to buy a paper map and later try to find where you were and later carefully design the most efficient route without taking into account traffic conditions. With Google Maps you can do all these steps with few clicks! Finally, as you mention, I wonder what is the future of this application. Will Google be able to create 3D maps of instore areas, like shopping malls? Can’t wait to see how maps continue doing my life easier!

  2. Great post, Aayesha! I think your post highlights many of the opportunities that exist in location intelligence that I wrote about in my blog post about Foursquare. Similar to Google Maps, Foursquare uses technology to precisely map out point-of-interest data that can be used by advertisers as well as developers looking for an API to build on. Foursquare, however, has gone a step further to use passive location tracking to measure foot-traffic patterns of consumers to inform real estate businesses looking to build new sites and finance investors searching for alternative data to provide more information on business performance. In the world of technology though, Google is king. I am curious to know whether Google also plans to monetize the data they are capture and sell it as insights to businesses for investment strategies. Google is probably better positioned in the market as a leading technology player, so I have little doubt that they can crowd Foursquare out of the market. It will be interesting to see if they decide to monetize the data, or keep the data internally to continue bringing new technology products to the market.

  3. Thanks for the great post Aayesha! As a frequent google maps user, I can’t imagine my life without it. I can barely remember back to the days of mapquest when we had to print directions off prior to going somewhere. Considering they have the entire US mapped I’m curious if they’ll continue to develop these areas in more detail or if they’ll focus primarily on markets outside the US. Do you think that there is significant value in the greater detail in the currently mapped areas? I’m trying to imagine myself looking at universities and vacation spots and could see it having some value.

  4. Great topic! The fact that Google has essentially driven the majority of the Earth and cataloged it is truly astonishing. I wonder what the risk of Google being the primary holder of this information is. I assume Apple Maps has done its own mapping (not reliant on Google), but it is frightening to think one company has so much influence on the way the world gets from point a to point b. For example, what if Google decided to raise rates prohibitively on its API. Does that mean uber and other companies are at a loss? When a company’s business model is so inextricably linked to another’s data, I see opportunity for extortion, especially given the massive amount of capital invested and required to cull the tremendous amount of data needed to map the world.

  5. Thanks for this post, Aayesha! It is really incredible how much information Google is able to extract and leverage through Google Maps. Going forward, I think it will be very interesting to see how Google Maps can be adapted to better suit countries with restrictions, or how Google may try to pressure such countries to ease restrictions. I traveled to China last year forgetting that Google Maps would not be accessible and quickly realized how dependent I was on the service as I desperately tried to find a decent substitute. I was even more surprised when traveling in South Korea this year that Google Maps is heavily restricted, and some maps are supposedly less informative than North Korea’s[1]. Given allegations in other geographies that Google already has too much power, how does Google successfully navigate these challenges for Google Maps?

    [1] Jonathan Cheng, “Google Challenges South Korea Over Mapping Restrictions”, The Wall Street Journal, 17 May 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/google-challenges-south-korea-over-mapping-restrictions-1463478584, accessed November 2016.

  6. The amount of information Google maps hold is impressive. I use it regularly and I can’t imagine traveling without Google maps anymore. One think I like about Google map is that even though Google is making a lot of profit on advertising, they don’t advertise through Google maps. Do you think this is something we should expect in the future?

    Another thing that impressed me is how Google map is linked to all my other information that pass it through my Gmail. When I was traveling to New York I zoomed on Manhattan and I could see a dot on the map with my hotel reservation, my restaurant reservation and another dot on the airport showing the time of my flight. I think it is scary that Google owns all this information and can track our daily lives. I feel safe as long as it is in Google’s hands, but why might happened when all this data leaks out? I think this article raises a lot of important questions that Google is constantly trying to answer and work on.

  7. Aayesha, this is a great topic! The possibilities for Google Maps are definitely endless; I totally agree. Something I’m interested in is the way Google Maps might start giving more information than just the visuals when you’re actually in a place. Using the GPS data that tells the app where the user is, it would be awesome to see some sort of Augmented Reality like Pokemon Go that told me more information about what I’m looking at. For example, wouldn’t it be great if you were in a new place and could have information (e.g. historical) pop up as you go? And if you were in a new country it would be great to have it also translate as you go. Google Translate is already an app that will translate from one language ot another if you hold your camera up to it. What if Google Maps and Translate were to integrate to give you information making travel anywhere so much easier? I’m imagining a version of the product that can educate by becoming a walking atlas/wikipedia as you go!

  8. Aayesha! This is a great topic and article! When I first started driving I would frequently use “Map Quest” and print out directions before going to my destination. GPS companies like Garmin that allowed you to map in your car killed the business for map quest. Now, Google Maps is making in car satellite devices like Garmin more obsolete, since people are commuting more on foot, and the maps on your phone are more accurate and easier to use. Although Google is large player in the mapping space, I wonder if the increased accessibility of drone and satellite technologies, would provide alternatives to Google Maps in the future. Uber is investing $500M in its own mapping technology to reduce reliance on Google Maps. You can read more in the following article http://www.techtimes.com/articles/172029/20160801/ubers-500-million-investment-in-own-maps-reducing-reliance-on-google-maps-and-other-advantages.htm

  9. Sweet post! Yeah I have the question as to what are the possible next steps for Google Maps to cover. Now that basically the whole world has been mapped, what is the next frontier? Perhaps getting maps and images inside (public) buildings would be helpful. Or trying to create a whole new virtual world could be another cool place to start!

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