Congratulations, you’ve just been hired by Google. In a quest to bring high-quality digital maps to every corner of the globe, Google produced Map Maker, a crowd-sourced cartography project that allows users to fill in the blanks on Google’s digital atlas of the world. With Map Maker, Google claims that the amount of the Earth’s population with detailed online maps of their regions went from 15% to 30% (with 187 nations and territories included). Now, Google is bringing Map Maker to the US, with an emphasis on making the existing digital maps better and more detailed. Make an improvement to Google’s maps, and it could be seen by billions of users around the world. Watch their introduction to the feature in the video below. From customized bike routes through the city to updated guides to parks, Map Maker is ready to create the personalized digital maps of the future. Another piece of the puzzle is falling into place.
Unsurprising considering that you are making a change to their digital map, Google will review all the additions you propose through Map Maker. Thus, while this is a crowd-sourced project, it is also a tightly managed one. You can see the steady stream of map improvements through a real time window into the process. You can also go directly to Map Maker and try out the toolkit to see how easy it is to add details to Google’s maps. With a few clicks you can outline a building, trace a lake, suggest a jogging path, etc, etc. I made two additions to my neighborhood in about five minutes. Google may have the last say in what actually makes it onto the map, but the system they’ve created enables submissions very well, which hopefully means we’ll have lots more user generated content available in the weeks ahead.
Map Maker’s entrance into the US is just one side of the digital map revolution that Google has been fomenting. We’ve already seen user generated photos and videos make their way onto Google Maps, with more appearing every day. We’ve also been able to share personalized maps between friends and family for years. Reviews for shops and restaurants appear directly on Google Maps when you search for them, and you can add your opinions to these lists as you like. Along with higher quality appearance (3D views, HD street view pictures, etc), these crowd-sourced aspects of digital maps make them more useful, and a better representation of the world they model.
As digital maps continue to mature I suspect two other major trends will come into play. The first is automated crowd-sourced enabled personalization. To explain: you know how Google tracks your search behavior? They also let you share recommendations with friends through Latitude, Buzz, Maps (as we just mentioned) and other projects. Recently they’ve started experimenting with a “+1” button, sort of their equivalent of Facebook’s ‘like’ but for the entire internet. What this means is that Google has a sophisticated sort of profile about you (albeit an anonymous one). Using that profile, they adjust your search results to better give you the websites they think you’re looking for. The same thing is going to happen with maps. There is going to be thousands (if not millions) of points of interest on every inch of a digital map. Which do you want? Well, the world’s best search engine will help you figure that out. The information will be gathered by user submissions, it will be personalized to your tastes, and all this will happen automatically everytime you perform a search. This already happens with web searches, and is a natural extension into map searches. As the amount of user generated content explodes, however, Google’s automated filters are going to grow in importance. Eventually the differences between my personalized Google Map and your personalized Google Map are really going to be noticeable.
The second big trend I think we’ll see is expansion of digital maps into physical space and vice versa. Google’s app for Android phones and iPhone already includes a great ‘Goggles‘ function that lets you use your mobile’s camera to input data. We’ve also seen augmented reality systems that let you see digital data super imposed on your view of reality. Clearly the digital world and its maps are going to seep into our visual field as we adopt AR technology. But the bridge works both ways. As you walk around looking at your AR map through your mobile phone (or video goggles) you’re going to want to write onto the digital database. So will your stuff. We’ve talked about the Internet of Things before – RFID tags and other tracking technologies will allow us to create digital histories for every physical object. Just as you’re walking around using AR maps, your shoes could be uploading data to maps about the average distance people walk in your neighborhood, or your jacket could be giving microupdates about the localized weather. The flow of information, powered by users and smart objects alike, is going to expand enormously in the years ahead.
Map Maker is sort of symbolic of these trends. Google is saying, “Here, you’re part of the team, go make our digital maps as detailed as you want them. Add everything you think is important, and share with the world.” The truth is, though, not only have we’ve been doing this for years, we are going to do this to an absurd degree in the future. Consciously through our crowd-source friendly habits and unconsciously through our automated systems (smart phones with GPS for now, but many more devices in the future). Our activity, on and offline, is going to help create these digital maps and give them the supremely detailed information that will make them amazing resources. Google, in turn, will find ways to parse all this data, and customize it to our personal preferences so we can actually use those resources effectively.
When you see Google bring Map Maker to the US, you can think of it as just another neat little feature in their ever expanding toolkit…or you can see it like I do: a step towards creating the maps that will serve as the conduit between the physical and digital worlds of the future.
[image and video credits: Google]
[source: Google Blog]