Critics By Alexis C. Madrigal
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. Google 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 from has become almost as important as what you’re searching for.
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.”
This is not just a theoretical concern. Mapping systems matter on phones precisely because they are the interface between the offline and online worlds. If you’re at all like me, you use mapping more than any other application except for the communications suite (phone, email, social networks, and text messaging).
Google is locked in a battle with the world’s largest company, Apple, about who will control the future of mobile phones. Whereas Apple’s strengths are in product design, supply chain management, and retail marketing, Google’s most obvious realm of competitive advantage is in information. Geo data — and the apps built to use it — are where Google can win just by being Google. That didn’t matter on previous generations of iPhones because they used Google Maps, but now Apple’s created its own service.
How the two operating systems incorporate geo data and present it to users could become a key battleground in the phone wars. But that would entail actually building a better map. The office where Google has been building the best representation of the world is not a remarkable place. It has all the free food, ping pong, and Google Maps-inspired Christoph Niemann cartoons that you’d expect, but it’s still a low-slung office building just off the 101 in Mountain View in the burbs.
I was slated to meet with Gupta and the engineering ringleader on his team, former NASA engineer Michael Weiss-Malik, who’d spent his 20 percent time working on Google Mars, and Nick Volmar, an “operator” who actually massages map data. “So you want to make a map,” Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit down in front of a massive monitor. “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.” This is what they started out with, the TIGER data from the US Census Bureau (though the base layer could and does come from a variety of sources in different countries).