Since You Asked, Here’s How Google Maps Really Works

Google Earth

Planet Earth: Image Courtesy of Google

According to The American Driving Survey, the most recent comprehensive report on the driving habits of the average citizen, people in our country spend as many as 17,600 minutes a year on the road. This ridiculous amount of time makes up for about 2.45 trillion miles a year, a marked 2.4% increase since 2014. Clearly, we Americans love to travel, not that there is anything wrong with that. However, in order to navigate through this massive labyrinth of geography and traffic, we need nothing short of a guardian angel to guide us through. Thankfully, we have got one. With over a billion active users logging in and out of the system each year, Google Maps is a colossus in digitalized navigation, a concept which has been implemented now to both indoor and outdoor environments. It supplies us with everything from traffic highlights to road maps, from street signs to business names. And if you’re the average human being, you can’t get enough of it. But have you ever stopped to wonder how it all works? How Google manages to knit through such a massive collection of geospatial data and supply it in the form of a single digital application?

Why do it? Because when Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded the organization in 1998, they had a vision. The vision was to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. And Google Maps is part of that endeavor. By collecting massive amounts of geospatial data and making it all available through the medium of a mobile application, Google is trying to realize its concept of bringing the world closer together, of serving as an information hub in the massive library that is the internet.

“Street View, which launched in 2007, was conceived as a way to improve the user experience by letting people see what the area around their destination looked like.” – Greg Miller, Wired

Of course, Google, a private corporation, cannot possibly expect to gather all this data on its own. For its basic geological map, Google depends on its Base Map Partner Program, which collects information from a range of credible organizations, such as the US Geological Survey, Forest Service, city and state councils and so forth, using them to construct everything from massive freeways to remote lanes and stitching them together into the comprehensive digital image that we call Google Maps.

Simply documenting the roads and highways, isn’t enough, which is why Google makes use of round-the-clock vehicles to patrol each and every street, neighborhood and residential complex, providing minutely detailed digital images of the same. The idea here is to run cars, motorboats, snowmobiles and other assorted vehicles through every possible road and alleyway, taking 360-degree images everywhere they go. The images thus obtained are then plotted on to the base map using GPS coordinates, leading to the end result that is Google Street View. And Google, along with a number of innovators, aren’t just stopping outdoors. Initiatives like Project Tango are taking map digitization inside our buildings and offices.

“A recent Deloitte study concluded that people spend more than 90% of their time indoors. If people are spending 17,600 minutes a year on the road, just think about the impact potential of indoor mapping, the next frontier for digital navigation. While there is no direct equivalent to a satellite GPS, we are now seeing scalable deployments of the required infrastructure for indoor positioning that can deliver accurate location to indoor maps in real-time. When combined with the vast amount of data available, there are huge new opportunities for improving experiences and operational efficiencies.” – Chris Wiegand, CEO of Jibestream

Once again, private companies and third-party organizations remain a huge part of Google’s endeavor, supplying satellite imageries and map data to help construct the entire big picture. The satellite view available via Google Maps is created through collaboration with Google Earth, depending on images from third-party satellites to be stitched into the mainframe to provide high-resolution photographs of the world taken from above. These images are then referenced with Street View and base map data, resulting in a single application that can provide you with a glimpse of the entire world with a tap on a screen.

The key difference between Google Maps and Google Earth lies in the dimensions of the images rendered (2D/3D) and whether the images are rendered in real time. As the two products continue to converge, the differences between them are narrowing down to a blur, though they still form an important distinction. For the sake of improving user experience. Google Maps asks for access to the location data on your phone. Using this information adds yet another dimension to the product, providing users with such things as real-time traffic updates and so on. These little things help implement more features into the already intricate mapping service, making your everyday life a little more easy.

“The project started as research at Stanford and then hopped into Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page’s car. Snapping photos of every nook and cranny of the planet so that people could travel the world from the comfort of their own homes or mobile devices is the hallmark of Google’s approach to the world around it and the evolution of technology.” – Drew Olanoff, TechCrunch

Google’s outdoor navigation system is a massive undertaking, one that requires the cooperation of many organizations, government and private. While the inner workings of the system get more and more complicated the deeper you dig in, this is an overall view of how the system really works, and how it gathers and processes the data it needs.

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