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Home Interviews

‘It’s the people, not the cartographer drawing the maps today’


Michael T. Jones
Chief Technology Advocate, Google

The wisdom of the entire society is helping us make a better map of the world, believes Michael T. Jones, Chief Technology Advocate, Google. The man who conceived Google Earth, then Keyhole Inc, sees maps becoming ubiquitous and as implicit as time in the near future

How has the concept of mapping evolved in the past few years?
It has evolved in two ways. There is a direct connection of mapping now in the lives of more than a billion people who use Google Maps and Google Earth every day. And it’s not just Google; the presence of maps in people’s daily lives has increased tremendously in the last 5-10 years. The second thing is maps have become a personal thing — they are not only about geography but also about restaurants or shops people want to visit. Today, it’s the people, and not the cartographer, asking the questions. Maps are interactive now, and users are also creators of maps. Like most things in technology, the new thing isn’t a new idea. It’s an old desire made possible by other new technologies. In this case, maps were popularised and consumerised through mobile devices.

The concept of maps over the years has changed. There used to be just some sketches 20 years back; now there’s satellite imagery, Google Maps, Google Earth, aerial view etc. Do you think the term cartography will completely vanish in the times to come?
The new never replaces the old, it just adds to the old. The two aspects of mapping that are really important are precision and selectivity. What defines a map is what you leave out of it. So a bicycle map of Delhi won’t have all the highways on it. If there’s a map needed for children in school, it won’t have names of business companies. The art is to take things out of the map so that the information is more precise.

You have likened Google Maps to Dr Johnson’s dictionary. What is your vision of the new literature that could emerge from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built?
I did compare Google Maps to a dictionary and Google Earth to an encyclopedia. The key character of dictionaries and encyclopedias is that there is a single objective truth. They have a proper definition of a word or comprehensive description of a place; you can always make it better by making it more precise but there are no major disagreements.

What is happening with mapping is really exciting. Each smartphone user is participating in making the world’s real-time traffic map. So you can imagine a future where phones have sensors and if someone is carrying explosives in a train, the phones can sniff that. This is just an example. But in the future each person will become a sensor because they have sensors in their phone and they are moving around and detecting things and covering the whole world.

So the future is ubiquitous mapping where the user and the map become one?
That’s probably where the future is headed. Another way of thinking about it is where the map is a conversation. You don’t just show users a map and they don’t just look at it; but they also ask questions about the map and the result comes back as a dialogue. The idea of having people as the eyes and ears of the mapmaker seems fantastic.


Google Maps of Paris showing the Streetview option


Will we ever see an automatic map updating itself without human intervention, say, using artificial intelligence?
You can’t know about certain things without human intervention. For instance, how do you know which is the backdoor and which is main door of this building unless somebody tells you? While the physical truth can come from many sources, the meaning of things needs to come from people. It is important to improve all these city maps but that can only happen when people point out the mistakes. That can’t be done by artificial intelligence. The wisdom of the entire society is helping you make a better map.

How can this consumer interest in mapping be monetised?
At Google, we have a way of monetising highvolume Websites with advertisements. We don’t really have an advice for the world on other ways. Newspapers are charging people for online papers, so that could be one way. Another idea could be things like clubs or user groups. For instance, you join a hiking club and the membership gives you access to maps of hiking trails. People are ready to pay as long as you give them what they need. That money could be used to reward the people gathering this data and a little bit for the company doing the work. That seems scalable. I see a future where every business would want to be on a map. So a business owner will pick his office space and look at the mapmaker — Apple, Google or Microsoft — to tell how people can find his office. It’s becoming common, and 20 years down the line this will become a practice. You can imagine a world where businesses will become active partners in publishing information.

So, are we looking at something like customised maps?
If you look at a map in Google Maps now, you will see a city with major roads in bold colours and other roads in lighter colours and thinner lines. When you search for a route, all the roads that are not on your route except for the major streets diminish on the map. It’s a lot of effort, because we are giving every user the kind of map he needs. It’s tailored like a custom-made suit just made for you! It will be a social change to expect customised maps.

Within the geospatial industry, there is an interesting trend — the term ‘geo’ is no more confined to ‘spatial’. The spatial term is working separately — now it is even in virtual space as well as underwater. Does ‘geo-spatial’ as a term have a future or will we be using only ‘spatial’ after some years?
It’s a funny way of putting that. I don’t have a direct answer. But I have a thought. Time is part of everything but people don’t really talk about time… they don’t say that the car is at this place at this time. Time is implicit. Looking ahead, I think what could happen is the technology becomes so pervasive that it becomes a part of you — it’s built in your glasses, on your phone and in your ears. Maybe the map itself becomes less important, but the location and the information would be just as important. For example, if you think of a map with driving directions on it, you have Google Glasses. But do you want to look up and see the glasses or the map or the little arrow? When you are looking for directions you don’t want to keep looking at the map and walk around; you want to look at the world. So if you need to go left you get one vibration on your device, two vibrations for, say, right. This way you can keep the phone in your pocket and walk around and not get lost. Just like time is an invisible part of our lives, so is ‘geospatial’. It’s always there for guidance and it’s being delivered to you in ways that feel natural. You can imagine a world where you have great guidance and no devices.


Left: Google Maps outside India shows the disputed borders in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh in dotted lines. Right: Google Maps India however complies with the Indian government’s version of the nation’s boundaries and the lines are not broken


What are your views on indoor location? No player has been able to solve this puzzle yet.
It’s important to have the right kind of information to get to one building from another. It’s possible in the US. But it may not be that easy in Japan or India because the buildings are poorly numbered. Also, indoor location is a two-way thing. We need the building owners as partners in this to help us understand what to do. Indoor location is going to ride on mobiles and sensors. People talk about BIM technology, but BIM models don’t capture the changing use of a building because the characters of big buildings last a long time. For example, you may have a restaurant in this place, but after some years, there could be two different restaurants. The changing things may not be caught in the original model. It’s people in the building or the company who have to decide which part is what. To date, most of Google’s indoor mapping is with data where the people we gather data about are part of the project.

What have been the political ramifications of commoditisation of maps? Google faces censure from governments across the world…
There are about 250 places on earth where nations argue about the borders or ownership. Before Google Maps or Google Earth, maps were drawn from the point of view of particular countries or communities. For instance, if you are a map company working in, say, Sweden, you will make maps for the Swedish people. You won’t really worry if it’s not the same as the next country. So everybody can pretend that the world is their way but no one is really arguing if it’s the right way. When Google came up with its maps, we had a choice — to do things differently for each country or do the same thing. So we came to a solution – mark disputed borders.

Take Kashmir for instance. Keeping the Indo- Pak border dispute in mind, we showed the area as disputed. And we thought the countries will respect us for that; but it turned out that we made enemies of them because even though we didn’t take sides, we acknowledged that there was a dispute. So out of 205 countries with border disputes, I would say 10 have issues. In countries like the United States or UK, if there’s a dispute, their ambassadors take it to the UN to argue about it. But in some countries, it’s illegal to even talk about the fact. And those are on my list of suspicious countries. I think it’s very misleading for the citizens. So we have been very resistant in making changes about that.

In China, this has caused some serious difficulty for us. It’s such a major legal issue that we weren’t able to show a map of China with borders. So if you go to the Chinese version of Google Maps, you will see that China has absolutely no borders. There are lines coming in from India and Mongolia and they kind of just stop near China. So that was the only way we could not violate their laws and yet not be forced to violate the truth.


Google Maps show a city with major roads in bold colours and other roads in lighter colours and thinner lines. When you search for a route, all the roads that are not on your route except for the major streets diminish on the map


Google has faced problems with internal mapping in several countries too. Do you think the governments’ concern about ‘security’ has become some kind of a shackle?
The inventor can only invent things, while it’s up to the society to decide what they want to do with it. My argument is that the people can find out about the disputes by reading. Hiding facts from citizens is not in the spirit of a democracy like in India.
Often people complain about Google Earth showing things like military bases. And we tell them that we don’t own the satellites; we just buy the images from a satellite company. So that means all the other customers of that company, say DigitalGlobe, have that picture of the military base. However, after having talked to a number of national leaders, I think their concerns are reasonable — this information could be used by harmful elements. But, take for instance the terrorist attacks in Mumbai 2008. It’s not as if we could make the Taj Mahal Hotel disappear from the maps! The attack would have happened no matter what.
At the same time, I believe things like a BIM model that shows escape passage from the President’s House shouldn’t be on the Web. So it’s totally fine by us if some data is public and some is not. But I think things that we can see from the street should be made public. Not every city in the world has Google Streetview. It’s the choice of the people of a particular place. But there will be a time when people will resent the absence of technology; we get complaints from the people in Indonesia and Israel about why maps at some places are blurry.

Do you think this consumerisation of maps is making better citizens of us?
I would put it this way: Google Earth and Google Maps have made things easy for us. They have made people more aware of geography, environment etc. But as for this data being a mode of change, I am not sure. I would like to think that now that we are more informed, we will be better citizens and make the world a better place. But I don’t think the world is being more involved in solving the problems. I don’t think the emotional step happens with maps, but at least the intellectual step is happening. Having maps doesn’t change the people’s engagement in their society but people who want to be engaged at least have their information.


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