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How do Google Maps work?

  • Kavya Nambiar
  • Jun 07, 2021
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There was a time, not too long ago, when looking at a map meant unfolding a large piece of paper and reading the tiny letting and trying to figure out where you were and how you could get to where you wanted to go. 


Sometimes the motel marked on the map would have closed two years ago. Sometimes the road ahead might have been blocked for construction and you would have had to double back. And good luck trying to look at the stars at night and figure out where the hell north was supposed to be.


But then years ago, things changed. Google Maps came around, and paper maps have now become practically non-existent.


Just how does this miraculous world-covering map work? How does it gather, organize, and make available this astounding amount of geographical data? To put it simply, it’s a combination of data collected and processed by satellites, government agencies, Google employees, and well, you.



History of Google Maps


The mapping platform that is Google Maps had relatively humble beginnings. In 2004, Google acquired a small Sydney-based company, Where 2 Technologies, and their idea for a web-based mapping software. Along with this Google also acquired a geospatial data visualization company, Keyhole, a real-time traffic analysis company, ZipDash.


With integrations from these additional acquisitions, Google first released Google Maps in February 2005. Google Earth was also launched the same year, providing 3D views of the planet.


Two years later in 2006, real-time traffic updates, Google Street View, and the first Google Maps mobile app was introduced. Turn-by-turn navigation first debuted in 2009. About five years later business listings, ratings, and reviews were introduced.


In 2015 offline maps were introduced, and in 2019, Live view was introduced, which used Augmented Reality to assist navigation and exploration. Very recently Indoor Live view was also added, for navigating indoors in certain places in the US, including malls and airports. Now in 2021, Google Maps keeps rolling out updates and adding new features.


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Features of Google Maps


Google Maps lets you find the nearest coffee shop or hospital, but also lets you explore the solar system when you have the time. Here’s a list of the most prominent and useful features offered by Google Maps-


  • Navigation


Google’s Route Planner shows you all the possible routes from point A to point B, and shows you the fastest one and how long it would take you to get where you're going, depending on the means of transport you're using. With turn-by-turn voice navigation, you can have a polite voice directing you the whole way, telling you to “Turn right in 10 meters.” 



  • Real-time traffic updates


Getting stuck in traffic is a horrible experience. That’s just a universal truth. Google Maps helps you to avoid that hell-hole of automobiles letting you know which routes have the most traffic and which routes have the lightest traffic.



  • Street View


Google Street View tries to offer you an experience that emulates being at a place as close as they can. Google Maps offers 360-degree panoramic photographs at the street level at various locations all around the world.



  • Business Listings


Being listed on Google Maps with accurate information is now a crucial factor for any company with a brick-and-mortar location. The free advertising is amazing. And users get to find what they want along with the directions to it. 


Users can add reviews and photographs to the listing. But one of the most beneficial features is that people can see what time a place opens and closes, and even what time and day is the busiest at that place.


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  • Globe View


If you open Google Maps on your computer and go to Globe View, you can see the Earth as a satellite would. You can spin it and zoom into places, and even look at other planets in the solar system. 


You’ll see the Earth mapped as it really is because a 2D map can never be accurate in larger views. The feature isn’t available on the smartphone app, but globe view and more can be accessed through the separate Google Earth app.



How Does Google Maps Work?


Google Maps work because of what Google does best. Data collection. The working of maps is based on the simple principle of collecting an exhaustive amount of data and then processing and presenting it to the world.


The secret to building such an extensive and accurate database of location information is that Google doesn’t do it all by itself. From government agencies to end users, Google Maps uses the data collected from a massive amount of sources to keep the system up to date.

Different components that contribute to the working of Google Maps include, the Base Map Partner Program, street view vehicles, crowdsourcing, satellites, location data from users, and finally, data processing.

Different components that contribute to the working of Google Maps

  • Base Map Partner Program


Google Maps collaborates with other organizations to get data on places of interest, new roads, aerial imagery, transit routes and schedules and fares, etc. 


Partners include thousands of various governmental and non-governmental organizations around the world like the US Geological Survey, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) in Mexico, city and town councils, and so on.


The problem with using third-party sources is that governmental restrictions and policy changes can have an adverse impact on map quality. Problems also arise when marking borders for disputed territories.



  • Satellites


Google Earth and Google Maps use satellites to capture views from above. Satellite views are also used for verifying data collected from other sources, making sure they were not incorrectly reported or out-of-date.


Satellites capture street markers, building locations, spacing, etc. Apart from letting you see the top-down view of your house when you select satellite view, this imagery can be overlaid on base maps to show building shapes in the normal 2D map view.



  • Crowdsourcing


Crowdsourcing for mapping is especially important in developing countries, or countries with government restrictions, where Google may not be able to directly obtain accurate data.


Earlier, Google Maps had a feature that let users make edits to maps, but that feature was withdrawn from the main mapping platform after reports of vandalism. The Local Guides community helps in adding additional information to maps, but not indirectly editing maps.


Business Listings are usually generated from sources. But to avoid duplicate entries, merging of entries, and inaccurate information, businesses are encouraged to make use of the Google My Business tool, to register their business and provide up-to-date information. Large Businesses in the US even include indoor directional information.


User contributions provide additional details to businesses like reviews, photos, and opening and closing times. Google data shows that users submit more than 20 million contributions each day.


User-generated error reports are also integral for finding out errors that cannot be identified without human assistance.



  • Street View Vehicles


360-degree images for Street View comes from both Google’s very own street view vehicles, as well as from user contributions.


Google’s fleet of vehicles includes cars, and even snowmobiles and three-wheelers, and also a push-cart style camera system called the Trolley, and a wearable backpack called Trekker. 


Custom setups like underwater cameras are used for special circumstances. For their first underwater expedition, Google captured the Great Barrier Reef.


Data from street view vehicles are also used to verify and correct the existing data from other sources. Street signs captured here, and processed through technologies like OCR, can even be used to correct business listings with accurate addresses.


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It has been estimated that there are more than 250 Street View cars currently on the streets around the world.


Google focuses mostly on the US, then Europe, and then other popular tourist destinations for its mapping tours. That means that developing countries have sparse street view coverage, most of that provided by users.

A Map from Google showing India and other surrounding parts of Asia, with the areas where Street View is available marked in blue. Street View availability is sparse in India.

A Map with blue areas showing where Street View is available. (Source: Google)


  • Location Data From Users


If you use Google Maps and keep on the location services on your phone, whether you know it or not, you're contributing your data to Google Maps.


Back in the day, Google used data from traffic cams and such to estimate traffic conditions, but now a much more effective system is in place. Google receives the location and speed of movement of every smartphone that uses Google Maps, and data is collected from a number of such phones on the road.


This real-time data, combined with historical data about the usual traffic at a place, can be used to predict the traffic density of a place with fairly good accuracy.


This is how you get your real-time traffic updates. This user data is also used to determine the times of day when businesses are most crowded.



  • Data Processing


Satellites, Street View vehicles, and user contributions bring in a massive amount of data, which can be automatically processed and incorporated into Google Maps, to an extent.


Processing images with AI are important to maintaining such a large collection of data. Machine Learning models are used to automate the map-making process- refining building outlines in satellite images, reading street signs from Street View data, and so on.


The algorithms required to keep the machinery running are top-secret, but they organize the data, look for errors, and combine data from different sources to form a comprehensive picture.


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But there is only so much that can be automated. Human employees at Google review error reports submitted by users, verify content and make the necessary adjustments.



Mapping the Whole World


Google Maps seems committed to a vision of mapping out the entirety of the earth. It’s improving its techniques and finding new ways to accurately fit all the missing pieces to form a comprehensive picture.


If you look at the numbers, they're mind-boggling. As of 2019, satellite imagery from Google Earth has mapped out 98% of the world where the human population resides- which is 36 million square miles of satellite imagery. 


And Google Street View vehicles have captured 10 million miles of imagery. Most of us can’t even process how much that is. To put it into perspective, 10 million miles is more than the distance covered if you were to circle the Earth 400 times. 


Google Maps is making great strides. A map covering 100 percent of the world, and also lets you see every detail of it in all its three-dimensional glory, is set to soon be a reality.

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