The Atlantic digs into Google Maps’ Ground Truth

Google Maps has gotten a lot of praise lately, in part because the Apple Maps app that replaced it in iOS 6 has been somewhat of a disaster. We’ve discussed the Apple app’s shortcomings already, but what about what makes the Google alternative so good? The Atlantic has posted a behind-the-scenes look at how Google builds its maps, providing some insight on the answer.

One of the keys is the Ground Truth, a base map that has much more information than is presented to users. This foundation combines data from multiple sources, including satellite imagery, geological surveys, and Street View.

The contributions of Google’s camera-equipped cars seem to be particularly valuable. First, there’s the volume. Right now, Street View reportedly adds more imagery data in two weeks than Google itself possessed in 2006. Google runs algorithms on those images to look for traffic signs, addresses, and identifiable corporate logos like McDonalds’ golden arches. All that information is fed into the Ground Truth to create more accurate maps. The Atlantic likens Street View to web-crawling in the real world, which makes perfect sense given Google’s roots.

According to the article, compiling all the mapping data for a single country takes hundreds of people. There seems to be lots of hand-tuning involved. Google Maps isn’t immune to inaccuracies, though. “Several thousand” errors are reported daily by end users, and the team dedicated to addressing them strives to correct problems within minutes. That team seems to be doing its job, since I’ve only encountered a handful of Google Maps errors in years of using the service.

For me, the integration of data derived from Street View imagery is by far the most intriguing element of Google’s mapping process. Although the street-level view may be used rarely, the data it contributes could be invaluable to maintaining Google’s lead in the mapping field.

Comments closed
    • Larson
    • 7 years ago

    When it Google Maps works, it works decently well and has some cool features. But when it misses… ugh.

    Earlier this year I used it to try to get to Long Beach Airport from Irvine. When it told me to exit where there was no “airport this exit” sign, I should have just continued on and ignored it… but being the curious type, I went ahead and followed its directions… all the way to a helipad on the outskirts of town!

    Had my colleague not been waiting in the rain it would have been a lot more funny, I guess.

      • glynor
      • 7 years ago

      Agreed. Google Maps is quite good most of the time, but it isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It seems like a lot of people have forgotten this lately.

      I live on a one-way street, which Google Maps has marked as a normal two-way street. We regularly see people going the wrong way down the road, and quite often, I see them obviously following a phone-looking GPS mounted on their windshield. It makes for amusing times when someone comes down the road going the correct way, since the road really is only wide enough for a single car.

      And then, of course, there’s [url=http://appleinsider.com/articles/12/09/25/inside_ios_6_whats_wrong_with_apples_new_maps/page/5<]stuff like this[/url<]... Drivers have come to rely on these devices so much that they literally don't even see the road signs. There's another place in town where a fairly major road switched from being a two-way road to a one-way (and opposing traffic is routed around). Almost every day in the summer months, I see some tourist with a GPS trying to go straight at the intersection, despite that direction having multiple very large red Do-Not-Enter signs, and a concrete curb to block them (which they drive around, mindlessly following their GPS into oncoming traffic). There are tons of other examples in [i<]all[/i<] of the mapping applications I've seen. Though, of course, we're still in a much better place than with old standalone GPS units (or, worse, physical maps) which rarely-if-ever get updates of any kind. In that second example, all of the "online" mapping applications I've seen have it right, but older standalone GPS units are almost never updated. I think it is fascinating how quickly this technology has taken hold, and how difficult it is for people to think critically when "the computer" is telling them what to do.

    • moog
    • 7 years ago

    Btw, is Apple maps already fixed?

    [url<]http://gizmodo.com/5949450/apple-is-starting-to-fix-its-own-apocalyptic-maps-mess[/url<] Seems to me Apple is quite competent and with them pouring resources into their maps, praising their competition is going to be short lived.

      • rxc6
      • 7 years ago

      They are missing the investment of Google and the years of experience of Navtek/Nokia. Apple will improve them and their maps might have features not available in other platforms, but they will be playing catch up for a while, especially out of the US.

        • sweatshopking
        • 7 years ago

        that’s the big difference, the international market. i’m sure the US will be up to snuff shortly, but it’s the rest of the world that’ll suffer.

    • Sam125
    • 7 years ago

    Cool, collecting an obscene amount of map data for the purpose of using it for augmented reality and perhaps even virtual reality one day. All of which will make very little (if even at all) profit or even generate revenue.

    Google really is a special company.

    • jstern
    • 7 years ago

    It doesn’t have the Apple magic though.

      • lilbuddhaman
      • 7 years ago

      There comes a time when Science is more amazing than magic.

      (There also comes a time when the government takes that science and kills you with it.)

        • jstern
        • 7 years ago

        Not when the magic is created with Apple’s magic dust. No amount of science can recreate that feeling that an Apple fan gets when they get a new device, that could be the greatest device ever, or not, but has that Apple logo. And that feeling is real, created by the chemicals in the brain that the image of the logo produces. So yeah, I guess it’s the combination of the magic dust and the logo.

      • entropy13
      • 7 years ago

      Hear, hear! A truly enlightened being is among us!

    • henfactor
    • 7 years ago

    Sooo, Apple is doing all that work again? That seems like a tremendous waste of resources if they’re not bringing anything new to the table. Me thinks they’re running out of ideas to put all dat money into.

      • kumori
      • 7 years ago

      One of the reason that Apple abandoned Google maps is because the terms of the license would not allow the to provide turn by turn directions.

        • ChronoReverse
        • 7 years ago

        Or rather, Apple didn’t want to pay more for it. Their original contract with Google didn’t allow for that but Google wanted Apple to pay for the turn-by-turn data.

          • glynor
          • 7 years ago

          Citation needed.

          I don’t believe either company is talking in detail about what specific points in the negotiation failed. I’d guess it has [i<]way[/i<] more to do with Google Latitude, ads, and branding than money, but that's just a guess. We don't know for sure, and they aren't talking (for good reason). For all we know, Google was offering to pay Apple, and not the reverse. That actually might make a lot of sense, in fact, if they were also looking to get the aggregate GPS data from all of those iDevices and to be able to sell ads in the app.

        • designerfx
        • 7 years ago

        First things first, the closest thing to what you imply is [url<]http://allthingsd.com/20120926/apple-google-maps-talks-crashed-over-voice-guided-directions/[/url<] - it's not that the license wouldn't allow it, it's that apple has not negotiated this in a way with google that both sides agreed on. It was Apple's choice to negotiate or not - and clearly apple decided negotiations are over (note google going: 'we're a bit surprised'), since they ended a year before the contract ends.

      • The Dark One
      • 7 years ago

      [quote<]Sooo, Apple is doing all that work again?[/quote<] Part of Apple's problem was that they tried to [i<]avoid[/i<] doing all the work again. They thought that if they could come up with the cleverest algorithms, then they wouldn't [i<]have[/i<] to do all the manual fine-tuning that Google does on a daily basis.

    • AntiSp4wn
    • 7 years ago

    I think you missed the sequel article:

    [url<]http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/the-forgotten-mapmaker-nokia-has-better-maps-than-apple-and-maybe-even-google/263150/[/url<] It makes the case for Nokia being the leader in the mapping field in that the most important data is real-world data from vehicles actually being driven and tracked. While Google has some 5,000 street view cars driving around which has given it a serious competitive edge, it's simply dwarfed by the 12 billion+ data points Nokia collects each month from Fedex, other shippers, and GPS units, plus their own version of streetview.

      • mongoosesRawesome
      • 7 years ago

      What about all the millions of people that use Google navigation?

        • Helmore
        • 7 years ago

        I believe there are still a lot more people that use Nokia’s navigation tools than there are people using Google navigation.

        • rxc6
        • 7 years ago

        Nokia is used in 4 out of every 5 car navigation systems.

      • DarkUltra
      • 7 years ago

      I searched for dressmann in my city, Oslo, Norway, and in the center of the city Nokia maps find three stores, while Google maps app (gMaps pro) find six. Bing maps can’t even search until I set my Lumia 800 language to english, and then it does not find any places.

      Too bad gMaps pro is slow and jerky on my phone since it is a 3rd part app running in a sandbox. Hopefully second generation Windows Phone will improve this.

        • xii
        • 7 years ago

        If that’s the same Dressmann chain we have in Finland, your GPS map is just trying to protect you from making a horrible fashion mistake. 🙂

      • moog
      • 7 years ago

      Nokia maps used to be Navteq.

      • xii
      • 7 years ago

      Nokia Maps and Drive are rather good, I’d rate their maps as good as Google’s and both way better than the limited experience on the iPhone (even on 4S). Too bad you don’t hear as much about Nokia’s map software; perhaps Nokia should license the data to other companies.

      I’m waiting for the first to incorporate OpenStreetMap though… There’s some insane level of detail (at least where I live). This sort of technology could still see a lot of improvement from adopting a more comprehensive “open-source” crowd-sourcing approach.

        • sweatshopking
        • 7 years ago

        they do license it: [url<]http://ca.news.yahoo.com/exclusive-amazon-teams-nokia-snubs-google-maps-sources-230910136--sector.html[/url<]

      • designerfx
      • 7 years ago

      What’s your point? All the shippers are horrible with addresses – and probably on par with google, not “more accurate”.

    • glacius555
    • 7 years ago

    I always loved street view, it felt incredible when I discovered it, being late to the party.

    3D-flyover over FLAT Eiffel Tower could never beat it..

    • dpaus
    • 7 years ago

    One of the huge challenges Google faces is the sheer volume of turn-over; in the trendiest locations in any given city (i.e., precisely the areas within which the young-and-terminally-hip will be consulting Google Maps on their mobiles most often), the rate at which a trendy bar/restaurant/nightclub goes out of business (and corresponding new ones appear) can make the Google Street View images stale incredibly quickly. Of course, that’s also where the value of current data can generate the most revenue, so it’s possible for Google to drive them more often than, say, rural roads.

      • cjava2
      • 7 years ago

      I once noticed a mistake on a Google map of my area, so I submitted a report via the link on the page.

      Within a few weeks, I received an e-mail stating that I was right, and that they had fixed the error.

      Awesome!

        • mongoosesRawesome
        • 7 years ago

        Took a few weeks for me too. Not mere “minutes.”

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