OpScoop Issue 18: Operations behind the accuracy of Google Maps!

In earlier days dashboards were littered with Maps and a lot of time was wasted in asking people for directions. Everything changed due to the introduction of Google Maps. Launched in 2008 and fully functional in 51 countries now, from moms to taxi drivers, everyone swears by Google Maps. Their project is named Ground Truth where algorithms are playing a bigger role in extracting information from satellite, aerial, and Street View imagery. Google Maps team assembles their maps and refines them with a combination of algorithms and meticulous manual labor.

Street View, launched a year earlier than Google Maps was intended to improve user experience by letting people see what the surroundings around their destination looked like. Nearly cent percent of the US roads have been covered by Street View cars. “It’s actually allowing us to algorithmic-ally build up new data layers from information we’ve extracted,” Manik Gupta, group product manager for Google Maps, said. Algorithms are helping in the extraction like street numbers painted on curbs, the names of businesses and other points of interest.

Google map image.png

The challenges faced are :–
(a) Sometimes the arrows that tell you which turns are legal are painted on the road, sometimes they’re overhead,
(b) These arrows can be of different colors and sizes,
(c) Lane markers are harder because they’re not consistent,
(d) Street signs are also a matter of concern as spelling or abbreviation used on street signs vary.

This is where algorithms are giving Google the extra edge.

Mostly all buildings in the US are now on Google Maps as it uses computer vision techniques to extract 3D models of landmark buildings from satellite and aerial imagery. Yet there are limitations of the satellites and algorithms as Google has employed a small workforce to manually check and correct the maps as traffic signs captured from Street View imagery appeared and disappeared. An operator could fix a road that’s out of alignment with the satellite image by clicking and dragging it into place. These operators check out tens of thousands of problems reported daily by Google Maps users and fix them as needed.

Google has been leveraging the using cell phone location signals to map traffic conditions for years. Another source is its MapMaker program, launched in 2001, helps in getting cartographic help from ordinary citizens. “We recruited users to add mapping info where it’s important to them,” Gupta said. “We provided a tool and good satellite imagery so people could trace on top of it.” People also help out as they contribute data on parks, trails, and other places Street View cars can’t go.

There is more to it than just the shapes of buildings as it was never only about the layout of roads. The maps are getting deeper as offline mapping for Android phones, Street View for nature trails and 3D Google Earth maps are the improvements coming to Google Maps in the near future.


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