21st century mapmaking, Google style

Here is a fascinating look into how Google has developed its mapping abilities. It takes a few steps:

“So you want to make a map,” Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit down in front of a massive monitor. “There are a couple of steps. You acquire data through partners. You do a bunch of engineering on that data to get it into the right format and conflate it with other sources of data, and then you do a bunch of operations, which is what this tool is about, to hand massage the data. And out the other end pops something that is higher quality than the sum of its parts.”

This is what they started out with, the TIGER data from the US Census Bureau (though the base layer could and does come from a variety of sources in different countries)…

And that’s just from comparing the map to the satellite imagery. But there are also a variety of other tools at Google’s disposal. One is bringing in data from other sources, say the US Geological Survey. But Google’s Ground Truthers can also bring another exclusive asset to bear on the maps problem: the Street View cars’ tracks and imagery. In keeping with Google’s more data is better data mantra, the maps team, largely driven by Street View, is publishing more imagery data every two weeks than Google possessed total in 2006.

One cartographic historian thinks this is a big deal:

It’s probably better not to think of Google Maps as a thing like a paper map. Geographic information systems are a jump like the abacus to the computer. “I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for map-making, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton told the Sydney Morning Herald. “That was huge. But this is bigger.”

Perhaps this is one of those technological advances that seems normal or inevitable now but with some historical perspective years later, we might see it as a major improvement.

I’d be interested in seeing studies that examine how this new technology changes the way people view space and maps. Has it improved our spatial capacities and perceptions? Do we read maps differently? Does it significantly impact our social life?

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