How Google's geo-crowdsourcing is transforming the map

A large marker in placed by Google in Tokyo. Image: heiwa4126 via Flickr.

Google has managed to map most of the world. Recently, the company offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how it built the Google Maps application using a combination of technology (the Google Street View car); expansion (the acquisition of satellite-imagery startup Skybox); and algorithms (computer vision, photogrammetry, mapping).

The company’s initial focus had been on the world’s population centres. In 2006, Google had used high resolution satellite imagery to map 37 per cent of the world’s population; by 2012 that number had risen to 75 per cent.

But the company's reach has now extended beyond human settlements. In Google Maps' Street View feature, users can now observe penguins in Antarctica, tourists in Machu Picchu, and Himalayan base camps.

While the early focus of Google’s mapping efforts had been on mapping for the world, the company is now jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon: to collect mapping data from the world.

With mapping tools like “Google Map Maker” and “Report a Problem,” it tries to harness the geographical contributions of “on the ground” users as a way to complement existing content in Google Maps. People from all over the world can now edit information on the Google Maps application to ensure a higher accuracy.

In addition to being editors, users can also become data collectors. They can carry the Street View Trekker (a backpack outfitted with Google’s cameras) to snap images – later to be uploaded on Street View – as they hike through US National Parks and the Galapagos islands, or even take camel rides to map Abu Dhabi’s sand dunes.

Mapping a bike bath using Google’s sophisticated Street View camera. Image: Tyler Howarth via Flickr. 

Think of it as a collaborative, Wikipedia-like effort to map the physical world.

But while we know how Google does it, another question has emerged: why is Google devoting so many resources to “paint the world…one pixel to the inch”, as one Google employee put it?

Throughout history, maps evolved as an outgrowth of humankind’s yearning to both explore and record the physical world. First there was a 7,000 BCE wall painting in Catal Huyuk, in southern Anatolia, that depicted an erupting volcano and a map of that settlement’s town plan. More than 6,000 years later, in 600 BCE, Anaximander drew up a world map. That was followed by the creation of a coordinated system by Eratosthenes, and the gazetteer by Ptolemy, in 300 BCE and 200 AD, respectively.

A recreation of Anaximander’s map, one of the first attempts to map the world. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Maps have always been about depicting the world and helping us navigate through it. And Google Maps does this: it does show us where things are in the world and it does help us navigate. In fact, it already provides such support to an estimated one billion worldwide users.

But other solutions do the same for a much lower cost. OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a nonprofit effort founded around ten years ago as a way to invite the general public to map the world. Tracing the centerlines of roads and the outlines of buildings – and even mapping park benches and bicycle routes – volunteers have generated a mapping product of global coverage, freely available through an Open Database License (ODbL). OSM compares well in terms of accuracy to its more authoritative, better-funded counterparts. A wonderful map produced by Martin Raifer shows the astonishing global coverage offered today by OSM. In a recent New York Times article it was reported that OSM runs on less than $100,000 a year, which is certainly dwarfed by Google Maps' budget.

So why does Google appear to be doing slightly more while spending much, much more? The answer probably lies in the intended use of the product. OSM is a cartographic product. Google Maps is much more that that.

Like older maps, Google Maps also depicts spaces to help users navigate. The company, however, has grander plans. Image: Google. 


For Google, cartography is not the end product, but rather the necessary means for future products.

Take, for instance, Google’s autonomous car initiative, which aims to combine sensors, GPS and 3D maps to develop self-driving cars. Then there’s Google’s Project Wing: a drone-based delivery systems that hopes to make use of a detailed 3D model of the world to quickly link supply to demand – and shatter the current retail paradigm.

In both cases, Google Maps serves as the digital framework in which these fledgling technologies operate – a foundation for Google as it seeks to revolutionize the mobility of people, goods, and even ideas. In other words, Google’s mapping data will support a wide variety of its new products, whether they’re self-driving cars or drones.

While OSM is about mapping the world around us, Google Maps takes it a step further: ultimately, Google Maps is about mapping lives and merging the physical and the virtual. The application collects information about us: the physical pathways that we follow – either on foot or in a car – and the digital traces we leave behind: photographs we’ve snapped, purchases we’ve made, and activities we’ve participated in.

This information can then be used to understand how we function in this newly emerging hybrid universe.

In that sense, Google is mapping places rather than simply mapping spaces. Loosely defined in the context of this article, the idea of place is the meaning, or significance, that certain locations hold for us. This could mean our home neighborhood, or a dangerous part of the city where we rarely venture; it could refer to our favorite nightlife hotspots, or where we buy our groceries.

By connecting the geometrical content of its Google Maps databases to digital traces that it collects, Google can assign meaning to space, transforming it into place. While Google’s stated objective is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, its Google Maps endeavor allows it to organize your world’s information, making it personally accessible and useful.

Therefore one could argue that Google’s vision for its map goes far beyond the traditional one. Yes, the map serves not only as a way to capture space; but it also exists as a framework for empowering human life and everyday activities. By combining the power of high resolution mapping, digital human traces, and smart machines, Google has the ability to revolutionise the underpinnings of the modern lifestyle: communication, mobility, consumption, and production.

Mapping by machines no longer simply addresses the age-old task of “you are here”. Rather, it seeks to understand who you are and where you should be heading.

Welcome to the era of map ex machina.

The ConversationBy Anthony StefanidisGeorge Mason UniversityAndrew Crooks, Assistant Professor of Computational Social Science at George Mason University; and Arie Croitoru, Associate Professor of Geography and GeoInformation Science at George Mason University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.