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 China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?

Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.