Google Pulls Back the Curtain on its Secretive Maps Program

Alexis C. Madrigal get exclusive access to "Ground Truth," Google's project to develop the most accurate maps in the world. But why is the master of the virtual world so intent on documenting the physical world?
September 7, 2012, 12pm PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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As Madrigal explains, Google's commitment to documenting the physical world serves two purposes. First, it fits within the company's core mission to organize all the world's information. "'If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online,' Manik Gupta, the senior product manager for Google Maps, told [Madrigal]. 'Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part.'"

The last item mentioned by Gupta plays into the project's second purpose: to compete with Apple over who will control the future of mobile phones. "If you're at all like me," says Madrigal, "you use mapping more than any other application except for the communications suite (phone, email, social networks, and text messaging)...Whereas Apple's strengths are in product design, supply chain management, and retail marketing, Google's most obvious realm of competitive advantage is in information. Geo data -- and the apps built to use it -- are where Google can win just by being Google."

What follows in the article is a fascinating peek inside the process to collect, engineer, and make operative the complex set of information hidden behind every Google Map. 

"As we slip and slide into a world where our augmented reality is increasingly visible to us off and online, Google's geographic data may become its most valuable asset," concludes Madrigal. "Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable."

"Or as my friend and sci-fi novelist Robin Sloan put it to me, 'I maintain that this is Google's core asset. In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world) and, oh, P.S. they still have a search engine somewhere.'"


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Published on Thursday, September 6, 2012 in The Atlantic
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