Google's approach to crowdsourcing map data

I was curious about this after the State of the Map conference but it seems last week Michael Jones, the CTO of Google Earth, shone a little light on the subject of Google's crowdsourced maps of India (along with other geo things from Google) at the Cambridge Conference.

I've transcribed the part of the podcast that really interested me (see below), describing what they've built up in terms of geodata for 50 Indian cities and how they are doing it with a pilot project to deploy a 'care package' to countries to let the citizens map it for themselves based on local knowledge and Google's excellent aerial imagery sources*.

"... I'll show you one more thing. Lets say we go to Hyderabad, India. Now, it turns out that it takes more than money to get good GIS data, it actually takes data that's available to get. Now we have a problem with that because sometimes we can't get good data.

This is Hyderabad, and if you see the dark areas, those correspond to roads in low detail. If you zoom in, you'll see the roads, and if you expand a little bit, you'll see both roads and labelled places... there's graveyards, and some roads and so forth.

Now, everything you see here was created by people in Hyderabad. We have a pilot program running in India. We've done about 50 cities now, in their completeness, with driving directions and everything - completely done by having locals use some software we haven't released publicly to draw their city on top of our photo imagery.

So we're building a little care package we can send to countries like Togo, and say if you want to have maps of your country, you may not have a national mapping agency of any merit, but if you have some inspired amateurs, you can map out your country. FIll out all the details and then you can do routing and navigation just like in the big countries.

There's no real economic benefit in that, it just seems right that everyone should have a map. So we're doing everything we can to get mapping data to every human and in some countries where there's no data, we're trying to give them tools to build the data.

There is data in India it's just that the Royal Survey of India got its licensing plans from its ancestor in the Ordnance Survey. [laughs]. But there are countries though, where there is no data and we have to help them develop data. There are countries where there is data, and we license that. There are in between countries where there is both commercial data and official data, and we'd love to have the official data - and we'd be happy to pay for it - we just need to have some way to work with the government to do that.

So that's an exciting opportunity for us, but I'll remind you, just from a technology standpoint, we'd love to work with you but we don't have to. [laughs from the audience]. And the reason for that is that the local people are the local experts. They're not surveyors so you can't really trust their locations, but what's interesting when you have a few million users, you can do statistical analysis of contributed data. You can get the same thing from different IP addresses over a long period of time, with a high correlation, you can start to believe in it. You can show that with a tentative colour, and have people click on whether they believe it or not and have confirmatory comments. You can actually converge to pretty good data and it has the advantage of, when the road is closed, you can click on that road and say it's closed today. If you're having a block party, you can say the block is closed this day. Traffic data that's up to date every day."

If you're familiar with OpenStreetMap then this may all sound familiar, except for the fact that Google has an enormous audience all over the world, and if only a few of Google's users in each place around the world would start mapping their local areas then the planet would be mapped in no time.

I wonder if they will license the data out at all, or just allow the rendered maps to be used through their services?


* This crowdsourcing project may also partially explain why Google is not as keen as Yahoo in allowing OpenStreetMap contributors to use their aerial imagery.