The user has become the creator of Geospatial Information

The user has become the creator of Geospatial Information

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Ed Parsons | Geospatial Technologist, Google

While connecting Google to people in the broader community, especially in the geospatial world — mapping agencies, potential users of geospatial information, organizations where geography is a major part of what they do — one thing that I have noticed is that the geospatial industry has been rapidly consolidating over the past few years. But, at the same time, we are also witnessing the trend of small companies starting up. There’s a growing ecosystem of new ventures which have the blessings of the investor community. These companies are using geospatial technology as part of customer-centric applications. In these cases, geospatial technology may not be particularly obvious — it might be buried behind the scene — but, it plays an important part. I think our industry has become much more diverse. Actually, it’s a much broader and healthier industry now than it has ever been.

Location has become all pervasive

We should congratulate ourselves on making location so pervasive that even non-traditional geospatial players are getting into the geospatial domain. I would attribute this triumph to the fact that we have been successful in hiding the complexities associated with our business. I am not saying that what we do is not complicated. We are dealing with large volumes of data, and increasingly managing that information in real time. But, what we have done to make the end result more accessible is to hide the complexities behind the APIs and the toolkits within the mobile systems. This has made things easier for the developer of a ride-sharing application or the developer of an app that helps you find people with similar interests in the neighborhood.

“At Google, we have an internal benchmark called the Toothbrush Test that every product must pass. You use your toothbrush every day. It is something that is a part of your day-to-day life. We are almost there with maps now”

Maps pass the Toothbrush Test

With the advent of the Internet, mobile devices and social media, people are carrying the globe in their pockets. It seems like we are on the brink of a technological revolution. It’s certainly true that we use maps all the time now; they have become quite pervasive. At Google, we have an internal benchmark called the Toothbrush Test that every product must pass. You use your toothbrush every day; you don’t think about it. It’s something that’s a part of your day-to-day life. We are almost there with maps now. It is something that we use not only when we are navigating to some place we have not visited before, we use it in our day-to-day commute. We find out what the traffic conditions are going to be like, and we change our route accordingly.

I believe new ideas and innovations are coming from the consumer market. But, we are standing on the shoulders of a giant. A lot of what we do now could not happen earlier without the help of the national mapping agencies and the cadastral agencies — people collecting the very base level mapping on top of which we build services. Many of our products and services make extensive use of GNSS and GPS as key components. World’s ‘original military application’ has now found its way to the consumer space. And we couldn’t do what we do without that technology.

Mainstreaming of location

So, in a sense, I would also say that Google has played a role in making geospatial technology mainstream. But, that has been as a part of a broader use of geospatial technology on Web and mobile applications. Smartphones have had a huge impact in making geospatial technology more accessible. What we are trying to do is focus on the user. We are trying to make sure that the technology makes sense from the user’s point of view. You really need to understand who your user is, what their requirements are. You need to try to keep it simple and straightforward.

Google uses your location all the time in the background to provide you with contextually relevant information. It is using location to make information more accessible to you, based on where you are. But, it’s not in your face. That is where we have had the biggest benefit.

We have been famous for having a Beta label on the software that we develop, recognizing the fact that the software isn’t complete and that we would start with relatively simple functionality, and then add more functionality as time goes on. We are releasing a new version of Google Maps on the Web and mobile devices every two weeks. So, a lot of iteration and processing happens quite quickly. It allows you to start with a basic product, make sure that product works with your user, and then incrementally build more complexity.

Historically, the geospatial industry has tried to take a ‘waterfall’ approach and put much of the content and functionality up front. That takes a lot of time and effort, and you might even miss out on something.

Consumer is the producer

Another significant transformation I have observed relates to the models of geospatial content generation. What has changed now is that the users of mapping products have also become the creators. You can be a consumer, as well as a producer. For example, if you are using Google maps to navigate between two cities, you are getting driving directions. But, at the same time, you are contributing to the traffic information, and making sure that the other people who are navigating are getting a sense of speed. The information that required a lot of capital investment previously — in terms of putting in sensors — is now being provided by the other users of the application. In another sense, ride-sharing applications like Lyft and Uber also use location to solve the fundamental problem of: here’s the supply of taxis, here’s the demand of people wanting to use those, how can we join the two together? In many ways, that has allowed a huge innovation in that particular space.

Future of geo-information sector

This is the most exciting time to be involved in our industry. We are embedded in more and more applications and services. There is a bright future in terms of autonomous vehicles being developed, establishment of delivery drones, and also technology that keeps people excited — these are all grounded in geospatial. We have a really important role in many of the new technologies that are being developed online. We may be just a component, but that’s fine. We should be happy with that.

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