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December 17, 2012

The Modern Cartographer: An Interview with Google's Lalitesh Katragadda on Mapping Asia

Photo by Ulysses Ang
Cartography or mapmaking has always been regarded as a skill that requires equal parts science, aesthetics, and technique. In fact, cartography builds in the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that can communicate spatial information effectively.

The earliest form of maps was devised by the Babylonians, where it depicted Babylon as the center of the world. As crude and simple as it was, it soon brought about larger maps oftentimes lifting material from past works because of cartography’s sheer physical undertaking and difficulty. Since then, cartography became a more exacting practice thanks to the use of compass for navigation and mechanical devices like the quadrant and vernier for more accurate reproduction.

Despite the passing of the age of exploration, the art of cartography is alive and well. And thanks to technologies such as GPS or Global Positioning System, maps are becoming more and more accurate: now containing minute details such as road networks and even the location of establishments. The evolution of cartography doesn’t stop there.

On the sidelines of Google’s Next Billion People event, CarGuide.PH sat down with Lalitesh Katragadda, Country Head for Google India and the one responsible for introducing Map Maker to the Asian market, to discuss the challenges and the future of cartography.

CarGuide.PH: First of all, tell us how Google started on its Map Maker project?

Lalitesh Katragadda: One billion people had access to Google Maps in 2005. However, these were primarily in developed countries such as the United States, Japan, and so on. We [Google] came up with a simple idea: there’s always someone willing to map the world as long as you give him the tools to map it with. This is how Google Map Maker started. Today, an additional 1.5 billion people have access to maps and more than 190 countries are mapped thanks to Map Maker.

CGPH: How do you approach a country with Map Maker? Do you start out by mapping one particular place and let Google users take over?

LK: Everything is a blank canvas. We don’t even start with major roads or anything of the sort. Google Maps is crowd-sourced and crowd-curated. Everything happens in real time. It’s a living and breathing map.

CGPH: How do you ensure the accuracy of Maps?

LK: Google Maps has an automated learning system and users build maps based on a trust system. Edits are done in real time though user profiles but are weighed based on a person’s profile. Most of the edits are provided by our “Power Users”. But being a Power User doesn’t necessarily mean your map edit is considered immediately. For example, if you’re based in New Delhi and all your edits are done in New Delhi, the system will more or less consider these as accurate. However, if you’re based in New Delhi and doing edits in say, Manila, then the system won’t consider your edit unless it’s been corroborated by other users. We found out that this system generates 97 percent accuracy all the time.

CGPH: How is Map Maker’s experience with the Philippines?

LK: The uptake of Google Map Maker in the Philippines has been tremendous. What started with just basic roads, in just six months was transformed into a complete map. Of course, this is just in the Manila area, but what we have seen is that usage is now fast growing in provincial areas such as Cebu, Davao, and the like.

CGPH: With the prevalence of smartphone and the Android OS, Google Maps is now becoming a handy handheld map. However, are there any plans to integrate Maps into say, a car or handheld GPS system?

LK: Currently, the latest version of Android allows for offline navigation as long as you have downloaded the maps. You just can’t use the search and directional capability. However, we must remember that Google Maps is a changing map, and keeping it in sync when placed in a car system for example, can be challenging. As of now, it’s important to keep Maps up-to-date to make it as accurate and reliable as possible.

CGPH: The Philippines has been the victim of natural calamities in the past, and we understand that Google Maps plays a vital role in search/rescue and even in relief mission. Can you explain more?

LK: Google Map’s API (Application Programming Interface) is open-sourced, meaning everyone has access to it free-of-charge. In fact, Google has an agreement with organizations such as UNISAT and World Bank to have perpetual access to it. Oftentimes, it’s used in disaster relief because “layers” can be built on top of existing Maps to display data such as flood depths, rainfall, or even landslides. And all it takes is just ten lines of code to start making an API for Google Maps.

CGPH: We know that not everyone has access to Smartphones or even the Internet. Is there any way for Google to expand the reach of Maps? Say by introducing a SMS-based service?

LK: That’s a good question. Currently, there’s no need because Android-based mobile phones are becoming increasingly cheaper [Android OS is an open-sourced mobile operating system that is free to use] and every Android phone comes with Maps. In fact, we’re currently working on reducing the bandwidth requirement to make Maps work.

CGPH: Have you ever dealt with anything political, say having to deal with countries not allowing Google Maps?

LK: So far, we haven’t dealt with any political trouble. In fact, I think Google Maps is beyond politics. It’s a multi-dimensional system that’s crowd-sourced, crowd-curated, and crowd-disseminated. We believe that information must be universally useful and accessible and maps is one of the most important information people must have access to.

CGPH: Lately there has been a lot of talk with Apple by dropping Google Maps in favor of their own map program. Would you care to comment on that?

LK: [Smiles]

CGPH: If you can sum up the contribution of Google Maps to the emerging markets, what would it be?

LK: There is a lot of “dark knowledge” in our world, especially in emerging markets. A lot of information is still left untapped out there. The lack of information stops making life work. By building on an information base that’s both local and relevant, people can have access to information while maintaining their identity, whether digital or in the real world. Google Maps is a great and practical way to gain access to this information and make information they access locally relevant.

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