OK, I'll Draw You a Map - on Google
Google is rolling out access in the U.S. to a tool that has already made a mark in other parts of the world: Map Maker. As the name suggests, Map Maker allows people to create and edit Google Maps.
It debuted outside the U.S. because Google didn't believe there would be much demand for it in the states, where there was already a wealth of online maps and geographical data. Map Maker's original goal was to provide mapping tools to people in countries with little or no access to such resources, so they could create their own maps. Using Map Maker, people have built and edited maps for 183 countries and regions around the world, according to Google.
With Google opening the map of the U.S. to Map Maker, users will be able to add locations of stores or other businesses, mark out bike lanes, or identify the buildings on a university campus, for example.
Think of it as crowd-sourced mapping.
Approval in Minutes?
Of course, one of the inherent weaknesses of crowd-sourced anything is the potential for error, especially as the application is open to anybody who can operate a computer. After all, one of the common complaints that people have had about Google Maps has been less-than-perfect accuracy, Charles King, principal of Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.
Google says it will make sure the user contributions are accurate and that each edit will be reviewed. After approval, the edits will appear in Google Maps within minutes, the search engine giant promised.
Needless to say, much of this process will be automated. Human checks will come from the crowd, said Denis J. Dean, head of the geography and geospatial information sciences programs at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"Except in a few, rare cases, Google doesn't check the data for accuracy," he told TechNewsWorld. "Inaccurate data will be weeded out by the people adding/editing information to the maps."
It's like Wikipedia, he said.
"There is little that can be done to prevent users from entering inappropriate data," Dean continued. "I'd bet Google has some automated checks that prevent you from entering words or phrases that Google wants to entirely eliminate, but that's not going to fix the entire problem."
There are other safeguards, Google spokesperson Deanna Yick told TechNewsWorld. "Users must be signed into their Google account to make an edit, and the edit history for each edit will indicate the username of the person who made the update."
Also, Google does have a small team of reviewers across the globe that review and moderate updates to ensure data quality. There is also a system to report abuse, said Yick.
The bulk of the quality control clearly rests with other users, but that is not a bad thing, she maintained. "All changes are moderated and most of them are reviewed by fellow mapping volunteers in the Map Maker community. And as one makes additions or edits to an area they know, they'll often see pending updates from other users and review those updates to quickly build out the area they care about."
Leaving aside questions about accuracy, Map Maker offers several benefits to its users.
The most obvious use-case scenario is local advertising. Any local business that relies on foot traffic, for instance, can benefit by including itself on Google Maps via Map Maker.
It doesn't end there, though. For instance, King noted, a lot of online, user-generated maps will show building locations for an event based on Google Maps. "But then you get to the building and can't find the event or don't remember what floor an office is on. Map Maker can add that last mile, so to speak."
People have also used community mapping to produce coverage maps for cellphones, Dean said. "The ridiculous coverage maps the various cellphone service providers produce are often so generalized as to be useless, or they are just plain wrong. Community members have produced much more detailed and accurate coverage maps."
In general, community mapping is better at capturing temporary events, such as streets that are closed for repair than conventional mapping, he observed. It can be "very useful for route finding."