The quest for the perfect map

(Cross posted from the Official Google Blog)

For the last decade we’ve obsessed over building great maps for our users—maps that are totally comprehensive (we’re shooting for literally the whole world), ever more accurate and incredibly easy to navigate.


It’s a pretty limited search engine that only draws from a subset of sources. In the same way, it’s not much of a map that leaves you stranded the moment you step off the highway or visit a new country. Over the last few years we’ve been building a comprehensive base map of the entire globe—based on public and commercial data, imagery from every level (satellite, aerial and street level) and the collective knowledge of our millions of users.

Today, we’re taking another step forward with our Street View Trekker. You’ve seen our cars, trikes, snowmobiles and trolleys—but wheels only get you so far. There’s a whole wilderness out there that is only accessible by foot. Trekker solves that problem by enabling us to photograph beautiful places such as the Grand Canyon so anyone can explore them. All the equipment fits in this one backpack, and we’ve already taken it out on the slopes.

Luc Vincent, engineering director, taking the Street View Trekker for a trial run in Tahoe


The next attribute map makers obsess over is accuracy. We still have a way to go because the world is constantly changing—with new houses, cities and parks appearing all the time—it’s a never ending job. But by cross-checking the data we have, we can significantly improve the accuracy of our maps. Turns out our users are as passionate about the quality of Google Maps as we are, and they give us great feedback on where we can do better. We make thousands of edits a day based on user feedback through our Report a Problem tool and via Map Maker, which we launched in 2008. Today we’re announcing the expansion of Map Maker to South Africa and Egypt, and to 10 more countries in the next few weeks: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.


The final element of the perfect map is usability. It’s hard to remember what digital maps were like before Google Maps went live in 2005, and the huge technological breakthroughs that transformed clicking on arrows and waiting, to simply dragging a map with a mouse and watching it render smoothly and quickly. Plus, we added one single search box. Today we have thousands of data sources that feed into our maps making them a rich and interactive experience on any device—from driving directions to transit and indoor maps to restaurant reviews.

People have been asking for the ability to use our maps offline on their mobile phones. So today we’re announcing that offline Google Maps for Android are coming in the next few weeks. Users will be able to take maps offline from more than 100 countries. This means that the next time you are on the subway, or don’t have a data connection, you can still use our maps.

The next dimension

An important next step in improving all of these areas—comprehensiveness, accuracy, and usability of our maps—is the ability to model the world in 3D. Since 2006, we’ve had textured 3D buildings in Google Earth, and today we are excited to announce that we will begin adding 3D models to entire metropolitan areas to Google Earth on mobile devices. This is possible thanks to a combination of our new imagery rendering techniques and computer vision that let us automatically create 3D cityscapes, complete with buildings, terrain and even landscaping, from 45-degree aerial imagery. By the end of the year we aim to have 3D coverage for metropolitan areas with a combined population of 300 million people.

I have been working on mapping technology most of my life. We’ve made more progress, more quickly as an industry than I ever imagined possible. And we expect innovation to speed-up even more over the next few years. While we may never create the perfect map … we’re going to get much, much closer than we are today.

The 2011 Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant awardees

The nonprofit mapping community is alive with amazing game-changing ideas. In May, Google Earth Outreach asked nonprofit organizations to think big: what kind of map would they want to create if they had the funding or developer resources to do so? We were thrilled by the number of applications we received, full of concrete ideas for tremendously impactful maps.

While it was difficult to select projects with the highest potential impact from the long list of great applications we received, we are excited to announce the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grant awardees. Each organization below proposed cutting-edge visualizations in the public benefit sector utilizing a broad spectrum of tools ranging from narrated tours in Google Earth to Google Maps and Places API applications for Android to Google Fusion Tables. In total, we’ve awarded over $300,000 to the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grantees. We wish to congratulate all awardees for developing proposals that we hope will help them make the world a better place.

These organizations are all currently making great progress towards their project goals. Within the coming months, they will complete development of their mapping applications. We look forward to sharing the completed projects with you on the Google Earth Outreach site, so check back soon!



Atlantic Public Media One Species at a Time: Stories of Biodiversity on the Move, with the Encyclopedia of Life (in Google Earth narrated tours)
California Academy of Sciences A Global Water Story: Translating immersive programming about water from the Planetarium to Google Earth
David Suzuki Foundation Our Natural Capital: mapping ecosystem services in southern Ontario, Canada
Golden Gate Parks Conservancy The Story of Crissy Field: the transformation of an urban park in Google Earth
HabitatMap, Inc. AirCasting: citizen air quality monitoring using Android devices
The HALO Trust Notes from the (Mine)Field: a Google Earth tour of humanitarian landmine clearance
International Rivers Network The Wrong Climate for Damming Rivers
The Nature Conservancy Adopt an Acre in Google Earth & Maps
Pepperwood Foundation, on behalf of iNaturalist App on Android: citizen naturalists armed with Android devices can upload photos of flora and fauna to
Save the Elephants Tracking Animals for Conservation: Real-time mapping in the field on Android and Publishing Elephant Tracking Data in Fusion Tables
Water for People SanMap: supporting sanitation-related businesses in urban African cities
When I Walk, Inc. AXSmap mobile app using Google Places API for reviews and ratings of accessibility
Widecast Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network – Bonaire Track Your Turtles: The Great Migration Game and sea turtle monitoring in Bonaire
World Resources Institute Google Earth Tour of Reefs at Risk
World Wildlife Fund Eyes on the Forest: Interactive map on Sumatran Deforestation


These organizations were funded through the Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund at the Tides Foundation.

Google Earth: Outreach Developer Grants Program

Over the years, the Google Earth Outreach team has seen hundreds of maps that nonprofits are using to change the world for the better. We’ve also talked to just as many nonprofits who have a great idea for a map they want to create, but don’t have people on their team with enough technical skills to create it.

Today, we’re excited to announce the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grants program, supporting selected projects from eligible nonprofit organizations that are using Google’s mapping technologies in novel, innovative ways to make the world a better place.

Through this program, non-profit organizations from all over the world will have an opportunity to receive up to $20,000 that will help turn their mapping ideas to support their causes into a reality. Numerous nonprofits have already used Google Earth to raise awareness about an issue or cause that demonstrate innovation and creativity. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and partners created the Crisis in Darfur Google Earth layer, which utilized Google Earth’s high-resolution satellite imagery to document the burning of villages, destruction of communities and livelihoods as a result of the genocide in Sudan. The presentation of refugee stories and testimonials in a map visualization brought 26 times the usual number of visitors to the USHMM’s “How Can I Help?” section of the website.

Charity:Water uses the Google Maps API to show donors precisely where the money they contributed was allocated. After donating, donors receive geographic coordinates to view the location of a well to which they’ve contributed, and they can also view pictures of people accessing clean drinking water as a result of their contribution.

Applications to the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grants program will be accepted until May 26, 2011. More details of the program, project requirements and eligibility can be found on the Google Earth Outreach Developer Grants page.