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How Google Maps Works

Google Maps
Google Maps Credits: Tech Hundred

In today’s day and age, most of us who are commuting have one piece of technology with us at all times – Google Maps. Be it the daily route to work or exploring the local transport in a new city while traveling, Google Maps is indispensable.

We’ve come a long way from using printed maps to digital GPS, but Google has taken that concept even further. By showing the estimated time of arrival depending on traffic or letting us book cab services through the app, Google Maps works like magic. To design an interface that is so intuitive and one that crafts the travel of 77% of smartphone owners is no small feat.

Maps dominate the segment of navigation apps and there is a good reason why. So, what goes behind making such an intuitive piece of technology? What do Maps do that revolutionizes travel?

What Was The Potential In Maps?

Before Maps was a breakthrough, there could have been considerable doubts about whether it was an endeavor worth investing time and energy in. But, when we think of Brin and Page’s vision about Google to make all the information available to mankind accessible, it doesn’t take long for geography and translocation to become a part of that vision.

But, this vision will manifest itself in parts. Before the execution comes the collection of data.

Google Maps’ Data Collection Drive


Google doesn’t craft maps using a single point source of data. There are multiple information inlets that make maps what it is today. Here are the sources Google uses.

Base Map Partner Program

One of the primary sources Google uses to collect data is by partnering up with official data sources in something called, the Base Map Partner Program. Since new roads are built and broken every day, new extensions like bridges and flyovers are being added, and traffic and local transport rules change from time to time – Google needs partners to keep up with this information.

Official agencies become a part of this program. These agencies submit consistent updates to Google about the changes in the city, state, or country that they operate for.

Google Maps
Google Maps Partner Program
Credits BibLus

In the US, authorities or bodies like the US National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, and USDA Forest Service are a part of this partner program.

Google Street View

Google Maps
Street View
Credits: BT.com


Apart from agency-driven data, Google also has a physical vehicle deployed in major cities that provision Google with Google Street View.

This is just a massive group of vehicles dispersed around the globe that go and take 3D pictures of the street they are in. It is something like a never-ending road trip for these vehicles.

Along with taking 3D pictures for street view, they also help Google HQ decode new signs that have come up, business names on the street, new traffic rules, and changes like that. This again becomes an update-driven data point for Google to work on.

Satellite Data

An obvious one, Google’s next data point is satellite data. While it is still constrained to a macro level, satellite data helps cross-check the data submitted by ‘street view’ and ‘partner programs’, by detecting physical objects present on the streets, new buildings, altered roads, etc.

Location Services

You may think that location services are only to help you use your GPS and get to your destination. But there is one more thing Google does when it takes access to your location. You become one of the crowdsources for Google’s micro street-to-street data.

The movement of your location can be used to determine approximate traffic speeds, whether there is a congestion, and what will be the estimated time of arrival if someone else takes that route.

The red, yellow, and blue lines you see on your Google Maps are a big indicator of information that is spewed out after crowdsourcing

Google Maps
Street Maps Credits: MentalFloss

Google Local Guides and Map Maker

Every Google Map user can personally contribute to the information Maps has. By suggesting corrections in streets, reviewing businesses on Maps, or adding new hiking trails or travel modes, users have a lot of control of what goes onto Maps.

There are rigorous and regular users who are Google Local Guides. They consistently update new information about their surrounding areas.

By going into “My Contributions” on your Google Maps app, you too can become a Google Local Guide and submit new information to maps. Incentives like an increase in drive space or email storage are provided to consistent guides.

What Does Google Do With This Data?

So, now that there are multiple data points and even more sub-data points, how does Google crunch them and make them usable?

This highly number-driven information is crunched down by Google’s information algorithms and made usable. Now, what these algorithms are or how they work is privileged information and is not publicly accessible.

It’s not only the algorithms that contribute to maps but a lot of human involvement is also present as a part of the process. If there is something that goes beyond the understanding of the algorithm, a human will rectify the information and also rebuild the algorithm to understand that information.

Since Google Maps is a system that works on consistent updates, the contribution of information understood by only humans is immense. This intersection of human input and algorithmic computing is what makes Google Maps what it is.

There is a reason why Google Maps is not just another navigation service. It is constantly and dedicatedly evolving and changing its mechanisms. In the future, the service plans to introduce new tech like self-driving cars too. From being a guide to your local area, it is fast becoming your guide to the globe.

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