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9 things to know about Google's maps data: Beyond the Map

September 30, 2019
Ethan Russell

Product Director

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With more than a billion people using Google Maps every month and more than 5 million active apps and websites using Google Maps Platform core products every week, we get questions about where our maps data come from, how we keep it accurate, and more. So before we get to our third installment of the Beyond the Map series, we sat down with product director Ethan Russell to get answers to a few frequently asked questions about our maps data and how you can help us keep it up to date for your very own applications and experiences. 

How do you make sure Google’s maps data is accurate? 
The world is a vast and constantly changing place. Think about how frequently restaurants in your neighborhood come and go, and then consider all the businesses, buildings, homes and roads that are built–and then scale that up to more than 220 countries and regions that are home to more than 7 billion people in the world. We want everyone on the planet to have an accurate, up-to-date map, but there’s a lot going on! So our work is never done and we have a variety of different efforts and technologies helping us keep our maps data as up to date as possible. If you haven’t read the first two installments of the Beyond the Map series, they’re a good start in learning more about how we map the world and keep our data up to date. The first post gives you an overview of our mapping efforts and the second post explains how imagery is the foundation of our mapping techniques. But something we haven’t highlighted in the series yet is how we empower our customers, businesses, and users to contribute what they know about the world and keep our data up to date for themselves and each other. 

How can I submit updated information? 
There are a few different channels for people, businesses, and customers to help update our maps data when something’s not right. Anyone who uses Google Maps can let us know about data issues via the Send Feedback (desktop Maps) and Suggest an Edit (place profiles on Maps and Search) tools. For Google Maps Platform customers using one of our industry solutions (like gaming), the product includes an API for reporting bad points, enabling our game studio partners to report issues to us so we can take action accordingly. And of course if a customer is working closely with our customer engineering teams or an account manager, then they can always work directly with them or the support team to get the information updated. Businesses and agencies that manage business info can also update their business information via Google My Business

Are there any other ways that Google finds updated information beyond user contributions?
Within Google, we have a dedicated team working on keeping our data up to date day in and day out. This covers things like incorporating data from third party resources, developing algorithms to automatically update data and identify spam or fraud, and reaching out directly to businesses and organizations to get accurate info.

How often is your maps data updated?
The map is updated constantly–literally, every second of every day! We’re constantly collecting new information about the world, whether from satellite imagery and Street View cars, or Google Maps users and local business owners, and using that information to update the map. Google Maps users contribute more than 20 million pieces of information every day–that’s more than 200 contributions every second. In addition to the updates we make from what people tell us, we’re making countless updates uncovered through other means like the imagery and machine learning efforts we’ve shared with you in the recent Beyond the Map blog posts posts. 

If a business or organization has a lot of data to contribute, how can they do that? 
For organizations like governments, non-profits, and educational institutions that have large amounts of data about things like new roads or addresses of new buildings, they can use the new Geo Data Upload tool. When submitting via the tool, it’s important that you send data in the right format, so we can ingest the files easier–a shapefile (.shp) or .csv with spatial attributes are preferred file types. If you’re ready to submit your data, it’s helpful that you and your team review our upload content requirements (which you can do at this support page).  

Agencies that manage online marketing for a variety of businesses can use Google My Business to add and update business information. Not only does it get business info into our Places APIs, but it offers a wide range of tools to help businesses better connect with consumers through features like messaging, product inventory, and more on Google Maps and Search. 

How do you manage the vast amounts of data it takes to keep up with the changing world? 
Given that we’re building maps at a truly global scale, you can imagine we process a lot of information. We have many different types of data–roads, buildings, addresses, businesses, and all their various attributes–and imagery from different viewpoints at high resolution. Luckily, we’re not starting from scratch here. From processing and storage systems like Dataflow and Cloud Spanner to machine learning libraries and frameworks like TensorFlow, we’re able to make sense of a river of incoming data.

Why are there differences in data quality in various parts of the world? And how do you address these differences to make sure businesses everywhere can use Google Maps Platform?
Part of what’s fun and challenging about mapping the entire planet is dealing with all the regional differences. This starts with different political constructs, like how granular the postal codes are, or whether addresses for buildings run linearly from one end of a street to the other or are distributed around a block. Then there are physical differences, like with buildings being attached to each other in a city, and with multiple businesses–and private residences!–on different floors. Or when an area has lots of tree cover that makes it hard to see roads underneath, or no tree cover but dry riverbeds that look like dirt roads. And then there are economic differences like how quickly new roads and buildings are constructed, and how quickly new businesses open up. Add in the fact of different languages and different scripts that our algorithms, machine learning and human operators need to understand, and you have a lot of complicating factors leading to different kinds of problems in different parts of the world.

To address these differences we take new and different mapping approaches to these areas. For an area with few authoritative data sources to reference, we use satellite and street-level imagery and machine learning to identify roads or businesses and add the information to our maps data. Or for an area with roads too narrow to map we created a “Street View 3-wheeler” to capture imagery to help us add those roads. As we uncover new mapping challenges, we’re always eager to develop a new solution. 

What’s the most interesting way that Google or another organization has contributed maps data? 
Sheep View is my personal favorite. Solar-powered cameras were strapped to sheep’s woolly backs to collect imagery of the Faroe Islands for Street View. The 18 Faroe Islands are home to just 50,000 people, but—fittingly for a country whose name means “Sheep Island”—there are 70,000 sheep roaming the green hills and volcanic cliffs of the archipelago. So sheep were a brilliant way to capture imagery of the area–and definitely the most creative I’ve seen. 

With Halloween around the corner, what’s up with all those spooky Street View images of people with three legs or a plane submerged in a lake? 
The imagery you see on Google Maps and that’s available via our Maps and Street View APIs is a compilation of billions of photos combined together. Sometimes when we stitch together photos of the same scene, things don’t line up exactly right. This happens especially with things that are moving, like a person walking or an airplane flying. We’re always tweaking our systems and algorithms to handle these situations better. Last Halloween, we actually explained some of the photography challenges behind the most common types of “spooky” imagery in this blog post

Now that we’ve answered some of the most common questions about our maps data, stay tuned for upcoming Beyond the Maps posts for more in-depth looks at how we’re mapping the world and how that helps businesses build location-based experiences worldwide. 

 For more information on Google Maps Platform, visit our website

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