Ed Parsons, Google’s geographer-in-chief, is leaning over an 18th century woodcut map from the Chonhado, the Korean atlas of the world. Here, on thin parchment, the earth is a wobbly blue watercolor dot centered around the sacred Mount Meru, close to a large red circle representing Beijing. China and Korea make up the large part of the map, while the foreign lands beyond their borders are like afterthoughts, represented only by a thin peripheral strip of land.
Ed’s friend Tom Harper, the soft spoken maps curator at the British Library, explains the strange cartography. “The rest of the world wasn’t necessary to this insular culture at this time, so it just doesn’t appear,” he notes.
Because of this obvious disregard for Western imperial standards of empiricism and accuracy, the Chonhado was derided for decades by cartographers and historians. And yet its premise—putting yourself at the center of the world—isn’t far from that of the digital maps being ferociously assembled today by Google and other modern-day mapping giants. In this vision of the world, we are the tiny blue dots at the center of the map, like billions of miniaturized Chonhados.
Previously, Parsons says, maps were “created by someone else for whatever purpose they created it for, and it was the same map that everyone else saw. But now your map is literally your map.”
It is billions of people’s maps, according to Google, but it is also Google’s map, and as the company’s Geospatial Technologist, Parsons’s job is meant to make users and governments feel comfortable with Google’s control of it. As it seeks to maintain growth, Alphabet Inc. has bet big on personalizing Google’s flagship products—search, maps, and mail—which means capitalizing upon ever more sensitive information about where users go, and what they do there.
“That is my job, to be that kind of lightning conductor, good and bad,” he says. “My job is about evangelism, trying to get people to see the world the way that we see the world.”
A jovial middle-aged Brit schooled in geography and cartography, Parsons has been at the forefront of the digital mapping revolution for two decades, first at Autodesk and then in the public sector, as the first—and only—CTO of Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping agency.
It was in that capacity that Parsons first crossed paths with engineer Brian McClendon and entrepreneur John Hanke. In 2001, the two founded Keyhole, Inc. and launched EarthViewer, a satellite mapping application. Keyhole survived the dot-com crash by providing its technology to real estate and tourism companies, as well as to U.S. military and intelligence agencies; among its investors was the CIA’s venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel. But much of the public hadn’t heard of Keyhole until it began working with CNN to broadcast satellite images of Iraq during the 2003 U.S. invasion.
When they demoed their software for Larry Page and Sergey Brin in April 2004, says McClendon, “they came back with an offer to buy the company the next day.” EarthViewer would become the basis for Google Earth, which, along with Maps, launched the following year. (McClendon left Alphabet in 2015 and now runs Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, where he is helping develop the company’s self-driving car project; like Google’s and Apple’s, such cars are only as reliable as the digital maps underneath them.)
What was true of the Chonhado was once true of Google Earth: its focus began around the area most important to its makers, the U.S. “You would see the oceans, but if you panned them out, there was nothing there,” remembers Hanke. “It was like one of these maps made in the dark ages, because Google hadn’t acquired the rights to incorporate that data into the product.” To this day, Windows users launching Google Earth for the first time will see the Earth centered near McClendon’s childhood home in Lawrence, Kansas.
When he arrived at Google’s London office in 2007, Parsons was in many ways perfectly poised to help acquire the missing parts of the map, in part by convincing governments to share their data with the company: at the Ordnance Survey, he played a crucial role as the British government’s liaison to Hanke and McClendon as they assembled Google’s map of the United Kingdom. Within the company’s geo group, said Rebecca Moore, director of engineering for Google Earth, Parsons cuts a “CTO-like figure.” But he also plays a role outside the company, gathering ideas, forging partnerships with academics, government, and technologists, and promoting Google’s mission to organize the world’s geographic information. “I probably represent something that Google’s not very good at, and that’s having a human face,” he says.
Not surprisingly, helping to steward the world’s largest map involves traveling all over it. Parsons’s personal website details recent stops in Hungary, California, Belgium, and Paris. On these trips, he meets with academics, GIS researchers, public servants, and private vendors in the hopes of getting the cartographic community to “game mindshare” with him, as he puts it, in “reinventing cartography” and thinking about “the where of everything.”
At a 2014 conference, Parsons’s presentation included a discussion of the Catalhoyuk map, a faded stone mural dated to 6500 BC, said to be the world’s oldest map. “If we’re really honest, the techniques that we’ve used in cartography haven’t really changed much in those 8500 years, where we’ve gone from writing on cave walls, to etching, to printing on paper, to ultimately producing maps that will appear on screens,” he told the audience. “We haven’t made that leap to say the media is radically different.”
But Google has been making that leap, layering in up-to-the-minute travel information and user-generated data to bring Maps closer to what Parsons calls a “selfie for the planet.”
On recent trips to Malta and Belfast, he loyally contributed to improving the product using Google’s Street View and Maps apps, snapping photos and panoramas, including one with his “family sniggering in the background.”
“It was in Google Maps within two minutes,” he said. “Because it was me, it went through the process a little bit quicker.”
When members of the public upload photos and corrections to Maps, they first go through Google’s moderators, who make up one of its largest teams around the world and maintain its “database of things”—sights, restaurants, hotels, anything that appears with a rating on Google maps.
The system isn’t perfect. “We’ve had to work hard on moderation,” he says, mentioning a 2015 incident in which someone digitized “a lake in the shape of an Android pissing on an Apple logo,” Google called it “inappropriate user-created content.” “That didn’t go down very well. We had to make our moderation processes a bit more robust.”
Parsons is one of few visible players in the company’s Geo unit, which encompasses all of Google’s geospatial technologies— Led by Jen Fitzpatrick, one of the company’s first female engineers, the unit works on apps like Google Maps and Google Earth, but also critical databases used in search, mail, and more. The effort is so large—and dependent upon manpower, from engineers to the drivers of Street View cars—that Google does not specify how many of its employees are devoted to geospatial technology. (In 2012, it said the number was over 7,100.)
But other numbers are telling: Google Maps enjoys over 1 billion monthly active users, the company says, making it the world’s most used map. Google Maps ranks no. 6 among U.S. smartphone users, between Search, at 5, and Gmail; Apple Maps is no. 13 according to a January report by ComScore. (Apple, for its part, has claimed that iPhone users now turn to its Maps application 3.5X more than “the next leading mapping app.”)
Of all Google searches, says McClendon, approximately 30% are local in nature, and 10% are maps- related. These days, the company reports, location-related searches are growing 50% faster than all mobile searches. In 2013, a report commissioned by Google estimated that the value of Geo services is between $150 to $270 billion in revenue annually–in addition to 1.1 billion hours saved per year by keeping people from getting lost or “avoiding wasted journey time.”
To compete with a range of tech titans—besides Apple, companies like Nokia, TomTom, and Microsoft have invested heavily in mapping technologies—Google is focusing on personalization. Parsons’s hope is that using an increasingly personalized Google Maps—and syncing one’s location with surrounding devices, from your cell phone to your garage, heater, and car—will pass what Google calls “the toothbrush test.”
“Is the technology so valuable, so familiar, that you use it every day, that you don’t really think about it?” Parsons asks. “To get that level of trust, we need people to understand and be completely confident with it. You only use your toothbrush every day because you’re completely confident that it’s not poisoning you, it’s not going to make your teeth fall out.”
Getting Google’s mapping apps to pass the toothbrush test is crucial to the company’s plans for geospatial expansion. Though the Google Earth API was deprecated in 2014 and will be fully shut down by the end of the year, its imagery is now largely incorporated into the Maps satellite view. The plan, says Parsons, is to bring Maps and Earth even closer together.
“What we’re looking to do is to go back to that ethos of Google Earth being the canvas upon which you can put your own content, which we’ve kind of lost in Google Maps at the moment,” says Parsons.
The revamped Google Earth, which will run on both mobile phones and browsers–and which Moore and Parsons can only say will arrive “soon”—will aim to meet the goal set forward during its earliest days: “that Google Earth would be the browser for the planet,” says Parsons.
“The same way that you use Internet Explorer or Chrome or Safari to go and visit websites, you’d use Google Earth to go and visit places, and you could author information about those places within Google Earth and then share those things,” says Parsons. “For example, ‘this is where I went on holiday,’ or ‘this is my view of the political geography of South Africa,’ and use Google Earth as a tool for making that story available to people.”
The new Google Earth will “reinvent it for the web and mobile,” making it “much more of a storytelling platform,” Moore says. “It will have feeds of information coming in that make it a dashboard for the planet. If you hear about something going on, you’ll open Google Earth and that’s where you’ll find out what’s happening.”
Augmented reality and indoor mapping are also becoming a large part of Google’s Geo operation—an internal division called “Project Tango” is building “a mobile device that can see how we see,” in order to create 3-D maps of indoor spaces, among other capabilities. That will bring Google Maps closer to the interactive geospatial apps like Field Trip, Ingress, and Pokemon GO that Hanke has been creating at Niantic Labs, the startup he launched within Google in 2010.
“I don’t know if Pokemon Go becomes part of Google Maps,” Hanke said when I asked whether he thinks his two creations might blend. “But I think people’s experience of being in places, and being transformed digitally—either enriched with information and enriched with interactivity, or transformed into entertainment—I definitely think that people will become accustomed to that and it will be something people expect.”
Maps, meanwhile, has been undergoing more incremental tweaks. Google has incorporated traffic data from Waze, the crowdsourced traffic mapping app that it bought in 2013 for $1 billion, into Maps. As it searches for new revenue, the Alphabet Inc. company has also made various efforts to fuse its ad-based model with geography. Under its latest update to Maps, users will begin to see logos—”promoted pins” in Googlespeak—for nearby coffee shops, gas stations, or restaurants, while revamped local business pages can now contain special offers and in some cases the ability to browse product inventory.
The best emblem for the company’s literally global ambitions may not be Google Earth but Street View, which amounts to essentially the most immersive and detailed “map” of the world ever made. The future of Google Maps may closely resemble a dynamic version of Street View, with up-to-the-minute information and imagery, but it’s a future that merits caution too: after privacy concerns emerged around its Street View program, Germany investigated and ultimately fined Google for covertly collecting data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks using Street View cars—surveillance as cartography.
This concern isn’t lost on Parsons: if you use Google Maps, the company more or less knows where you are, where you’re going, and what you’re looking for. “We’re kind of looking at what to do with it. We’ve got a very rich source of data there, but also one that we have to be very careful of,” he says. “Your location on the planet is one of the most sensitive pieces of information that anyone can hold on you.”
Google says it uses anonymized user locations to map car and consumer traffic, while specific information about individual locations is strictly managed internally. Parsons paints a more nuanced picture. “Actually, it’s very hard to truly anonymize that sort of data. At the moment, we track you as an individual and we strip off the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes of tracking, so we don’t know where you start or end, or where your home or where your work is. But, actually, over a period of a few days and weeks we can certainly start to build those tracks and understand where people are moving around—and potentially identify people from that.”
“We are very, very cautious about that sort of data,” he hastens to add. “We’d never give it to someone else.”
The leap from page to screen may have made cartography accessible to more people—and made maps into 3-D, immersive experiences—but it’s also worried some mapping purists, as cartographers have been replaced by their modern-day successors: computer scientists and user-interface designers.
“It’s no longer about paper—it’s about painting pixels,” says Parsons. “Different techniques are needed and required. But you still need that process of abstracting the information that’s most important.”
Something has certainly been lost in the translation from local and analog to global and digital: Before the era of Google Maps, each nation had its own cartographic conventions, making for a rich array of designs—often at the expense of foreign travelers. Google prioritizes efficiency, mapping the world according to a single set of conventions aimed at making the world so legible that it often takes an active effort to get lost.
But Google’s approach may come at the expense of local cartographic conventions, aesthetics, and geo-political markers, critics worry. “As a citizen, I’m concerned that Google maps looks so banal—it’s like Pleasantville, visually,” says Anne Knowles, a GIS historian at the University of Maine. “It bewitches people that the world is okay, and we’re shocked when it’s not.”
To Parsons, trading traditional maps for more practical models is worth the utility gained in getting Google users from point A to point B more efficiently.
“Probably, computer scientists aren’t the best ones to figure out how to do that–we really need cartographers,” he admits. Still, “cartography has largely ignored on-screen mapping. Cartographers have almost ended up being historians, kind of looking at what cartography was rather than looking forward, saying, well, what’s the potential of augmented reality? What does that mean for cartography?”
“Cartographers have spent centuries thinking about and optimizing information on a piece of paper that can be interpreted both by experts and, later, by novices,” says McClendon. “But the challenge with Google Maps is it’s a dynamic map—it changes based on the zoom level. At each zoom level you go down in the map, there’s more and more information shown.”
Breaking with the cartographic past isn’t easy. Consider the minor uproar Google caused when it readjusted its zoom settings to remove extraneous labels: “What happened to Google Maps?” the popular maps developer and writer Justin O’Beirne wondered aloud, as he concluded that the company had “dropped” 38 cities from the map. “No, it’s not you: Google maps really did get crappy,” Quartz editors quipped when they re-published his article.
“There’s been this big fuss–well, you know, it’s us making changes. That’s what happens,” says Parsons. Nothing had been “dropped” from the map: Google merely adjusted which labels appear for certain zoom levels and functions.
“I think part of the problem is, many people look at Google Maps as being this static thing. They think in terms of the paper map, and the paper map doesn’t change,” he says. “We do A/B testing for almost everything—we’ll have different populations of maps users being shown different things, and we’ll see what works best. Do they follow the directions we give them? Do they get lost?”
“That’s one of the ‘creepy big brother’ elements—we know when you get lost, because you’re not following the directions we’ve told you to follow.”
Cartographers have always come under fire for mapping the lives of others—Google just does so more accurately and quickly than ever before.
“In the 1840s, the Ordnance Survey had the same battle,” Harper interjects. “At what scale will we map the country? Richer landowners didn’t want their property to be mapped at a large scale. Quite naturally, there was a reluctance to have their lives, spaces, published… if you go back even further to the 16th and 17th centuries when England was colonizing Ireland, surveyors were murdered for trespassing. Nothing’s changed, really.”
Those battles set precedents for some of the ones that Google is currently waging. In countries like India and South Korea, national security concerns have led governments to clamp down on mapping services, in some cases deliberately obscuring directions and satellite imagery. Google Maps appears differently depending on the country of your IP address, allowing the company to stay on the right side of the law in the many jurisdictions where it operates. Log in from China, for instance, and Google Maps is strictly controlled by the government, which deliberately inserts errors into GPS systems close to sensitive locations. Those who visit Google.com/maps are presented with the company’s “most universal” rendering of the world.
Of course, Google Maps also appears differently depending on who you are—it is designed to highlight businesses on your journey that your friends may have frequented, or that might be of particular interest to you. “Whatever we do, we do universally, we do it for everybody,” says Parsons, but in Google’s increasingly user-centric world, that means helping each of its users see the world in a way that is most relevant to their life and work—perhaps not that of others.
This dynamism is its singular strength and its most cited weakness. As the product becomes increasingly ubiquitous, users are apt to take the information it provides as gospel—“Don’t try to outsmart Google, you’ll always lose,” a good friend solemnly advised after an ill-advised road trip detour. But blindly trusting Google can also lead one astray: in March, a demolition company in Rowlett, Texas, tore down the wrong home after Google Maps directed its employees to the wrong address.
“There are sources of canonical data–they are ‘the facts,’” says Parsons, who is adamant that Google is not a canonical source in the same way the Ordnance Survey, U.S. Geographic Survey, or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority might be. “We are perhaps the great editors. We do our job to bring you a view of the world that is as consistent and as canonical as it possibly could be, but we’re not the source.”
“All maps are imperfect,” says McClendon. But Google’s rendering of the world is “as close to reality as we’ll be able to get for a long time.”
That hasn’t stopped Google’s open-source rival, OpenStreetMap, from taking a more democratic approach to mapping the planet. Whereas Google Maps is a proprietary stream of data resting on a range of private and public and crowdsourced inputs, OpenStreetMap is maintained by a community of volunteers using open data. Parsons is involved “on and off” with the platform, which he calls “a fabulous project,” but one that reflects the enthusiasm of its makers so much that “it’s become almost a parody.”
“Cartography is about what you take off, not about what you add,” he says. “I think the community is still learning what cartography actually means. There are companies making a profit—Mapbox, CartoDB—starting to do some interesting things on top of that. It’s like we’re learning again. It’s like the early days of desktop publishing, where everyone would put 50 fonts on their document, because they could. You just want one font, really, that’s what you need.”
None of these maps is more perfect than the others, Parsons says; each map is influenced by its creators, with their own worldview.
“We as an organization do our best to explain how we come up [with our] worldview–how we come up to that worldview, where it’s coming from, what we’re interested in—but it is our view, and our view is different from Apple’s, from Microsoft’s, from OpenStreetMap, from any other map provider,” says Parsons. “We are representing the world as is valuable and useful to our users. Our maps represent what you or I need to do on a day-to-day basis in the developed part of the world.”
As part of its efforts to map everywhere—and bring everyone to the map—Google has also empowered groups traditionally written out of Western maps to craft their own portrait of the world. Rebecca Moore, who in addition to running Google Earth’s engineering team, leads Google Earth Outreach, has worked with indigenous peoples in the Amazon, like the Surui tribe, to help them map their territory using their own symbols. This can, for example, make it easier for them to map the locations of the three specific types of trees they use to make arrows.
In “the new Google Earth, we make the ability to make a custom map even easier to do, to discover, to share,” says Moore. Within five years, Google Earth will have mapped 100% of the Amazon rainforest, she adds.
A self-described “lapsed aviator,” Parsons is one of the few team members from the early days of Google Maps who remains at the company, and he takes a bird’s-eye view of its potential.
“I love seeing the world from above. Part of the thing that appealed to me about geography is that it explains the world. It explains why mountains are where they are, why river valleys are where they are, why cities are where they are, and why they’re the shape they are. And you get a wonderful view of that when you’re flying over it, and you get the ultimate view when you can control where you’re flying over.”
The more interactive and personally tailored Google Maps gets—the more accurately it simulates actually flying over the world—the better. “I try, in my presentations, to show the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” picture. Less than 10 people have seen that with their own eyes, but yet we get to see that every day. I often wonder, will that change how society views the world—being able to go from the very local, very detailed view, to the world view. It’s something that’s never been possible before.”
“I hope that it allows us to recognize the fact that we all do live on the same planet,” he says. “Our own little part of the world is only a few swipes of a mouse away from someone else, and their own little piece of the world. You know, it’s no accident that often you see Google Earth and there are no boundaries, because that’s the way the world is.
“At the same time,” he adds, with politic caution, “I think it is important that you can switch on the borders, and you can draw the lines, because they are important.”
This story was originally published with the headline, “The Geek Behind Google’s Map Quest”