Keeping up with the Googles:
A Western obsession or a true cartographic innovator?

‘A perfect map of the world,’ proudly announced Google vice-president Amit Singhal.

Obviously a well-rehearsed marketing line and not a proclamation that Google have actually achieved the impossible. Yet in the past month the conversation over an ‘improved’ Google Maps aided by the pre-release of Google Glass has brought our world of cartographic design to a fever pitch of frenzy; but is it justified?

The new Google Maps © Google 2013

The new Google Maps
© Google 2013

In the West we tend to be obsessed with following the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and so on believeing that these giants of the computing and internet worlds are leaders in design, innovation, technology and now perhaps even cartography. We too often ignore, as they do, the East where their influence is far weaker and many innovational giants exist with little of our attention.

A news article by Chris Brummitt for news agency AP (Associated Press) explains how Vietnam is the scene of the latest attempt to take on Google as a search engine. Google is often criticised in Eastern countries for not adapting to local languages such that the search engine does not provide good results as successfully as it does in the West.

Brummit writes, ‘Like Google rivals elsewhere, Coc Coc (Eng: Knock Knock) believes the ubiquitous search engine doesn’t get the nuances of the local language. It says its algorithms make for a better, quicker search in Vietnamese, while its local knowledge means the information served will be more relevant — and hence more valuable.’

People in the East do seem to be more faithful to domestic and local service providers. Dragiem is still the most used social networking site in Latvia. Company spokesman Jānis Palkavnieks says, ‘We follow relevant world tendencies, and offer our users the same opportunities as any global social network, not blindly copying them, but rather adjusting them to fit the local mentality and target audience.’ Taking localised loyalty even further – in Minsk, Belarus, Google seems to me to be just as content rich as in any other world city, yet many residents still prefer to use a downloaded piece of software called City Info (a throw back to the days of Microsoft’s Autoroute) rather than any of the large online map offerings. Although one can understand why they wouldn’t use Bing Maps as Microsoft seem to think there are only 4 roads in Minsk!

City Info 2.10 - the latest offering from CityMaps in Minsk

City Info 2.10 – the latest offering from CityMaps in Minsk
© City Info 2013

This is a similar explanation that I have come across in user reviews of competitor mobile map applications. Apps such as Naver (also a desktop app) and Duam Maps are receiving rave domestic reviews in Korea because they just work better within the local environment. They also have some features that Google don’t or at least didn’t until now. Simple ideas such as integrating street mapping with public transport networks and being presented with nearest bus stop information when you exit an underground (subway) station. If Google were doing this we would all be asking why. Because a Korean firm is doing it do we ignore it because they are not perceived here to be market leaders and so the cartographic innovation holds less credibility? Or is it that we understand that Google must have an ulteria motive, is that really why a new Google Maps is causing so much fuss?

Despite no direct admission, there is implication that the people beind Coc Coc could be Mail.ru. Their rival desktop application to Google Maps, called Карты@mail.ru (Eng: Maps@mail.ru), relies upon Collins Bartholomew and Геоцентр Консалтинг (Eng: Geocentre Consulting) for its map data. It might not have the full-screen set up of the new Google Maps and does look slightly older, however ignoring the hype and the technology surrounding Google, Mail.ru already possesses all of Google’s supposedly ‘new’ cartographic features!

Museums in Moscow shown on Maps@Mail.ru © Mail.ru 2013

Museums in Moscow shown on Maps@Mail.ru
© Mail.ru 2013
© Collins Bartholomew 2013
© Геоцентр-Консалтинг 2013

The Kremlin as a pop-up window within the map area, from the museums layer of Maps@Mail.ru © Mail.ru 2013

The Kremlin as a pop-up window within the map area, from the museums layer of Maps@Mail.ru
© Mail.ru 2013
© Collins Bartholomew 2013
© Геоцентр-Консалтинг 2013

It has an in-map dropdown menu for categories such as museums or restaurants, these appear on the map as icons that once clicked bring up information about that feature. All on-screen, all within the map window and all with useful links just like the supposed ‘new’ design of Google but without advertising which is restricted to the search sidebar. Mail.ru even trump Google’s building polygons – their building polygons come complete with house numbers. All of this can also be seen on Naver’s desktop maps (which also includes QR codes, something else not yet in Google Maps) and on Nokia’s HERE maps (although painfully slow) as well as the rather archaic-looking City Info, so its hardly something new. Whats more is that Maps@mail.ru isn’t even the main online map search engine in Russia, Yandex is.

Naver desktop map application

Naver desktop map application
© Naver 2013

Chinese internet mammoth and Google equivalent Tencent were doing similar localised startups to Coc Coc in India last year. So maybe the future of web and mobile map apps, just like that of web search engines, is localised but Google seems to believe it to be personalised.

Obviously that, the customised apect of it, is the one new cartographic element to Google Maps that is a significant unique selling point (USP). Google’s data will be able to tailor map-based searches to offer results that reflect your online habits. So for the map user, is this good or bad? What is unclear is just how customised the maps will become. I have an Android phone, a YouTube account and although rarely used even a Google+ account. Theoretically, if I stay logged in Google could track all of my internet use and tailor my map accordingly – but would I really want this? Ken Field has a good summary of the argument against on his blog so I won’t offer any further reflection on this other than to say that for years Google have been personalising the advertisements that pop up on every website I visit and has this enhanced by browsing experience or made me click on the adverts? No. It has simply degraded the quality of my user experience as they annoying little buggers take pixels away from what I’m actually trying to look at.

Not that I am against it though. The adverts are there for a reason. They provide money. This money allows Google to offer me a very good service. They interfere with what I am looking at but they make it easier for me to find what I am looking at in the first place. When it comes to maps, cartographers tend to get very hung up over Google but too often fail to praise their innovations for keeping our industry relevant. Jerry Brotton of The Guardian recently wrote an article criticising the new-look Google Maps for masking an expansion in advertising as an improvement in cartographic design. The usefulness of Google Maps to its users was very evident in the number of angry comments on the post. From a user perspective this point is very clearly, if not so eliquently, put forward by ‘Mr Europe’ (apologies for the language):

‘The arrogance… here you have a FREE world-wide map system that shows you every single road in just about every country. You can plot routes, know how long it will take, see traffic information, find restaurants, read their reviews, see linked Wikipedia articles, see the geography view for those looking for a nice natural spot to hang out, and god know what else. FOR FREE.

And you have audacity to complain about the fact they place ads there and want to make some money on it. Well whooping fucking doo. Really, some respect and humilty would go a long way. The arrogance of this everything-must-be-free-and-free-of-ads-or-I-will-whine-about-it-on-my-blog-generation knows no bounds!’

So public opinion it would seem is very strong but I think this comment by StVitusGerulaitis, on the same story, wonderfully sums up the postive that Google Maps brings to our industry for the user as well as a pretty decent arguement for customised mapping:

‘Maps are made for a specific purpose and aim to fulfil that function as well as they can.

What do most people use Google maps for? I’d hazard mainly for finding their way to the station or the nearest Costa. Therefore Google are filling that function well. Nobody uses Google maps to find their way across a mountain range or to cross Greenland unless they are incredibly stupid.

Having said that, as a geology student Google’s earth imagery is absolutely essential and it’s brilliant that you can get such good quality data absolutely free.’

Current versus new Google Maps © Google 2013

Current versus new Google Maps
© Google 2013

Despite a disappointing lack of cartographic innovation when compared to the hype, I actually quite like what Google have done which is cartographic integration. They have taken all of the elements of Google Maps, added some new technology, and (unless the promotional video is overly doctored) made it work seamlessly together. There is a certain sense of claiming too much under the pretence of better user experience, for example full screen, which no doubt the more central, more prominant location of advertising space will not have gone unnoticed by Google. But both the mapping and the application as a whole looks a lot cleaner, a lot more modern and a lot less cluttered. Intuitive user inferfaces are great and they have obviously considered the whole user journey. I guess the problems will occur when the journey that Google has predicted is not the one that you wish to take.

If I am looking at a particular fusion restaurant as per the video, maybe I still want to see all the restaurants from my original search results and not have the app second guess my thought process to show me only other related restaurants.

For me the biggest cartographic design plus of the new Google Maps is the reduction of push pins or balloons. Thankfully known categories are now pushable symbols instead. These combined with simple labels until activited are a far better design visual. But once again, this well presented data has been allowed by filtering the results – something that appears to be the questionable element here. There has also been some development of subtly highlighting routes and Google have played with the cartographic principle of hierarchy here. I would need to see this in action before passing comment but the technology behind it is outlined below.

In terms of cartography, Google have modified the stlying also. According to Nathan Olivarez-Giles on The Verge, ‘The new vector maps usher in more subdued colors, dumping the harsh yellow streets in favor of white or grey roads. Mountain ridges are rendered in darker shades of green, and the blue ocean shifts from light to dark in real time depending on where the sun is shining on earth. Google has even incorporated its custom Roboto font, which can be seen running on its Nexus phones and tablets, into the new Maps.’ The change must be quite subtle though because I have to confess, with the exception of the yellow roads, I hadn’t actually noticed! However they have given the style quite a clean up and the differences are well highlighted on this github post (although it may well give you a headache!).

What is perhaps most intersting though about the new map app from Google isn’t the cartography but the technology behind it. They may not have completely redesigned the map as some may have claimed, but what Google have done is redesigned the way it works.

First of all, the new service is vector driven so quicker but more processor-hungry than tile-based mapping. Secondly, the routing algorithms have changed. The new algorithm is set to analyse the routes chosen by other users in that area and include these results in the routing process and in the styling of roads on the map.

The third big technology change is the enhanced intergration of imagery both from Google Earth as well as from photographs (and Google Street View).

An overview article covering these new technologies is given by Darrel Etherington on TechCrunch. Leo Kelion for the BBC has more information on the advertising element of the new Google Maps but Google themselves stress that this is all at the moment still experimental. Something that has gone without mention in the new Google Maps launch is the ongoing work Google are doing, and have been for quite a number of years, on indoor mapping.

So to summarise, most of the cartography in the new Google Maps is evolution not revolution. They have taken ideas, some of which do exist elsewhere in the market, and integrated them effectively into their application. The design looks good aesthetically and new functionality like viewing driving routes versus public transport routes simultaneously looks like a better user experience. But perhaps by looking further East we can learn that innovation exists there too and that local understanding and trust is still very important to users.

Check out the new Google Maps promotional video here.
As is so often the case, a good, clear overview is offered on Mashable.

This post has been written based upon promotional videos and web-based previews. Once Google give me my official preview I will review what I’ve written.

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