Most people who use Google Maps do so without much attention to detail. We just need the directions, the right subway route, or the name of that good sushi place. We don’t spend too much time pondering how Google got so good at mapping the world, and what decisions and choices were made along the way that have made it the go-to navigational tool of our time.
Justin O’Beirne pays attention to these types of details. He’s a cartographer who helped contribute to Apple Maps. So we should trust him when he explains — in depth — about what makes Google Maps so superior to any other mapping service.
This week, he published a fascinating essay that explains the concept of the “Google Maps’ Moat.” By this, he means the layers of data surrounding Google Maps that basically makes it basically impossible for Apple or any competitor to ever catch up. “Google has gathered so much data, in so many areas, that it’s now crunching it together and creating features that Apple can’t make — surrounding Google Maps with a moat of time,” he writes. “It makes you wonder how long back Google was planning all of this—and what it’s planning next…”
O’Beirne starts out by marveling at the level of detail available in Google Maps for even extremely small towns, such as the one where he grew up in rural Illinois. He highlights how Google, unlike Apple, is able to display the shapes of individual buildings and even smaller structures like tool sheds and mobile homes. These minute details can be found even in towns with populations in the double-digits. He uses this to lament the corresponding lack of detail in Apple Maps.
He charts the history of Google’s efforts to add buildings large and small, highlighting the search giant’s announcement from 2012 that they were “algorithmically created by taking aerial imagery and using computer vision techniques to render the building shapes.” So in addition to getting a first-person street view of your route, you can zoom outward to seeing a computer-rendered model of the surrounding area for contextual information such as the shapes and sizes of buildings.
He concludes that aerial imagery from satellites has outpaced Google’s famous Street View vehicles in the amount of data used to create these vivid tableaus. And he asks an important question: “[H]ow long until Google has every structure on Earth?”
Then things get interesting. O’Beirne introduces us to two researchers, Rachelle Annechino and Yo-Shang Cheng, who observed that people often describe the layout of their city as it relates to “main drags” or “commercial corridors.” He then goes on to describe Google’s unique approach to highlighting these “Areas of Interest” (AOI). About a year ago, these “main drags” began showing up in Google Maps as clusters of orange buildings. Google communicates these “Areas of Interest” to its users through a specific orange shading, but with a level of detail that is truly stunning.