When you set out to map the entire Earth, if you do it right, you're going to end up with a lot of data. Google Maps has a constant stream of information coming in from a ton of sources - its own Street View cars, satellite imagery, governments, and users all over the world. Once you have all of that information, how do you deal with it? What happens when the government map doesn't perfectly match the satellite image? How do you make sure that a "No Left Turn" sign is reflected in the turn-by-turn directions?

As outsiders, we've always just assumed the answer to this is "magic," but it turns out, it's all handled by a program called "Google Atlas" - an internal-only tool used to manage Google Maps data. We caught a 5-second glimpse of it a year ago in a promotional video for the "Report A Problem" feature, but that wasn't nearly long enough to understand what was going on.

At I/O, Google decided to lift back the curtain and show us just how Google Maps is made. If you don't want to watch the full 40 minute video, the Atlas stuff starts at 7:30. You'll see a great walkthrough of just how Atlas works, and how Google combines all of this conflicting data from different sources. In the end, there is no silver bullet; it's just a lot of work that takes a lot of people. Still, it's fascinating to see just how it works, how user-friendly it all seems, and how much of an insane project Google Maps really is.

The whole video is a great watch, so kick back, relax, and, while you're watching, think about just how hard it is for Apple and other competitors to attempt to replicate even a small fraction of Google's mapping juggernaut.

Ron Amadeo
Ron loves everything related to technology, design, and Google. He always wants to talk about "the big picture" and what's next for Android, and he's not afraid to get knee-deep in an APK for some details. Expect a good eye for detail, lots of research, and some lamenting about how something isn't designed well enough.
  • mesmorino

    Hubris is what made Apple try, hubris of the sort "If they can do it, so can we!"

    Erm, no you can't.

    • squiddy20

      Considering Apple has barely even tried to do anything like the scale Google is doing (since all they did was take OpenStreetMap and Tom Tom data, shove it in a touchscreen friendly app, and correct the myriad of errors), I think they've done well enough. Of course, it did take them a few weeks (or maybe it was months) to get out a simple little error reporting feature in the app...

      • Lawats Lord

        I'm sorry but that's what Apple did and have always been doing. Buy an interesting project from a company (C3 WifiSlam Siri Inc etc) tweak it a bit and shove it the next iOS update and call it revolution created buy Apple.

        • numpty

          So, just like Google did with Android, then. (And the numerous other companies they've bought.)

          • mesmorino

            Except that a) Google doesn't try to pass their acquisition off as their own, and b) Doesn't charge an arm and two legs for the product.

            An astonishing number of stupid people actually believe the iPhone was the first touchscreen phone

          • Freak4Dell

            The Android that Google bought, and the Android that Google released are vastly different. They basically just bought the name.

  • Rami

    Some of the tools they use are similar to those offered by Waze, which in Waze look better and easier !!
    This is a reason why Google & Waze could merge :)

    • Nevi_me

      Woogle or Gaze!

    • andy_o

      Tried Waze for a while. Most of the features it has are good, but the ones it doesn't have (and Gmaps does) are more indispensable, like why the hell doesn't Waze tell you the full address where you've arrived? I only get the street name. Google even shows you a picture of the address in addition to the full address.

      I like Waze's ability to just run without navigating to any place in particular. The crowd sourcing for traffic can be unreliable though, and while the "vehicle stopped on shoulder" impressed me at first, I don't find it really useful.

      • Rami

        Waze is crowd sourced, so it will lack the features that Google offers, mainly street view, and addresses, but imho Waze in better in terms of traffic monitoring and police detection ;)

        But I was not writing about the end user experience, I was writing about the backend tool that allows end users to modify the maps, they are similar what was shown in the video, you can change the directions of a road, allow or forbid turns, move roads, view the GPS points of all users who drove on roads, show user reports and allow editors to fix them. The Waze editor is simpler than Google Atlas, and more beautiful, but lacks the advanced features of street view (obviously)

        Reliability of the data can be an issue, but this is the problem with all crowd sourced projects (Wikipedia, OpenStreetMaps, etc). For example, in Italy Waze is not editable by anyone, you have to request to become an Area Manager before editing, because a year ago some vandals corrupted a lot of the map data.

        I am a user and contribute on Waze since more than 2 years, and I love it.

  • nwaves

    Amazing presentation, however what's up with the MacBook they use? If they are trying to sell Chromium laptops, shouldn't they actually use them?

    • Josh

      Macbooks are great laptops. It's probably way easier to do their job with a real computer.

      /chromebook user

    • numpty

      Chromium laptops don't have anything like the sort of graphical grunt you need for this sort of thing. Doesn't make them bad machines, but they're just not the right tool for this job.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/ron-amadeo/ Ron Amadeo

      You can't code and compile things in a browser. Programmers are like, the most powery power users.

      • nwaves

        This was a presentation, they were not writing code or compiling. If they are selling Chromebooks, they should be the first ones to use them. If a Chromebook can't even handle a simple presentation, why sell them in the first place?

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

          I see this line of thinking all the time by people who aren't in the industry, and I'm always amazed that people really think engineers will always want to use what their company makes, even if they have nothing to do with that part of the company or product at all. It's almost as bad as Steve Balmer of Microsoft actually trying to force employees to use Windows phones.

          Engineers will use what they find most productive. That's it. They won't switch out their Macbooks (which are very popular development machines) for a Chromebook that they may not even have (I guarantee most of them don't) just for a random presentation at I/O. It's just not happening.