Google’s Michael Jones on How Maps Became Personal


Here’s a great interview with my former CEO/CTO, the brilliant Michael T. Jones, in the Atlantic magazine. Link goes to the extended version.

[BTW, The Atlantic seems to be on a tear about Google lately (in a good way), with John Hanke and Niantic last month and lots on Glass recently as well. With that and Google getting out of federal antitrust hot water, it seems they're definitely doing something right on the PR front.]

Quoting Michael on the subject of personal maps:

The major change in mapping in the past decade, as opposed to in the previous 6,000 to 10,000 years, is that mapping has become personal.

It’s not the map itself that has changed. You would recognize a 1940 map and the latest, modern Google map as having almost the same look. But the old map was a fixed piece of paper, the same for everybody who looked at it. The new map is different for everyone who uses it. You can drag it where you want to go, you can zoom in as you wish, you can switch modes–traffic, satellite—you can fly across your town, even ask questions about restaurants and directions. So a map has gone from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, inter-active conversation about your use of the Earth.

I think that’s officially the Big Change, and it’s already happened, rather than being ahead.

It’s a great article and interview, but I’m not so sure about the “already happened” bit. I think there’s still a lot more to do. From what I see and can imagine, maps are not that personal yet. Maps are still mostly objective today. Making maps more personal ultimately means making them more subjective, which is quite challenging but not beyond what Google could do.

He’s of course 100% correct that things like layers, dynamic point of view (e.g., 2D pan, 3D zoom) and the like have made maps much more customized and personally useful than a typical 1940s paper map, such that a person can make them more personal on demand. But we also have examples from the 1940s and even the 1640s that are way more personal than today.

For example, consider the classic pirate treasure map at right, or an architectural blueprint of a home, or an X-ray that a surgeon marks up to plan an incision  (not to mention the lines drawn ON the patient — can’t get much more personal than that).

Michael is right that maps will become even more personal, but only after one or two likely things happen next IMO: companies like Google know enough about you to truly personalize your world for you automatically, AND/OR someone solves personalization with you, collaboratively, such that you have better control of your personal data and your world.

This last bit goes to the question of the “conversation,” which I’ll get to by the end.

First up, we should always honor the value that Google’s investments in “Ground Truth” have  brought us, where other companies have knowingly devolved or otherwise strangled their own mapping projects, despite the efforts of a few brave souls (e.g., to make maps cheaper to source and/or more personal to deliver). But “Ground Truth” is, by its very nature, objective. It’s one truth for everyone, at least thus far.

We might call the more personalized form of truth “Personal Truth” — hopefully not to confuse it with religion or metaphysics about things we can’t readily resolve. It concerns “beliefs” much of the time, but beliefs about the world vs. politics or philosophy. It’s no less grounded in reality than ground truth. It’s just a ton more subjective, using more personal filters to view narrow and more personally-relevant slices of the same [ultimately objective] ground truth. In other words, someone else’s “personal truth” might not be wrong to you, but wrong for you.

Right now, let’s consider what a more personal map might mean in practice.

A theme park map may be one of the best modern (if not cutting edge) examples of a personal map in at least one important sense — not that it’s unique per visitor (yet) — but that it conveys extra personally useful information to one or more people, but certainly not to everyone.

It works like this. You’re at the theme park. You want to know what’s fun and where to go. Well, here’s a simplified depiction of what’s fun and where to go, leaving out the crowds, the lines, the hidden grunge and the entire real world outside the park.  It answers your biggest contextual questions without reflecting “ground truth” in any strict sense of the term.

Case in point: the “Indiana Jones” ride above is actually contained in a big square building outside the central ring of the park you see here. But yet you only see the entrance/exit temple. The distance you travel to get to and from the ride is just part of the normal (albeit long) line. So Disney safely elides that seemingly irrelevant fact.

Who wants to bet that ground truth scale of the Knotts Berry map is anywhere near reality?

Now imagine that the map can be dynamically customized to reveal only what you’d like or want to see right now. You have toddlers in tow? Let’s shrink most of the rollercoasters and instead blow up the kiddie land in more detail. You’re hungry? Let’s enhance the images of food pavilions with yummy food photos. For those into optimizing their experience, let’s also show the crowds and queues visually, perhaps in real-time.

A Personal Map of The World is one that similarly shows “your world” — the places and people you care most about or are otherwise relevant to you individually, or at least people like you, collectively.

Why do you need to see the art museum on your map if you don’t like seeing art? Why do you need to see the mall if you’re not going shopping or hanging out?

The answer, I figure, is that Google doesn’t really know what you do or don’t care about today or tomorrow, at least not yet. You might actually want to view fine art or go shopping, or plan an outing with someone else who does. That’s often called “a date.” No one wants to “bubble” you, I hope. So you currently get the most conservative and broadest view possible.

How would Google find out what you plan to do with a friend or spouse unless you searched for it? Well, you could manually turn on a layer: like “art” or “shopping” or “fun stuff.” But a layer is far more like a query than a conversation IMO — “show me all of the places that sell milk or cheese” becomes the published “dairy layer” that’s both quite objective and not much more personal than whether someone picks Google or Bing as their search engine.

Just having more choices about how to get information isn’t what makes something personal. It makes it more customized perhaps… For truly personal experiences, you might think back to the treasure map at the top. It’s about the treasure. The map exists to find it.

Most likely, you want to see places on the map that Google could probably already guess you care about: your home, your friends’ homes, your favorite places to go. You’d probably want to see your work and the best commute options with traffic at the appropriate times, plus what’s interesting near those routes, like places that sell milk or flowers on the way home.

Are those more personal than an art layer or even a dairy layer? Perhaps.

Putting that question aside for a moment, an important and well known information design technique focuses on improving “signal to noise” by not just adding information but more importantly removing things of lesser import. You can’t ever show everything on a map, so best to show what matters and make it clear, right?

City labels, for example, usually deter adjacent labels of less importance (e.g., neighborhoods) to better stand out. You can actually see a ring of “negative space” around an important label if it’s done properly.

In the theme park map example, we imagined some places enlarged and stylized to better convey their meaning to you, like with the toddler-friendly version we looked at. That’s another way to enhance signal over noise — make it more personally relevant. Perhaps, in the general case, your house is not just a literal photo of the structure from above, but rather represented by a collage of your family, some great dinners you remember, your comfy bed or big TV, or all of the above — whatever means the most to you.

That’s also more personal, is it not?

Another key set of tools in this quest concerns putting you in charge of your data, so you can edit that map to suit and even pick from among many different contexts.

Google already has a way to edit in their “my maps” feature. But even with the vast amount of information they collect about us, it’s largely a manual or right-click-to-add kind of effort. Why couldn’t they draw an automatic “my maps” based on what they know about us already? Why isn’t that our individual “base layer” whenever we’re signed in, collecting up our searches in a editable visual history of what we seem to care about most?

Consider also, why don’t they show subjective distances instead of objective ones, esp. on your mobile devices? This is another dimension of “one size fits all” vs. the truly personal experience to which we aspire.

A “subjective distance” map also mirrors the theme park examples above. If you’re driving on a highway, places of interest (say gas stations) six miles down the road but near an off-ramp are really much “closer” than something that’s perhaps only 15 feet off the highway, but 20 feet below, behind a sound wall and a maze of local streets and speed bumps.

How do you depict that visually? Well, for one, you need to start playing more loosely with real world coordinates and scale, as those cartoon maps above already do quite well. Google doesn’t seem to play with scale yet (not counting the coolness of continuous zoom — the third dimension). I’m not saying it’s easy, given how tiled map rendering works today. But it’s certainly possible and likely desirable, especially with “vector” and semantic techniques.

For a practical and well known example, consider subway maps. They show time-distance and conceptual-distance while typically discarding Cartesian relationships (which is the usual mode for most maps we use today).

I have no idea where these places (below) are in the real world, and yet I could use this to estimate travel time and get somewhere interesting. And in this case, I don’t even need a translator.

Consider next the role of context. Walking is a very different context than driving to compute and depict more personalized distance relationships. If I’m walking, I want to see where can I easily walk and what else is on the way. I almost certainly don’t want to walk two hours past lunch to reach a better restaurant. I’m hungry now. And I took the train to work today, don’t you remember?

Google must certainly know most of that by Now (and by “Now” I mean “Google Now”). So why restrict its presence to impersonal pop up cards?

Similarly, restaurants nearby are not filtered by Cartesian distance, but rather by what’s in this neighborhood, in my interest graph, and near something else I might also want to walk to (e.g., dinner, movie, coffee == date) based on the kinds of places we (my wife and I) might like.

Context is everything in the realm of personal maps. And it seems context must be solicited in some form. It’s extremely hard to capture automatically partly because we often have more than one active context at a time — I’m a husband, a father, a programmer, a designer, a consumer, a commuter, and a friend all at the same time. So what do I want right now?

Think about how many times have you bought a one-time gift on Amazon only to see similar items come up in future recommendations. That’s due to an unfortunate lack of context about why I bought that and what I want right now. On the other hand, when I finish reading a book on my Kindle, Amazon wisely assumes I’m in the mood to buy another one and makes solid recommendations. That’s also using personal context, by design.

The trick, it turns out, is figuring out how to solicit this information in a way that is not creepy, leaky, or invasive. That same “fun factor” Michael talks about that made Google Earth so compelling is very useful for addressing this problem too.

Given what we’ve seen, I think Google is probably destined to go the route of its “Now” product to address this question. Rather than have a direct conversation with users to learn their real-time context and intent and thus truly personalize maps, search, ads, etc.. , Google will use every signal and machine learning trick they can to more passively sift that information from the cumulative data streams around you — your mails, your searches, your location, and so on.

I don’t mean to be crude, but it’s kind of like learning what I like to eat from living in my sewer pipes. Why not just ask me, inspector?

I mean, learning where my house is from watching my phone’s GPS is a nice machine learning trick, but I’m also right there in the phone book. Or again, just ask me if you think you can provide me with better service by using that information. If you promise not to sell it or share it and also delete it when I want you to, I’m more than happy to share, esp if it improves my view of the world.

So why not just figure out how to better ask and get answers from people, like other people do?

If the goal is to make us smarter, then why not start with what WE, the users, already know, individually and collectively?

And more importantly, is it even possible to make more personal maps without making the whole system more personal, more human?

The answer to what Google can and will do probably comes down to a mix of their company culture, science, and the very idea of ground truth. Data is more factual than opinions, by definition. Algorithms are more precise than dialog. It’s hard to gauge, test, and improve based on anyone’s opinions or anything subjective like what someone “means” or “wants” vs. what they “did” based on the glimpses one can collect. Google would need a way of “indexing” people, perhaps in real-time, which is not likely to happen for some time. Or will it?

When it comes to “Personal Truth,” vs. “Ground Truth” perception and context of users are what matter most. And the best way to learn and represent the information is without a doubt to engage people more directly, more humanely, with personalized information on the way in and on the way out.

This, I think, it what Michael is driving at when he uses the word “conversation.” But with complete respect to Michael, the Geo team, and Google as a whole, I think it’s still quite early days — but I’m also looking forward to what comes next.

via Google’s Michael Jones on How Maps Became Personal – James Fallows – The Atlantic.

  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)