Google Map Maker boosts disaster relief efforts

Internet giant's online crowd-sourcing mapping tool, which lets users fill in uncharted areas, becomes unexpected facilitator of disaster response efforts by humanitarian groups.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Initially built to allow online users to fill in parts of the world with near-zero mapping details, Google Map Maker has found a humanitarian purpose where updates to maps of disaster-hit areas across the globe are aiding emergency relief efforts.

Launched in June 2008 and described as Google's "citizen cartography" Web tool, Map Maker was developed as the solution to mapping parts of the world where there are no available commercial maps. The tool relies on user contributions from local communities to mark out geospatial features, explained Andrew McGlinchey, head of product management, Google Southeast Asia.

India was the first country the Web tool was originally intended for, he added, in an interview at the sidelines of the Google Geo Community Summit here Thursday. Map Maker is currently available in over 100 countries, mostly developing nations where quality maps are difficult to source.

According to McGlinchey, who is based here, user contributions to the map-building service within the Asia-Pacific region have been highest in the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Vietnam.

He noted that Google "didn't have a humanitarian purpose in mind" when it initiated development of Map Maker, but there were instances where the tool proved "extremely helpful" in facilitating disaster response efforts.

A turn for humanitarian
Ed Parsons, Google's geospatial technologist, concurred. In a separate interview with ZDNet Asia, he emphasized that it is critical to know the underlying infrastructure of a country.

Through user-contributed updates, someone would be able to access the base infrastructure of an area before it was affected by a disaster, or find out if there is still a passable road between the airport and relief centers, Parsons explained. Such information can then be accessed by relief organizations to help give them a starting point, he added.

McGlinchey used the example of the Haiti earthquake in January last year. After Google posted satellite-updated images of areas affected by the devastation, people soon updated these maps which humanitarian and non-government groups, such as the United Nations, used to facilitate relief efforts, he said.

"You can actually look at the image and people on the ground can confirm whether this road is no longer passable or that this village seems to be gone. So, Haiti is an example where you can move very quickly compared to any other way of doing it; you don't need surveyors with tripods and so on," he elaborated.

Quizzed on how Map Maker could have helped disaster relief in the recent 9-magnitude quake in Japan, McGlinchey clarified that Map Maker is not available for Japan as the Asian country already has "excellent high-quality maps".

However, he pointed out that there are other crowd-sourcing mapping tools from Google that were used, such as a "crowd-sourced radiation report". "As people report radiation detection, we can show on Google Maps [where] these areas [are] through another layer," he said.

The Internet giant also provided its Person Finder service which aims to gather data about people's location and wellbeing so users can find out if their loved ones are safe, he added.

Verification of user-generated maps difficult
McGlinchey admitted that it is "tough" to ensure mapping data contributed by users is updated accurately. "Even in Google Maps and Street View, there are sometimes errors," he said. "As soon as a map is printed, it's out of date. That's a fact of life and we just have to live with it," he added.

"We do our best to make it accurate enough, but that's the thing--if we already knew where the roads were, we wouldn't need people to tell us.

"Map Maker is built on the assumption and understanding that local experts know their neighborhoods and towns, and that people who care and are interested will go to the trouble to put things [on the map]," he noted.

Asked about the possibility that users might deliberately input incorrect data, McGlinchey replied: "Could someone be a vandal and make 'pretend' roads? I guess so, but it doesn't happen much and when they do, other users in the community and Google moderators flag it very quickly."

He emphasized that in its efforts to moderate data, Google carries out a significant amount of checks and tries to identify all possible ways and evidence to indicate whether a piece of information may be incorrect.

"[The challenge] is how do we learn to do 'citizen cartography' from having a pipeline where users can contribute, how we can moderate and merge that data with other high-quality data we already have," McGlinchey said.

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