The engineering elves building Google's Santa Tracker

Even Santa needs the help of web developers these days.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---Google launched the start of its annual summertime I/O developer summit by championing Android's active user base of one billion and counting.

It appears Santa Claus might be one of them.

One of the internet giant's more charming projects, the Santa Tracker has become somewhat of a digital yuletide tradition over the last decade.

The origin of the Santa Tracker dates back to 2004 when Google acquired a small company called Keyhole, which has since become what is now known as Google Earth.

Around that same point in time, an engineer commenced on a small project based on Keyhole, mapping Santa’s “route” around the world.

The project resonated so strongly it attracted approximately 25,000 unique visitors at the start, which Kotwal said blew them away.

By 2013, the Santa Tracker user experience grew into a full-fledged online, snow-kissed winter village with interactive HTML5 games, keystroke animations, a soundtrack, and of course, an elaborate Google Map that can even be integrated with Chromecast for viewing on larger screens.

Displayed in 32 languages, the United States accounted for the largest audience with roughly 32 percent of visitors in 2013.

Sprinkled with Google products for both desktop and mobile, Google product managers explained on Thursday how the Santa Tracker has been rebuilt from the ground up to showcase it as a prime example of what can be done with the Google developer platform.

"The key takeaway here is that Santa was built on Google’s developer platform using technology you can use today and solutions you can use yourself,” posited Ankur Kotwal, an advocate on the Android Developer Relations team.

"The key takeaway here is that Santa was built on Google’s developer platform using technology you can use today and solutions you can use yourself,” posited Kotwal.

To keep the site responsive throughout the holiday season, the Santa Tracker employes a module system. Google Analytics also play a part, notably to track error messages and responses. Followers can also receive notifications and post messages about nearby Santa activity to Google Plus.

Underneath it all is the Santa Tracker API, which provides two pieces of functionality: syncing computers and users across time zones as well as a feed of Santa’s “next destinations.”

The API itself is an internal product, but Chris Broadfoot from the Google Maps Developer Relations team based in Sydney revealed that external developers are welcome to try it out and play with it by contacting his department directly.

Each destination includes metadata about where Santa was last and the population of that location — an important statistic considering how many gifts might need to be dropped from the sleigh.

Reflecting Santa’s on-the-go lifestyle once per year, the mobile version has taken priority, tapping into the Google Maps for Android API.

As is the case with many desktop successes that made the jump to mobile, there have been some roadblocks while building a highly responsive app that could be accessed by the vast Android ecosystem, which has routinely taken flack for being too fragmented.

Coincidentally, Kotwal glossed over one hurdle in which Android devices still running Gingerbread would have been excluded.

Eventually, engineers settled on building a native app rather than going with an HTML5 version. Kotwal clarified it came down to performance into order to build a rich experience, not to mention the opportunity to utilize other technologies built into mobile devices.

The accelerometer is particularly useful for the Santa Tracker, such as a tilt game in which an elf flies around to grab presents.

"We could really only get that level of responsiveness through a native app,” admitted Kotwal.

But come crunch time, meaning Christmas Eve, Kotwal quipped, "Santa takes off regardless whether we’re ready.”

"There’s no way we can revise it from that point forward,” he continued, describing the simulations engineers perform, experimenting on a grab bag of different Android devices how Santa might fly across the world while the site manages global traffic.

Broadfoot noted the volume of traffic isn’t actually much higher on Christmas because Google overall usually sees a dip around Christmas. He outlined how “spiky traffic” is managed, admitting there is a bit of a time delay for some users (usually no more than two minutes) when visitors inundate the site.

Engineers can play a part in plotting Santa’s course to some extent by moving him higher or lower throughout the map, but as hinted by the simulations, there is a little magic in store for everyone.

With a sly smile, Kotwal remarked, "We have to assume where Santa’s going to land."

Image via CNET

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