Google Inc., the world’s largest Internet firm, is mapping India carefully, down to your neighbourhood coffee shop or temple.
Google has launched a pilot project in Hyderabad that allows individuals to post precise location details of restaurants and shopping centres online on maps owned by the search engine.
The Mountain View, California-based firm has engaged an unspecified number of locals in Hyderabad, where the company has its largest operations in India, to use a software with global positioning system, or GPS, kits to identify exact coordinates—longitude and latitude points—and highlight various places of interest such as restaurants, shops and parks on a satellite map of the city owned by Google Maps.
Individuals take photographs of the location, provide the coordinates and upload on an Internet site for the map. Such sourcing out of work to large groups of people is called “crowdsourcing”.
The result: a city map with hundreds of marker-flags. On Google Earth, the parent application for Google Maps, users just need to glide a mouse cursor over a flag and up pop details of the place. Tens of restaurants, clubs, pizzerias, playgrounds, gardens, bus stops, cinema theatres, colleges, schools, petrol stations, even small temples and chapels are identified on the maps.
Michael Jones, the chief technology officer of Google Earth, the map application division of Google, made this information (about Hyderabad) public for the first time last month at a conference of spatial imaging in the UK.
“We're constantly exploring new ways to engage users around the world in the map making process but we don't have any further details to share at this time,” said Roli Agarwal, Google’s India spokeswoman, but declined comment on the work being in Hyderabad.
Indian security agencies have been critical of the precision and detail afforded by satellite images used on Google Maps and have expressed fears that terrorists could use them to target defence and other sensitive installations. Google is in talks with the government to address Indian concerns, said Shailesh Rao, Google’s India managing director, in a late-July interview with Mint.
Survey of India, the official map agency in India, is the sole licensee for all maps in the country and anybody mapping even local area needs its permission. Major General M. Gopal Rao, the Surveyor General of India, based in Dehradun, was travelling and could not be reached for comment.
“We are driving directions in everything. (It is) completely done by local people who use our software (that) we haven’t released publicly to draw their city on top of our photo image,” Jones said in a talk on “Our Geospatial Future” on 17 July at the Cambridge Conference, organized by Britain’s national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey.
Experts say Google’s approach would drive down costs and enable better access of local maps online.
“Using people to contribute the coordinates is a good way to bring in local knowledge in maps without any costs and getting the right information from the ground” said Subba Rao Pavuluri, managing director of Ananth Techologies Ltd, a Hyderabad-based company that creates geospatial databases. This avoids local restrictions, added Pavuluri, who has worked on city maps for Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai.
Google prefers working with governments such as in India, which have mapping agencies, to build online local maps, and also renders maps for countries that lack a national mapping agency such as Togo. “You may not have a national mapping agency of any merit, but if you have some inspired amateurs you can map out your country,” Jones said in the talk, podcast on the conference website.
“There is data available in India, but (it is) the licensing policies” that make mapping tough, he said. Indian laws restrict access to digital map data.
Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT), a non-government body in Mumbai, has mumbai.freemap.in, an online map of the metropolis that has contributions from architects, town planners and engineers and presents information on public services, which includes addresses of local corporators among other civic details.
“Our motive is for public access of all data, but Google believes in only commercial information,” said Shekhar Krishnan, a member at CRIT, which has been approached by Google for local map data. CRIT, which has the largest database of digital map data on Mumbai, would not comment on talks with Google, he said.
The trust says that government agencies such as the Department of Space, which owns remote sensing satellites with capabilities of mapping areas with resolutions sharp enough to capture the number plate on a car from space, and the Survey of India should release map data in the public space.
The department’s National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad provides spatial images from Indian remote sensing satellites for urban planners and government agencies. The department’s spokesperson, S. Krishnamurthy, declined comment on the issue.