New Delhi: Where do you play volleyball in Chennai?
It’s a simple enough query, but one surprisingly hard to answer without local knowledge, a lucky hit on a search engine, or friends in the volleyball fraternity.
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It’s also called Google Mapmaker. Launched on Wednesday in India, it allows users to add, or edit features (roads, schools and businesses, among others), which then become immediately visible to all other users.
Once logged into a Google account, any user will be allowed to moderate and review data. Each new entry also allows a number of attributes to be assigned to it—a road could be good, bad, or under construction; a school could follow the CBSE, or ICSE syllabus; a park could allow cricket, football, or volleyball—information that then can be searched through Google.
“We are looking at creating a balance between accuracy and depth of data,” said Lalitesh Katragadda, creator of Google Mapmaker. “Depth without clutter is the sweet spot we’re trying to hit.”
The product is currently browser-based and will be accessible soon on mobile devices, though editing and adding places can only be done through a computer.
A similar site, called Wikimapia was launched by two Russians, Alexandre Koriakine and Evgeniy Saveliev, in May 2006 and combined Google Earth with a so-called wiki system, a framework allowing collaborated editing used most famously in the freely editable Wikipedia.
Wikimapia has since gone on to describe more than seven million worldwide locations as of February. Google’s intentions are similar, but it argues that their behind-the-scenes algorithms are much more robust, and ensure greater accuracy and moderation. The mapmaker system logs and calculates user input, automatically placing them in a gradated scale of trust.
“Everyone can be a moderator, because the machine learning statistical system works out who to trust and who not to trust, and what kind of features a person is authorized to edit, depending on your contributions to the maps,” says Katragadda. “Nothing is locked, and everything is editable, but depending on your trust level, it’ll go to moderation. So, you could mark your own house on the system, but we don’t allow the name itself to have personal annotations (a problem common with Wikimapia).”
“Vague and non-factual, personal data, such as “my house” or “my friend’s school”, would be moderated out, he adds.
Temporary events can also be mapped. The local Sunday market, the road blocked for a week, or the week-long exhibition could find (temporary) homes in Mapmaker. “We have an event indexing technology, which pushes the importance of events the closer they are to when and where you search, and then diminishes them over time,” says Katragadda.
Businesses, from local restaurants putting up their menus to shops indicating discounts, could also find new ways to build up interest and attention, he adds.
Starting out, Google’s main focus will be to get detailed map data in, but once that basic data is available, says Ram, interesting possibilities start to emerge.
“This is the first step, and then, it unleashes a whole community to go do whatever—coordinating disaster relief, mapping transit systems, researching water bodies in India—supplementary activities, which are often highly value-adding, become possible.”
The need for dynamic map data, argues Google, is critical for India. “For the software industry as a whole, I think this is a good example of a truly global product (Mapmaker has currently been launched in 58 countries, including India) where the inspiration has come from the local market,” says Ram.
“A significant amount of engineering for Mapmaker has been done in India, and we’ve leveraged all of Google’s infrastructure, including our map rendering, visualization technology, and combined these to offer our unique contribution.”