The history and technology behind Google Maps

Every now and then a new technology emerges that can make a person wonder how they ever got by without it. Digital mapping and specifically Google Maps fits snugly within that category.

If you’re old enough to remember what it was like to rely on physical (i.e., paper-based) maps and street directories to navigate your way from one place to another, you’d remember how clumsy, cumbersome, and frustrating it all was. All too often you needed to pull your vehicle to the side of the road to read the map and work out the best way to get to where you wanted to go. And then take off again hoping against hope that you got it right. But, again all too often, there would be a snag. That right hand turn you were planning to take can’t be done because when you reached the turn you encountered a ‘No Right Turn’ sign. What to do now? Or you run into trouble because the map you’re using is simply out of date.

stopping on the side of the road with old road maps before Google maps

Mercifully digital technology finally came to the rescue in the form of smartphones equipped with Google Maps. And what a godsend it has turned out to be. Key in your destination point, press Start and let the soothing, yet authoritative voice guide you on the best way to reach your destination. A particular plus – one that wasn’t available when Maps was first rolled out – is that real-time traffic conditions are factored in, helping to ensure that best possible route is the one being suggested by the app at any given time. What could be easier, or more practical?

Google Maps is unquestionably a technological prodigy, representing the most popular web mapping technology in the world today. But have you ever wondered how it came into existence, and what it is that makes it work as well as it does? Let’s start by taking a little trip down memory lane.

A Brief History

The technology underpinning Google Maps was developed by a company based in Jiwa’s Head Office of Sydney Australia.  Where 2 Technologies was, in 2003 and 2004, investing all its time and financial resources in the creation of a C++ desktop mapping program that could be downloaded and installed just like every other software application at the time.

But rather than settle for an installable software product, Where 2 Technologies wanted its application to operate in a web browser. So that’s what they worked towards. Throughout 2004 Where 2 was in negotiations with Google for the sale of the company and its new technology. In August of that year a deal was done, Where 2 Technologies became Google’s second ever company acquisition.  At around the same time, Google also acquired the geospatial data visualisation company Keyhole.  As a result of these acquisitions, along with Google’s own mapping technology development efforts, Google Maps was born.  It was released to the market in 2005.

In that same year, Google Earth was released, providing three-dimensional views of planet Earth. And in 2006, Google launched Google Street View, a highly useful function, embedded in Google Maps, that allows users to view and navigate panoramic street level images from various parts of the world, including Australia. Lots of people use Street View to check out city landmarks, places they may want to visit, hotels they might want to stay at and available parking at those locations.

Google Maps image 2005
Google maps in 2005 (click image to learn more)

How does Google Maps actually do its thing?

Data collection is at the core of Google Maps. Google gathers and processes huge amounts of data which it presents to the public in a form that is readily accessible and easy to interpret. But the company doesn’t just rely on its own resources to achieve that. Under its Base Map Partner Program Google collaborates with government agencies, local councils, and various non-government entities for the supply of data that can be usefully incorporated into the maps. Essentially, any organisation that has verifiably high-quality geospatial data and the rights to share that data can contribute to Google Maps.

But it’s not only information about places and how to get to them that Google Maps comes into its own. Maps also can provide the right information during swiftly changing conditions in real-time. In extreme cases this information could serve as a lifesaver.

For example, Google works with Australian state and territory fire agencies to provide crisis response alerts on Google Maps to help the community stay safe and prepared during the bushfire season. Official information on active bushfires is layered onto the maps, thereby enabling residents in bushfire-affected areas to receive up-to-date details about multiple active fires at once. The information delivered via Google Maps includes the location and severity of a fire, reported road closures and recommended actions.

As can be seen, Google Maps is genuinely a government, private sector, and community-driven application. In fact, more than 150 million people worldwide are contributing information to Google Maps, making it the essential digital navigation tool that it is. Today more than a billion people log in to Google Maps every month.

What is the technology behind Google Maps?

There are a range of technologies constantly at play to make Google Maps work the way it does. Maps is heavily reliant on GPS data, input from users, real-time traffic data and, critically, satellite and aerial imagery to produce detailed maps of the world. It is a complex network of technologies working together to create what we see and hear when we open Google Maps. The Maps app also integrates with Google Street View and Google Earth to further enhance the user experience.

Perhaps the most easily observable data collection method used by Google is its extensive fleet of street view vehicles. You’ve probably seen them already – Google cars equipped with roof-top camera equipment patrolling the streets capturing detailed 360 degree images everywhere they go. Demonstrating the company’s commitment to reaching all corners of the world with this technology, Google also relies on snowmobiles, wearable backpacks, three-wheelers, motorboats and even camels to acquire the data it needs.

At the back end of Google Maps a variety of algorithms are used to deliver information about locations and the best way to get to them. Through the image recognition algorithms Maps obtains information from street view images to create detailed maps that include buildings, roads and landmarks.

Google Maps’ machine learning algorithms analyse and interpret data from a wide range of sources such as street view images, satellite imagery and user data. These algorithms are adept at recognising changes in the data, enabling Maps to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding directions and locations.

Crowd-sourced traffic conditions are captured by the Google apps running on other user’s devices. As you follow your route, the app shows traffic conditions ahead of you – which was obtained from other Google maps users – both past and present.

The mapped route will show in orange or red colours slower traffic, and should the conditions deteriorate such that an alternate route would now become quicker, the Google maps app will suggest the alternate route.

Even if there are no other Google maps app users presently feeding in data relating to your route, Google has enough historical data from previous journeys – all crowd sourced – to make a reasonable assumption about what the typical conditions will be.

The devices travel speed is all that is needed to determine slowing traffic – and pedestrian traffic is eliminated by examining the accelerometer of the device to determine if the device is being carried by a pedestrian or in a vehicle.

On top of all that, Maps uses geospatial data mining and geographic information systems (GIS) techniques to examine and interpret data relating to the earth’s surface and features.

Whether you’re planning on driving, walking, biking, or using public transport, the combined use of Google’s algorithms enables Maps to determine the optimal route based on such factors as mode of transportation, distance time and traffic.

What's new in Google Maps?

Not one, as the saying goes, to ‘rest on its laurels’, Google is constantly working on new features to enhance the Maps experience.

In October 2023 Google announced an important update to Google Maps’ Immersive View function, which relies on AI and historical driving trends to provide its data. This update adds what Google describes as a ‘multidimensional experience’ to Maps that enables you to see everything that’s on your planned journey including the weather, traffic conditions you can expect along the way and parking availability at your destination.

Future of Google maps world graphic

If you’re an electric vehicle owner, you’re likely to welcome Google’s new charging station function. This capability enables you to identify the location of charging stations and whether a charger is compatible with your vehicle.

Glanceable directions is another recent feature of Google Maps. What it does is provide a simplified version of your normal navigation mode in a glanceable format directly from the route overview or lock screen. This information was previously only available by unlocking your phone, opening the app and using comprehensive navigation mode.

Wrapping up…

Without doubt Google Maps has become an indispensable tool for millions of people around the world. When it comes to travel planning and execution, there is pre-Google Maps and post-Google Maps. And those worlds cannot be more different. Only rarely has a technology been released that can change and simplify the way people go about their day-to-day lives and Google Maps is certainly one of them.

By leveraging such technologies as satellite imagery, street view cameras, machine learning, GIS and other data collection and processing techniques, Google Maps delivers practical capabilities that would have seemed like science fiction less than half a generation ago. And the icing on the cake is that it’s here to stay and is getting better all the time.

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