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Mapmaking: For the people, by the people

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MARKS MAN: Tejinder Soodan, who discovered Map Maker in 2009, likes to see every address, business and point of interest accurately mapped and continuously updated

Google revolutionises cartography in India by allowing virtually anyone to put their neighbourhood on the map.

Aeroshil Nameirakpam, a 29-year-old IT consultant, spends a lot of time wandering around his home town of Imphal. That is when he is not touring the US. But his walking isn't aimless. His walks have a clear purpose. He wants to know more about his city, discover new routes that only locals know about, and ferret out special food joints that only the residents of a city would know about.

When he comes home after his walks, Nameirakpam logs on to the web and feeds the information he has gathered into Map Maker, a Google tool that allows him to share his city with people who never been to Imphal.
Nameirakpam is a map maker, a foot soldier who doesn't work with Google and yet ends up contributing priceless information to its maps. There are thousands like him in India. Around 21, 000 according to the Indian-Mappers virtual community at Google Groups, all driven by passion to put their localities, their streets, their hangout zones on to the web so that rest of the world can discover their world.

"With help of other volunteers I have mapped many remote settlements and small communities in various hill districts of the northeast India which were never visible online until now. The information about these places was hard to get and was not available even in government records, " says Nameirakpam.
Map Maker, a tool developed by Google and used by these amateur cartographers, is one of the reasons why Google Maps are so rich with data, a feat that competitors like Apple, Nokia and Tom Tom have found hard to emulate so far. In a country like India, where proper land records are hard to come by, and where locations and routes tend to be disorganised, Map Maker has turned out to be a valuable tool.

According to Google, Kerala is a rather well-mapped state. But the company itself has had little to do with it. Instead, the reason why even small routes in Kerala are visible on the web is a map-making effort spearheaded by CNR Nair. A volunteer, Nair not only mapped tens of different routes around his own locality but also held workshops and motivated others to pitch in. Nair, who passed away on September 24 this year, was recognised as the finest mapper in India by his peers at Indian-Mappers.

The idea for crowd-sourcing such maps was born within Google in 2004, when Lalitesh Katragadda, a Stanford alumnus, joined Google's India office. The first thing that struck him after coming here was the sorry state of map services. "Compared to the US, here everything was disorganised. Digital maps virtually had no information, " he says. But building and organising maps is an expensive exercise. Katragadda realised early that crowd-sourcing could be a solution to this issue. "On a street where 10, 000 people live, I believed if we give the right tool someone will definitely map his area. The idea of Map Maker took shape in 2004. Once the founders (Larry Page and Sergei Brin) were on board, we started working on it. In 2006 we launched it internally, " he says.

According to Katragadda, Googlers started using Map Maker and started populating it with data in 2006. "In 2007, we invited our friends and families and asked them to chip in with map data whenever they could. In 2008, we publicly launched it. " As part of the tool, Google provided high-resolution satellite imagery and aerial photos of the area. But these were just pictures, and devoid of details and the names of locations that convert such photos into proper maps.

Soon, people were using Map Maker to place their neighbourhood on the World Wide Web. When Anjan Nandi came to know about the tool, the first thing he mapped was the street his house was located on. "I wanted to see my home on the map. That's the reason I started contributing to Google Maps. But soon I was addicted. I started mapping my nearby roads, buildings and other addresses, " says the Siliguri-based businessman.

But as with any other crowd-sourcing exercise, Map Maker is not immune to vandals. Anyone can make changes. But Google figured out way to minimise the vandalism. "First of all, I want to stress that vandalism is not exactly a problem for us. Despite the largely open nature of the tool, most of the edits are honest. There is very little vandalism, " says Katragadda.

But of course, even a little vandalism could prove dangerous. Maps are supposed to be precise and correct, or they're rendered useless. To deal with incorrect editing Google made use of its expertise in data-mining. It taught the computers handling the edits and changes to identify vandals. Using complex algorithms, Google's machines build trust with a person using Map Maker. If a user is new, his changes are not likely to be reflected immediately. A Map Maker-veteran or a Google employee clears the changes before they are published. But once a user has made several successful changes, Google's machines start to recognise him as trustworthy. Changes are then accepted in real time. Google also randomly checks the data.

At Google, if you ask some someone what is their ultimate goal, they are likely to point you to the motto that drives the company: "Organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. " With Map Maker, Google has managed to connect with thousands of individuals who share its passion of organising information. Tejinder Soodan, 41-year-old mapper from Ludhiana who discovered Map Maker in 2009, sums it up best: "My aim is simple. I use Map Maker because I like to see maps where each and every address, business and point of interest in the world is accurately mapped, and continuously updated. " Even Google employees would be impressed with the strength of such conviction.

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