Sunday, April 10, 2011

Map Your World!

Photo by Google
My son Prateek just returned from Google Asia-Pacific Geo Community Summit held in Singapore. He has been a regular contributor to Google Map Maker. Google acknowledges the support of its most active contributors by inviting them to such conferences. Two years ago, Prateek had been to one in Bangalore. Both Bangalore and Singapore summits have been pleasant experiences for him. He has written a piece about the Singapore conference. I am happy to share it here.

Let me start with what Map Maker ( ) is. Basically, it is like an editable version of Google Maps. Everyone is editing a single, global, public map, and not their own private maps. Data from Map Maker is copied over into Google Maps, so a lot of the data you see in Google Maps is actually contributed by individuals, and not obtained from a commercial mapping source. Map Maker has been particularly useful in mapping countries where good commercial data did not exist. Map Maker is useful in mapping disaster-hit areas too. This is of great help during rescue operations.

It was a joint conference for Map Maker, Panoramio (a site where people upload geolocated photos, which are then displayed in Google Maps, and which complement the street view), and 3D modellers (people who model 3D buildings, again shown in street view). I was there for Map Maker and so were most of the other participants. Though we communicate with each other over forums and bug trackers, meeting in person was very different and much more satisfying. We were a nice mix of people of different ages, pursuing different professions and belonging to diverse countries such as India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Indonesia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Some of the organisers had come all the way from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

The venue of the event was Resorts World on Sentosa Island, a touristy place in the south of Singapore. Sentosa Island seems to have some sort of special status, for example there are entry fees to enter Sentosa by any mode of transport (walking, monorail, bus, taxi, personal car, and cable car), and transport inside Sentosa is free.

The conference began on 30th March afternoon/evening, with a river cruise through the central business district. The riverfront was very well-maintained. Here one could actually see the river, walk along it, etc - as opposed to the many years of living in Delhi where the Yamuna seems to exist only "in the abstract", an entity that one sees on maps and occasionally crosses on bridges without actually seeing any water. The India-Pakistan match began when we were on the cruise, and we could hear a lot of cheering from the nearby cafes/restaurants. It was interesting to see that Indians and Pakistanis were asking each other about the score. Once when the cheering got very loud, I called home and came to know that Sehwag had hit five fours in an over. The cruise was followed by an early dinner at a semi-open-air restaurant close to the riverfront. The organisers asked if they could get the match on the TVs there, but that was not possible.

An important purpose (the primary purpose?) of the conference was to get the Google people and the users to meet and interact with each other, and this did happen on the first day, although there was no "formal" conference activity with projectors and screens and microphones etc.

Other than the Google employees working on Map Maker etc, there were many other younger "volunteers" representing Google who accompanied us on the bus/boat rides, ensured that everyone is informed of the plan, supplied water bottles and umbrellas and stuff, and were generally looking after everyone. This  was one big difference between being at a conference like this and being just a tourist.

On 31st there was a talk by Google's "Geo Evangelist", followed by a discussion with Map Maker engineers. These discussions with the developers about the features, bugs, etc were the most interesting part of the conference for me. There were also many other topics of discussion, like building the Map Maker community, organising mapping parties, mapping from mobile devices, using GPS devices, using Map Maker for mapping disaster-affected areas, and other more technical topics.

In the evening we visited Google's office in Singapore. It is mainly a sales/marketing office. So we just looked around and took some photos. After an early dinner by the poolside, I went to roam around on Sentosa Island. It had gotten dark, and I was surprised to find that the beaches were deserted. I was expecting to see at least some people there given that Sentosa is popular with tourists. I rode a Segway ( ). It was quite interesting!

Photos by Prateek
On 1st morning we had another discussion with the Map Maker engineers, and several  unstructured "unconference" sessions, where people discussed in smaller groups.The Googlers were very interested in interacting with the users and listening to their feedback.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Cup Runneth Over With Joy

We will continue to exult in the afterglow of the World Cup victory. The gleaming cup will provide us with happiness for years to come. It is amazing how a simple game that requires minimum gear and is played in practically every street in India, can unite the nation in a way that no other glue can.

On Saturday, when India and Sri Lanka were making history on the cricket ground in Mumbai, every Indian heart was beating for Dhoni and his boys. It did not matter whether you lived in India or left the Indian shores generations ago to make a new life elsewhere. If you called yourself Indian, you longed to see the Cup in the Indian skipper's hands. Whether you were Mukesh Ambani sitting in the VIP enclosure at the Wankhede stadium, or a daily wage earner eking out a living in some remote village, you yearned to see India win that evening. From toddlers barely out of their prams to grandparents confined to their wheelchairs, everybody dreamt of the Cup.

On that fateful night in Mumbai, when the captain hit the winning stroke, the thud was echoed in billions of hearts across the globe. What followed was sheer madness. People ran out on the streets in celebration. There was complete chaos. It was an emotional moment for a land that had been waiting for this conquest for a long time. And when it did happen, people had tears of joy in their eyes and lumps in their throats.

What is it that makes cricket so popular as to transcend all barriers of class, caste, gender, age and language ? Its reach is widespread and its connect with the masses phenomenal. But that does not make it any less classy either. And therein lies the magic of cricket, a game that is the darling of not just India, but the entire subcontinent.

When your TV screen fills with images of a handful of strapping men who are epitomes of strength, stamina and fitness, you feel elated. Middle-aged men with paunches, balding and toothless seniors, obese males who are forced to stay indoors because of the nature of their work, students who are too tied up with their studies to go out and get a breath of fresh air, ageing women with bad backs and painful knees, homemakers who are wedded to their chores...almost all of us get a certain pleasure watching these men run, jump, stretch and fall on the ground playing the great game of cricket.

Perhaps we enjoy seeing them do things that we could not do because of other compulsions. After all how many of us get a chance to lead such an outdoorsy life? Maybe we fulfil our wishes through them, just like parents do through their children. We take pride in their achievements because they are real heroes. We are aware of the hurdles they had to cross and the stiff competition they had to face before reaching where they are today. We know that each one of them has put in years of hard work while pursuing the game. We love them, we admire them, we dote on them because they are powerful icons of hope. They bring a lot of cheer to the people of a country that is generally starved of good news.

And who would not be happy to see their side steadily climbing the ladder of success, vanquishing legendary teams that were considered great at one time? That is precisely what happened and as India took on Sri Lanka in the finals, a nation waited with bated breath. If we jumped with joy when they inched towards victory, we fell silent when the other side seemed to dominate the game. No other entity is capable of having a hold over the collective mood of the nation as cricket is.

That is why we need cricket. It is a symbol of our oneness.