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.

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