Like the territory of some 183 other countries and regions, the map of the United States is now open for anyone to embellish.
Having leveraged free labor for its PageRank algorithm and more recently for burying webspam beneath more relevant search results, Google is once again turning to the clicks of the crowd to improve its services.
On Tuesday, Google plans to open United States territory in Google Map Maker to online cartographers, hoping that interested individuals will take the time and effort to correct errors and omissions, and to add details.
Introduced in 2008 outside the U.S., Google Map Maker provides a way for users to annotate and alter Google Maps. The service relies on signed-in users to approve alterations proposed by other users. When users have proposed a significant number of edits that get approved, they earn Google's trust and can post without moderation in most cases.
An open source mapping project called OpenStreetMap offers similar editing capabilities.
Lalitesh Katragadda, technical lead for Google Map Maker, says that Google's map making project began with the insight that most of the world does not have access to high-quality maps and that even where such maps are available, important details are often missing.
Only 15% of people in the world had access to high-quality maps when Google Map Maker was launched, said Katragadda. Today, that percentage has doubled, he insisted.
"The world is a living, breathing entity," said Katragadda. "We want that to be reflected in a living, breathing map."
One way to measure that life is a new Map Maker tool called Pulse, which turns map editing into a spectator sport. Pulse provides a real-time view of who's editing what region, which could prove entertaining or perhaps helpful to crisis relief efforts.
The newly enlivened Google Maps comes with a strengthened immunity to vandalism. Google will be allowing edits made by trusted community members to go live within minutes. In the past such edits might have taken 30 minutes or more to be approved. That kind of responsiveness was not possible until now, said Katragadda.
But there are limits to what can be edited. Even the most trusted users of Google Map Maker are not going to be able to, say, move the White House into the Potomac River. And certain features, such as borders and disputed terrain, will remain off-limits.
Map making, acknowledged product manager Manik Gupta, remains a politically-charged issue in some parts of the world, most notably China.
"When there is a recognized dispute, we mark it as disputed," he said. "These things happen. It's part of user-generated content systems."
Google provides a more detailed explanation of its Map Maker editing policies on its support website.
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