Google — Driving Innovation through Geographic Developments

By Steve Liang, Assistant Professor, Department of Geomatics Engineering, University of Calgary

edparsonsEd Parsons (pictured at right), Google’s Geospatial Technologist, visited Calgary this week. In my opinion, Ed has one of the coolest job in the world: being the public face of Google’s geospatial technologies, and responsible for evangelizing Google’s mission to organize the world’s information geographically. He gets to travel around the world presenting the latest geospatial technologies from Google, while exploring new innovations from other organizations and countries. I have known Ed for a few years, and we meet regularly in various international geographic information systems-related meetings and conferences. I was very excited to hear that was coming to Calgary — not only because this is where I am from, but because I wanted him to see the many innovative geospatial technologies we are developing in Alberta (including in my lab and through the GeoCENS project!).

On Tuesday, November 15, Ed attended my Design and Implementation of Geospatial Information Systems class at the University of Calgary as a guest lecturer. His talk was informal, which gave students plenty of time to interact with him. They were curious to hear how often Google updates its street view data, how it handles privacy issues, and about the relationship between black helicopters and Google Earth. One student asked Ed if he needs an MSc degree to get a job at Google, and was told that everyone — including the receptionists — are expected to have a postgraduate degree. Apparently, Google requires every employee to be an independent thinker, to be self-managed and motivated, and to be able to identify and find solutions to any problem. The training experienced through a master’s degree helps to develop these skills.

Ed also described Google’s chaotic management style — bosses give few instructions to their employees, and challenge them to determine their own responsibilities and tasks to follow. The company is willing to tolerate such ambiguity and chaos because that’s how innovative ideas are developed. Ed said that on his first day at Google, he was given a box that had one Macbook and one piece of paper listing the necessary information for him to set up his IT account. That was it. It was his responsibility to figure out his daily responsibilities. This was a fascinating insight into a company that I am sure many of my students would love to work for.

From a geospatial perspective, Ed was able to give the class an industry perspective on how the geospatial technologies they are learning are being applied to Google products, which are used by millions of people all over the world. For example, I had discussed network traversal algorithms in an earlier lecture, and Ed described how Google engineers were able to speed up such algorithms in an innovative way. Hopefully this will provide extra incentive for my students to study harder for exams!

On Wednesday, November 16, an official “Lunch with Google” — sponsored by TECTERRA — was held at the University of Calgary, and over 200 people attended. The title of Ed’s talk was “A Map of Your World — Geomatics everywhere, used by everybody”. He started with Google’s mission statement: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Ed noted that “one in three Google mobile searches is looking for places”, which just shows the importance of geospatial information for Google. In fact, the company’s geospatial technologies department has its own mission statement: “to geographically organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

There are many interesting examples of how Google’s geospatial technologies are being used in unexpected places. One is a treadmill that incorporates Google Maps. Users can draw any route on a screen attached to the treadmill, and the machine can recreate the experience of running that route by controlling the incline and resistance. Google is also attempting to hide the complexity of geospatial technologies (such as geospatial reference systems, map projections, etc.) to make it easier for individuals to develop their own innovative geospatial applications.

One of the key enablers of this development is Cloud technology. Because of the Cloud, everyone can use the same infrastructure used by Google engineers to develop applications. This infrastructure includes server processing power, as well as Google’s high-resolution satellite imagery, road maps, and street view data. Future geospatial innovations will likely involve an integration of Cloud and mobile technologies.

Ed managed to keep the 200 attendees engaged for a full 90 minutes with his Google discussion, which was equally informative, inspiring and humorous. The video of the talk will soon be available online, and you should be able to access it via TECTERRA’s website. If you would like to learn more about Ed, you can also visit his blog.

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