The man who's making Google Maps smarter

Google Maps has changed the way we navigate, poked its cameras into our lives – and come close to sparking border conflict. Simon Usborne meets the geography fanatic who is the tech giant's mapping evangelist

Ed Parsons wants less privacy. His neighbour wants more. When Google brought Street View to Britain five years ago, after an uncontroversial launch in the US two years earlier, an entire country looked itself up. Some of us caught glimpses of ourselves taking out the rubbish or washing the car. It was a huge moment in mapping because, Parsons says: "This was almost a non-map, the ultimate representation of the world – that last level of zoom that allows you to stand on the street corner."

But some of us decided that we would prefer not to be captured by Google's fleet of camera cars. In response to one of a growing number of challenges to the company's tentacular supremacy, it was compelled to obscure things on request – including pretty much the whole of modern Germany. In the UK, one of thousands of requests came from the man down the road from Parsons. "He has quite a big house and you can see it for almost the whole length of the street," Parsons says. "As a result, my house isn't on Street View, which I hate."

Parsons is a mapping evangelist, a cartographer-geek whose childhood passions for geography and computing, and a grown-up belief in open data, got him the biggest job in the business. For more than seven years, he has been Google's "geospatial technologist", or chief geographer. As such, his job is to make the company's mapping smarter for the billion people who use it each month. Just as it does in the world of search, however, growth brings greater responsibility – and controversy. And in mapping, neighbourly disputes can get serious.

One for the roads: technology has helped us to navigate our way around One for the roads: technology has helped us to navigate our way around Unlike your granny's dog-eared editions of The Times Atlas of the World, Google's map changes depending where you go. Visit Google.com.ua/maps (Google Ukraine) for a striking recent example. The map centres on the country, surrounded by its squiggly black border with seven countries. Now go to Google.ru/maps (Google Russia) and zoom in on Ukraine. A new line appears, almost 100 miles long, cutting Crimea out of the country and claiming it for Moscow.

Similar variations – and occasional protests by governments – occur across the Google globe, where maps change because they can, and because, Google says, they have to. Parsons has a colleague who deals with such disputes, a (very) full-time job that requires diplomacy and a hotline to the UN. In 2010, a Costa Rican newspaper reported that a Nicaraguan military commander had sent troops to a disputed territory due to a misunderstanding caused by an erroneous Google Maps border. As tension built, Google said in a statement: "Google maps are of very high quality… [but] by no means should they be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries." The border was corrected and the troops withdrawn.

Parsons is talking inside Google's London headquarters. It overlooks a maze of streets around Tottenham Court Road, which the geographer sees not as a mess of asphalt and urban evolution, but "an opportunity". He says Google makes only practical, not political, decisions about borders. "I guess, naively perhaps, we hoped we could have one global map of the world that everyone used, but politics is complicated," he says. "In some countries we are legally obliged to represent borders in particular ways."

What if you don't, say, in India? (The country has disputed borders with China and Pakistan.)

"They could lock up our staff in India," Parsons replies, adding: "We want to represent the complexity of the world, and that sometimes leads us to these awkward situations."

Parsons' route to Google started in south-west London. A field trip to Wales inspired his fondness for geography. He later studied at the Cranfield Institute of Technology in Bedfordshire, where a talent for computing also became evident. "My first real job was with a marketing company in London, digitising the boundaries of postcode areas," he says. "I had to write the program to do it. Potentially, if you get junk mail now, I'm partially responsible for you getting targeted."

Mapping has become infinitely more advanced since then, and even voguish in an age when data visualisations can go viral online. Parsons says he sometimes grimaces at the quality of these maps, but was tickled last month by one that showed the range of The Proclaimers' walk from the band's base in Leith (500 miles, then 500 more). "Maps aren't just for the anoraks now," he says. "Thanks to mobile and social media, they're much more a part of our everyday lives."

A Street View image A Street View image But while you or I might use online maps to navigate our way to a restaurant after work, or to find the nearest post office, Parsons became aware long before Google's Street View controversy of how political geography can be. Years before, he had worked for a company that had been commissioned to help South Africa to get ready – in a hurry – for its first democratic elections in 1994.

"We were involved in creating the electoral districts," he recalls. "Imagine the complexity of the British political-party system multiplied by 10 in terms of scale and with a year to work it out." Parsons crunched data to create constituencies, while others went out to check the new boundaries. The new maps were about people more than land. "They were a manifestation of the fact democracy had arrived," Parsons explains. "Suddenly, it mattered that a posh, white area in Pretoria was represented equally to every other part of the country."

At Google, Parsons now helps to map all the world to some degree, a feat illustrated when the company launched Google Earth in 2005, the same year it revealed its digital atlas. Online maps had been glorified paper maps – static affairs that needed to be refreshed with the click of an arrow. Then, suddenly, Google put a virtual globe in our hands, with no limit to the way it could be spun. "Very few of us had had the opportunity to hang 10ft in the air and look down at an image and know what we were looking at," Parsons says. Two years later, smartphones shrank that globe and put it in our pockets.

Before he joined Google in 2007, Parsons had also worked as a university lecturer. Then he became head of technology at Ordnance Survey (OS), Britain's mapping agency. He was there the day Google Earth was launched. "I remember being at a conference with the leaders of all the world's mapping agencies and saying to them, 'Your world has changed today. Everything you do will be different because of the impact this will have.'"

He now spends much of his time out of London, meeting academics and entrepreneurs whose innovations might improve mapping. Just last week, Google bought Skybox, an imaging firm capable of capturing high-resolution photography film using small satellites. Other work is more mundane. "When you're encoding the location of phone boxes, someone has to decide where the semicolons go in the file format," Parsons says. "That's my job."

Almost 10 years after that Google-led revolution in mapping, Parsons says the company still has much to do to improve in some areas. "We're still largely focused on the West," he admits. Then there are the privacy issues that now seem to form the backdrop to all the company's activity. In Germany, where cultural expectations of privacy are strong, additional blurring requests on Street View reached such a volume that Google gave up on new photography (Berlin is now "frozen" in 2008). "It reached an extreme point where you could ask for your individual apartment to be blurred," Parsons says.

Yet, elsewhere, Parsons sees evidence of a second revolution. "We're approaching it almost as if we were starting anew," he says. "Most of our cartographic principles were tied to paper. You make a map, print it and everyone sees it the same. For 1,000 years, that's what we've done. Now, our media are so dynamic that maps can be personal, they can change. And there's so much more we can do by just using location as a little bit of context."

Parsons opens his laptop. He searches Google Maps for Southampton. We zoom in and a dotted red line shows the city limits. He types "pubs" into the search box, and dozens fill the screen. Parsons clicks on the White Star Tavern. "Do you see the map has changed very subtly?" he asks. "The roads that aren't relevant fade into the background, while the roads that you are likely to use to get to the pub are highlighted. That's what you'd do if you were drawing a map on a napkin, yet it's hugely complicated to do here."

These subtle developments are new, and barely noticeable. "Good cartography is about what you don't show, not what you do show," Parsons says. "The greatest maps are simplifications of reality." He cites the London Underground map as the perfect example, which brings us to another of Google's recent innovations. After months of accessing, sorting and pooling timetables and data from dozens of transport agencies and companies, Google last month got better at working out travel itineraries.

I test the function on my way to meet Parsons. My updated Maps app guides me through every step, even telling me which exit to use at Tottenham Court Road station, the closest to Google HQ. Except it gets it wrong, suggesting exit two (four's the one you want). "We're struggling with Tube stations at the moment," Parsons admits. "But we're working on it." How? "Sometimes we have to physically collect the data," he says. "We go and visit the stations."

In other scenarios, data comes from users, who can submit changes to, say, road layouts or business names. Citizen map-making is at its most dynamic when you ask Google for driving directions and it colour-codes areas of heavy traffic. That information comes from other Google users, whose phones literally slow down while their owners get stuck at a bottleneck. But how do you distinguish a phone in a car travelling at six miles per hour from one in the pocket of a jogger on the pavement? "That's where a lot of the rocket science goes on behind the scenes," Parsons says. "It's way beyond me – I was never very good at maths."

Much of Parsons' work involves efforts to improve GPS. He talks about geography as being Google's "DNA" as location becomes crucial to various functions, including search and shopping. But satellites can be imprecise – and useless, say, underground. A quantum leap may yet spring from Parsons' own neighbourhood. He lives with his wife and teenage children in Teddington, near the London-Surrey border. At the nearby National Physical Laboratory, friends of his are researching "quantum" GPS. By measuring the change in movement from a starting point, as sensed by particles at a subatomic level, future phones would be able to track us to the millimetre, all the time (submarines use a simpler version of this "inertial" navigation). "I want to get you from the doors opening on your Tube train, up through the station and out the right exit," he says. "We still can't do that."

If there is a sense of unease about such sophisticated tracking, Parsons shares none of it. His belief in open access – including to his house on Street View – is infectious. And if he is secretly motivated by a desire to help security agencies and advertisers to know where we are, he doesn't give away a sense of it. "Cut me in half and I'm just a geographer," he says. Even so, he sometimes faces criticism from cartographic purists. When was the last time he unfolded a paper map? "About two weeks ago! I was out walking and OS maps are great for hiking. But I also had a phone in my pocket, just in case."

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