Blogs & Comment

Google takes maps to the crowd

Google is finally launching Map Maker in Canada, a tool that lets users edit maps, so they can add new features or correct existing ones.


Screen shot of Google Map Maker, zoomed in on Toronto.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I embarked on a camping trip—the same one that could have been helped with the military’s super underwear—and we wasted a good deal of time tooling around in Barrie, Ontario looking for the Mountain Equipment Co-op outdoors supply store. My friend had input the store, known colloquially as MEC, into his BlackBerry, but the map app steered us wrong. We instead ended up at a Mac’s convenience store.

In an effort to fix such problems, Google is finally launching Map Maker in Canada. It’s a tool that lets users edit maps, so they can add new features or correct existing ones.

Google launched Map Maker in 2008 in 17 countries, most of them small islands, as a way to fill in incomplete gaps. The service is opened up to individuals for tinkering, with edits having to pass through an approval process before they are accepted into Google Maps and Google Earth. According to a company spokesman, a small team of Googlers around the world verifies the edits, supplemented by a growing number of community editors. Just as with many news sites’ comments sections, Map Maker editors get rated for their input to the point where they can become trusted moderators. Most edits, therefore, get into Google Maps within an hour, the company says.

The Maker Maker team came to Google’s office in Waterloo, Ont. about six weeks ago in preparation for the Canadian launch (it was released in the United States in April). James Maclean, an engineer at the office who happens to be from Hawkestone—a small town north of Barrie—tested it out on his village and added in all sorts of stuff. Prior to his tinkering, the village’s general store showed up as “Hawkestone P.O.” While it does have a postal counter, “If you asked someone in Hawkstone where the post office is, they certainly wouldn’t send you to the general store,” he told me. He fixed that and listed more info on all the other goods and services the store provides.

Maclean also edited in the boundaries of the local cemetery, something that was important to him given that he was in the midst of researching his family tree. He also added in the location of the Barrie Sunset Triple Drive-In, which he frequents, and changed information on the old Oro-Medonte multi-use trail. The old maps listed it as a paved surface, but it’s actually unpaved—an important fact for hikers and bikers.

“It gives every individual the opportunity to make sure the things that are important to them show up on their maps,” Maclean said.

I haven’t had much of a chance to play with it, but Map Maker sounds like a promising application, particularly for people living in rural and remote areas.

Us city slickers can make use of it too. I’m looking forward to the day when it gets really fine-grained—it would really have come in handy when I worked at the CBC, an absolutely giant maze of corridors that I still got lost in even after three years of working there.