Google’s geospatial technologist – Q&A with Ed Parsons

By on 21 February, 2018

Ed Parsons sporting the Google Street View Trekker backpack

Position magazine recently caught up with Google’s Ed Parsons, one of the people perhaps most directly responsible for the colossal uptake of location-based services in the lives of everyday people, ahead of his keynote presentation at Locate ’18 – Geosmart Asia ‘18.

Ed Parsons is Google’s geospatial technologist, with responsibility for evangelising Google’s mission to organise the world’s information using geography. He maintains links with governments, universities, research and standards organisations that are involved in the development of geospatial technology.

Position: Google Maps has a unique and enviable position in the world of consumer-focused mapping services. What are Google’s – and your – objectives in providing geospatial services?

Ed Parsons: I think it’s fair to say the objectives of Google Maps has changed and indeed expanded over time. Initially back in 2005 this was simply to provide context to local search results, a goal originally achieved using MapQuest maps before Google developed its own capability. Over the last decade Maps has become more of a real time assistant, or knowledgeable guide that senses the world around you, identifies what’s important to you as an individual at any location at any time and provides relevant information to you – which may or may not actually be in the form of a map!

I’m interested to hear your interpretation of the term ‘geospatial culture’ – what does it mean to you, and do you see its uptake and understanding developing in broader society currently?

Interesting question, as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society I have always been rather amused by the modern ‘geospatial’ term, to me it is really all about geography – explaining why the world looks like it does, and answering questions like ‘Why are rivers where they are?’, or ‘Why do some parts of a city thrive while others parts decline?’ I’ve always thought that such an interest was fundamental to both good governance and economic development, and today we have at our disposal tools to measure our world at a level of detail unimaginable only a few years ago. But we don’t necessarily have many leaders who think geographically, who don’t immediately see the connections between activities based on their location. This is an issue at all levels of society – from a teenager not understanding the potential risks of publishing geocoded photos of themselves and their friends, to governments planning hydro-electric schemes.  I see greater use of geospatial technology in our day-to-day lives, indeed an order of magnitude increase – but I don’t see a similar broadening of understanding.

How do your activities at Google aim to help this concept evolve, and could you describe any potential roadblocks you see to this end?

My challenge is to fix that lack of awareness or understanding in geospatial technology. I characterise the challenge as a ‘power of ten’ problem. Geospatial technology now develops at a pace ten times faster than society is able to assimilate; what the early adopter (myself and many of the readers of this magazine) immediately start using may take years to reach mainstream use. Policymakers responsible for regulation to protect society work ten times more slowly than society, often playing catch up to developments that have caused market disruption and media interest.  As an example of this look at the impact of new delivery and ride sharing businesses like Uber. Fundamentally entities like these are products of the development of geospatial technology and follow the pattern of technology developing ten times faster than society — which is ten times faster than the regulators.

Who do you think stands to benefit most profoundly from the level of proliferation and understanding of the geospatial industry’s potential – what does a fully realized ‘spatial society’ look like to you?

We all do. As individuals, our industry has the potential to make all of our lives better in terms of saving time, reducing our impact on the environment and making better use of the resources we have access to. Of course, there is a massive scaling effect that works when we multiply these individual gains by the 7.5 billion people on the planet!

What can you tell our readers about the ‘toothbrush test’, and what is its significance?

The ‘toothbrush test’ is a very simple maxim that Larry Page, co-Founder of Google uses to assess how useful a product or service is – it should be as useful as your toothbrush, i.e. something you will use once or twice per day, and will make your life better. The ideas is that its use should become so common that it just becomes part of what you do, you really don’t think about it. At Google we aim for all our products, like Google Maps for mobile, pass the ‘toothbrush test’!  I think that often in the geospatial industry, we sometimes lose focus on the potential users of our products. Does what we do really benefit our users in a meaningful way – how well do we really understand the needs of our users?

How do you think we can expect to see patterns of content generation evolve for spatial services in the coming years?

I think for some time now, much of the spatial data used in consumer-focused applications is actually created by the users themselves, often implicitly as part of using a product or service. For example, the real time data on traffic speeds in Google Maps comes from other users of Google Map providing anonymous speed data as they move around.  This is just the beginning for this type of probe data with more and more internet-connected devices – most of which are location aware and collecting data as part of their operation.

I think we can also expect to see more explicit collection of data – in the form of images geocoded by mobile phones and consumer drones – finding its way into global datasets, with machine learning techniques being utilised to extract meaningful information from these images, e.g. street signs and business names. As a result, spatial data will become more and more current and in some cases nearly real time.

You can catch Ed Parsons’ keynote address at Locate ’18 & GeoSmart Asia ’18 at Adelaide Convention Centre on the morning of 10 April. The conference kicks off with a market day and workshops on April 9th. 

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