2011 Google Geo User Summit Recap

While I am semi-comfortably seated on my United Airlines flight and traversing all three North-American time zones on my way back to Massachusetts, it’s time to recap what happened at the 2011 Google Geo User Summit United States over the last two and a half days*. Overall summary: Wow, was that ever great fun!!! If Google is good at two things, then it’s providing useful web-based tools and taking amazing care of their users.

The whole event started on Wednesday evening with a boathouse party at Shoreline Lake in Mountain View. It gave many of us a chance to reconnect with some friends from former summits and make new acquaintances. It was actually quite interesting how many east-coast folks I ended up meeting for the first time on the west-coast.

The main focus of the summit was how people used geo-based Google tools. To give you an overview: There are Google’s MapMaker (an addition to Google Maps that lets everyone add content to Google Maps as well as edit inaccurate maps) and Panoramio (a photo-sharing site where all photos are geo-tagged and will therefore show up accurately placed in Google Earth). Then there was 3D modeling, represented by SketchUp (Google’s 3D modeing software) and BuildingMaker (an online tool that allows users to easily create building models from oblique photography) to create 3D objects that are accurately geo-referenced and will therefore show up in Google Earth. As you likely know if you follow this blog, this third field (especially SketchUp) is my background but MapMaker offers some interesting new avenues that I will likely explore soon.

Attendees at the summit came from all walks of life. There were users that were simply interested in adding their knowledge of their neighborhoods to the official Google Map. Then there were federal employees whose job is to make the Census data presentable and usable. Another attendee was in charge of officially mapping the US-Mexico border. And finally, there was one person whose company had modeled Disney’s parks in 3D for Google Earth (check it out with your kids if you haven’t done so yet – it’s much cheaper than actually going to the parks). Of course there were many more…

Day 1

The official day one started with a morning of keynotes and user presentations. First up was a motivating and insightful presentation by Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist at Google. Next came four user presentations, one of them being mine.

It is always interesting to see how people use mapping for their interests or projects (or to help aid organizations in developing countries). Examples of the user talks were: a student who added many walkways to his campus map to help with pedestrian traffic. Another presenter showed how he mapped an entire city in Syria based on satellite photography (and his friends’ knowledge of the place) where there was no map data in Google Maps before. This was followed by presentations about mapping public bike paths in North Carolina, using Panoramio photographs to let people explore places visually, starting mapping parties (so-called MapUps) and using mapping and building modeling in a K-12 environment. My presentation on the UMass 3D campus building models rounded off this first part (you can see the presentation in my next post).

Next was a talk by Brian McClendon, co-founder at Keyhole (the geospatial visualization tool that later became Google Earth) and now a Vice President of Engineering at Google. He outlined the visions of the Geo team and responded to a barrage of questions.

To prevent jealousy I’ll spare you the details of lunch but I must add a mouthwatering picture of the oysters:

In the afternoon we split by discipline into the three topic areas and I went with the 3D modeling and SketchUp group, led by Nicole Drobeck from Google Boulder. (a fun aside in the image below is the “sculpture” on the wall – it’s a Google search box).

During the group session, some user stories emerged: First is the case of Peter Sih who somehow managed to model over 2500 buildings for Google Earth. Another one was Ron Hall’s story whose interest in historic buildings led him to model some of Lexington’s historic monuments – even without having physically been there! Another story was of Douglas Willett of Luna Tech Designs who presented on how his company is providing 3D geo-modeling-related services. I added to these presentation mine in which I described a recent project at UMass, called “My favorite places”. I will post separately about that one later.

Before dinner, we were bussed over to the main Google headquarter, the Googleplex, where we were given a tour (looks like a pretty fun place to work!). Below are some images of what we saw along the way:

The main court at the Googleplex (it’s here).

Google skateboards

Branded lava-lamps at the reception – a must-have

An immersive Google Earth viewer

Day 2

The second day (Friday) was mainly made up of user-centered discussions. Officially called an “unconference”, the discussion topics are determined in the morning and then experts and non-experts are being mixed in small groups that discuss the various issues that users of the above mentioned products faced. Unfortunately I had to leave half-way through these.

Somehow these conferences always reveal a lot of interesting tidbits, here are some:

  • The new Audi A8 will have Google Earth built-in through a dashboard display (looks a bit like too much information for the driver, though).
  • A nice mashup combines Google Maps, YouTube videos and MP3 embedding: Moscow-Vladivostok transsiberian train journey. Very meditative…
  • Most people use Google Maps via the API (vs. the web version).
  • Watch live-updating of Google Maps: http://www.google.com/mapmaker/pulse
  • Google Earth has been downloaded so many times that it ranks in distribution close to the big web browsers.
  • Traffic-speed data on Google’s online maps uses anonymously-collected velocity data from travelling Android phones – a great idea (as long as it remains anonymous).
  • Google has a fleet of company bikes that look like someone threw E.T. out of the basket and painted the whole thing in bright primary colors. Apparently they are all over Mountain View.
  • Google employees have access to an amazing array of fun stuff. My way to the bathroom led me past a bowling alley and a dance studio, for example.

Me and my pin

*This was written en-route but edited a week later.

Here are my pictures from the event:

(Disclosure: Google provided food and other considerations for me)