The tuk driver calls and asks, “Sir location harida?” With a tired sigh, I reply, “Location eka hari.” It’s a frustrating cycle I repeat every morning. Yet it was only 5 years ago, that I like many other Sri Lankans had no choice but to give them directions over the phone. Ride-sharing apps changed all this. But the underlying technology that makes such apps so powerful is, of course, Google Maps.
“Not everyone can be a map maker. It takes a special type of personality with patience & endurance to be one.” – Rohan Jayaweera
Google Maps is one of the most powerful apps on our phones. With a few taps, you can find anything and the fastest route to get there. Yet, this wasn’t always the case. The reason why Google Maps is such a handy tool today is not because of Google.
Rather it’s because of a group of volunteers that history has almost forgotten. They are the Google Map Makers. To learn more about them, we spoke with Tharaka Devinda and Charith Mallawaarachchi who were active members of this community.
“If we take the road network in Sri Lanka, it was a few straight lines from Colombo to the main cities like Anuradhapura, Kandy, and Galle,” said Charith Mallawaarachchi. This was the state of Google Maps in Sri Lanka when the service first launched.
As big as Google was, it was still a monumental undertaking to map the entire world. The company had sourced mapping data through two ways. This was official digital content, which was widely available from the government in many developed countries.
“If you check Australia or the US, they have land plot boundaries with GPS coordinates. But for countries like Sri Lanka, we didn’t have such trustworthy content.” – Charith Mallawaarachchi
Seeing the above problem Google turned to the local community for data. This is where the Google Map Maker program came into the picture. This allowed users of Google Maps to add locations in their locality into Google Maps. After it was launched in 2008, “It helped bridge the gap of map content where there were no digital map providers,” said Tharaka Devinda.
For the people involved in the program, Google offered a tool with the same name. It sorted items on the map into three main categories.
The first of these is Point Features, which refers to businesses, bus stops, and other points of interest. The second is Linear Features, which refers to roads, railways, and rivers. The third is Area Features, which refers to parks, forests, lakes, and other large areas.
So once you logged into the Map Maker, you can start adding information to Google Maps. If it was a Point Feature, then all you had to do was mark the location and provide data related to it. If it was a Linear Feature, then you can start from existing lines and then start plotting dots to create the road you want. Finally, Area Features were also added in a similar manner by marking the points that cover the area.
“Like most mappers, I wanted to map my home area. Then I found there was an entire community of people like me,” shared Tharaka. Soon after he met Charith Mallawaarachchi, who served as the de facto leader of the Google Map Maker community. Alongside Charith were Dihan Perera, Sarfraz Qureshi, Udaya Gunathilake, Punsisi Vidyarathne, and a few Regional Expert Reviewers.
For Charith, the journey was slightly different. In early 2011, he clicked on an interesting ad on Google. This is how Charith found the Map Maker platform. He fell in love with what he saw. “It was so addictive and I thought it was a good way to help people,” said Charith. So he started mapping Sri Lanka and after a while, he received permission to build the community by hosting meetups.
Thus, Charith became the official Map Maker advocate for Sri Lanka. From that first meetup, the Sri Lankan Google Map Makers community would grow to 2000+ active members. Charith listed university students, IT professionals, and even school students as examples of the different types of people that made up the local Map Maker Community.
Many of them were based in Colombo with some in Kandy and Galle. They’d travel islandwide to create the map we know but weren’t rewarded gloriously for their efforts. Unlike the events by the Google Developer Group or the Google Business Group, there were no T-shirts or other goodies at Map Maker events.
Despite the best efforts of Rohan Jayaweera – Former Country Manager of Google, they avoided the spotlight. Even when T-shirts were printed, they were given a few select few. Not even Rohan got one, which he recalls saying, “They wanted to keep it so exclusive and I fully appreciate that. It needed to be.”
So what drove them to map every corner of the country accurately? Tharaka’s answer was simply, “All of them came because they wanted the map to be better and give something to the digital ecosystem of Sri Lanka.”
When the Map Maker program launched there was nothing. Absolutely nothing more than a few straight lines from Colombo to the other main cities. Thus, the first challenge for the Map Makers according to Chairth was, “The first task was to mark the road network. But we didn’t have high-resolution imagery of Sri Lanka on Google Maps.”
Nonetheless, the map makers made do with whatever they had. They mapped the roads. They mapped the businesses. They mapped every district systematically. They didn’t do it alone. These volunteers also formed partnerships to add places to Google Maps. One such partnership was with the Royal College Prefects Guild to add religious places to the map.
It was a painstaking process that took many months. But eventually, the local Google Map Maker community had created an extensively detailed map of the country. For Charith, the introduction of Street View in Sri Lanka was proof of their efforts. This is why he considers its introduction to be one of the greatest achievements of the community.
“I believe the detailed road network available on Maps was the key factor for Google to make Street View available in Sri Lanka.” – Charith Mallawaarachchi
However, that’s not to say it was a smooth ride. Mistakes were made on the journey. One instance Tharaka shared was when he mapped the route to Lipton’s Seat. He didn’t want to waste time asking for directions. So he had utilized satellite imagery to map the roads. But he soon learned this wasn’t always accurate.
“The area was scattered with wrong non-existing roads people had drawn. In mountainous terrain, it’s easy to misidentify roads. For example, there are roads that are almost next to each other in the satellite image, but in real life, these are on different elevations. Linking them is wrong and dangerous. I had to clean up the entire area that week before taking the trip,” said Tharaka describing his early days as a map maker.
Another challenge the map makers had was coordinating their efforts. With an active community of 2000+ people regularly making edits this was no easy task. This was what made mapping the Airport Expressway so hard. Charith shares that at the time, “All the people around wanted to get in. So you can imagine people trying to do the same without proper coordination.”
For Tharaka, conquering this challenge was one of the greatest achievements of the local Map Maker community. Initially, the entire highway was mapped with aerial footage of when it was being constructed. They drew the map and initially made it only visible to map makers.
But once they finished Dihan, Charith, and Sarfraz had a chat and found that they’d made a grave mistake. They had marked the entire map as a single road, which was inaccurate. So they had to mark it as a one-way road and then draw a parallel one next to it.
“It was a tedious task. But we managed to break the road segments amongst ourselves and get it done,” said Tharaka. Once it was done, Dihan had made the edits live and it was just in time for then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s inaugural drive.
“I think many who checked the map would have thought Google had done it. But it was actually a whole community behind it. The same happened when the E03 opened. The road went live as soon as it was opened.” – Tharaka Devinda
So how did the Sri Lankan Google Map Makers stay in touch to accomplish such feats? Initially, there was a Google Group. Following the launch of Google+, there was a community page where users could request approvals and discuss issues with the map. Additionally, the Map Maker portal itself helped coordinate the edits between users.
Many new novice map makes were first guided to the Google+ community page. But that didn’t stop some novices from making edits that wreaked havoc. This is why Sarfraz, Udaya, and Dihan served as the guardians of Colombo’s main roads and other places of interest.
Describing how seriously they took on this role, Tharaka said, “Touch or delete, you get a call. Yes, a call.” Many novice mappers learned this the hard way. The experienced Map Makers had adopted the RDA naming convention for roads.
However, novices that never participated in meetups or forums used their own conventions. “Those corrections were harder than adding new content,” says Charith. But, despite the many mistakes by novices, the community was able to coordinate and fix things. Soon the data being added to the map reached exponential levels.
All this data added up to build the accurate Google Map we know today. But each addition had to be approved by a Regional Expert from Google. “With that kind of volume, the Regional Experts had to work full time to hold up the quality of the features added,” said Tharaka.
However, things weren’t always smooth between the local Map Maker community and Google. “The worst challenge was the support from Google,” says Tharaka. There were instances when Regional Experts couldn’t approve changes. Tharaka describes them saying, “Some of them were hard to be convinced. They assumed they knew more about our backyards that we did.”
Yet as stubborn as they were, Tharaka admits, “Udaya and myself must have been the rudest to them. When I wanted to vent my frustration, I did so with essay sized replies to denied edits.” But, they weren’t even close to the biggest challenge the community faced. Their deadliest challenge came in the form of AI.
Tharaka describes the incident as, “Attack of the bots.” Long before Google publicly admitted its love affair with AI, the company was tinkering with bots. Nothing was safe from these experiments. Not even Google Maps. Thus, when Sri Lanka became one of the most densely mapped countries, Google chose us for many bot deployments.
This decision gave nightmares to the local Map Maker community. These early bots wreaked havoc across the Sri Lankan map. Tharaka shared one incident where temples had lost their Buddhist icons. The bots had replaced them with another generic icon. “It took us a long time and a few emails to get that fixed. Thankfully the keyboard heroes of Facebook were yet to emerge,” says Tharaka recalling the incident.
But the bots would eventually take over the entire process of maintaining Google Maps. Map Maker was indeed a powerful tool. It allowed communities to map an entire country. However, all tools can be abused and this was no different. Google had to deal with many instances of trolls defacing the map. However, the final straw was in April 2015.
A Map Maker that went by nitricboy added an image to show an Android logo peeing on an Apple logo. Having created the image in stages, his plans had slipped past the Google Reviewers. For the company, this was a sign that its existing review process wasn’t working. Thus, it made the decision to temporarily shut down Map Maker.
The Map Maker would come back online in over 50 countries a few months later. But this wasn’t business as usual. Rather it was the beginning of the end. In January 2015, Google had launched its Local Guides program. This program initially started off as a means of getting more reviews for businesses on Google Maps.
As the Local Guides program evolved it came into conflict with the Map Maker program. Furthermore, Google remembered all too well the challenges of moderating the community. Tharaka added that the entire community knew that the actions of these trolls meant their days were numbered. And so on March 31st 2017, the Map Maker program was silently shut down.
Its features would make their way into Google Maps and the Local Guides program. Furthermore, Google would also invest in building more resilient automated tools for reviewing edits to Google Maps. With their tool shut down, the Map Maker communities across the world died.
With the demise of the Map Maker program, the entire community went their separate ways. Reflecting on the past Tharaka says, “It’s been one hell of a period in my life. Mapmaker pulled me into the Google community and the whole tech community movement. Its demise opened up free time which enabled me to move into the GDG, which I now enjoy being an organizer.”
Today when they look at the map, both Charith and Tharaka believe it’s not 100% accurate. Charith argues that people need more information about businesses and other locations they search. Whereas Tharaka believes that while there’s enough information about businesses, the details like roads and area features are inaccurate.
“I cannot say it’s 100% accurate because a map is always changing.” – Charith Mallawaarachchi
However, no map can ever call itself accurate forever. The world is constantly changing. It’s immensely challenging to create a map that’s accurate to the exact minute you check it. Even with Google’s resources and AI prowess. Nonetheless, Google Maps offers everyone the most accessible and accurate map. A historian could call it one of the greatest achievements of our time.
But the credit for this amazing map does not lie with Google. The credit for this feat belongs to a community of volunteers. In Sri Lanka, this community mapped every inch of the island. They did so with meticulous precision. Their names would fade into the history books. But what they had built would be used by millions every day. They are the Google Map Makers and this is their story.
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