Never Lost Again

Google Earth - its development & how it's changed our world

One of the plus sides of often being on the road visiting sites or meeting up with clients is that I can use that time to soak up lots of audiobooks and podcasts. Being a little bit obsessed with business books and, as a surveyor, far too keen for my own good about maps, I was recently excited to come across a new book that combined both those subjects.

When a client asks us to quote for a new project the most invaluable tool I now have at my disposal is, without a doubt, Google Earth. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago that incredible app didn’t even exist. Back then we had to take a wild guess at what was on a site and how long it would take to survey – either that or we'd spend more time looking at potential projects rather than carrying out surveys. Pricing up new work was a risky and inefficient process. How times have changed! We can now fly over any point on the planet, view it in 3D, take a look at street level and measure areas - all from the comfort of our own desks. The reason we have all that power freely accessible to us is down to the vision of one man - John Hanke, Google Earth’s inventor.

Bill Kilday was at university in Austin, Texas. One quiet Sunday when no one else was around, out of desperation for some company, he asked the quiet geeky kid down the hall to join him to eat. That kid was John Hanke, and that shared meal led to an enduring friendship that ended up playing a crucial part in how modern-day mapping has developed.

In his new book, Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality, Bill has documented everything from that initial meeting through to how, what became Google Earth, was developed and how the technology behind it has impacted on our lives and spawned massive new business opportunities.

Never Lost Again

The Keyhole company, created by John Hanke to develop his crazy idea of a digital facsimile of the Earth, struggled against all odds for several years to keep going while it developed its Earth Viewer. Every time they ran out of money and it seemed they would go out of business they miraculously managed to secure a bit more funding from somewhere, or they made a new sale to bring in enough cash to cover the wages and the rental on their small office for yet another month or two. It was tough going. Eventually though, they had their big break – unpredictably that break was the US led invasion of Iraq. CNN used Keyhole’s Earth Viewer updated with satellite images taken only hours earlier to show live on-air how the war was unfolding. The public was mesmerised and soon everyone wanted Earth Viewer on their own pc. Everyone wanted to explore the world and, more importantly, look at their own house from above!

Meanwhile Google was realising that searches relating to maps and locations were growing exponentially, and they also realise they had no way of servicing that need. Larry Page and Sergey Brin needed a solution. They got it by buying up Keyhole, its Earth Viewer, John Hanke and the other great minds in its development team.

Bill Kilday’s fascinating account from his ringside seat as product and marketing manager for Google Earth is compelling and gives an extraordinary insight into the thought processes of some of the people who have immeasurably changed the way we use maps and navigate our way through the day. Without the invention of Google Earth and the huge mapping databases sat behind it many of the services we take for granted today just wouldn’t exist – whether that’s sharing our location with friends on Facebook, finding a restaurant for an evening out with our better halves, getting a lift with Uber, or finding our way to a meeting in a city we’ve never visited before.

The book’s insight into the workings of Google and of Larry Page’s big idea of moving on from organising the world’s digital data to also organising its spatial data, all for free to the user, at a cost of many millions of dollars to Google, is amazing and, in a business sense, shocking. Vast sums were spent on buying in aerial photography, satellite imagery and maps without a measurable financial return for Google.Then, to top that, they decided to take control and stop buying in data from other parties. Instead, they would embark on their hugely ambitious Ground Truth project – they would simply go about re-mapping the entire planet themselves so they had their own data. And they would do what had previously taken decades to achieve in just a couple of years!

After all that success you’d think John Hanke would have been satisfied, but he still had another challenge. He had a new idea – to combine digital maps with augmented reality. That idea, because of the most downloaded app ever – Pokemon Go. Many people might look at Pokemon Go as just a game but, as Bill Kildare explains, augmented reality maps are the next big step in usability – very soon augmented reality will change the way we view everything around us for ever.

Mapping is now big business and it’s going in exciting directions. We can all thank John Hanke and Google for much of that, and especially Bill Kilday for telling us all about it.

Never Lost Again is certainly one of the best books I’ve read about mapping. I highly recommend you listen to it or download it onto your ebook. If you have even a passing interest in the business of maps, you won’t be disappointed.