Surveying Google

Three days submerged in the Googleplex through a surveyor’s eyes.

By Rudy Stricklan, RLS, GISP

One of my side gigs is as an adjunct lecturer on GIS with the University of Arizona. Through that association, I was recently given the opportunity to attend the first Google Geo for Higher Ed workshop at Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Referred to as the “Googleplex,” Google’s world nerve center is spread out over two million square feet of office space near the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Words and pictures can’t adequately convey the total Googleplex experience. It’s something you have to be immersed in and try to wrap your head around. My particular involvement through the Higher Ed workshop was in the company of academics across the country. They’re articulate and interesting individuals, but they exist in environments somewhat foreign to most surveyors. 
 

The Googleplex Environment

It’s more like a university than a typical high-tech corporate setting. Maybe it’s that most of the Googlers (as they’re called) seem to be in their 20s or 30s, wear shorts and flip-flops, and are engaged in what we used to call “extracurricular activities” when I was in college (like playing pool and attending workout sessions).

Global communications hookups are everywhere. Beyond just the extraordinarily strong and fast wifi coverage, video conferencing nooks abound. These have dual flat-screen monitors with high-resolution video cameras. Deployed not only for long-distance conferencing, they are commonly used for intra-office meetings, as well. No need to shuffle around trying to locate colleagues; just text them to meet virtually and instantaneously. With the session recorded for posterity, as well.

The emphasis on continual connectivity and collaboration is omnipresent, down to providing special conference bikes—free-to-use, giant pedaled contraptions with seven inward-facing seats. This is carpooling on a different scale, with forced participation for effective mobility. There are hundreds of uniquely painted regular bicycles as well for speedy intra-campus commuting.

Free Food. The 25 restaurants and cafes distributed throughout the Googleplex lack only one thing—cash registers. All you can eat for free. Although immeasurably classier than shoving pizza slices under software coders’ doors, the principle is the same: keep the troops well nourished and focused so that down time away from the work at hand is minimized. All of the serving ware was biodegradable or recyclable, of course: the cups and utensils were made from cornstarch, the plates and napkins from recycled paper. Maybe expired Googlers’ remains are recycled in some way as well.

No paper. Throughout my stay, I didn’t see one hardcopy output device. Everything, and I do mean everything, was conducted digitally. Every participant had their own laptop or tablet, complemented by (mainly Android) smartphones. I even saw two people with the Google Glass geek accessory. Googlers would whip out their laptops or tablets when visualizations were necessary, hooking them wirelessly to the videoconferencing screens or other projection devices. Whiteboards and writable surfaces were always convenient, including Google+ nooks that encouraged one-on-one collaboration.

As incredible as its current headquarters are, an under-construction site called BayView will provide an additional 1.1 million square feet of office space close to the current campus.
 

Using Google’s Infrastructure to Play with the Big Boys

Big whoop, you might understandably say at this point. How can any of this fantasyland possibly be relevant to surveyors or, more importantly, my business in particular? That’s exactly what I posed to Mano Marks, Google’s lead developer advocate for Google’s Geo APIs (Application Programming Interfaces—the inside pathway for coders to extend software functionality). Incidentally, “geo” is the term Google uses to collectively describe their geographic location-related activities. I never heard the term “GIS” mentioned. 

Mano helps people all over the world develop and deploy their geospatial content using Google’s tools and data storage infrastructure. He works with large companies, small startups, and international aid organizations. I met Mano a couple of years ago, and he’s a straight shooter. He also understands the importance of accurate and authoritatively vetted data. He can’t divulge the number of Googlers in the Geo group, but it’s not a small number, given the scope of only two of their various activities:
  • Street View: five-million miles of street-level imagery, and
  • aerial imagery: 20 petabytes, including 40 years of Landsat satellite imagery.
A big push for Google Geo is to provide not only worldwide geospatial data, but also the computational infrastructure to store, maintain, and analyze customer-provided data. This would be overkill for your next ALTA survey, but for organizations like NGS that were constrained by computer power during the National Adjustment of 2011, it might well have provided the capability to deliver this adjustment (and future ones) faster without regard for data processing limitations.

This ability to flip a switch and tap into global-scale computing power enables large (and small) companies to have pay-as-you-go, scalable data processing capabilities that level the competitive playing field. Big jobs requiring big computers are no longer limited to those organizations that have deep pockets to maintain their own computing infrastructure—smart “small-timers” can rent even more powerful systems and, at the end of the job, just turn them and their associated money flow off. No continuing hardware/software or internal IT personnel costs to maintain.

Speaking of software, another key Google direction is to provide all its computing and analysis functionalities through web browsers—no need to purchase and update expensive application software. In addition to being able to employ zero-maintenance desktop workstations, the ability to use Google resources on mobile devices of all kinds will enable a new type of field surveyor. Besides just mobile maps on smartphones and cheap tablet computers, innovations like the Google Glass system have significant potential for field survey operations.

I got a chance to experiment with a Google Glass (it’s referred to in the singular, since it’s not really a set of glasses per se but a wearable computer), and yes, it’s geeky-looking. But having both hands free to be able to take site photos, dictate notes, and communicate with crewmembers might just leverage you another notch above the competition in terms of efficiency and quality of results. 
 

Providing Better Answers

At its core, Google is a planetary-scale search engine. However, to Google search is much more than just returning web pages containing your input keywords—it’s really about delivering results that are relevant to your specific requirements. As one Googler put it, whereas they previously returned strings (lines of text), they now focus on returning information-rich things … which frequently have an associated location.

While providing geo answers is what we as surveyors are all about, Google sees geo as just another search term parameter—albeit arguably the most powerful one. My dream is to see forward-thinking surveyors on all scales embrace Google’s concepts of global connectivity, collaboration, and cost-effective geodata processing scalability to leapfrog us into a real 21st-century profession.

Rudy Stricklan, RLS, GISP is a member of the editorial board of this magazine and principal consultant with Mapping Automation, LLC. 
 

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