hardhat
Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Explainer- How Google Maps works and why you might be getting lost as you navigate the labyrinth of new roads and bridges in Cairo

Been led down an odd road and wondered why Google Maps is in the throes of a meltdown? There might be a reason for that. With all construction work taking place on the country’s roads and bridges in recent months (hello, Ring Road), you may have found that some traditional routes hard-wired into your muscle memory were rerouted overnight. Although we might be lucky enough to live in an era where personal navigation tools like Google Maps are easily accessible solutions, you might still find yourself being led astray as apps struggle to keep pace with rapidly changing traffic routes in the city. There’s no definitive answer as to why Google Maps sometimes goes haywire when guiding you through newly constructed or temporarily rerouted roads, but how the platform actually functions provides us with a rough idea.

The backbone of Google Maps’ capabilities is its users: Google relies on about 20 mn pieces of information generated daily (or about 200 contributions per second) from people using Maps as they commute from location to location around the world. Monthly estimates indicate that the company relies on over a bn individual users every month and some 5 mn apps and websites to help power their global mapping system. This means that real time data about things like traffic and route closures are reported back to Google, which uses that information to automatically update its maps.

But there’s room for what the company calls “authoritative data sources” to contribute important information as well: Organizations and government entities like United States Geological Survey, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) in Mexico and housing developers can actually submit critical information for Google to incorporate into their maps. These third party entities, which the company claims are over 1k, can provide information like older maps, street names and plans for new roads to supplement user- generated data.

Businesses also have a hand in shaping Google’s overview of the world: Private businesses who voluntarily submit information about their geographic location have also helped contribute to Google’s repertoire of the some 150 mn places around the world they have registered in their data sets.

Then there’s satellite imagery that helps them construct a bigger picture of what’s going on on the ground: Images produced by satellites in Earth’s orbit are admittedly a little slower than the location data the company receives from its users and third party cooperators but they are a helpful line of defense in mapping out buildings and new roads when little user generated data exists.

And of course Google Maps’ street view cyborg lends a helping hand: Things can get pretty messy in much of the world where roads are narrow and buildings are packed tight. That’s when the company deploys its “Street View 3 wheelers,” which are essentially glorified tuk-tuks strapped with lots of cameras to take pictures of roads, buildings, and signage that feed back into its navigational software. Even on well-paved roads that are visible from an aerial view, street view vehicles often provide useful information about road signs, building numbers, and business names that satellites and users on their own fail to comprehensively cover.

No formal address? No problem. In hard-to-reach parts of the world where there might be built structures but no neatly designated addresses, Google Maps actually develops a stand-in known as Plus Codes. These are unique identifiers of homes based on thousands of images produced by satellites and street view images.

If you’re using Google Maps to navigate through Cairo, chances are you’ve had at least one experience where the app was totally off: Even though the company claims to have all these tools at its disposal to create as accurate a depiction as possible of the real world, there still seems to be some oversights, especially at this moment here in Cairo. Google has admitted some broad shortcomings due to things like tree cover, language, or the pace at which new roads and buildings are constructed contributing to inaccuracies in their maps.

Over the past few years the government has been focused on an infrastructure construction spree: Some of the most significant projects to receive budget allocations in the government’s FY2021-FY2022 budget include some EGP 1.1 bn designated for the development of 350 km of highways (Fayoum-Wahat, Assiut-Sohag-Red Sea, and Suez-Geneifa-Ismailia), and building three new axes — King Salman, Autostrad Fardous, and Matrouh-Siwa — spanning a combined 324 km, at an expected cost of EGP 2.9 bn. Also on the radar has been road work on the 106 km of the Ring Road, which, for many, has been the cause of sudden detours, unanticipated closures and hours of frustration.

It’s still not crystal clear why the updated routes appear to be taking so long to register with our GPS friends: Concrete data is lacking on how long it takes Google Maps to update its maps based on satellite images of new roads and how many of Cairo’s drivers actually use the app during their commutes, making it difficult to pinpoint how these navigational challenges can be overcome. But with updates to their navigation systems happening every second — and thousands of commuters on roads everyday — it remains unclear why it’s taking so long to get things right here in Egypt, particularly as anecdotal evidence suggests that these issues persist for weeks.


Your top infrastructure stories for the week:

  • EU + Egypt talk boosting our LNG exports: The EU is looking to up its imports of liquefied natural gas from Egypt in the short term — and contribute to building a local green hydrogen production facility in the long term.
  • New freezone at Alex port for state-owned terminal: Cabinet approved the establishment of a freezone for the state-owned Egyptian Group for Multi-Purpose Terminals (EGMPT) at Alexandria port.
  • GAFI could ban forex payments between shipping + cargo handling firms: The Finance Ministry has directed GAFI to study the possibility of introducing a ban on foreign currency payments for transactions between shipping agencies and cargo handling companies.

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