Brief explanations of unfamiliar or technical language in Google Maps.

3D mesh

To make any 3D model in a computer, you need to give the computer spatial coordinates that it can understand (and take out some of the detail that exists in the real world). You can do this by making a 3D mesh model, with a criss cross pattern of edges of surface planes that the model is made up of.

Google Earth is a massive 3D mesh of the world’s surface with photography applied over surfaces like texture layers in Photoshop.

![3d-mesh](40 3D Mesh.jpg)

AI, artificial intelligence

AI – which stands for artificial intelligence – is a blanket term given to any kind of intelligence that machines (usually computers) seem to demonstrate.

ML (machine learning) is a kind of AI, it’s computers demonstrating the intelligent trait of learning from prior iterations and other inputs.Other examples include chat bots (algorithms trained to mimic human conversation) and computer-assisted medical diagnoses.


Airbnb is an American tech platform that helps people to let rooms or properties – or helps people to find places to stay. This core product wouldn’t be usable without Google Maps-powered features.


An algorithm is a set of instructions for a computer or another kind of mathematical – that is, purely logical – brain to follow. They are written – coded – so as to be totally unambiguous, always telling a computer exactly what to do in every possible situation.

The algorithms that power Google Maps have to include a lot of instructions for the computers that run the applications. This is to sort through all that data that makes up Google Maps.

Algorithms need to be written out as efficiently as possible to make this work well – think of it like giving instructions for cooking a fancy dinner in the smallest number of steps possible, without missing anything.


An API – application programming interface – is a computer interface that gives people access to various computer programs or databases. This is what lets third-party developers build apps that work with other companies’ products. Google Maps Platform houses all the Google Maps APIs and SDKs.

Application, App

Application software, applications or apps are programs designed for normal people like you and me. They tell phones and computers how to apply their processing abilities (and other features like cameras, displays and GPS).

The result is the software you use every day.

AR, augmented reality

AR – augmented reality – is an experience of the real world with extra information added to it. AR technology uses visual overlays in glasses, contact lenses or just your device display to enrich (augment) your experience of the world around you (reality).

![Augmented Reality](41 Augmented reality.jpg)

An Internet browser is the application you use to visit websites on your computer or smart device. Popular browsers are Chrome, Firefox and Safari.


The science – and art – of studying and making maps.

![Cartography](42 Cartography.jpg)

Crowdsourced Data

Or user-submitted content, user-generated content – any data that uses the general public as its main source.


Data are points of information which can be expressed with numbers. One datum is one numerical value of one variable – 23 metres, for example.

The information technology revolution that started in the middle of the twentieth century when the first computers were used by researchers has led to data – which is only useful with computers that can process it – becoming a highly valuable commodity in 2020. Companies like Facebook and Google became the giants they are today because they realized how valuable data would become and focussed on getting hold of as much of it as possible.

The more data (single numerical values of single variables) that are needed to convey the information that a computer needs to know to run an application, the more powerful the computer has to be to process it. That’s why improving computer power will always lead to more uses of data and more companies looking to hoover it up.

Data Source

Where data comes from. For a data-driven service like Google Maps – really all of Google – data sources are really important. Google Maps invests a lot into getting its data from lots of diverse sources that complement each other. This is one of its main strengths.


A software developer (we use the industry standard shorthand, “developer” in this guide) is a person or company who develops software. Simple as that really.

Developing software entails writing code instructions for computers to follow, getting hold of the data that you need and making sure your future data sources are going to be reliable, working with other software companies to bolt on extra features to your software that they’ve developed already, and finally putting your software into the hands of your consumers.


The route finding and journey planning feature of Google Maps applications is called Directions.

Display, Displaying

Display is one of the most demanding tasks that Google Maps asks your computer or smart device to do. Raw map data (what the computer chip sees) isn’t useful for us unless it’s displayed in a way that we can understand. Algorithms give the chip in your device instructions to convert that raw data into pixels on your screen.


Explore is the name given to the directory information feature of Google Maps applications. You can click or tap an Explore button to see what information is available for a place or area you’re looking at, or see Explore content pop up in other parts of the apps.


A (software) feature is a distinct thing that that piece of software does. Turn-by-turn navigation and location sharing are features of the Google Maps mobile applications.

Format, Formatted

A data format is a set of rules to follow when recording data, so that everybody (or every device) that records records does it in the same way. This means that data from different sources can still be read by computers without having to give the computer different sets of instructions for each piece of information it is reading.

Geocoding, Geocoded, Geocoded Data

Geocoding is how we take information about the world (that’s the geo- part) and translate it so into a language that computers can understand (that’s the coding part).

In the 1960s, the United States Census Bureau was trying to transform its massive (and totally manual) data gathering operation to work with the new-fangled computer technology that researchers and big companies had been using to great effect.

The folks making the US Census realized that digitizing the street addresses they were recording – translating their coordinates into language that computers can read – was going to be necessary if they wanted to use computers to process all the data they gathered on US citizens.

So the bureau created ACG (address coding guide) in 1970 and geocoding was born.

Geographic Data

Geographic data (and information, to give it it’s official ISO name) is data about an identifiable place on Earth. As well as local statistics, this includes maps.


Google is the company that runs Google Maps. They also have a search engine and a few other projects that you might have heard of.

Google account

Your Google account is synced across all of Google’s products – including Google Maps – and on any devices you use those products on.

Google Earth

Google Earth is a Google application built with – but separate to – Google Maps. It’s a virtual, 3D planet with high quality photography and rendering that you can explore on your computer or smart device.

Google Maps Platform

Google Maps Platform is the collection of APIs and SDKs that gives third-party developers access to Google Maps data.

Through Google Maps Platform, developers can embed Google Maps features into their applications (like maps or local search results) or extract data from Google Maps.

Google My Business

Google My Business is the platform for business owners to use to change how their business appears in Google Maps and other Google products.

Google My Maps

Google My Maps is a separate application that’s built around Google Maps. You can use it to create, save and share custom maps with your own markers, routes, photos, notes and style.


The Global Positioning System was originally a highly coveted piece of US military hardware. Still operated by the US government, it’s now available for civilian use as well.

![43 GPS.jpg](43 GPS.jpg)

GPS is a network of satellites whose position relative to Earth is accurately monitored. GPS devices can find their exact position by receiving signals from four or more of these satellites – they calculate the lengths of time it took for the signals to reach them and triangulate their position based on these measurements.

GPS devices don’t need to transmit any information to use the system to find their location, and they don’t need any kind of internet connection to work.

GPS is being constantly upgraded, with GPS devices released after 2018 equipped with L5 band receivers which has brought accuracy down to a foot (30 cm).


A graph – as an object of study in discrete mathematics – is a way of conveying data and the ways those data are related (for example, how far away they are in physical space). In graphs, data points are called nodes or vertices, the lines that join them are called edges, links or lines.


The General Transit Feed Specification started out life as a Google Maps product cooked up in Portland to bring multi-modal transit directions to Google Maps users in that city.

It’s a data format for transferring timetable and station information that’s now used all over the world.

Journey Planner, Journey Planning

Journey planning is the computing task of finding directions from a to b, while taking into account multiple modes of transport, leaving times and so on.


A gaming graphics company created a 3D, spinnable computer model of the globe to demonstrate their 3D software in the late 1990s, which was spun out into an offshoot company called KeyHole which developed it into a full 3D model of the planet – Keyhole EarthViewer.

The product struggled to find its market until CNN agreed to show Keyhole’s logo under any graphics they used the software for for a discounted license fee from Keyhole. CNN’s landmark coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq used Keyhole-based graphics heavily and brought a lot of attention to the technology. The CIA had to step in with funding to help keep Keyhole’s servers running under all this extra pressure.

Around the same time, Google was noticing that a huge amount of searches on its search engine were for places and locations, and they started to buy promising geographic data companies and products in 2004 – including Keyhole.

John Hanke, who oversaw Keyhole’s development, went on to run Niantic, the company that brought AR, gaming and geocoding together with Pokémon Go.


Layers in Google Maps applications are essentially entirely different maps that you can use to look at the world with. They provide different types of imagery (map types) and different kinds of information (map details).


LiDAR is a technology that measures distances using lasers. It can make millions of measurements every second, so is great for making 3D models of real environments.

Local Guides

Local guides are people who volunteer to add and verify information in Google Maps. A lot of Explore content – like pictures and reviews of attractions – is sourced from the Local Guides program.

ML, machine learning

Machine learning describes computers learning from experience – or something we could call experience.

It works with algorithms that give the computer instructions to perform a task, observe the results, assess them, and then repeat the task with some minor variation. The next step is checking over all of the variations to find out which worked best, and then testing again.

Computers that can process information quickly can do this billions of times over and over. This means that things that are really hard to instruct computers to do – like recognizing speech – have become possible in recent years as computer processing power has progressed so rapidly.

In the future, ML will be brought to task for digital and web mapping to greater and greater effect. The results of this will be more efficient algorithms, more accuracy, and less work for software developers!

Mobile Map, Mobile Mapping, Web Map, Web Mapping, Web and Mobile Mapping, Online Mapping, Online Map

Maps on your phone, computer and on the internet have a lot more in common with each other than any of them do with old-fashioned paper and ink maps and atlases.

They all work with geocoded data to make sure computers can be made to add features to maps. Then they need to make the computer or device display that data in a way that’s useful for us.

Mode, Multi-mode, Multimodal, Single-mode, Single-modal

Mode refers to mode of transport, so multimodal journey planners can plan journeys using buses, trains, cars and so on. SIngle-modal route planners can only plan routes using one mode of transport.


Niantic is the San Francisco-based software company that developed the popular AR mobile games Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

The company started out as an in-house Google start-up before becoming independent in 2015 during a big corporate restructure at Google.

Collecting Pokémon with Google Maps itself was a Google April’s Fools Day prank in 2014. The Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge developer, Tatsuo Nomura joined Niantic to lead the development of the Pokémon Go game there.

![44 Niantic.jpg](44 Niantic.jpg)

Niantic’s CEO has another link to Google Maps: John Hanke was running Keyhole which developed the 3D globe model that would become Google Earth.

Packet Forwarding

Google Maps uses packet forwarding algorithms so that route finding and journey planning can be done within the graph of map information.

It works by creating a “packet”, a kind of token which the computer forwards along the graph until it’s reached the destination. Data on nodes and edges in the graph says how long it will take – this process can be repeated to get the best routes.

Real World

Look out of your window. What you see is an absolutely unimaginable amount of data – in computer terms. Google Maps is trying to gather and make sense of as much of that data as possible to bring features to you. Everything that happens in Google Maps has to be tied back to the real world and all of that real information that exists here.

Route Finder, Route Finding

Route finding is the computer task of finding the way from a to b in one leg, on one mode of transport.


A software development kit (SDK) is a collection of tools for developing software in one package. Google Maps includes SDKs in its Google Maps Platform program with APIs to help allow third-party developers to build applications from their data.

Street View

Street View is a feature of the Google Maps and Google Earth applications that’s pretty much an application in its own right. It’s an immersive experience that lets you virtually look up and down many streets around the world, with real photography laid out in an explorable 3D model.

Street View camera, Street View car

To get the images that make up Street View, Google has sent specially equipped cars up and down tens of millions of miles of streets around the world.

These are mounted with cameras and sensors which are constantly recording pictures, spatial and geographic data – all tagged to their proper geographic location – that powers Street View.

You can find out where the Street View cars are going next – and maybe even try to get your fifteen minutes of fame – on the Street View website.

![45 Street View car.jpg](45 Street View car.jpg)

Third-Party, Other People and Companies

When companies build software applications with other companies’ products, they are called third-party. Examples include companies who make games for Facebook, but aren’t a part of Facebook – or the likes of Uber and Airbnb who use Google Maps data but aren’t owned by Google.

Thomson Local is a business directory services company.


Smart devices with GPS receivers can show turn-by-turn navigation – that’s a navigation feature that gives instructions when the user needs to see them, determined by the user’s geographic location.


Uber is an American company that offers passenger and other delivery services. It wouldn’t work without Google Maps.

UI, user interface

A user interface is the tool through which interactions between people and computers can take place. Specifically, it’s the display and the buttons, menus and controls you use to work with software.

Vector Tile, Vector-Tile Based Rendering Algorithm

Vector tiles are packages of geographic data that computers can use to display maps. They’re the format that map data is transferred by in Google Maps.

Unlike raster tiles which they replaced in most web mapping applications (including Google Maps), vector tiles can be scaled up and down in size without distorting the image they present. This is because the data is stored in vectors – series of points in a Cartesian plane that make up dots which are joined by lines and curves to form polygonal 2D shapes.


Waze started as an Israeli web map which became popular worldwide because of its unique crowdsourcing model.

Waze users are able to report traffic accidents, street fairs, protests and more in real time – this data then gets added to the map for other users to see.

Waze was acquired by Google for almost a billion dollars in 2013, and is still running and delivering its core product as a Google subsidiary today.

Where 2 Technologies

Where 2 Technologies was founded in 2003 in Sidney, Australia by Danish brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen and Australians Noel Gordon and Stephen Ma. Only a year later, the company was bought by Google and its founders employed in Google engineering offices.

Their mapping software quickly evolved into Google Maps, which was launched in 2005.


ZipDash was a start-up technology company that produced a tool for gathering real-time traffic information from GPS receivers in people’s smartphones.

People were using ZipDash to search along major highways in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and Phoenix when Google acquired the company without any fanfare in 2004.

Some of the founders – Mark Crady, Michael Chu, and Diprenda Nigram – and team stayed with Google to help build Google Maps.

Written by Ben Pilkington. Published January 27, 2021.