Discovering India, going places: Google Maps the gaps

Since the launch of Google Maps in India in 2008, it has grown from strength to strength, making it a one-stop-shop for planning trips, daily commute or even exploring and discovering new places in one’s surroundings.

While the company’s mission to provide comprehensive and accurate data remains consistent across the globe, some distinct challenges in the Indian market have encourged it to develop some highly relevant features.

Google Maps India programme manager Sanket Gupta says, “Google Maps’ ultimate objective is to increase the utility a user derives on the app, and for this, we continuously upgrade and update the app. When Google Maps first came to India, it was a fairly simple programme with just geopraphical mapping functions. Now, it has grown extensively, both in terms of accuracy, as well as user engagement.”

The sophisticated version it has now evolved to illustrate is a result of a lot of learnings from the domestic market, he observes. Of the several unique challenges that India poses, one happens to be inconsistency in terms of numbering and naming streets. Most of India identifies locations by associating them with popular landmarks, and further communicates it in a similar manner. This makes it difficult to identify locations based on street numbers. Therefore, Google Maps India launched its ‘landmark-based directions’ feature in 2011. “The feature of landmark-based directions was developed and launched specifically for India. It has been found to be very useful among local users,” he tells DH, adding, “We soon plan to launch it in Indonesia, and may launch it in other countries too. As a relevant feature in mapping directions, it is sure to find utility in other countries also.”

Next among the features developed, based on Indian consumption patterns is ‘offline maps’. As it is well known, connectivity issues continue to threaten digital data consumption in India. Especially, while in transit or for people-on-the-go, which is where the consumer base for Google Maps lies, inconsistency in internet connectivity renders the app ineffective.

Offline maps allows users to download a certain area of the map while connected to the internet, which can later be accessed offline. Such an offline map will be available to the user for a period of 30 days, post which it has to be updated. For the benefit of the user, upon the option being toggled in the settings section, updates will only be downloaded on Wi-Fi and not while internet is being availed on the user’s data connection. “This is an essential feature, especially in India, because data connectivity is poor and may delay updates or heavy updates may consume extensive data affecting the user’s bill,” says Gupta. Further, the app also enables the downladed area to be saved on the SD card, making it convenient for the user.

Offline maps has found ardent usage in the US as well, he added. “Even in the US, where data consumption is high and is not hindered by connectivity issues, offline maps has been found to be quite popular as there can blind spots anywhere,” he said. Along with India, the US has been found to be one of the top five consumers of offline maps.

Topping the list of such features, however, is Google Maps’ version of the app in Hindi. The Hindi version of the app was launched in phases over a period of seven to eight months. Each element, from enabling utility functions on the app in Hindi, to naming locations in Hindi, and finally delivering voice commands in Hindi, was released as updates, one after another, making a 360-degree Hindi Google Maps available for the user. “Launching the complete app in Hindi was quite an achievement for Google Maps. It takes significant amount of time and effort to develop and launch Google Maps in a different language. We are in the process of accomplishing this for other languages as well,” he said.

Of all of Google Maps’ popular features, one of the most relevant for today’s urban commuter is ‘live traffic’. Live traffic updates on the app was introduced in the US, and has found relevance across the globe. Live traffic updates have been found to influence users’ time of travel, mode of transport and even the route of choice to a large extent. “The accuracy of this feature is something of a work-in progress and is always improving. While in the US, the standard of accuracy is much higher, challenges in India have kept us from reaching that level. Nonetheless, we are continuously working on it,” he said.   

Google Maps has a cummulative consumer base of over one billion across the globe. In Gupta’s view, “The ultimate motive of Google Maps, which is comprehensive and accurate data, is not yet achieved. There are still many spots, which are not covered on the map, and we want to have them covered.” As an extension to this vision, Google Maps allows users to mark unmarked locations on the map, which upon approval get registered on the map.

On future plans for Maps in India, he said, “There are no live updates for public transport schedules in India. While Google Maps offers schedules, they are static. We want to be able to introduce real-time tracking of public transport here. It is a huge challenge in terms of technology, and investment in tracking devices and connectivity, but it sure is where we want to get to, eventually,” he said, adding that Google Maps offers real-time schedules in London, San Fransisco and Singapore.

In India, however, having rolled out rather relevant features up until now, and more up its sleeve, Google Maps appears to have charted itself one hell of a ride.

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