Google Maps has its roots deep in the Asia Pacific region. Back in 2004, two Aussies and two Danes in Sydney created the technology that underpinned Google Maps, a service now used by more than a billion monthly active users.
When we first launched Maps in 2005, we were focused on mapping the world — essentially creating a digital version of a paper map. At the time, that idea was unheard of, and we weren’t even sure if it was possible. But bit by bit, we’ve evolved Google Maps over time to do this and much more.
I’ve been working on Maps for 16 years in the Asia Pacific region. And I’ve seen Googlers here create new technology based on people's everyday experiences — whether it’s a moped rider rushing to school in Jakarta, or a commuter in Tokyo taking a shortcut. And the sheer diversity of Asia Pacific has inspired some use cases that have proved helpful far beyond the region.
Here are three ways Google Maps has improved the lives of people in Asia Pacific.
Inspiring new features from the region
Many people in Asia use motorbikes as their primary mode of transport, but often use unmarked and unpaved roads that are too small for cars to fit on. In 2017, we sent a team to India to work with a community of motorbike riders and improve our suggested routes to include alleyways, and exclude roads where two-wheelers aren’t allowed. Two-wheeler mode first launched in India, then a few months later in Indonesia, and then many others places where traveling by motorbike is common: Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand — and even beyond Asia, to Kenya.
Beyond two-wheeler mode, our Maps teams in Asia Pacific have created many other innovations that have gone global. For example, our Tokyo team launched the Explore tab, which shows a scrollable feed of recent user-uploaded photos and reviews of places near you. Inspired by the photocentric guidebooks popular in East Asia, it’s a way of discovering content based purely on visuals — whether it’s a famous dish at a restaurant or seasonal flowers in your neighborhood park. Japan relies heavily on visual communication, and so it was also one of our Tokyo engineers who first began overlaying non-street photos like buildings and trees onto Maps. And these days, you’ll see photo overlays all over Maps, making for a much more visually rich browsing experience.
Providing emergency help
When the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan in 2011, it was the second biggest earthquake ever recorded in the country. It caused an enormous tsunami, bringing with it power outages and radioactive materials released into the surrounding area. Our Crisis Response teams acted quickly, creating various maps to show power outages, radioactive areas, and what roads were still open to drive on. It was a milestone moment, because it was the first time that Japan had ever really used digital tools for a crisis response. I remember one truck driver reached out to me because he was so grateful for the drivable map, which he had used to deliver supplies to disaster-hit areas. Since then, we’ve worked with the Japanese Meteorological Association to bring in new earthquake visualization capabilities and new typhoon tracking capabilities as well.
Outside of Japan, we’ve also helped other countries with our Crisis Response — from tsunamis in Indonesia to the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand.
Helping people explore Asia Pacific with Street View
Mapping information also helped in tsunami-affected areas, another way: by acting as a digital archive and aid to remembrance, thanks to our Street View technology. Starting as a far-fetched idea to build a 360-degree map of the world, Street View launched in the U.S. in 2007, coming to Japan and Australia the following year.
Today, Street View helps people virtually explore virtually across the region: from the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, across the desert in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, inside an active volcano in New Zealand, to the temples of Angkor Wat, to Mount Yushan in Taiwan, and — with the help of local partners — to cities across India.
Street View doesn't just help people explore virtually, it’s also a critical part of how we map — letting you see the most up-to-date information about the world and laying the foundation for a more immersive, intuitive map. Using the latest AI technology, we have been able to bring new views to the map. Lens in Maps, for example, helps you find things like shops or ATMs along your route, and Immersive View helps you understand the lay of the land, weather, and crowdedness before you visit a place.
I’m proud that here in Asia Pacific, we’ve been able to use our personal experiences to create a better global product for the world.