The Hidden Army of Workers Responsible for the Huge Success of Google Maps

I never thought about Google Maps much until I saw Luke Wroblewski speak at the UI19 conference in Boston. His talk covered a range of topics, but one comment in particular caught my attention – he mentioned the difference between Google Maps and Apple Maps was a workforce of thousands. Indeed, when Google Maps was first released in 2005, it was riddled with errors. Addresses appeared in empty fields or outright didn’t exist. Despite a sudden influx of millions of users, no one quite trusted Google Maps when it was released.

What eventually separated Maps from other products on the market (and there were others) was Google’s sheer determination to brute-force a solution. According to Wroblewski, Google took 1,000 people and set them to the task of correcting the many errors in Google Maps.

“The secret to this success isn’t, as you might expect, Google’s facility with data but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world.” via the Atlantic

Just how many people did Google commit to maps? In Sept. 2012, Business Insider reported that Google had nearly 7,100 people working on Google Maps, working as “street view drivers, people flying planes, people drawing maps, people correcting listings, and people building new products.”

Does this ‘scale?’ We think of scalability as hiring 10 people to run a $100-million dollar company – but in the complex world that we live in, this isn’t always realistic. Scalability is a movable concept. Scalable may not mean a small team, it may mean a large team able to complete repeatable steps.

How does this impact enterprise software and applications? I think we need to give some serious thought to who and what makes a company successful. A ‘small’ group of developers made the Google maps application. The other 7,000+ made it useful to the common user, who would not tolerate mistakes in maps. It had to be near-perfect, and it wasn’t technology that made it so or the small team. It was the 7,000+ workers, the pure force of 1,000s of work-hours each year to sanitize and perfect the data uploaded into Google.

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