Google Earth © Google, Data: SIO, NOAA, U.S Navy, NGA, GEBCO, IBCAO, INEGI, Landsat/Copernicus, U.S Geological Survey
As part of our celebration of this year’s medal and awards recipients, we caught up with Michael Jones, recipient of the Patron’s Medal for his contribution to the development of geospatial information, to discuss his career, his greatest achievement and his love of maps.
How did you go from being a software engineer to an inventor and then Chief Technologist for Google Maps – that’s quite a journey?
It began with a love of computers, programming, and mathematics. They have been my focus since childhood: studying old computer architecture long after the machines were gone, learning obscure programming languages which I had to simulate on paper, trying to fit all of computing in my head.
The path has not been direct but it has been consistent—I’ve done what seemed challenging and exciting at every step, trying to do new rather than old, more rather than less, and trusted my technical judgement.
Everyone is inventive, you need only ignore limits and ask yourself “how should it be?” The key is having passion for ideas: loving them as parents do children, sacrificing for them, excusing the worst and believing the best, and being patient and supportive as they mature. They take time to reach their bright promise.
My journey has brought fascinating experiences. As the technical ambassador of Google, I spent my time visiting leaders worldwide to hear concerns and answer questions. It took me to Buckingham Palace for lunch with Prince Philip; to China where I was threatened on stage by a shouting, angry, armed soldier; and to other situations not strictly along the line from computer programming to geography. Don’t define yourself by past success. Study widely, read voraciously and say yes to new challenges.
How has geography helped shape your career? Where did your interest in maps come from?
My childhood interest in maps came from reading National Geographic magazines. From these maps and stories, my love of the universal in mapping took shape—extending geography’s where with what and who; expanding Abraham Ortelius’s Theatre of the World to the genius of Martin Waldseemüller’s Universalis Cosmographia (with his elephant in the Okavango delta of Africa) and ultimately, to the Universal Geography of Élisée Reclus, who revolutionised with oblique ‘tourist photo’ imagery and details of people and customs.
As an avid science fiction reader, I learned that travellers to the planet of a lost civilisation may wisely seek a map room to understand the former society and its ways of life. First among these is Larry Niven’s Ringworld, whose map room remains an inspiration. Earth has one: the Vatican’s Gallery of Maps in Rome. The Popes had built their own, but I wanted one and thought everyone else should have one too.
This map fascination surfaced in my computer programming, mathematics, and computer graphics career via civil engineering, site planning, and computer image generation for aircraft flight simulation. The latter is how I became obsessed with the idea of making planet-scale photographic imagery possible. My work there led to the invention that makes Google Earth possible.
Martin Waldseemüller’s Universalis Cosmographia. No known copyright restrictions.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement and what are you most proud of in your work?
Hopefully my greatest achievement will be the next one. This is a core aspiration of life.
The work cited by the Society in awarding me the Patron’s Medal has touched the most people and I am proud of that. It changed how we understand our world by answering questions as a personal conversation with the planet. Google Earth answers with imagery, in 3D, on a globe that is science fiction’s ultimate map room. Google Maps answers everyday questions: Where is it? How do I get there? Is the store open? Do they have my size? Where are my friends? These are now a normal part of everyday life for billions of people. I am proud of the dream, the invention that makes it possible, and everyone and everything involved.
During your career how has cartography and mapping changed?
Maps have become ubiquitous in the lives of billions of people. They have become precise in ways that would astound our heroes: Carl Friedrich Gauss, who brought genius to the geodetic field, would be amazed at today’s Ordnance Survey capabilities. Maps have become personal and conversational: your map is created from answers to your questions, a personal assistant customised by our tastes and habits. They reflect dynamic information about the world around us: pandemic maps show data as of the hour. It is quite a change from mapping data evolving at a geological or glacial pace to today’s minute-by-minute health, safety, and traffic news in geographic context.
There is another aspect to the change as well, concerning who makes the map. In the past it was a national matter, often a military one. Then, over the last century, commercial and scientific organisations joined in mapping. Today we’re all part of map making. Our travels help characterise roads as congested and slow, our presence votes for locations as popular, and because of the web, anyone can curate a map visible to people worldwide. So it’s not just a billion people using a map, it is a billion people making a map through their daily lives.
How do you think mapping, maps and our use of them will change in the future?
Like everything, mapping will become better at what it already does: precise capture of location data using imagery, more perfect geospatial computation, joining as-designed and as-built data into a reliable omnipresent truth describing buildings and utilities, better imagery in terms of resolution and update frequency, and, advanced sensors including synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and hyperspectral sensors. SAR allows views of flooding during a hurricane by looking through the storm cloud from space, as in the ICEYE survey over Grand Bahama Island in 2019.
Maps for people to look at will be less frequent than maps as a means of data processing. Many mobile phone applications rely on location information. This is ‘maps for computers’. Self-driving cars and trucks need ‘maps for robots’. Augmented Reality needs ‘maps for artificial intelligence’. This is all mapping. It is the same science but not intended for human eyes or interpretation.
Another change concerns not how a map is made, or for whose eyes, but what it is about. To me a map is a form of literature: Google Maps is a dictionary and Google Earth (as well as Élisée Reclus’ Universal Geography) is an encyclopaedia. That’s the reference section, but what about comedy, drama, romance, and news? We wondered about that by asking “what is a map for fun?”
One answer is Pokémon GO, the map-as-a-game produced by Niantic, where I am an executive. We see the opportunity to use the Earth as the game board for many interesting, fun activities and have built mapping and game-play tools to make it work for hundreds of millions of cooperating players. With more than a billion installations to date, it seems the future of mapping will forever include entertainment.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into a career in mapping?
That it can be dangerous to listen to the advice of others! You are wise to seek counsel of those you respect, but equally foolish to ignore the truth that you feel in your heart. Read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware before making life choices.
Mapping is about organising information that is important to people and then doing something useful, valuable, or even lifesaving with that data. Often the solution to a geographic or cartographic need in the UK is as useful in every other country; few careers are as global as mapping. It is also a rich opportunity space in that what’s not yet done is bigger than what has come before. That means you can be a pioneer if you want to be.
My final advice, which would apply in any career, is that it is powerful to be smarter, understand more deeply, and work harder than everyone around you. In technical work it may seem that a degree is proof of excellence; I’ve seen it more often as suggestion of adequacy. Excellence is a further step that comes from what you do above and beyond what is asked or expected.
For example, did you use GDAL in a program? Why not study the source code to learn more than school taught you, then make a meaningful contribution. Have you used ArcGIS? Would you be able to make a stunning map that ESRI would choose for their Map Book? Maybe you could develop the toolset for your stunning map into something of a calling card. Have you ever used survey tools? Learn first-hand how it works. Invent yourself, invest effort in your skills and career. Reinvent mapping.
Since late 2019, Chartered Geographers have been able to request that their CPD log is reviewed and certified by the accreditation scheme’s assessors.
There are only three weeks left for geographers wanting to start their teacher training in autumn 2020 to apply for our Geography Teacher Training Scholarship programme.
This week is Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of the contribution millions of people across the UK make through volunteering each year.
Congratulations to the newest members of our Council, who were elected at our Annual General Meeting (AGM) yesterday.
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