Last November, chemical engineer Argha and his twin brother Arka, 24, were riding down a main road in Vadodara, looking for some fish to fry for Diwali night.
Originally from Kolkata, they were missing their traditional feast and were swapping tales of lighting fireworks and stealing sandesh back home. Suddenly, Argha’s motorcycle spun out of control and crashed. Stunned, Arka lay on the deserted road, staring at his brother’s bashed-up face and twisted limbs.
New to the city, unable to speak much Hindi or Gujarati, and with his mobile phone charging at home, Arka stumbled to a local clinic, from where he called his brother’s friend and neighbour, Sreekanth Prabhakaran, 23, also an engineer.
Prabhakaran rushed them to a nearby hospital and then, horrified by the predicament his friends had faced, logged onto to his laptop that same night to mark the clinic and hospital on Google Maps.
“I wanted to try and help others cut short the trauma of hospital-hunting in an emergency,” he says.
Encouraged by the speed at which his additions are sanctioned and uploaded on the website, Prabhakaran has marked a total of 20 ‘points of interest’ — hospitals, nursing homes, petrol pumps, banks and ATMs — on Google Maps over the past two years.
As a voluntary Google Maps editor, Prabhakaran is part of a growing community of students, young professionals, entrepreneurs, engineers, writers, businessmen and bankers across India who are collectively adding temples, tea centres, cafés, hospitals, schools, petrol pumps and ATMs in their vicinity to the Google map of India, building a virtual visual repository aimed at helping residents and newcomers navigate neighbourhoods with ease, even on the go.
“Most people think that a map is static, but an accurate map has to be a living, breathing work,” says Google senior product manager for India, Jayant Mysore.
“The world is constantly changing, with new houses, shops and establishments being added all the time. There is no way to keep a hyper-local map updated without the users’ help.”
Each user inputs, however, must be verified if that map is not to become a mess of balloons and labels.
Accordingly, each suggested change or label is fed into a complex algorithm that forwards it to be reviewed by a more active Google Maps contributor.
Once this reviewer approves the change, the original contributor is notified via email and the data goes live.
The verifiers are called Regional Expert Reviewers.
In Vadodara, Parbhakaran has been serving as a verifier since February, approving other people’s edits based on his knowledge of the area.
“A lot of it works on trust,” says Google’s Jayant Mysore.
“We trust that someone who contributes a lot to the platform will be honest and diligent in their assessment of others’ contributions.”
In essence, the mapping works as a virtual, online community. And this sense of being part of a community, both online and offline, is a key motive for those doing the editing.
Take Carol Lobo, 47, a Mumbai-based freelance writer and now a frequent Google Maps editor.
Initially, as a Google Maps user, Lobo says she always wondered how places were flagged. Last month, while doing some research for a vacation abroad, she stumbled upon the ‘Edit In Google Map Maker’ tab in the bottom-right of her screen.
She immediately marked three local landmarks — two residential buildings and a film studio — and made two corrections, to the name of the bylane on which she lives and the location of a local college, all of them in the suburb of Bandra, Mumbai where she has lived for 30 years.
“I love Bandra and I am very sentimental about it,” she says. “And since I use Google Maps so much, I felt like part of the virtual community and, as such, I felt I should do my bit to make the navigation experience in my part of town more comprehensive. After all, it only works if everyone cooperates.”
This is a natural extension of a digital age, where levels of online interaction have exploded way beyond personal communication, says sociologist Sarala Bijapurkar.
“Indians have traditionally relied on passersby and paanwallahs for directions rather than maps or signage,” Bijapurkar adds. “This growing comfort and trust with online maps indicates a shift in mindset.”