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Showing posts with label Online Maps. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Online Maps. Show all posts

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Errors and Insufficient Information in Google's, Bing's, Baidu's, and Sogou's Online Map Services: Confusion Over the Name of a Road in China

For a variety of reasons, on a number of occasions I have found it challenging to figure out the name of a road in China. Two of those reasons are that online maps often lack relevant details and are sometimes incorrect. For example, based on some online maps people could question whether all of the photos in an earlier post were really from Baisha Road as I claimed and weren't instead from Dongguan Road.

Here is how Google Maps depicts the meeting of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road.

Google Maps for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen


Google Maps China, which unlike other versions of Google Maps is accessible in China, similarly labels the roads.

Google Maps China for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen


Starting from the upper right the maps indicate that Dongguan Road continues around the bend in the road. However, the first four photos in the earlier post were all taken at the bend or close to it on either side.

Part of my claim that the photos do indeed capture Baisha Road is based on something quite simple, the streets address signs on the buildings there. For example, here is a sign for 1 Baisha Road.

sign for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen


The location of this building neatly matches with the result to a search for the address on China-based Baidu Maps.

Baidu Maps for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen


As reflected above, even at the highest zoom levels, Baidu Maps doesn't display a name on the portion of road at and south of the bend (in all the maps south is "down").

Google Maps fails in a search for addresses on Baisha Road. It only returns a result for Baisha Road in general.

Google Maps failed attempt to indicate 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen


While the marked location is indeed on Baisha Road, it is far from 1 Baisha Road as indicated on Baidu Maps. Unfortunately, any time I have searched for Baisha Road or 1 Baisha Road in Chinese on Google Maps China I get the message "服务器错误. 请稍后重试." indicating there was a server error and suggesting to try again later. I've tried over a span of more than a week and have always had the same result.*

Like Baidu Map, the labels on China-based Sogou Maps at its highest zoom are also ambiguous on the issue, though a Dongguan Road label is closer to the bend.

Sogou Maps for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen


But Sogou indicates a location for 1 Baisha Road similar to Baidu's result.

Sogou Maps for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen


Like Google Maps, Bing Maps China** shows Dongguan Road continuing around the bend.

Bing Maps China for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen


The roads are identified similarly with English language settings and for the U.S. version of Bing Maps. Also like Google Maps, the best Bing Maps China can do for a search of 1 Baisha Road is just a general indication for Baisha Road without indicating a specific address.

Bing Maps China failed attempt to indicate 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen


Bing Maps and Google Maps also can't locate specific addresses for Dongguan Road.

To sum things up . . .

According to Google's or Bing's online map services, the scenes from the one portion of road I photographed are at Dongguan Road and not Baisha Road. They can't locate specific addresses for these two roads though.

The road labels for Baidu Maps and Sogou Maps aren't definitive one way or the other, though Sogou Maps make it look like at least a small part of the area is Dongguan Road. However, the search results for specific addresses indicate this portion of road is Baisha Road. These results match up quite well with the address signs I saw posted on buildings there.

Additionally and finally, there was one other step I took to sort things out. I asked a person working in a shop there. Without hesitation she identified this section of road as Baisha Road.

So while I wouldn't completely rule out a more complicated story indicating otherwise, the overall evidence suggests Google and Bing have it wrong and Baisha Road begins just slightly east of where Baidu Maps and Sogou Maps indicate 1 Baisha Road. While a small portion (the closest 5 meters or so of road) in the first photo might include the western end of Dongguan Road, I feel fine saying that the earlier photos capture Baisha Road.

For added evidence and color, I will later share photos of some buildings from this section of road with posted street addresses. And in another post or two farther down the road (pun unintended), I will examine other limitations and problems, some quite disastrous, with online map services for China. Similar to this post, it will in part serve as a follow-up to a comparison of online map services I did seven years ago. A lot has changed since then . . .





*I get the error message regardless of whether I use a VPN or not. I get the same error message for many other searches I've tried as well, though I have had success at times with some types of searches. It seems searches for specific addresses are especially unlikely to succeed, but at this point I'm not sure of the scope of the problem.

**I tested Bing Maps China at cn.bing.com/maps while in China, using a clean browser, and without using a VPN. However if Bing identifies you as outside of China, you may be taken to another web address without the "cn". And you may need to change Bing's settings for country/region or language to achieve a similar, though perhaps not identical, experience.


Disclosure: In the past I worked at Microsoft China. My work did not cover Bing Maps.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A New Online View from Cambodia's Streets

Earlier this year I posted photos from Phnom Penh of people riding pedal-powered vehiclesmotorbikes, and motorized-vehicles which were pulling or pushing something. Not only did the photos include a variety of vehicles, but they also captured many other aspects of life in Cambodia's capital city.

If all goes as planned, many more street scenes will be available online through Google's Street View. Jon Russell in The Next Web reports that Google has brought its cameras to Cambodia:
Cambodia becomes the 51st country on the planet to embrace Street View and, like many others, tourism is among the driving factors. Google says it is working closely with the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia, the APSARA Authority (ANA), and the Phnom Penh Municipality to make the program happen.

Street View cars have started whizzing around capital city Phnom Penh capturing images and, as is common with Street View projects, they will expand to cover other cities, town and areas of interest over “the next few years.”
Although I would be surprised if Google's cameras make it to where I explored in Kampot's Fish Isle, it may soon be easier for people to track down some of what I saw in Phnom Penh, whether it is the iPhone jailbreaking stand, the restaurant which serves tasty spiders, or even the Facebook Ice Cream store. Russell reports that the famous Angkor Wat historical site is a target for Google's Street View cameras and that government officials see it as an opportunity for Cambodia to showcase itself to the world. In that sense, even if many Cambodians cannot afford to own the technology required to use Street View, they might benefit from it encouraging people to explore Cambodia.

little girl sitting on a jug on a cart being pushed by a young woman at a market in Phnom Penh
I don't have any photos of a Street View car in Phnom Penh, so instead here's someone who might like to ride one.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Zigong, Google Maps, Baidu Map, Bing Maps, and Taiwan

I shared the previous posts about a friendly lunch and a friendly family not only because Zigong, Sichuan province, was on my mind but also because I don't yet have a post ready to follow up my earlier comments about Google Reader. I'm not sure when I will finish it, but in the meantime there are two earlier posts which now seem convenient to "refresh" since they mention both Zigong and Google: "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China" and "Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google". They are both comparisons of map services in China and were written almost two years ago. They were inspired by some findings in my research on youth in China and some claims in Western media that Baidu Map's hand-drawn 3-D view was a sign of how it had surpassed Google Maps. After providing some evidence highlighting the limitations of Baidu's 3-D view, I compared the two services in other regards. In the second post, I added Bing Maps China into the mix as well. I also included some views of Zigong to show who correctly depicted the existence (or non-existence) of a river and a street.

I would not have the exact same stories to tell if I again wrote about these three services. But some points would remain the same, including the extreme lack of detail on Baidu Map for regions outside of China. And related to that, there is one thing I will add. In the 2nd post I pointed out that in both Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:
... there is a dashed line around the South China Sea and around Taiwan to presumably make it clear they are parts of China. To say the least, these are both areas where any such claims China may make are under significant dispute. The dashed lines do not appear in Google Maps US and Bing Maps US.
Not surprisingly, those dashed lines also appear in Baidu Map. Now, here's the interesting part. Baidu Map has no details for city-level views of Taiwan--a heavily populated region. Zoom in to the city level and Taipei is not there at all. In fact, it's indistinguishable from Washington D.C. Bing Maps China at least offers a few very broad details at the city level*, although they would be rather limited in their usefulness. Only Google Maps China has rich city-level maps for Taiwan. An explanation for Baidu's lack of detail in Taiwan can't simply rest on a distinction between mainland China and the other areas administered / claimed by China, because Baidu Map has detailed city-level maps for both Hong Kong and Macau.

At least for now, I won't have the chance to research this further, so I'll just say again... "interesting".


*Yes, the results can be better for non-China-based versions of Bing Maps. That's another story, and I touched on related issues in the 2nd maps post.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bing Maps and Google Maps: The China-India Border

In my earlier post, I pointed out that both Bing Maps and Google Maps appear to explicitly indicate China's border surrounding the regions of the South China Sea and Taiwan in their China-based versions but do not do so in their US-based versions.  Leon White, who is working on his master's degree in international relations, commented on another disputed border of China that shows a similar pattern in how it is represented, but with a slight twist:
"I am currently writing my thesis on the 60 year old China-India border conflict, and the images of whole China at the end struck me as interesting...

... my main reason for writing is to highlight the differences in how these different mapping services portray the disputed border between China and India. The area most sensitive to China is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as Southern Tibet. China has not exercised control over this area since it briefly advanced to its own claim lines in the border war of 1962 - the current Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs along the controversial McMahon Line, which connects Bhutan to Myanmar starting just north of Tawang town, roughly at the north-east point of the roughly rectangular shape of Bhutan.

All of these mapping services show the border according to China's claim, i.e. at the SOUTH-east point of Bhutan's border:
http://ditu.google.cn/?ll=27.176469,92.60376&spn=7.979828,14.27124&z=7&brcurrent=3,0x3761317e9c4a2cc1:0x1fc12c628413da99,1%3B5,0,1

http://cn.bing.com/ditu/default.aspx?v=2&FORM=LMLTCP&cp=25.681137~95.515137&style=r&lvl=5&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1

http://map.baidu.com/?newmap=1&l=7&tn=B_NORMAL_MAP&c=9855441,2907956&cc=&s=tpl%3ACity&sc=0

China does NOT actually control this territory, and both parties recognise it as under dispute!

Bing appears to be trying to have it both ways, according to their Indian mapping service:
http://www.bing.com/mapindia/default.aspx?v=2&FORM=LMLTCP&cp=26.951453~95.756836&style=r&lvl=6&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1

Only Google Maps US, which loads sporadically for me here in Beijing with the VPN off, is honest about the border dispute. Note the second part of the dispute in the west, confused up with the whole Kashmir issue:
http://maps.google.com/maps?q=china&hl=en&ll=28.767659,94.152832&spn=16.273866,28.54248&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=58.076329,114.169922&z=6

And, just for laughs, the Chinese government's official mapping service:
http://tianditu.cn/

Because every mapping services needs a flashy splash screen. I couldn't seem to find a link function on that site, but it did kindly provide me with a little red car in the middle of Sichuan for some reason. Reshma Patil, the correspondent for the Hindustan Times in Beijing, had the following to say about this service:
http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/restofasia/China-s-Google-Earth-rival-claims-Arunachal/Article1-616619.aspx

http://blogs.hindustantimes.com/middle-order/2010/10/24/borderline/

Sorry for the barrage of links. I suppose the conclusions to be drawn from this are fairly obvious. In order to operate in China, you must toe the line on where the government says the borders are, even though there is no hope in hell they are getting all of that territory back, just as India will never control the Aksai Chin under dispute in the west. Most academics and even the press in China realise this, although Tawang (birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama and potential reincarnation site of the next one) is still under serious dispute."
Based on what I found before, I'm not surprised by the variations in representing the disputed border between China and India.

That Google Maps US clearly represents this border as disputed but does not do so for Taiwan or the South China Sea is worth notice.  I suspect at least part of the reason is due to how Google Maps US represents the borders for islands that have no internal international borders - for example, Taiwan, Madagascar, and Hawaii.  In short, there is nothing explicitly indicating whether islands are part of another country or independent -- for example, no country border lines around Madagascar and no dashed line to explicitly show that Hawaii is part of the US.  However, one could infer Hawaii is part of the US due to it being labeled with its state abbreviation (HI) at certain zoom levels similar to other US states.  One could also infer that Taiwan is not a part of China according to Google Maps US.  At a zoom level where China's provinces are only labeled in Chinese, Taiwan is labeled in both Chinese and English (it is peculiar that Google Maps US does not provide the names of China's provinces in English).

The details provided by Leon White regarding the disputed border between China and India brought to mind something I've been pondering recently.  What is the difference between censoring information according to government rules and providing maps of disputed regions that conform to government rules?  Both can have great impact on how people see the world around them.  I'll share some of my thoughts on this topic later.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google

In an earlier post I compared Google Maps and Baidu Map.  There were several key areas in which Google Maps was clearly superior even though Baidu Map has what some find to be a very visually appealing hand-drawn 3D view.  Combined with some of what I've found regarding the impressions of Google Maps held by Chinese youth I suggested that there could be a lot at play in Google Map's recent application for a license to continue operating in China.  If you didn't read the post taking a look at it here will provide more context for the following.

I've since received feedback from a few people indicating they like to use Microsoft's Bing Maps for some of their needs in China.  I'll take a look at how it stacks up to Google Maps and Baidu Map using the same metrics as before.

Here is a section of Zigong, Sichuan province, the same as used in the earlier post, in Bing Maps:

Zigong in Bing Maps

In comparison to either Google Maps or Baidu Map, Bing Maps shows very little detail for Zigong.  For example, the map shows none of the many roads in this area.

The level of detail in Bing Maps for Zigong is similar to many other places I've checked in China, including Shanghai.  While Beijing appears to have a bit more detail, including some streets, and Hong Kong is very detailed, they are not typical of other cities.  Needless to say, based on this it would seem that Bing Maps would be very limited in its usefulness in Mainland China.

However, there's an important piece of information I haven't mentioned.  The map above is from the version of Bing Maps for the US (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps US).  If you go to the version of Bing Maps for China at cn.bing.com/ditu (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps China) you'll see a very different level of detail.  Here's a map of approximately the same area as above, but seen in Bing Maps China:

Zigong in Bing Maps China

The detail of streets at this level of zoom is obviously much better and compares to Google Maps and Baidu Map.  And unlike Baidu Map, it accurately represents the river.  In that respect Baidu Map has been outdone on its own turf by two non-Chinese companies.

To be clear, all of the examples from Google Maps in the earlier post were from the version of Google Maps for China (I will now refer to it as Google Maps China).  So, in the version for the US (I will now refer to it as Google Maps US) is the view of Zigong sparse in details similar to Bing Maps US?

Zigong in Google Maps US

Not at all.  The above view of Zigong in Google Maps US appears to be the same map as seen in Google Maps China except that English or pinyin (a way to write Chinese words using the Roman alphabet) is also included depending on which is the most appropriate (not always an easy decision, a topic for another day).

In fact, if you zoom in a bit more, you'll see that it even provides other important details in English such as those seen here:

Google Maps doesn't miss the McDonald's and KFC

Yes, indeed Zigong has a McDonald's and KFC just where the map shows.  I walked by them several times while I was in Zigong (though, there are some local specialties I'd highly recommend instead, a possible subject for a later post).  There are also several local business shown on the map as well.  I can't be sure of their accuracy but I can say that more exist than what is shown.  However, neither Baidu Map nor Bing Maps China shows a larger number of businesses in the area and neither offers any information in English.

Is everything there looking better for Google Maps US?  No.  A not-so-small street next to the KFC is missing from the map.  It's also missing from Bing Maps (the more I explore Baidu Bing Maps China and Google Maps the more it appears that at least in Zigong they are using very similar if not identical sources for street data). 

However, here is slightly overlapping section of Zigong as seen in Baidu Map:

Baidu Map captures a street missing in Bing Maps and Google Maps

The traffic light symbol at the intersection in the lower right is where KFC is located.  The road that extends diagonally up to the left is part of what is missing on Google Maps and Bing Maps China.  It seems to deserve being placed on a map and is not just some tiny side street.  I'm rather confident about that since I walked on it several months ago.  Fortunately, I also have a photo of it:

A street that most certainly exists

At another point on the road is this view:

A view of a section of Zigong

There are numerous apartment complexes and small businesses along the road including these:

More of the street in Zigong that certainly exists

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I've found mistakes or omissions in both Google Maps and Baidu Map in various locations in China, but I have not yet noticed any issues in Google Maps that equaled Baidu Map's mangling of Zigong's river.

Regardless, where I claimed Google Maps was most clearly superior to Baidu Map was in its coverage of regions outside of China.  While I shared what North America looked like in Baidu Map (reminder, mostly just grayness without any features) I didn't share a view from Google Maps because I assumed it would be obvious that it was much better.  That may not be the case anymore so to resolve any doubts here is North America as seen in Google Maps China (ditu.google.cn):

North America in Google Maps China

After zooming in quite a bit more, here is a map of the city where I did my undergraduate & graduate studies long ago:

The Baltimore, Maryland area in Google Maps China

Many of the locations on the map are identified in both Chinese and English.  If people in China know of Dundalk by its Chinese name and want to find it that they can do so with Google Maps.  While some in Baltimore may scoff at the idea that people in China would ever need to do this, Dundalkers may feel otherwise.

If you zoom in more, the map is almost entirely in English.  However, my old alma mater does have its name in Chinese provided: 约翰霍普金斯大学 (I need to get that on a sweatshirt).  While Google Maps China doesn't provide the same degree of translation as found in the coverage of China by Google Maps US, its coverage of the US is clearly vastly superior to Baidu Map.

Since Bing Maps shows a very different view of China depending on whether one uses the version for the US or China, one could be particularly suspicious about how North America would appear in Bing Maps China.  Here is what it offers:

North America in Bing Maps China

That's as detailed as it gets.  Zooming in actually causes rivers such as the mighty Mississippi to disappear and for most locations the viewing area will be entirely filled with a light beige color.  There is no mention of the USA but there is a label for Washington, D.C.  It's a little more detailed than Baidu Map but not much more and still of rather limited use.  And Dundalkers you're not alone in being swiped from the face of the earth.  The rest of the world outside of China is equally lacking in detail.

There could be a variety of reasons as to why Bing Maps US and Bing Maps China are each lacking detailed coverage of areas that are offered in the other -- for example, the effort it would take to translate maps, licensing issues, etc.  I've noticed some curious patterns in the global coverage in Bing Maps US that add further intrigue to the issue (I may share these in a later post) so I'll refrain on making any bets for now.  If anyone from Microsoft would like to offer their thoughts I'd certainly be interested to hear them.  Whatever the reasons, the lack of coverage in both cases could lead to some disappointing moments for people using Bing Maps and could hurt its chances in being used by other online services (such as for global hotel reservations).

Since much of what I've shared pivots around what is inside and outside of China, I'll briefly touch on an important related issue for map services in China -- the borders of China.  Here is "China" in Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:

China in Baidu Bing Maps China

China in Google Maps China

Notice that in both there is a dashed line around the South China Sea and around Taiwan to presumably make it clear they are parts of China.  To say the least, these are both areas where any such claims China may make are under significant dispute.  The dashed lines do not appear in Google Maps US and Bing Maps US.  The China-based versions seem to indicate how both Google and Microsoft are trying meet the Chinese government's regulations for map services.

As I mentioned in another post, I think companies such as Google and Microsoft can serve an important role in better connecting the Chinese people to the outside world, helping them to better understand it, and helping the world to better understand China.  I think it can be worthwhile even if it means a significantly higher level of censorship than typically practiced or, as in the cases above, adding in some dashed lines. 

As I mentioned in yet another post, Microsoft Bing's new partnership with Baidu may be of value in this regards (while also possibly putting Google Search in more peril of being blocked).  However, in its current form Bing Maps China won't greatly help in achieving any such lofty goals.

Of the map services in China I've reviewed, only Google Maps effectively offers people in China a detailed view of the US and people in the US a detailed view of China.  This isn't only good for helping people learn more about the world, but also good for Google's business.

Again, Google's strength in its map services in China may mean it will face some special challenges.  For now, both Google and Microsoft continue to wait to see if licenses will be granted for their map services in China.  How that plays out may shed some light on the differences between them. 

Regardless, based on what I've seen it's not hard to imagine what Baidu is hoping for.


Disclosure:  I worked at Microsoft China in the past.  My work did not cover Bing Maps.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Obstacles in China for Google and Facebook

In my post "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand" I highlighted that Facebook stands apart from Chinese social-networking sites in its ability to meet a key need & desire for many in China: connecting with the world.  I felt that Facebook could serve a positive role, both for China and the world, even given the fact that it would likely have to censor material on its site as required by the Chinese government.

So this clearly means that I think Google Search made a mistake in not keeping a censored version of its service in China, right?

Not necessarily.

On the issue of needing to self-censor Facebook and Google Search are different.

Last year, Google decided to redirect its search service in Mainland China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it would no longer be required to censor per the rules of the Chinese government (although it does presumably now "censor" according to the far less strict requirements in Hong Kong).  At that point China essentially took over the active duties of censoring the site.  China can block individual search requests or block individual pages of results depending on the content.  The experience one can having using Google Search in China can vary depending on the Great Firewall's apparent mood of the day, but essentially a user in China can go to Google Search, enter a "bad" search term, be "blocked", return to the search page (sometimes there may be a delay before the page is accessible), and then do something else.

In short, it is possible for China's Great Firewall to block "bad" things on Google Search without entirely stopping someone from using it.

However, if Facebook takes a stand to not censor material according to the rules of the Chinese government then there's no way for them to operate in a similar fashion.  Imagine if China reviews every incoming page from Facebook and only blocks pages that include "bad" material.  What if the news feed on a person's homepage includes a "bad" link that has been posted by a friend? China would block the page and that's it.  The person can't use Facebook at all.

As Facebook is currently designed there is likely now no way for it to be practically available in China unless Facebook itself censors material.  However, there may be hope that any censorship requirements for Facebook may not be as draconian as some may imagine.  A recent article by Loretta Chao in the Wall Street Journal that provides an overview of the competition between various Chinese social-networking sites (see here) touches on this:
"Chinese websites, including Sina, are required to police themselves to keep their government-issued operational licenses, a costly task involving dozens of employees who monitor the sites around the clock.

Although Sina is known for its heated discussions, at times over controversial issues such as local government corruption and soaring property prices, most talk on the site isn't political. When sensitive topics arise, the company can be creative in limiting conversation without cutting it off altogether—for example, by blocking searches of sensitive keywords but not stopping people from publishing them on their own microblogs."
Facebook may be able to allow similar "freedoms".  Although, it should be noted that as a foreign company they may be held to stricter standards than local companies for a variety of reasons.  As I've noted before regarding Google (see here), life is not always "fair" in China.

The only way for Facebook to take Google Search's route of not censoring themselves would be for Facebook to massively redesign its service.  Since China would still attempt to censor parts of the site, Facebook would have to ask itself whether it would be worth it.  For Google Search it was more simple.  Not censoring only meant less, not more, work for them since no fundamental changes to the design of the service were required (whether taking this route has led to more "interference" for Google's services in China is another issue).

This is why holding Google Search and Facebook to different expectations for self-censorship in China can be reasonable.  If China completely blocked Google Search then I would hope it would self-censor for reasons similar to those I've outlined for Facebook.  [Added note: Yes, I realize Google tried this once before and decided that it wasn't working for them.  Whether they should try again (if it's the only option) partly depends on the exact issues that previously caused them to stop self-censoring per China's rules.  My point is simply that a censored Google would be better for people in China than no Google.  Whether it is practical for Google to do so (China may not apply censorship rules consistently or fairly to Google) is another issue.]

The impact of the different situations faced by Google Search and Facebook relates to another issue Google is now facing: maintaining the operation of Google Maps in China.  As I previously discussed in my comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Map (see here), I think there are signs that Google Maps is strongly positioned in China and this may be why they're reportedly willing to form a joint venture with a Chinese company to meet new regulations.  In this case, there is presumably no option to offer Google Maps in China by redirecting traffic to servers in Hong Kong -- China would simply block the entire site.

There is also much talk about Google's new offerings in Google+.  See here for an in-depth overview by Steven Levy on Wired.com and here for a piece by Ben Parr on Mashable.  Earlier today, I noted (see here) that at the time the entry portal to the service appeared to be blocked in China due to DNS issues that could be easily "fixed".  Later, the Shanghaiist reported (see here) that the service could be accessed in China but was very slow.  Regardless, Google+ will likely face it's own particular challenges if it wants to operate in China.

I feel that Facebook, Google, and other companies who can help Chinese people connect with the world all should do their best to have a presence in China.  They can all offer something special for people in China, each in their own way.  Depending on their services they may have to make different sacrifices to do so, but in many cases they will be worth it for the companies, their customers, and their users.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Google and the New Rules for Online Map Services in China

In my previous post "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China" I glossed over the details about the newly required license for online map services in China.  Some readers have had questions so I'll provide some more information.

The requirement for a license was announced last year.  Google missed filing an application before one deadline on March 31 of this year.  After March 31, any company operating without a license would be "exposed" but could continue to operate.  At that point Google was reportedly still in discussions with the Chinese government.  However, July 1 marks a deadline where any company operating online maps in China without a license could be prosecuted.  Google has recently submitted its application.  While it was clear since last year that a license would be required, it was only earlier this month (at least publicly) that it was announced by Chinese authorities that a joint venture with a Chinese company would be required for foreign companies to operate online map services in China.  Google has reportedly attempted to meet this requirement by proposing to operate the service "through Beijing Guxiang Information Technology Co., a joint venture by Google and Ganji.com".

A post at 2point6billon.com (here) highlights some of the other requirements:
  • The service provider must boast proper mapping qualifications
  • The service provider must store all its mapping data on servers located within Mainland China
  • The service provider must be able to effectively regulate location uploading and marking by its users
  • The service provider must have no record of security leaks within the past three years
Loretta Chao at the Wall Street Journal in an article (here) shares another requirement:
"...companies must demonstrate that they have systems in place to ensure that their maps, including disputed territories, are labeled in accordance with Chinese rules and that sensitive information like military addresses is removed."
There has still been no public announcement whether a license has been approved for Google Maps.

On another note... yes, I'm aware this impacts other foreign companies as well.  For example, both Nokia and Microsoft have also formed joint ventures for their online map services.  Nokia has received its license while Microsoft is still awaiting approval.  However, I still believe it is possible that the new rules could have been at least partially motivated by concern over Google's (and possibly other foreign companies') strength in maps.  There may have been a desire to either make life difficult for foreign companies such as Google or ensure that local entities would benefit from any success.  Given Google's recent struggles in China, I found it curious that there would be increased requirements specifically in an area where I saw signs that Google had a significant advantage.  The new rules may not only be about "protecting China's national security" unless that phrase is very broadly interpretted.

Again, regardless of the motivations behind the new requirements, that Google is apparently agreeing to them is telling.  And for a variety of reasons I think it's the right choice for Google.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Google Maps and Baidu Map in China

A couple of months ago there were reports that Google was "in talks with the Chinese government about its online map product" after Google had missed one deadline to apply for the newly required state license to operate an online mapping service in China.  Reportedly, the new license was to ensure maps did not reveal information that was considered sensitive to China's national security.  While some of Google's services in China, such as search, now redirect to servers in Hong Kong, Google Maps currently remains "in China".

Since those initial reports, I've noticed some curious patterns in my research on Chinese youth (those approxiately 18-25 years old) that made me wonder if there is something more to the story, as there often is in China.  I'll provide an overview of what I noticed in my research, some comparisons of Google's and Baidu's online map services, and a few comments on what I think this all may say regarding the above mentioned and more recent news about Google Maps in China.

In short, I've seen some indications that younger people across a number of regions in China (2nd tier cities and smaller) prefer Google Maps over the online map service offered by Google's main competitor in China, Baidu.

There are four things in what I've heard from younger people that particularly stand out.  One, a strong preference for Google Maps can be expressed even when the person rarely or never uses any of Google's other services.  Two, some were very animated when talking about Google Maps -- it seems to have really connected with them.  Three, I have heard the same thing from people in a variety of regions ranging from Shandong in the east to Sichuan in the southwest.  Four, it has been uncommon for someone to express an overall preference for Baidu Map.

Given the nature of the interviews (very exploratory in nature and no observation of people actually using online maps), I can't be sure of "why" this may be.  Some youth commented that Google Maps was easier to use while others mentioned the richer visual imagery available.  I'd want to do more in-depth research before commenting further.

To provide a sense on some of the reasons youth may prefer Google Maps over Baidu Map I'll make some comparisons.

To start, Baidu has a relatively new view for its map service that has even caught some attention in the US.

Baidu Map's 3D view of the Xujiahui District in Shanghai

This hand-drawn 3D view includes quite a bit of detail.  Above is a part of Shanghai were I've lived and worked.  The 3D view received some positive comments in the US such as "the maps are pretty rad" by Nicholas Jackson of The Atlantic. VisualJournalism.com titled a post "Baidu beats Google when it comes to mapping" and Jason Chen at Gizmodo expressed hope that Google would create similar maps.

So, should Google be jealous or concerned?  While I appreciate the appeal and possible applications of Baidu's 3D view, overall I don't believe Google has much to worry about at the moment.

Baidu's 3D view is lacking in several important aspects.  One, even in a major city such as Shanghai, only the very central districts are covered.  See here for what is found just next to the region shown above:


I can say with great confidence that those blank regions are very urban regions and not fields or beach front.  IKEA must be disappointed that its building so narrowly missed being included -- it's located just to the left of the highway intersection in the center of the image.

Another limitation can be seen in the details. It appears that not all of the buildings are up-to-date.  For example, one area shows an "under-construction" building that was completed a number of years ago.  I'd be curious to know what Baidu uses as a source to guide visual design of the map.  Given the vast amount of construction and rebuilding in China, regularly updating the map would be all the more important.

Another issue is that the 3D view is not aligned with the regular map view.  When toggling between the two views the scene is rotated by about 20-30 degrees -- a somewhat disorienting experience both due to the change and to the resulting unusual orientation of the map (north is no longer straight up).

Even with these limitations, Shanghai is "lucky".  Another key issue is that the 3D view is not available at all for most cities in China.

So, how do Google Maps and Baidu Map compare in the majority of cases where Baidu Map does not offer 3D view?

For one example, take a look at Zigong in Sichuan province -- a city where I heard some youth express their preference for Google Maps.  Here is a map of a section of Zigong as seen through Google Maps China-based service:

Zigong in Google Maps

Here is a map at a similar zoom in Baidu Map:

Zigong in Baidu Map

As you can see, there are some significant differences, but you may notice something particularly different -- the river.  On Baidu Map it abruptly stops at either end and extends to a region in the east where Google Maps shows no river.  Maybe Baidu Map is correct and it's really a narrow lake or the river travels underground in parts.

How to know for sure?  Well, there's no obvious way on Baidu Map, but on Google Maps one can easily switch to the satellite view (I should note it now appears to be well aligned with the map view, which wasn't the case earlier for Google's maps of China):

Zigong in Google Maps' Satellite View

Unless Google is manipulating the satellite imagery, it's readily apparent their map of the river is far more accurate.

There are a variety of comparisons one could make between Google's and Baidu's online maps and Google Maps doesn't always come out on top.  For example, when I was in Dunhua, Jilin province (see here for some scenes of Dunhua) I noticed several differences because Google Maps was missing a street I needed to find and it appeared on Baidu Map.  I further noticed they didn't agree on some street names and I walked around to see who was correct -- based on the street signs it was Baidu Map.  However, Google Maps had identified some landmarks such as a park that were not identified on Baidu Map.

What about maps for outside of China?  Well, Baidu of course has maps of other locations, such as North America.  However, the level of detail may surprise you:

All the detail you need for North America

The above map in Baidu is as detailed as it gets.  Zoom in any more and all you will see is a screen of grayness.  Too bad, I was really looking forward to seeing if the Mississippi River remained intact.  Other non-Chinese parts of the world have a similar amount of detail.  Seeing Baidu Map's different levels of detail for China and elsewhere reminded me of famous map of a New Yorker's view of the world.  You can explore Google Maps' view of North America yourself if you question whether it provides any more detail than above.

It would be complex to do a full comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Maps coverage of China in terms of streets, places, services available, etc.  However, while neither is perfect, typically any missing or mistaken information I've noticed on Google Maps does not involve large scale errors so obvious as missing large sections of a river.   Furthermore, the coverage of China by the satellite view of Google Maps, even if only including detailed views, readily appears to be far greater than that of Baidu Map's 3D view.

Google clearly offers an experience on online maps that in some respects Baidu simply can't match right now.  This plus what I've heard from Chinese youth makes me strongly suspect that Google is noticing Google Maps is receiving significant attention in China.  In fact, they may not be the only ones in China aware of this.

I think these points are key for two main reasons.

One, the relative strength of Google Maps may be another reason why Google is reportedly being asked to jump through new hurdles to maintain the service in China.  As discussed in an earlier post about Google's problems in China (see here), any success Google finds in China may motivate others to make life more difficult for it because better connected Chinese companies will be "losing out".

Two, it may explain why Google is now reportedly planning to partner with a Chinese company to ensure they can keep their obtain the map license in order to meet new requirements Google has reportedly been willing to partner with a Chinese company in its recently submitted application for an online map license.  Google may believe that they have something special with Google Maps in China and are willing to make a pragmatic choice in order to keep it as fully operational as possible in China.  Creating a partnership with the right company in China would not only help Google Maps meet China's new rules but also possibly help better protect Google Maps in the future since a more local (and possibly better connected) company would be involved.  If this is true it may be an important hint about Google's outlook & strategy for moving ahead in China.

Finally, regardless of the motivations behind the new rules for online maps in China and how Google is responding, the difference in what Google Maps can offer in comparison to Baidu Map is both vast and important.  In an upcoming post I'll write about another company that would like to establish a strong online presence in China and who can also provide something desired by many Chinese yet not currently available through any Chinese company.  In their own way, like Google they don't have blank maps for most of the world.

Added Note:  For more details see the post: Google and the New Rules for Online Map Services in China

2nd Added Note:  For how Bing Maps compares as well plus additional analysis of Google Maps and Baidu Map see: Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google