The Fence

Ian McPherson: Sailing on the good ship Google Maps


Ian McPherson works at Google Maps, a now much-used software program that had its origin in Sydney, Australia, but is now very much a worldwide operation. In every way. Ian sat down with iMOVE to speak about what he does, and how he navigated to this role in digital mapping.

Could you tell us a little bit about your current role?

I am at Google, and in particular, I’m the enterprise sales lead for Google Maps in South-East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

And day-to-day, what does that involve? What percentage is technical, marketing, sales? What are the various components of your role?

I’d probably say about 25% of it is I guess technical, and when I say technical, it’s more just understanding the needs of the customer.

But really my day-to-day role involves working with customers to really harness location as a powerful tool in their business, because we believe that location is essential to a lot of what businesses do these days. We help them unlock the power of location through Google Maps and the power of APIs.

How long have you been there at Google?

I’ve been at Google seven years. Five of those years I’ve been in Google Maps. As I said, at the moment I’m in the sales lead role, but the previous two years I actually spent working more closely with our product teams at head office in Mountain View, California, as a business development lead for some of the smart urban mobility systems and tools that we’re working on.

And going back a bit further than seven years, what was your path to your current role? What did you study and how did you careerwise get to the point of the Google Maps role?

It’s a bit of an interesting path. I started my working life as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy. I left school and went to the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra in 1987, completed a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in oceanography, which seems a bit interesting for where I am today. And then I then spent the next 17 years driving ships for a living.

That was my job. I specialised as a navigator, and then as a mine warfare specialist. I bounced around from ship to ship and did a few jobs, different shore establishments as well. I was posted to HMAS Creswell as a training officer, where I ran the navy’s mine warfare school at HMAS Waterhen for a couple of years. Then my last job in the navy was as Commanding Officer of a minehunter, HMAS Yarra, which I did for two years.

Then after 20 years of Navy time, I decided for family reasons, as we started having small children, that it was a bit hard to be away from home so much. So I left the Navy and pursued a career in the outside world, in the commercial world.
At the same time, I was completing an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management, which I finished around 2014. My MBA was specialised around business and technology. My first role out of the navy was actually with Kaz Group, which was part of Telstra at the time, the IT services part of Telstra, and I ran all its defence accounts. It was a pretty steep learning curve first job out of the navy.

After that, I had a couple of other in IT companies, services companies, did a couple years at Melbourne IT in the enterprise hosting division, and then I landed at Google. In a nutshell, that’s the last 30 odd years of my working life.

Sounds so short, wrapped up in a couple of hundred words, doesn’t it! In your role at Google Maps, have you found much of a link between to your navy days, and navigation and maps? Was there any advantage for you, any linkage between the two?

In my days as a navigator on a ship, it was all paper maps, or charts. It was the previous generation of mapping, so as I was leaving the navy, we were just in the early days of digital mapping. So my history with the navy predates the current digitised world of mapping, but having said that, I wasn’t a geospatial specialist by any means, but obviously have an understanding and an affinity for maps and mapping, which led to an interest in Google Maps when I started at Google.

My first role at Google had nothing to do with maps. I was part of Google Enterprise, doing more of a sales and marketing role. But I quickly grew quite an interest in the mapping part of the business and had a good relationship with some of the guys who were already in the Google Maps team. I was then fortunate enough to be offered a role move to the Maps team.

I’ve always had a very soft spot for the charts and maps, and it’s great to take that on as a living.

In regards to the team there, what do you think regard yourselves as? Is it an amalgam of cartography and data visualisation? What does the team in general seem itself as?

Look, I think we would consider Google Maps as being a way of harnessing data, or location-based data, and making it accessible for people to navigate the world around them. Essentially what we are is data architects. We take many, many datasets and bring them together in a way that makes sense to humans, and I think maps are a really great way for people to understand data and places, and then connect that to the world around them.

That’s how we would see ourselves. I don’t think we would see ourselves as cartographers. More architects of the digital landscape in a map format.

And perhaps taking learnings from how things have been done before? Does the team look at paper maps and charts as reference material, as a design touchstone in how they think about maps and digitisation? Looking at them and thinking, ‘That’s a good thing that they’ve done there. How can we represent that digitally?’

Oh, for sure. I guess the genesis of Google Maps 15 years ago was, ‘Let’s take what’s historically been a paper format and turn it into something digital that you can put onto …’. Back in the day it was a desktop, but obviously now it’s more commonly used in the mobile format, in the form of a mobile handset.

So yes, Google Maps is just the evolution of what paper maps were to what they are today. But of course, they’re far more dynamic and interactive. A paper map was not dynamic in any way, but now digitised maps allows you to interact with a map in ways that cartographers of 15 or 50 years ago probably didn’t even imagine.

The ability to integrate a point of interest to get more metadata about that point, the ability to actually navigate from one place to another using that same map, these are all things that probably existed in the dreams on cartographers years ago, but those dreams have become a reality.

Sure. From me to you, if you could only get everyone to work on getting better voice recognition, because it’s still a very frustrating relationship between it and navigation!

Voice recognition’s getting better all the time. I think that it has come a long way and I think sometimes the voice recognition software is perhaps limited by the quality of the hardware of the device, as well. Something we obviously can’t control, but I think it’s getting better all the time.

I was maybe being harsh … Siri and I have had some issues of late! Now, if we could move away from the real for a moment, to a hypothetical. This could be in your area of mapping, or it could be any area of transport. With an unlimited budget and timeframe, what would you like to undertake to help fix a transport problem?

Wow, that’s a very big question.

No limits.

No limits. Wow! Look, I think the holy grail, in a world without budgetary limit is having ubiquitous transport that transports people from one place to another in the minimum time, maximum efficiency, with the least environmental footprint. That means potentially a driverless car world, with electric or hybrid vehicles that have a very low footprint. But clearly we’re a long way from having that sort of environment!

And look, of course, it would have to incorporate a multimodal experience too. Such as having a multimodal world where the transport connectivity from one mode to another is almost seamless, so that moving around the world becomes less of an onerous task on the individual.

For example, I live two hours out of Sydney, but the commute to and from work for me can be anywhere between two and three hours, depending on the traffic, which is just a function of the inability of our existing transport infrastructure to cope with population growth, expansion, all those sort of things.

I think the holy grail would be to enable people to live a lifestyle where they can be remote, not having to live within the confines of the metropolitan area of the city, but still be within an hour or at most commute time from their workplace.

At the moment, there’s a lot of people in that situation, and I think the loss of productivity from people’s commute is a massive cost on the economy. I think the ability to be able to provide seamless, low-cost, efficient, environmentally-friendly transport for people that reduces the burden on the economy …that’s the holy grail. But we’re a long way from that!

You mentioned multi-modality, and right now there’s a lot of thought and work going on in the area of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). What’s Google Maps’ thoughts and endeavours in that area?

Good question. I think this is part of the world that I was in for a couple of years prior to this, with the product team. We spent a lot of time working with mobility providers and thinking about where Google fits in that ecosystem?

Yeah, look, I think it’s something we’re thinking very deeply about. I don’t know that we’ve quite worked out what part we should play in that ecosystem, whether we become an aggregator of mobility services, or whether we just become a marketplace for others to be able to present their services.

You already see that we’re starting to do that, and there’s elements of that coming into Google Maps now. For example, if you go in some locations you can go and try and navigate your way from one place to another. It’ll actually show you different options. Maybe you could take an Uber or a Lyft or different options that enable you to plan your journey.

But I guess the holy grail there is to be able to plan, book, and pay for that sort of mobility service inside Google Maps. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to that place, but it’s certainly something we’re thinking about. I think MaaS has a big future. There’s a lot of platforms out there that are doing a really interesting job of that right now.

There’s one called Whim in Finland, which offers a pay by the month, all you can eat MaaS offering, where I think you can pay something like 600 Euros a month and you get access to all forms of transport. Car share, public transport, taxis, scooters, whatever you like, which is a really interesting model. And that’s just one example, as you said, there is a lot going on with MaaS.

Transport will be an extremely interesting space over the next 5 or 10 years, that’s for sure!

Now, part two of the hypothetical, this time again, a problem that you attack to make a big difference in transport … limited budget, limited time frame, so has to have a big whack of change, what would you do?

It’s tough to think of a quick win project for Australia – I generally think our transport infrastructure needs a lot of big budget investment to modernise. That said, there’s always tweaks you can do to make incremental improvements.

For example, the last 5-10 years have seen a lot of population decentralisation in our capital cities as people look for cheaper housing and better quality of life. Many families are now living in the 80—120 kilometre outer ring, but still need to commute into the city for work. Revamping existing rail timetables to accommodate this shift with express trains (using existing rolling stock) from semi-rural areas would make a dramatic difference to people’s quality of life.

I’m a great example of this – I live in the Southern Highlands of NSW, which is really only 120 kilometres from the city. A fast train could make the trip in under 1 hour, however the current timetabling means changing trains twice, and it takes more than 2.5 hours, and further, is generally unreliable. It’s easier, more reliable and more convenient for me to drive (which adds one more car to the road) which usually takes over 2 hours. If there was a fast train – I would take it every time!

Other that what you’re doing now, and what you’ve done previously, is there something new, perhaps even a new field for you entirely, that what you would like to take on?

The recent bushfire crisis affected my family personally. We live in the Southern Highlands of NSW, in an area where I never imagined would be threatened by bushfires, yet in the first week of 2020, my family and I were evacuated from our home twice. It was a very real and sobering experience – driving away from your house not knowing whether it would be there when you went back.

We were extraordinarily lucky, but many others in our region were not, and lost their homes. The experience prompted me to join the NSW RFS, which is something that I’d always thought that “I must get around to”. I’d previously been an office in the Royal Australian Navy, so have some skills and experience in firefighting, but I really want to get involved. There’s a bunch of training I need to get through this year, but it’s a diverse organisation, with a lot of ancillary roles beyond just fighting bushfires. I think it’s a great opportunity to give back to the community.

In the next three to five years, what aspect of transport mobility are you most excited about?

I think we touched on it before. I think the Mobility as a Service models … I’m really excited about those, as we think about the different modes of transport, the connectivity, just improving the access to services and transport services for people who at the moment, have very limited options.

I think there’s a lot of inequity in transport services at the moment. Often the people who need access to low-cost public transport the most are the ones that have the least access to it. I think starting to bring about some change and access to low-cost public transport over the next three to five years to those people. This is on a global scale, not just in Australia I’m talking about, but I think that’s a really exciting idea, an exciting and socially helpful prospect.

I know we’re thinking about that. I know there’s a lot of other companies out there who are thinking about how they can improve the equality there, transport equality. That’s what I’m really excited about.

Of the work you’ve done in the last seven years at Google, and Google Maps in particular, what new addition or enhancement to Google Maps are you most proud of?

Well I mean, not so much in transport, but in the Google Maps product and some of the work that I’ve done with clients. We did some work with New South Wales Roads and Maritime Services, they’ve been a customer of ours for a number of years. Very proud of the work we’ve done with those guys to help bring some quality data to their business around road congestion in New South Wales, which really helps them manage congestion better.

Similarly proud of the work I’ve done with New Zealand Transport, a similar sort of project, giving them access to data that is generated from Google Maps about their road network that they can then get feedback into the system to help them understand and manage congestion as a problem. They’re two pieces of work that I’ve been involved in over the last four or five years in Google Maps that I’ve been very proud of.

Does that data and that information and projects like those last two, does that become a two-way thing? Do you get much back from clients once they’ve employed the data?

Look, no, we don’t. I mean, we get data back from various agencies in different ways, but yeah, we don’t get data back from them per se, but we allow … they use our APIs and our services to generate intelligence about their road networks, which are then used in many different ways. But primarily to manage congestion of the problem, and start to detect problems before they actually become a problem.

And then obviously in situations where there is an incident or emergency, they’re able to provide some intelligence to other authorities to be able to manage it better. Yeah, it’s a great service that they built there, and we’re very proud to support it.

Last question Ian, and if you tell us anything top secret or breaking news, that’s perfectly fine. Is there much on the slate that you can tell us about at the moment for Google Maps, adding or enhancing or making a better service?

Secrets, no, but there is stuff that I can talk about. There’s no secret that we’ve been heavily involved in the ridesharing movement over the last three to four years. We’ve obviously been involved in the likes of Uber and Lyft and locally, in Asia-Pacific, Grab and Gojek and Ola Cabs, that are all big disruptors in that space.

So yes, we’ve been heavily involved with those guys over the last three to five years. They’ve obviously picked up and used our products in ways that we maybe didn’t even think of at the time, which has presented problems of scale and different problems that we hadn’t previously considered. They’ve really pressed us to I guess look at the APIs, look at the products as they currently exist, and think about how we can optimise those services for their particular use cases.

I’m talking about ridesharing and I guess hyperlocal delivery services and things like that. That’s something that we’ve been working really hard on, and we’re building out a suite of products there that are specific to the local rise of delivery problem. That’s one thing we’re working on. We’re also working on some, in the gaming space, think Pokemon Go and some of those kind of gaming things that location-based, and map-based.

We’re working on some pretty cool tools and systems that allow gaming companies to pick up our products and integrate them more easily into new games. That’s another area that we’ve been focusing on. And outside of that, this year I think we’re focusing pretty heavily on the logistics use case as well, which I think is an extension of the local ride and delivery use case, but logistics is an area where I think there’s lots of interesting challenges coming up.

If you think about how existing and traditional logistics companies have to now approach their day-to-day job in worlds where traffic congestion is becoming increasingly a problem, environmental concerns are becoming more at the forefront. How can we set logistics companies up for the next stage of their business, using our tech? I think they’re the kinds of areas that we’re really investing a lot of time in, and of course, we’re still looking at that whole mobility space, urban mobility, Mobility as a Service and multimodal transport options.

They’re the main areas that we’re looking at, and I think you’ll definitely see some new stuff coming out from us in those areas over the next 12-24 months.

I said last question, I lied. It just occurred to me. Google Maps started in Australia. What sort of strength or what sort of centrality do we have in the Google Maps world at the moment? Do we still lead the way? Is it still based here, or has it moved out to other parts of the world?

Oh look, there’s still a very good sized core contingent of folks here in Australia. There’s some product management and engineering capacity here in Sydney. But it’s definitely become more of a global business. Our leadership team is now located in Mountain View head office, but we also have a pretty big project management and engineering contingent in Zurich, as well.

Google Maps is pretty big global business now, so it’s definitely spread out from just being centred here in Australia, but I think we’re still very proud of the heritage and the roots and being able to say that Google Maps started here. That’s for sure!

Indeed. Thanks for that, Ian. On behalf of the world, thanks for helping us get lost less.

(laughs) No problem at all. I’d like to think it was the opposite, we help people stop getting lost, but I certainly appreciate that the odd occasion we do get it wrong as well. But it’s a pretty big challenge, digitising the entire globe. I think it’s something like 20 million edits a day of Google Maps, so yeah. There’s a stat for you. 20 million edits a day!

Well that’s a hell of a number!

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