Google, Ingress and the genius of their big data collection

A couple of weeks ago, Google launched Ingress, a new augmented-reality game for Android devices. The idea of the game is that you explore local areas in a bid to find items. If I’m understanding it properly, its almost like an AR geocaching game of sorts.

Like a good many, I found myself initially reading this and thinking “Why would Google bother with what seems like a complete departure from their general market positioning and service offerings?” They’re not a games company after all. I’d missed something here though, and it took one keen-thinker over at Reddit of all places to spell it out – namely, how Google has become astonishingly good at creating services that get the public creating huge datasets for them; datasets which can then be developed into new, more relevant things that become part of Google’s bigger gameplan.

Don’t believe me? Then read this:

At a guess, it’s about getting Google good data for footpath routes to compete with Nokia’s recently announced turn-by-turn navigation for pedestrians.

Remember Google’s free automated directory enquiries service that everyone wondered about (“why would they do that? What’s the benefit? Where’s the business model?”), that they cleverly used to quickly and effectively build a vast corpus of spoken word queries in a variety of accents, and to train the voice-recognition systems that subsequently made it into Google Voice and Android… and then as soon as it was built, they shut down GOOG-411.

Or how about ReCAPTCHA, where their free CAPTCHA service also helped them to automatically resolve edge-cases and unrecognised words when production-line digitising books for Google Books?

Now note how Ingress is specifically geared to:

“Users can generate virtual energy needed to play the game by… traveling walking paths, like a real-world version of Pac-Man. Then they spend the energy going on missions around the world to “portals,” which are virtually associated with public art, libraries and other widely accessible places… Outdoor physical activity is a big component of this, though driving between locations isn’t banned”

I.e., it’s very, very much about walking places… while carrying a GPS-enabled mobile device with a camera and accelerometer and wi-fi and mobile data connection built into it… while running their app that can report whatever it wants back to their servers and has to for you to be able to play the game.

Players walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps currently doesn’t cover well, and then as a reward they get to… walk around art installations, libraries and other large, pedestrian-only public areas. All the time the game client is reporting back to Google their position, speed and the like, so Google gets to build a massive database of popular pedestrian-accessible areas and common routes between and around them. It’s genius.

I’d also be very surprised if Google didn’t manage to factor in taking geotagged photos of these various locations into the game as mission objectives. After all, if you’ve just managed to convince thousands or millions of people to build you a massive GPS-tagged pedestrian-accessible location and route database essentially for free, you’d have to be pretty stupid not to also get them to take geotagged photos and similar media for you while they do it.

(Edit: Fucking hah – called it!)

Hell, the game probably records wi-fi SSIDs and a whole bunch of other useful datapoints, too.

(Edit And again!)

Google are very good at manipulating vast datasets, and if anything they’re even better at finding inventive and mutually-beneficial ways to convince large numbers of people to voluntarily build those datasets for them.

Pretty clever eh?

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