Michael T. Jones clicked in May, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jarle Naustvik
We all have a story. Our lives are replete with our personal triumphs and failures, evolution and transformation. And in some cases, the inventions and innovations they bring in, and the lasting impact they leave on the larger society.
Michael Jones left us on January 18, leaving behind an illustrious career and his gift to modern society – the power of maps in our hands.
Almost all of us know Google Earth. But not everyone among us knows the man behind it — Michael T. Jones. Or know about the sheer impact of his work — not only on the geospatial and mapping industry, but on the society at large. The man who democratised and personalised the map, and in the process made it evolve from the age-old static portrait of the Earth, to a dynamic and interactive conversation about people’s lives on Earth.
I first met Michael Jones in 2012 at a conference. For a mid-career journalist who had just forayed into geospatial by chance (and was finding it tougher to grasp than introductory calculus), Michael came as a breath of fresh air. One address at the conference, and the subsequent interview opened up for me the hidden, magical world of maps, almost like the tap of the wand of a seasoned wizard. It was a feeling of nothing but being awestruck, much like the 10-year-old Harry Potter setting his foot into Diagon Alley for the first time! (Thank you, Michael).
Over the years, I have had the good fortune of meeting and interacting with the great man many a time, and every time the takeaway has been something new. And the same underlying feeling of being awestruck.
I met him last at GeoBuiz Summit in Monterey exactly a year back. He looked somewhat under the weather. The energy and excitement were still there, as he held the audience spell-bound with his “lightning talk” (the 15-minute talk extended to almost 40 on popular demand). But the powerful voice was shaky, and the big man seemed to run out of breath. He looked more tired during the post-lecture interview, but once again spoke passionately about the subject closest to his heart – personalisation of technologies.
Personalising the map
Words can’t describe the contribution and impact of Michael Jones’s work on democratising and personalising maps. He is to be credited for not only launching Keyhole in 2000 — the original version of Google Earth, quite accidentally as he put it in a conversation with Geospatial World — but also for his years of work on improving on it as the Chief Technology Advocate of Google after its acquisition by the IT giant.
By the time he left Google after more than a decade, Google Earth had evolved to become much like Jones called it, Dr Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. “It’s the creation of a universal reference work, reflecting a lot of labour and great expense, that everybody can rely on,” he said in an interview to The Atlantic in 2013.
And he was correct. Today, maps have become a personal thing, as essential as a toothbrush. They are not only about geography but also about restaurants, parks, shops… “Today, it’s the people, and not the cartographer, asking the questions. Maps are interactive now, and users are also creators of maps,” Jones had told us in an interview in the same year.
A nerdy, lonely childhood
What many don’t know is how a lonely child with no friends – adopted by an elderly couple – channelised his curiosity and energy to better things at a very early age.
“My parents had no children of their own and were older than other parents in my class. All my parents’ friends already had children in high school and they didn’t want to play with me because I was not interesting enough,” he had shared with us in a First Person take in 2010.
When Jones was in Grade 4, he decided to learn about computers. He asked his parents and their friends for old computer magazines, and combed through books in the library. “I learned simple programming when I was 10. I have been programming ever since.”
By the time he was in Grade 7, he was programming as a consultant and earning. And by high school, he was earning well enough to “live pretty well”. By college, he knew more than most people and the computer class became “intolerable”. So, he quit and went to work for the head of the computer science department who also ran a company.
In a way, it is symbolic that the most popular story about Google Earth also revolves around an orphan Brierley. Brierley, adopted by an Australian couple, used the power of Google Earth to trace his home back in India, a story captured in the Dev Patel-starrer Oscar-nominated movie Lion.
The first Google Earth
Jones often said it all began “by accident” when he was working at a computer hardware company called Silicon Graphics (SGI). He had actually developed something called Clip Mapping that revolutionised SGI’s 3D graphics offering. Soon, Jones and his colleagues began to see the potential of their invention and this is when they formed a new company called Intrinsic Graphics focusing on developing high-quality 3D graphics for personal computers and video games.
In October 1999, Chris Tanner, one of the founders of Intrinsic Graphics and a former SGI engineer, further developed on the Click Mapping concept by designing a software version of the feature that allowed a user to “fly” within a 3D visualisation of Earth.
The innovation was path-breaking and the experience thrilling, but running the software required expensive and highly specialised hardware – anything around $250,000. And the team wanted to commercialise it. So, in 2000, Keyhole was spun out of Intrinsic Graphics, and in early 2001 it raised its first round of funding from NVIDIA and Sony Digital Media Ventures.
On came Keyhole’s first product — EarthViewer 1.0 – which could be called the true precursor to Google Earth. It used public data gathered from the Landsat and IKONOS archives, and aerial photos of major US cities to build a complete digital Earth. This was an instant hit with the commercial real estate and travel industries.
Widespread commercialisation became Keyhole’s mission, but finances were still a major hurdle. Imagery procurement and powerful data infrastructure for storage don’t come cheap, and definitely beyond Keyhole’s means back in those days.
The Google offer came in 2004, and the team decided to be sold to realise its dream – continuing the innovation on what they had started. As part of the terms of the acquisition, the Keyhole team maintained its control of the programme, and Jones and his teammates joined Google.
What followed is history
“We’ve worked to invent the most comprehensive, authoritative, useful mapping solutions that humans can build, and I think we’ve been pretty successful at that,” Jones said in The Atlantic interview.
He spent more than a decade in senior leadership roles at Google as CTO of Google Maps, Google Earth, and Local Search, before hanging up his boots to join space technology venture capital firm Seraphim Capital as Managing Partner. In 2017, he joined Niantic, a leading augmented reality firm, the creators of Pokémon Go. He continued to serve on various boards, advise governments, and speak widely on technology and the future.
In June 2020, the Royal Geographical Society recognised Jones with the 2020 Patron’s Medal for his contribution to the development of geospatial information.
One doesn’t have to know Michael Jones to know about the impact of his work on modern society. And those of us who knew Michael Jones know that it’s the efforts, and not the accomplishments, that mattered to him most. He seemed to be a man with a mission.
From difficult beginnings as a curious little child, to a software engineer with patents under his belt at a very young age, through his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, Michael Jones redefined many boundaries. In the words of Royal Geographical Society President Baroness Lynda Chalker, “His inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information”.
Goodbye, Michael. And once again, thank you!
This article was first published on Geospatial World. Read the original article.