cupcake on a hand
PHOTO: Charles Etoroma

Embracing the new opportunities of print, including the fact that it allowed other cartographers to give feedback, Abraham Ortelius brought out more than 28 editions of his Theatrum atlas between 1570 and 1598. On a daily basis, Google staff will make hundreds of changes to their maps based on thousands of pieces of feedback.

Just like Ortelius did in 1570, Google uses technology to harness the collective intelligence. Google knows something that most organizations do not: That technology is not enough. That it is the combination of human intelligence and artificial intelligence that delivers the best intelligence.

The secret Google’s success, according to Alexis Madrigal writing for The Atlantic in 2012, “isn’t, as you might expect, Google’s facility with data, but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world. Google’s map offerings build in the human intelligence on the front end, and that’s what allows its computers to tell you the best route from San Francisco to Boston.”

“Satellites and algorithms only get you so far,” Greg Miller wrote for Wired in 2014. “Google employs a small army of human operators (they won’t say exactly how many) to manually check and correct the maps.”

“People from all over the world can now edit information on the Google Maps application to ensure a higher accuracy,” The Conversation stated in 2015. “People can become data collectors. They can carry the Street View Trekker (a backpack outfitted with Google’s cameras) to snap images – later to be uploaded on Street.”

Sara Wachter-Boettcher started off a wonderful presentation at Confab 2018 by telling the story of a cupcake calorie burning feature that Google had launched. If you used Google maps to find walking directions, as part of the directions, it would state something like: “This walk burns around 82 calories — that’s almost one mini-cupcake.” To illustrate things was a picture of lots of pink cupcakes.

The intent might have been good but within an hour of the launch of the feature, there was a flood of negative feedback. People complained that there was no way to turn it off, that it shamed, that average calorie count is wildly inaccurate, and that pink cupcakes imply a feminine, white, middle class cultural perspective. Within three hours, Google had removed the feature.

In a typical organization, the cupcake feature would be left up a lot longer than three hours. But then that’s why organizations like Google and Amazon are dominating the world economy. They are able and willing to rapidly respond to customer feedback. More importantly, once something is not working, they will change or remove it.

It’s easy to add. Anyone can add. But to improve what is already out there and remove what is not working are such rare organizational skills today. To truly listen and respond to customer feedback are such rare skills today. The ability to respond to customer feedback at speed is what differentiates the winners and losers in the digital universe.