I wrote my very first travel diary when I went to Ireland with my grandparents at age 11. Keeping a diary helped me remember what we ate, where we went and what we loved the most. You can tell by looking at the entry below that I really loved the bacon, toast, and sausage that comes with a traditional Irish breakfast. More than 20 years later and I'm still sharing my favorite things by uploading "my travel diary" via writing reviews on Google Maps.
Obviously no one read my childhood travel journals, although I secretly hoped that one day people would want to read about my travel experiences. Even though I dreamed of having these journals published someday (HAHAHA), it definitely never occurred to me that one day scores of strangers might read my travel recommendations on the planet's most beloved map. This interactive map didn't even exist when I started writing reviews in my little journals.
Google Maps has been around since 2005 and is used by one billion people every single day. I've been an avid user of the mobile application as long as I've had a smart phone, but only started writing reviews and uploading photos about two years ago. Since then I've written about 500 reviews and uploaded more than 1,400 photos to help fellow travelers make smart decisions when they eat, drink and do in cities around the world.
Google runs an amazing user engagement program called Local Guides, which is a global community of explorers who write reviews, share photos, answer questions, add or edit locations to the map and more. We stay in touch with one another on a blog called Local Guides Connect where we share best practices, write stories about our cities and exchange helpful information.
It's hard to believe, but there are 120 million Local Guides around the world and just 200 of us from 60 countries were selected to attend the annual Connect Live conference in Silicon Valley. Of course I was eager to apply for this opportunity of a lifetime! We all had to submit an application video about one of our favorite places in our communities and what makes it special, so I decided to talk about the Santa Monica Playhouse & Group Theatre. Needless to say I was thrilled when I received my acceptance letter!
I am proud to be a Google Local Guide, because I love celebrating local businesses, providing detailed recommendations and helping travelers make smarter, more informed decisions. It also helps me remember all of my favorite places!
The official mission of Google Local Guides is to help create:
1. A more helpful map
2. A more local map
3. A map for everyone
And I try to do all of those things! Be helpful. Focus on local people and places. Share with everyone! It was hard to narrow them down, but here are my top ten favorite moments from Connect Live 2019.
10. Exchanging Gifts at the World Market
Continuing a special tradition of sharing cultures, many Connect Live attendees bring small gifts from their country to share at the conference. All of the items are shelved in a beautiful "World Market"at the Welcome Reception where attendees can browse the selection, learn about the trinket and even take some treats home. I handed out packets of California walnuts! I couldn't bring home everything that folks brought to share, but I did come home with goodies from around the planet, including pencils from Brunei, a keychain from Saudi Arabia, English toffee, Lebanese baklava, Taiwanese mung bean mooncake, Australian tea, chopsticks from Thailand, naira currency from Nigeria, sunset photo from Sardinia and chocolate bar from the Ukraine.
9. Enjoying Google's Late Night Lounge
I was always pretty exhausted by the end of the day, but Google helped keep the party going with a custom corn hole set, Jenga, Lego's, fresh pies from Blaze Pizza, and board games. I'd always stop in for a slice of vegan pizza for a nightcap! The lounge was open in our hotel in the evenings from 9:00pm to 12:00am.
8. Hearing about the Latest Google Maps Features from Google Executives
Our morning sessions were incredible, because we'd get to hear presentations straight from Google executives. I kept having to pinch myself that I was hearing about the latest Google Maps features from *the actual people* who work on this revolutionary mobile app each and every day. I'm still amazed that I got to have an insider viewpoint into the latest and greatest about a mobile app that I use every single day of my life!
7. Girl Power
First of all, where else but Google do you get to meet a real life Thessalonian woman? Second, getting to hang out with amazing women from every corner of the planet was for sure, a life highlight. It's not every Tuesday night that you get to make new friends from Swaziland, Indonesia, Colombia, Tokyo, India, Brunei, Montana, Nebraska, Utah and Paris...I'm excited for new friendships with awesome women around the globe! Me and a few amazing Local Guide ladies even have a "Local Girl Gang" chat on What's App where we now stay in touch. I'm excited to make some special reunion trips in the year ahead!
We were all inspired by a presentation from Jen Fitzpatrick who worked her way up from intern to Senior Vice President of Google Maps over the past 20 years. It was empowering to see so many talented, smart and inspiring women taking the stage at Google, including Mara Chomsky, Tiffany Herklots, Lauren Celenza, Traci Cappiello, Brittany Miller, Karolina Pyszkiewicz, Amanda Moore, and fellow Local Guide, Megan Coburn.
6. Having Lunch with a Google Maps UX Engineer
After our morning session we got to have lunch with a global operations leader on the Google Maps team, which was fascinating. There was a Googler assigned to every table in their courtyard so we only had to pick a seat! It was fun to get to know Krishna Chilukuri who has been with Google for about 9 years but recently transitioned from the data and analytics team to play a more active role on improving user experience with Google Maps. I got to sit with him for about 30 minutes and share feedback on my own experience, while providing recommendations on how to improve the app.
5. Learning about accessibility with Sasha Blair-Goldensohn
Google Maps is committed to building a future where all people can use the maps to navigate where they need to go, including people with disabilities. We heard from long-time Google engineer Sasha Blair-Goldensohn who suffered a tragic accident in Central Park that left him in a wheelchair. He quickly learned how difficult it was to get around, which has inspired him to help make Google Maps more accessible for the nearly 1 billion people in the world with a disability.
4. Exploring Google's Campuses
Running around Google's Sunnyvale and Mountain View campuses was pretty fun. I got to see their famous statue garden, which includes huge sculptures commemorating each Android release. When a new release comes out, a new statue is moved into the garden. There are bikes all over the place, which Google employees can use to get around. The Mountain View campus is a lot more "normal" than I would have expected, because the buildings blend in really well with the natural environment. It feels like a regular office park until you see the Google branded bikes, weird statues and employee fitness classes being held outside.
3. Eating the infamous Google snacks
They fed us really, really well throughout the conference. My favorite snacks were the glass jars of dried fruits and nuts, which were always available to us outside of the meeting rooms. I honestly don't think I can eat dried fruit for at least 6 more months. And sorry. There aren't many photos of the food, because I was obviously too busy eating!
2. Did I mention the snacks?
1. Making new friends
The main thing I hoped to gain from this experience was making new friends around the globe, which I'm so happy I got to do. This is the most enthusiastic and outgoing group of humans I've ever been around, so it wasn't difficult to get to know one another. I have lots of trips to plan!
If I could sum up this Connect Live 2019 experience in just four words, it would be : The Best of Humanity.