Despite the fact that Quebec’s Commission de toponomie removed 11 offensive place names, some involving the n-word or its French equivalent, in 2015, those names still appear on maps from third parties, including Google Maps. The commission says it asked Google to remove the names, but as the person behind a new petition to get the names changed points out, the offensive names have, with one exception, only been removed, not replaced. (The commission says they’re working on it.)
I imagine what’s at play here is that Google and other mapmakers would honour a request to change a name, but not to leave a previously named place unnamed; but then again I’d have thought they wouldn’t be so tone deaf. I expect this to change presently.
In the days that followed, I’d often catch my son on Google Maps with pen in hand, jotting down increasingly specific bits of information that he considered essential to his plans: the names of bridges that span the Susquehanna River, the phone numbers for motor inns in Greater Pawtucket, the best things to eat while watching the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. (The stadium’s clam chowder has received lavish online praise.) As I watched him get lost in the pleasure of these tasks, I realized that he was under no illusions about the trip’s actual odds of taking place. He was immersing himself in Google Maps not because he expected we’d be attending a Norwich Sea Unicorns game anytime soon, but so he could build himself a sanctuary—a space where he’s in charge of how an uncertain future will unfold.
Getting lost in maps is an activity I expect a lot of us recognize, and have done ourselves, though the particulars are probably unique to each of us. (Random thought: Is this one reason why fantasy novels come with maps? Are the maps doing more of the work than we thought?)
A couple of years ago, Amanda Ripley discovered that Google Maps had two locations listed for her home, which made giving directions difficult. As the change propagated to services that used Google Maps, the problem worsened. Deliveries kept turning up at the other location. But it turned out that there was no way to notify Google of this specific problem. She had to use her media credentials as a workaround to get it fixed. (Check out Google’s statement at the end: it’s a textbook case of customer service gaslighting.)
Simon Weckert created a virtual traffic jam in Berlin by pulling 99 used smartphones in a wagon: a large number of phones moving slowly looks like a traffic jam to Google Maps. “Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic.”
Google’s statement to 9to5Google suggests that they’re taking Simon’s hack in stride: “Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymized data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community. We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked traveling by wagon. We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this as it helps us make maps work better over time.”
So people fed up with traffic being rerouted onto their residential streets could, conceivably, hack that traffic elsewhere—but not for much longer.
Incognito mode for Google Maps, announced last May, is currently in testing. With the mode enabled, user activity isn’t saved to the user’s Google account. It was made available last week to beta testers using the preview version of the Google Maps Android app.
Map data is not perfect and users are too trusting. They believe maps to be accurate, and the map data that GPS receivers, online maps and smartphones rely on is riddled with a thousand insignificant errors that show up in unexpected cases. Whenever we read a story about some driver getting themselves into trouble because they followed the directions their GPS receiver or phone gave them, that’s what caused it.
Take, for example, last month’s incident where Google Maps’ response to a traffic accident was to route traffic heading toward Denver International Airport along a private dirt road that was muddy and nearly impassible due to recent rains: about a hundred cars got stuck. That Google Maps thought the muddy part of East 64th Avenue was a viable route would not likely have been spotted were it not for the accident; said accident routed dozens of drivers along an unfamiliar route that they had no real option other than to trust Google on. [Jalopnik]
Meanwhile, see Dan Luu’s Twitter thread on Google Maps (and other map providers’) errors, their persistence, and the trouble it can sometimes take to get them dealt with.
The Wall Street Journal goes in-depth on a problem Google Maps has had for years: fake and deceptive business listings posted by scam artists that crowd out legitimate local businesses—as many as 11 million such listings at any given moment, according to experts.
Online advertising specialists identified by Google as deft fraud fighters estimated that Google Maps carries roughly 11 million falsely listed businesses on any given day, according to a Journal survey of these experts.
They say a majority of the listings for contractors, electricians, towing and car repair services, movers and lawyers, among other business categories, aren’t located at their pushpins on Google Maps. Shams among these service categories, called “duress verticals” inside Google, can snag people at their most vulnerable.
Those experts and Google disagree as to the extent of the problem. (Which is exacerbated by how easy it is to set up a business listing.) And the scam artists aren’t simply displacing local businesses: they’re resorting to outright extortion: pay up, or we’ll swamp you with bogus listings. [Engadget, The Verge]
A lot of what we refer to on online maps as “satellite imagery” actually isn’t: the high-resolution stuff is usually taken from airplanes. This can be a point of confusion for some—and, according to this Twitter thread from Google Maps co-creator Bret Taylor, also a point of contention for the Google Maps team before it launched. Some engineers felt that calling the layer “Satellite” was factually incorrect—because of that aerial imagery—and therefore shouldn’t be used; others argued for “Satellite” based on label size and usability studies. It nearly got called “Bird Mode” as a compromise. [Boing Boing]
Apple now has a fleet of cars collecting data for Apple Maps. Since they’ve been making a point about consumer privacy lately, this page lists where their cars are going to be in the coming weeks. (AppleInsider notes that some of that data collection is pedestrian-based.) It turns out Google has a page for Street View data collection that includes similar information, though it’s far less granular: windows of several months, whereas Apple tells you where it’ll be within a two-week timeframe.
The Verge’s Dan Seifert tries out Google Maps and Waze on CarPlay, and concludes that “neither Google Maps or Waze are particularly compelling compared to their Android Auto counterparts or even Apple’s own Maps app.” The unkindest cut: “If I’m traveling somewhere unfamiliar, Apple Maps is just more reliable to use than Google Maps or Waze in CarPlay, which is frankly surprising to say.”
“Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to,” the Associated Press reports. Their exclusive investigation discovered that “many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.” Basically, turning the “Location History” feature off doesn’t stop Google apps from recording your location at various junctures: your location data may still be found in places like “My Activity” or “Web and App Activity,” for example. Google insists its descriptions are clear; critics are calling Google’s hairsplitting disingenuous, disturbing and wrong.