Google Maps-related announcements at Google’s I/O 2021 keynote today include routing improvements to reduce hard braking, enhancements to Live View, expanding Google’s new detailed maps to 50 cities, identifying crowded areas, and tailoring map data to time of day and whether you’re travelling. This post takes a deeper dive on two of those upgrades. Coverage from the usual suspects: Engadget, The Verge.
Last week Google announced “over 100 AI-powered improvements to Google Maps” would be coming this year; these include bringing Live View indoors, a new air quality map layer, eco-friendly routing, and support for curbside pickup in business listings.
Meanwhile, Apple Maps is now displaying airport COVID-19-related health measures based on data from Airports Council International: press release. [AppleInsider, MacRumors]
Google announced earlier this month that their updated Street View app for Android—as an Apple user I had no idea that Street View was a separate app on Android—now supports user-contributed photos to Street View. “After you record your images and publish them via the Street View app, we automatically rotate, position and create a series of connected photos. We then place those connected images in the right place on Google Maps, so your new Street View can be found in the exact location where it was taken for others to see and explore.” The idea is to supplement Google’s imagery where it’s thin on the ground. This beta feature requires an ARCore-compatible Android device and is only available in a few areas for now: Toronto, New York, and Austin TX (presumably for testing purposes), as well as Costa Rica, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Google Maps has a Nazi problem, says Mike Shaughnessy: the service’s inadequate review moderation and its poor handling of memorials (whichit expects to act as businesses) provide an inadvertent platform “for Nazi veneration and Holocaust jokes.”
Google has agreed to Parks Australia’s request that user photos taken from the summit of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) be removed from Street View; climbing Uluru, which is owned by and sacred to the Pitjantjatjara people, has been prohibited since 2019. ABC Australia, CNN. As of this writing a couple of images are still visible. Aerial coverage is unaffected. [Boing Boing]
Google has added a splash of colour and detail to its larger-scale map layers, using a “color-mapping algorithmic technique” to assign colours to more natural features like forest cover and deserts. “First, we use computer vision to identify natural features from our satellite imagery, looking specifically at arid, icy, forested, and mountainous regions. We then analyze these features and assign them a range of colors on the HSV color model. For example, a densely covered forest can be classified as dark green, while an area of patchy shrubs could appear as a lighter shade of green.” Meanwhile, cities get more pedestrian data, such as crosswalks and sidewalks. [Engadget, The Verge]
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.
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