AppleInsider looks at how online maps (Apple Maps, Google Maps), especially their traffic layer, inadvertently revealed Russian troop movements at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The sheer volume of mapping data now available at our fingertips means it was possible for civilians half a world away to see when Russian forces began moving. Specifically, that data pinpointed a traffic jam starting on the Russian side of the border, actively moving into Ukraine in the first few minutes of the Russian and Ukraine conflict.
Just as with any cartography, this information required interpreting. Google Maps did not specifically say that it was troop movements, nor was its satellite imagery up to the minute. During the process of researching this story, we’ve confirmed that Apple Maps presented similar inbound troop movement information—but it wasn’t setting out to do that either.
What these services did, though, was register all of the smartphone users whose driving was slowed or halted by unusual traffic conditions. Wherever the majority of the data came from, it was possible to determine what was happening when coupled with known details of Russian troop locations.
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.
Traffic. Traffic congestion is a key feature of mobile mapping, and predicting it involves looking at historical data. CityLab reports on a recent study suggests that time-of-day electricity usage patterns can be used to predict traffic congestion patterns. A household that starts using power earlier in the morning gets up earlier and presumably will go to work earlier.) It’s another variable that can be put to use in traffic modelling.
Leonia, New Jersey’s decision to close its residential streets to non-residents (previously)—an attempt to deal with the traffic being routed that way by navigation apps like Waze—has also, like the apps that created the problem in the first place, resulted in some unintended consequences. On, for example, visiting relatives and local businesses.
There have been numerous complaints that mobile map apps have been dumping traffic from freeways onto nearby residential streets (previously). But a team of researchers, including Berkeley’s Alexandre Bayen, have been looking at the problem from the perspective of game theory (see papers here and here). Basically, the apps operate selfishly, and lead to results for all drivers that are less good than if they had been working cooperatively. It’s an example of the Nash equilibrium. More at Boing Boing and CityLab.
When your navigation app (e.g. Waze) suggests an alternate route to avoid congestion, that has knock-on effects on the communities you’re routed through, particularly when a lot of traffic gets pushed onto quiet residential streets. That’s the situation in Leonia, New Jersey, the New York Times reports, where later this month the police will be closing some 60 streets to non-local traffic in hopes of routing all that Wazer traffic somewhere else. Some of the somewhere elses aren’t happy with this move, naturally. [Engadget]
NPR graphics editor Alyson Hurt discovered that this month’s blizzard was showing up in Google Maps as traffic delays, and whipped up a little script that took regular screencaps of Google Maps’s traffic layer. She then created an animated GIF from the screencaps. The end result (above) dramatically shows the storm sweeping across the mid-Atlantic states.