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The effects of modern mapping
August 29, 2012 6:42 AM   Subscribe

How Google and Apple's digital mapping is mapping us "Digital maps on smartphones are brilliantly useful tools, but what sort of information do they gather about us – and how do they shape the way we look at the world?"
posted by peacay (44 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
OH NOES
posted by grubi at 6:46 AM on August 29, 2012


I'm going to use yahoo maps to find the nearest Rand McNally store. Take that google/apple overlords!
posted by birdherder at 6:47 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm tired of having to check in all the time to tell people where I am. I want them to just know.
posted by CrazyJoel at 6:59 AM on August 29, 2012


What a flabby editorial; he rambles on a lot but never really goes anywhere. Too bad, it's a fascinating topic, would love to see more discussion of geofencing and OpenStreetMap and proximity based services.

The core technology for Google's mapping products came from two acquisitions in October 2004: Keyhole (Google Earth) and Where2 (Google Maps). They were small acquisitions, Where2 was just two guys, but they had enormous succes inside Google and have literally changed the world and how we see it.
posted by Nelson at 7:04 AM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


It also unveiled the Street View Trekker, a bulky backpack with several 15-megapixel cameras protruding on a stalk, so that operatives can capture "offroad" imagery

Snow Crash wins again
posted by nathancaswell at 7:05 AM on August 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Not just shape the way we look at the world. Also the way we look at ourselves.

I just got back from a 2800 mile driving trip. On a previous trip of that length, I'd set it up with an atlas and maps and such. Checking your exact location at interstate rest stops and whatnot. The GPS makes some of that so much easier. However, it also has a lot of downsides, such as continually RE-CALC-U-LAT-ING any time I deviate at all. Or giving me routes that, after I drive them, I realize made no sense. (Add two turns, including some dusty back road, to cut off 3 seconds on something easier, etc.) And it so so easy to use the GPS as a speedometer and that's very dangerous since it doesn't know about temporary limit changes due to construction or mountain turns or anything.

On previous trips it was an adventure I'd mapped out. On this trip it was an adventure that the GPS let me have.
posted by DU at 7:08 AM on August 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


On previous trips it was an adventure I'd mapped out. On this trip it was an adventure that the GPS let me have.

Well said.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:14 AM on August 29, 2012


There seemed something a bit aggressive about Apple's promise that its new no-stinky-Google mapping system will "blow my head off".

It's as if they announced that iPhone 5 will "kick you in the balls".
posted by Egg Shen at 7:27 AM on August 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


-What a flabby editorial; he rambles on a lot but never really goes anywhere-

That's kind of why I liked it Nelson. It's neither condescending nor overly leading. This is a general subject that moves on quickly, technologically speaking, and for someone like me, a map aficionado but not a map geek, I thought it was quite informative and raised thoughtful points but didn't lecture.
posted by peacay at 7:28 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


And it so so easy to use the GPS as a speedometer and that's very dangerous since it doesn't know about temporary limit changes due to construction or mountain turns or anything.

And that's different from your car's speedometer how, exactly?
posted by asnider at 7:28 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not only did I enjoy this article but I really like the idea that there is a job called "geospatial technologist" I just did a cross-country trip in the US by car. The last time I'd done this was pre-Google maps and pre-smartphone. I didn't even take a print map which is sort of unusual for me since I like print maps generally. The thing I found so interesting about this shift was comparing the various tools that I had at my disposal and how useful or non-useful they were. So...

- GPS (dashboard mounted Garmin Nuvi) - this would give me turn by turn directions and talk to me, but I could only set a few loose "preferences" and it was challenging to try to determine just what route is was sending me on. If there was some side trip I wanted to take I either had to endure a ton of "recalculating" chatter, or reset the destination [which I promised to not do while driving] or turn it off. I found it difficult to just aim for a regular city a days' drive away and simpler to just make up an address in that city. I basically got in the car in New York and said "Take me to Pasadena" and it did.
- Google Maps - lets you choose from among a few options but I find the "Click next" aspect of the navigation pretty impossible once I was actually going and I'd get lost a little bit. This was great for saying "Where are the restaurants near me?" but I definitely noticed there were preferred and less preferred options when I did this search, sort of like the article is saying here. I think there was a lot of "Well they COULD do this or that sneaky thing" implied in his article. I would have liked to have seen more about what they are already doing.
- Apps - I was always hoping for an app that would tell me how to stay on Route 66 or that would tell me when I was near a Waffle House. I used Trip Advisor's "find a hotel" app which was mostly great (though I use it in a weird "If people say it's filthy it's probably a place I will like" way) and the rest stop hotel coupon app was worse than the paper magazine thing you get so I stopped using it.

The big deal for me is that the mapping of the future is based to a larger extent on commerce and if you are someone who is trying to find things that can't or won't sell you things (my GPS has a button that will find libraries and oh how I love that button) things are getting just a smaller bit more difficult for you with every innovation.
posted by jessamyn at 7:30 AM on August 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


And that's different from your car's speedometer how, exactly?

I meant as a combination of speedometer and speed-limit-signage. But the GPS isn't always right, so it's a bad idea, no matter how convenient it is to get an instant answer.

...I either had to endure a ton of "recalculating" chatter, or reset the destination [which I promised to not do while driving] or turn it off.

Yeah, exactly. I really wished for a pause button. SHUT UP FOR A SECOND AND I'LL GET BACK ON TRACK, I PROMISE! What was even more annoying and disorienting is that once I got back on track, it sometimes had changed the route from the original. Like, I get off at an exit and it RECALCULATINGs me, then I get back to the exact same spot but the route is different now. What? Really makes you feel not-in-control when it does that because you have no idea where you are or what you are doing.
posted by DU at 7:51 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A few years ago, I had to drive to lots of youth sporting events in neighboring towns. One kid would have to be at Thomas Jefferson elementary school, the other at Wonderful Middle School. I would use Google Maps for directions. I think in a majority of cases, when I arrived at the destination and realized where it was, I also realized I had been "Google Mapped" again. I was sent in a totally inefficient roundabout way. The parents started joking whenever one was late for a game that they got "Google Mapped. Again."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:17 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


There seemed something a bit aggressive about Apple's promise that its new no-stinky-Google mapping system will "blow my head off".

I'm hoping to retain Googel Maps as long as possible TBH - it's transit integration is incredibly useful to me, more so than any 3D nonsense.
posted by Artw at 8:51 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


jessamyn: "- Apps - I was always hoping for an app that would tell me how to stay on Route 66 or that would tell me when I was near a Waffle House. I used Trip Advisor's "find a hotel" app which was mostly great (though I use it in a weird "If people say it's filthy it's probably a place I will like" way) and the rest stop hotel coupon app was worse than the paper magazine thing you get so I stopped using it."

Waze does do this, you set it to add a stop then search for a category, coffee, gas etc and it finds them on the way using Yelp, 4square etc... Its a bit clunky but pretty great. It may be easier to use Yelp and set a border around yourself depending on your speed of travel.

I love having a geo-track of my travels; you can see where you spend most of your time, geocode camera pictures, and so onthere are a few apps and services like Open Paths that democratize this data for personal, public or research usage (instead of just for Apple or Google).
posted by stratastar at 8:57 AM on August 29, 2012


The web version of Google Maps lets you shift the route to your preferred street or highway or whatever, and then it figures out the details. I really wish they'd build that into the app, because while it's nice to be able to choose from a couple of alternate routes, there's no way to tell it to avoid a road completely and the app doesn't understand things like "crippling nighttime construction" or "carpool-only highways."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:04 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, exactly. I really wished for a pause button. SHUT UP FOR A SECOND AND I'LL GET BACK ON TRACK, I PROMISE!

On mine, what I do is a complicated series of steps called 'Turn it off', then, as I get back on route, I 'turn it on.'

This may not actually work -- it depends on the GPS routing device actually saving state, but it worked a trick both on my Garmin 260 and on the built in GPS in the Volvo, and lets me get gas without Bitching Betty or Bitching Bob yelling about making U turns.
posted by eriko at 9:17 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah -- the absolute, critical, just print a map out otherwise required feature of a car Nav system is the ability to pick out real time traffic information and present reroutes.

This has saved me numerous hours. I only wish there was a setting in the Volvo to say "Ignore any reroute that saves me less than X minutes".
posted by eriko at 9:19 AM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

posted by fairmettle at 9:22 AM on August 29, 2012


I remember 2005; I was at the Computers in Urban Management and Urban Planning conference in London, and during the opening session, the host committee showed off a new technology that was still in beta, but was going to be released soon - Google Earth. They showed this video that started with the whole planet, hanging in the inky void of space, and zoomed in to Europe, then to the UK, then to London, then to University College London itself. Audible gasps from the crowd. Nothing like this was available anywhere before. I worked for a city, and we had hired an airplane to do airphotos every couple of years at great expense -- but this data wasn't really available outside our offices (it had to be transferred on DVD).

It's only seven years later; I'm a transportation engineer, doing some work for a major US metro area some 1400 miles and an international border away. I've only been there twice (and the first time was 20 years ago). But last week, I was testing an algorithm that classified areas by basic land use types, based only on some employment and population information. And there were some areas that weren't coming out correctly; places I'd seen and thought were retail that were being coded as industrial. So I add the Google Maps Hybrid layer behind my shapefile; it's got the airphoto and the business names. I open up Streetview in the other monitor; it's got the business types listed as well. In just a few minutes, the problems are sorted out and the algorithm is doing the right thing again.

That to me is the magical part; in a few seconds, I can see anywhere on the planet with more detail than the US military had during the height of the cold war. I can download a detailed street map of any place to my phone, which was handy to help my fellow travellers in the furgon from Durrës to Tirana last fall find their hostel, which wasn't on their guidebook map. I can see what the buildings and scenery look like from street level in another country or even on the other side of the world -- I was pointing out a good tailor in Kowloon to a travelling coworker a couple of months back.

But yes, sometimes the system that is supposed to find the most efficient path to travel between any two points that are connected with roads only finds the third or fourth most efficient path out of the millions possible, or it doesn't know about some local construction work. What a piece of shit, really.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:25 AM on August 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


I find it impossible to come to a clear consensus on these things. I want to use this technology to make my life easier too, but I don't believe I can trust these corporations to always act ethically and it's a constant game to employ tools that block all of the data mining. I don't know if I'm keeping up, or if it even matters.
posted by koucha at 9:27 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Remember how, before smartphones you could buy a stand-alone GPS. Those systems never reported your location to anyone, anywhere. But they worked just as well

On old cellphones, using a remote mapping service made a lot of sense, since they didn't have a lot of data. But on today's phones you could easily store gigabytes of maps on an micro SD card.

So why not do that? You could even download higher detail maps of particular places. There's even open mapping data you could use to create a totally offline, privacy preserving GPS program.

So people should take pro-active steps to do that, rather then complain about google and apple

(I guess turn by turn nav might be a difficult aspect, though. But for some tasks you might not need that)
posted by delmoi at 9:27 AM on August 29, 2012


I find it impossible to come to a clear consensus on these things. I want to use this technology to make my life easier too, but I don't believe I can trust these corporations to always act ethically and it's a constant game to employ tools that block all of the data mining. I don't know if I'm keeping up, or if it even matters.
The thing is, in almost all cases, you can get the same functionality, without the loss of privacy. It's not like knowing where you are is a required part of providing nav service, it was never necessary for stand-alone GPS products.

There's also the practical problem of 'online' GPS systems not actually working when you can't get a signal...
posted by delmoi at 9:29 AM on August 29, 2012


Waze does do this

The very first time I tried Waze, it successfully alerted me in advance to a cop parked on the highway median looking for speeders. [uh... not that I would ever disobey the speed limit...] It was easily one of the Top 5 "holy shit" moments of my tech life.

If it can also guide me to Waffle House, that's just icing on the cake.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:31 AM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like my iPhone 4s more than my previous HTC Incredible in almost every way, but man, the built-in Android map program kicked the shit out of Apple's.

It's funny, using my phone map so often here in Portland, even though we've lived here 5 years now, I often feel like my spatial sense of the city has suffered. Without my phone I'm still more lost here than places I lived for much shorter times. (Kind of like how you have less vivid memories of things you take the most pictures of, in a way.)
posted by gottabefunky at 9:38 AM on August 29, 2012


-delmoi-

My wife uses something just like that for the iPod Touch, Magellan Roadmate. Works great, offline.
posted by bongo_x at 9:47 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember planning a multi-state route with Google maps then afterward realizing that I could have ticked the "no toll roads" checkbox and saved at least fifteen dollars on my trip. At least Google hasn't yet figured out I'm a cheap bastard.
posted by user92371 at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2012


OH NOES
really?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2012


From the article;

"Before that, we were on that old Mapquest thing – that was just an interface for loading a static map, really. But then Google Maps comes along, and suddenly you feel like you're in this seamless interactive environment."

Apparently I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never really noticed a difference between Mapquest and Google maps, except Google is slower and annoying. Unless by "seamless interactive environment" they mean zooming in and out maniacally if I forget and try to use the scroll wheel to scroll or something crazy like that.

I just use them as maps. I look up my destination and print out a map before I leave. Or forget and try to remember the directions, or use the maps I have in the car. It’s fun!
posted by bongo_x at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2012


On mine, what I do is a complicated series of steps called 'Turn it off', then, as I get back on route, I 'turn it on.'

I hang my head in shame that I did not think of this. That said, I don't think it would have satisfied me either. I still want to see the map if I'm in an unfamiliar area. I just want to navigate by myself for a while.
posted by DU at 10:29 AM on August 29, 2012


I find it funny no one's really zoomed in on the really unnerving parts of Google's latest version of Android, with Google Now. It starts looking at how you interact with Google and your phone a whole lot more. Like the first time I looked at the phone and it told me how much time it would take me to go home from work.

I hadn't told it where I lived.

Anyway, the editorial. The author seemed amazed that LARGE CORPORATIONS were determing how we view the land:

Which brings us to the core of the matter. It can be easy to assume that maps are objective: that the world is out there, and that a good map is one that represents it accurately. But that's not true. Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways: in terms of its natural features, its weather, its socio-economic profile, or what you can buy in the shops there. Traditionally, the interests reflected in maps have been those of states and their armies, because they were the ones who did the mapmaking, and the primary use of many such maps was military. (If you had the better maps, you stood a good chance of winning the battle. The Ordnance Survey's logo still includes a visual reference to the 18th-century War Department.) Now, the power is shifting. "Every map," the cartography curator Lucy Fellowes once said, "is someone's way of getting you to look at the world his or her way." What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California? You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives.

He blithely glosses over the fact that governments may have had similar values and interests might come to shape our lives. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. You don't have to be a libertarian to think seeing governments as benign stewards of mapmaking as suspect. All input you receive is being mediated.

We would all like to be under the auspices of angels, totally removed from the baser motivations. But we aren't, and the best we can do is be observant of these motivations, both government and private. Oh, and someone should make an open source OpenStreetMap navigation software like delmoi said.
posted by zabuni at 10:38 AM on August 29, 2012


I believe that sometimes a guy starts and editorial then scares himself. That seems to have happened to Mr. Burkeman. Can't say that I blame him.

Maps. The observer affects the observation. Something about the physics of it keeps surfacing.

I want a map in real time. I want to watch me water the lawn in my back yard. I want to be able to look up and wave at myself. You already have my fiscal profile. You know everything I've purchased since cash registers went online, my water and electricity usage, and probably even how many keystrokes I've generated since 1995. My car emails me to let me know that it's time for an oil change, that the tires on the left side are a bit low, that my average speed is 37mph and I get almost 30 miles per gallon. I don't mind if global data banks decide to communicate with each other, and instruct their meta-assemblers to create a data base all human activity: planes and boats and cars and trains, fuel used, miles traveled, roads repaired, bullets fired back and forth. Let the satellites keep track of where we buried the dead and burned the trees. Go for it. Could be the information will actually turn out to be useful.

Anyhow, it's too late to worry about that sort of thing. Embrace it--you can't put it back in the bottle. (Well, there's the Road-Warrior version, but I hope it doesn't come to that.)

We don't even know, can barely even imagine, what the facts will turn out to be. Our technology doesn't form itself by implication, but by inference, when an embryonic and dimly lit inspiration comes into focus. It may turn out that we can do this without having to beat a spear back into a plowshear--building on general science objectives seems, to me, cheaper than redefining a weapon. At least, in the interests of general wear and tear, one can hope that peaceful science can be the paradigm.

I smile as I watch the younger ones realize that fogey-hood is rushing at them at the speed of innovation--the components of your future are still being assembled. My grandchildren will think of a telephone the way you guys think of a butterchurn.

Welcome to the world of quaint.
posted by mule98J at 11:01 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I want a map in real time.

I want to know where Snape is.
posted by jfuller at 11:41 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


mule98J: I want to watch me water the lawn in my back yard. I want to be able to look up and wave at myself.

In the future, everyone will have their own personal Truman Show.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:02 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


On mine, what I do is a complicated series of steps called 'Turn it off', then, as I get back on route, I 'turn it on.'

I read all the way through this and was like "Oh I wonder what the steps are on my GPS to turn it off..." and then did one of these to myself: o_O

But yeah the most useful thing the GPS has done for me (besides not trying to be helpful - this was especially great with my Garmin III which was just a line and an arrow most of the time) is to tell me which direction I am pointing so that I can at least try to navigate either back to the highway or off to the hotel/food or whatever. Turning the GPS off doesn't solve that problem. What I'd like is a very simple MUTE button onscreen at all times, or an actual physical volume control. Also I am cheap and don't like to pay a lot of money to get my maps updated so I think it will be interesting in another few years when my GPS is basically navigating around early 21st century America and I am not.
posted by jessamyn at 12:36 PM on August 29, 2012


I've taken to perma-muting my standalone GPS unit's because the onramp to the freeway nearest my home is a cloverleaf which sends the unit into a flurry of overlapping Max Headroom-like re-re-re-recalculating. It doesn't do this on any other cloverleaf so I think it's just messing with me.

For me, the most useful thing about GPS units has been their ability to completely eliminate the stress I used to get over worrying about being late. Pre-GPS, I would speed like crazy to get to my destination, arrive too soon, and have to sit around and wait as to not appear too early. Now the estimated arrival time is right there and it's very soothing.
posted by jamaro at 12:50 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Waze does do this, you set it to add a stop then search for a category, coffee, gas etc and it finds them on the way using Yelp, 4square etc... Its a bit clunky but pretty great. It may be easier to use Yelp and set a border around yourself depending on your speed of travel.

One of the questions that seems to be asked the most on a road trip is "When is the next (rest stop/gas station/diner/viewpoint".
It's intuitive to the person holding the atlas that you mean the next one on your present route, but ask a gps and it'll tell you about the gas station 2 miles back or the historical marker 5 miles off the next exit.
It's odd to me that "what's the next coffee stop coming up" isn't a button*. Is this something Waze can do, because if so, I'm interested.

* Like when you ask siri on an iphone "where's the nearest grocery store", you'll get a list of 5. I don't want a list of 5, I want you to tell me the one that's most convenient to me, right now.
posted by madajb at 3:32 PM on August 29, 2012


My Garmin GPS can search for things "near my route," which takes a few button presses but is good at giving me results no more than one or two minutes off the road I'm driving.

Something on a phone, though? I'm all ears for that.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:35 PM on August 29, 2012


I enjoyed the article--lots of interesting ideas. I'm still extremely low-tech as far as mapping goes. The most portable mapping device I own is my laptop.

There is a substantial undertone of fear in the article, but not much substance given to the fear. It got me thinking: what about mapping data or our personal data being used by corporations do we actually have to be afraid of?

Corporations acting on their own are not too scary on first blush. Targeted advertising is creepy but not the end of the world. Certainly there is a lot of potential to start charging for things that were once free, but that doesn't seem too realistic at this point in time. There's probably lots of room for anticompetitive market behavior--imagine a Google with falling ad revenues for whatever reason that is suddenly running out of cash and has to keep its shareholders happy.

Things start getting much more worrisome though when you combine political and commercial power. Say Google wants a bill passed and it decides it wants a certain person elected. What's to stop it from looking at every search their opponents have made? Every place they have looked for directions to? And as others above have mentioned, when technology like this it's pretty naive to think governments themselves will not be all over it.

Ultimately things like Google Maps are hugely beneficial to society and, though they already run largely on public infrastructure (GPS), it's somewhat odd that private companies are providing public goods, but the incentives are there (or at least, Google with its wads of cash isn't really constrained by traditional economic incentives in the way we tend to think about them). There is a lot of potential good to be had from the data collection, but it's clear that there it can be problematic and we may be better off in the end with a more open system that both facilitate real privacy and not provide proprietary data to certain companies.
posted by ropeladder at 6:30 PM on August 29, 2012


Apparently I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never really noticed a difference between Mapquest and Google maps…

In 2005, Mapquest returned a static, non-panning, non-zooming custom rendered GIF for every location search. You don’t see a difference because MapQuest (and everyone else) quickly turned on a dime to follow Google’s lead with interactive maps.
posted by migurski at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2012


One of the questions that seems to be asked the most on a road trip is "When is the next (rest stop/gas station/diner/viewpoint".
It's intuitive to the person holding the atlas that you mean the next one on your present route, but ask a gps and it'll tell you about the gas station 2 miles back or the historical marker 5 miles off the next exit.


YES! I was just acting as GPS operator for a family road trip, and when the driver asked me that question, I had to look through the list of results, comparing the direction to each result with the direction we were heading in, selecting the closest result where the directions coincided. Oftentimes my answer was "well, we just passed a city, and so the nearest 30 results are all behind us" because that's all the GPS would report.
posted by Jpfed at 11:23 PM on August 29, 2012


Apple granted patent for location-based camera phone disabling
posted by homunculus at 1:08 PM on August 30, 2012


madajb: "It's odd to me that "what's the next coffee stop coming up" isn't a button*. Is this something Waze can do, because if so, I'm interested."

Yep, it also tells you how many minutes/miles going there will take your route.
posted by stratastar at 3:25 PM on September 1, 2012


zabuni: "He blithely glosses over the fact that governments may have had similar values and interests might come to shape our lives. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. You don't have to be a libertarian to think seeing governments as benign stewards of mapmaking as suspect. All input you receive is being mediated."

One difference as Homeboy Trouble pointed out is that WE now have access to this data, created by private, and public satellites planes and imaging solutions for the entire world for
posted by stratastar at 3:29 PM on September 1, 2012


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