Google knows you took the bus: on the creepy accuracy of Google Maps Timeline

You are here. And here. And here. And... Image: Google Maps.

Knowledge is power, they used to say. Nowadays, they say “data is power”, and they’re not wrong. Unlike many of the modern, high-value tradable goods in our society like oil or gold, data is a limitless resource that we’re constantly creating more of day after day.

What the actors who own this data choose to do with it can often be a point of vast contention: should I be happy for Google to reliably know where I am, where I’ve been, and most frighteningly, where I’m going? It’s not up for dispute that the scope of these tools can be immense – but how much of that scope should we take for granted?

Google Maps is a tool full of wonderful surprises. It can plan a journey for you, tell you what deals to get at the supermarket, and give you updates at the bus stop. Some of the things Maps can do, it does without us even asking; Google knows when we pop to the shops, or when we stand by a bus stop.

This concept is called “geofencing”: cross-referencing geolocation data with the services at that location, and issuing notifications to a device on that basis. Google knows I’m in the supermarket because my location matches up with the area the supermarket is known to occupy, and through a complex series of phone masts and wifi access points, it knows I’m between the vegetable aisles. Okay, maybe things aren’t quite that specific, but the detail is stellar – and often, slightly concerning.

A simple flick through the timeline feature of Google Maps reveals that Google can plot day by day where you were, when you went home, and, maddeningly, how you took that journey – or at least, it can make an educated guess. By applying geofencing programming, Google can calculate when we are near a bus stop, and cross-reference that data with bus routes and other bus stops to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty when its users are taking the bus. Google doesn’t go as far as to try and guess which bus, but it could make an educated guess.

The same is true of train stations; pause in one, follow the expected route of the railway line, and travel through additional train stations, and Google will have no trouble in informing you after the fact that you have travelled by train. A reminder that you don’t need to have planned a journey on Maps for Google to surmise this: it is all calculated based on shifting geolocation data, and nothing more.

Walking, cycling and driving are harder for Google to calculate, because there are no geofenced points of entry for these modes of transport. It is therefore likely that, once bus, train and metro have been eliminated from the mix, Google simply inspects the time taken between harvested geolocation data to calculate the transport mode used. But without geofencing, it’s harder to determine the exact route taken by a user: because they’re not following a prescribed route, and because geolocation data is much easier to take while stationary, routes on timeline taken independent of public transport can end up looking… messy.

Google fails to surmise that some of this journey was taken by train and presumes I took an unorthodox drive through Kent in the early hours. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

The system isn’t perfect. For one, it can’t account for anomalies. I took a rail replacement bus service recently, and Timeline was dumbstruck by how I’d managed to get home. But the ever-increasing availability of data surrounding transport timetables means that the assumptions Google can make about our transport choices are only bound to get more accurate. That’s important, because its information that few organisations beyond Google are likely to have real access to.

If we take London as an example, we know that Transport for London (TfL) can use data on traffic flows, ticket barriers, and incomes for bus routes to determine how people use a service. In fact, TfL has even used its own wifi services to calculate route maps on the Tube. However, without undergoing intricate surveys, they will struggle to plot exactly how journeys are taken beyond the Tube Map, especially with regards to buses, disparately owned NR services, and so on.


Google has exactly the information to remedy this – and it’s integrated into Timeline, simply because people consented to having their location data collected. If your local borough council asked to do the same, and the only provision it could grant was that you might get a better bus service, many people would probably opt-out. Part of the reason why we accommodate the location-harvesting of Google is because we consider Maps such a vital service, and its domain – at least in terms of its rights to record our geolocation – is hardly contested. Even those of us who use Citimapper regularly tend to have Maps downloaded on our phone.

Google Maps is in a unique position to mark the differences between journeys that are entirely spontaneous and journeys that are pre-planned, because it is measuring both. That information could be highly useful in designing timetables and shaping user-friendly services.

Moreover, as geolocation data grows more precise, it will be able to help us pin down the flows of pedestrians and cyclists in our cities. While it’s possible to gather this data in the public domain without geolocation, it’s economically prohibitive to do so in less densely populated areas. This data would help prioritise cycle-friendly and pedestrian friendly developments on the understanding of where demand is greatest.

This sort of data inevitably carries such a high risk factor, however – not only as far as personal privacy is concerned, but also surrounding efficacy. We presume that if we know every individual's travel patterns, we can design perfect travel services – but patterns change all the time. An algorithm can never incorporate the latest change before it is registered by the system. While data like that collected by Google Timeline could be put to better use by transport authorities, it shouldn't be abused, nor serve as a panacea for good design.

Worst of all, it’s hardly clear that this data is up for public consumption. The furore over data protection means it would be considered deeply unethical for Google to hand this location data over to anyone, let alone a local government body like TfL. It may be moot point; Google itself claims that Timeline is for our own amusement and little more.

But maybe we’d get better services if it wasn’t; after all, geolocation isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.