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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.