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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.