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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.