Why has Google Maps started shading bits of cities orange/brown instead of grey?

What's going on here then? Image: Google Maps.

One of the great things about being the world’s leading purveyor of urbanism for the social media ageTM is that, sometimes, people on social media come to you with interesting questions about how the world’s cities work.

One of the less great things is that, sometimes, you don’t know the answer.

Last night, David Freeborn asked the following:

This is a good question – one I’ve been wondering about myself. Not so long ago, Google Maps showed urban areas in a uniform grey. A few weeks ago, though, it’s started to show some of them in that brown/orange shade.

My first thought, having wasted the 90s playing SimCity, was that this is the difference between residential and commercial areas. The UK doesn’t zone its cities in blocks in the way the game, based on the American experience, did – but there is definitely an identifiable difference between, say, a town centre and a housing estate. So maybe the diverging colour schemes reflect that.

But that, confusingly, would mean the colleges of Oxford counted as “commercial” premises:

...but the area around Tottenham Court Road station in London’s West End doesn’t.

Which doesn’t really stack up.

So, to find out what is actually going on, I – what else? – Googled it. The search uncovered this Google blog post which explains things a bit.

As you explore the new map, you’ll notice areas shaded in orange representing “areas of interest”—places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do. To find an “area of interest” just open Google Maps and look around you. When you’ve found an orange-shaded area, zoom in to see more details about each venue and tap one for more info.

This, then, is why the orange areas are more commercial, but are neither entirely commercial, nor cover all commercial areas. “Areas of interest” are a more nebulous sort of category, covering, basically, the bits that are worth exploring.

So central Oxford shows up because Oxford colleges are the sort of things that might be of interest to the passing visitor; while that bit of central London doesn’t, presumably because construction works means there are fewer shops and restaurants there than in surrounding areas, and those which exist frankly aren’t that interesting.

Or that, at least, is the theory. I’m not entirely convinced by this one.

It’s certainly true that some bits of cities have more stuff to discover, a greater density of incident, than others – and these are more likely to look like downtowns than residential suburbs.

But, to go back to Oxford, why are University College and St Edmund Hall areas of interest, while New College or All Souls aren’t?

By the same token, why is the corner round Tottenham Court Road station grey, while equally unpromising stretches of nearby New Oxford Street are orange?

I’m sure the inconsistencies make perfect sense to the algorithm. I’m just not sure they make that much sense to the human mind.

One factor is probably the types of places Google classes as interesting, which are, more often than not, the sort of places where you can spend money. To quote that blogpost again:

We determine “areas of interest” with an algorithmic process that allows us to highlight the areas with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and shops.

This probably makes sense if you’re a major multinational corporation selling advertising. But there’s an argument that an algorithm that thinks Trafalgar Square is less an “area of interest” than the restaurants across the road is not fit for purpose.

Most of us, I’m sure, can instinctively tell the difference between an area of a city that is worth exploring on foot, and one that isn’t. But defining that difference, and putting it into words, is rather harder.

And if you can’t define areas of interest, how you can accurately programme an algorithm to look for them?

“In high-density areas like NYC,” says Google, “we use a human touch to make sure we’re showing the most active areas.” Perhaps the human touch is needed elsewhere, too.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

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The Liverpool metro just got its first new station in 20 years

The new Maghull North station. Image: Merseyrail.

Always nice when we get to report on a new bit of urban transport infrastructure outside London: the new station in Merseyside is hardly Crossrail, but it's a start.

The first trains reached Maghull North early this morning. The new station lies just north of, well, Maghull, on the Ormskirk branch of Merseyrail's Northern Line. Trains run to the eponymous West Lancashire town in one direction, and Liverpool Central in the other. (Only trains on the Southport branch of the Northern line continue south to Hunts Cross. Don't say we never reach you anything.)

Here's are some pictures of the new station, which looks adorably like it was built out of lego:

Plans for a station at Maghull, where a whole bunch of new housing is planned, have been on the table for more than a decade now. But its business case didn't win funding from the Liverpool City Region Combined authority until October 2016, and planning permission took another three months after that.

This is the first new station to open on the Merseyrail network since 1998, when it got two: Brunswick (just south of the city centre on the Northern line), and Conway Park (across the river, in downtown Birkenhead). Smartarses will try to tell you that other new stations have opened since – but Wavertree Technology Park, which opened in 2000, is only served by Northern Rail, and Liverpool South Parkway (2006) was actually an amalgamation of two existing stations at Allerton and Garston.

The network before Liverpool South Parkway, with its site circled. Click to expand. Image courtesy of Project Mapping.

The really exciting development, of course, would be for two new stations in the city centre to come off. Vauxhall lies to the north of the central business district, near to the site of the proposed new Everton Ground; St James lies to the south, in the Baltic Triangle creative district. Build both of those, and you'd end up with pretty comprehensive coverage of the Liverpool waterfront, as this map from our local correspondent Dave Mail shows:

Click to expand.

At present, both stations are just ideas in the authorities' eyes. But if Merseyrail is in a "building new stations" kind of a mood, then...

Anyway: I really just wanted to write something positive about train in the north of England. It’s been a while.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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