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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What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.