Instead of promoting a handful of dots representing restaurants or shops at the city-view level, the new interface displays orange-colored “areas of interest,” which the company describes simply as “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.” In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a big T of orange blocks around Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, and again on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, stretching up La Brea Avenue*. In L.A., areas of interest tend to cling to the big boulevards and avenues like the bunching sheath of an old shoelace. In Boston, on the other hand, they tend to be more like blocks than strips. In Paris, whole neighborhoods are blotted orange.
Roads and highways, meanwhile, take on a new, muted color in the interface. This marks a departure from Google’s old design, which often literally showed roads over places—especially in contrast to Apple Maps, as the cartographer Justin O’Beirne hasshown. The new map is less about how to get around than about where to go.
“Areas of interest,” the company’s statement explains, are derived with an algorithm to show the “highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops.” In high-density areas, Google candidly explains that it is using humans to develop these zones. Algorithms, of course, are tuned by human engineers. But like Facebook with its News Feed, Google has decided that some attributes of the digital world need a human touch firsthand…
Even with its sliding scales, Google Maps can’t fit every shop in Tokyo in a two-dimensional map. So who gets a spot? It’s not an obvious choice: Analyzing Apple and Google’s maps of New York and London, O’Beirne found that the two companies’ maps had just 10 and 12 percent of their place labels in common. (Likewise, different people will have different businesses pop at them—try it with a friend.)
The title of the article is “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.” This bias could be toward certain businesses or certain areas of the city. When certain businesses or areas are displayed, others are not. But, we could also ask about the commercial imperatives of this mapping: what happens when areas of interest are primarily commercial areas and businesses? Are these always the most interesting spots in cities? When sociologists and others discuss thriving public spaces – whether the mixed use areas of Jane Jacobs or the spots of Cosmopolitan Canopies as noted by Elijah Anderson – they often do include businesses including stores and restaurants. Yet, at the same time, aren’t these spots interesting not only because they offer consumable goods and experiences but because they have a mix of people? Do the people make the spaces or do the businesses?
Particularly if Google Maps is used while driving, people can swoop in and out of these areas of interest. Or, it might alert them to specific areas and encourage a vibrant social scene. We’ll see if areas of interest lead to changing social patterns.