Google Maps and more overlaid on what you see in front of you

The next era of Google Maps may soon be underway:

By making use of smartphone cameras, apps can get a more-detailed sense of where you are and where you need to go. The app knows which direction you are pointing in, even what you’re looking at. And because it’s all seen through a camera view on your phone, the app can layer directions on top of the real world, turning navigation into an augmented-reality experience.

Lots of companies are working on improving your maps, but nobody’s maps matter more than Google’s. The company announced an AR walking feature for Google Maps at its developer conference last May and now is making it available to some users before a wider release coming… later. (Google says only that it requires more testing.)…

A moment after the app found me, a set of bold, can’t-miss-’em 3-D arrows appeared on my phone screen, hovering in the middle of the street. The arrows pointed right, so I headed right. That’s when a rectangular blue sign appeared, floating above the sidewalk: 249 feet until my next turn. At the corner, the arrows again pointed right, and down the street a phone booth-size red pin marked my destination. It was as if Maps had drawn my directions onto the real world, though nobody else could see them….

And directions aren’t the sole point either. AR maps could help you learn more about everything you pass. Tory Smith, product strategy lead for autonomous vehicles at Mapbox, a navigation startup, envisions a possible future in which your windshield could display the nearest parking garage, then tell you how many spots are open, how much it costs and whether there’s a good coffee shop nearby. You might someday navigate indoors—where GPS doesn’t work—using AR maps, with Google Translate instantly turning every sign you pass into your own language.

It is not a matter of whether this happens: it is just a matter of when. I wonder if the first company/app/place that really goes all in on this early on will benefit greatly or if this will be feature that takes a long time to catch on. This seems like what Google Glass was truly made for.

What this will do to our abilities to read maps and know places is uncertain. This is not just digital maps versus paper maps: this is a combination of realities where pedestrians could soon just expect to have directions and information in the their view at all times. Whether this makes people more or less knowledgeable about their communities would remain to be seen. If individual users had a lot of control over their settings, perhaps people would literally only see what they want to see.

 

 

When digital maps are wrong

If maps help us make spatial and social sense of our places and world, what happens when they are wrong?

Another factor in the paper versus digital debate is accuracy. Obviously, a good digital map is better than a bad paper map, just like a good paper map is better than a bad digital map.

Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good, but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.

For example, a 2012 survey by the crowdsourcing company Crowdflower found that Google Maps accurately located 89 percent of businesses, while Apple Maps correctly found 74 percent. This isn’t surprising, as Google invests millions in sending people around the world to map terrain for Google StreetView. Google Maps are good because the company invests time, money, and human effort in making its maps good—not because digital maps are inherently better…

In my view, it’s easier to forgive the errors in a paper map. Physical maps usually include an easily visible publication date so users can see when the map was published. (When was the last time you noticed the date-of-last-update on your car navigation system?) When you are passively following the spoken GPS directions of a navigation system, and there is, say, an unmarked exit, it confuses the GPS system and causes chaos among the people in the car. (Especially the backseat drivers.)

The general argument of this piece (and the larger book) appears to be that we should not become too reliant on digital sources of information. We tend to think that digital sources of information are inherently more correct or less prone to error. So, if the digital map is wrong, we might be very surprised.

I recently thought of this myself as we purchased a vehicle with a built-in navigation system. When going through the options in the map menus, I noticed the map had a date from several years ago. When at the dealer a few weeks back, I noticed they had a sign up explaining how to update the maps. I hope to do that soon.

On the other hand, the advantage of digital systems is that our brains can offload some of the work of navigating or understanding a place by relying on a digital map or navigation system. We make use of distributed cognition in many ways, including through the use of paper maps.

Of course, upping and maintaining the accuracy of digital maps is an ongoing task and there is much at risk. All systems have the risk of failure and perhaps the biggest issue here is that we do not assume the digital map is always right.

Old Navy map of Chicago emphasizes trendy, whiter areas while ignoring other areas

A shirt recently on sale at Old Navy made some interesting choices in displaying Chicago neighborhoods:

Freeman, 35, who does freelance writing on comedy for the Tribune, tweeted out a picture of the T-shirt on Thursday. He was out looking for pajamas for his young children last Saturday and saw the T-shirt at the Old Navy in Oak Park.

“May have found the worst Chicago map ever — on a shirt at Old Navy,” Freeman tweeted. “Wicker Park has its own listing but #2, #13 and #14 sum up the entire south and west sides.”

Indeed, every neighborhood from Galewood to Little Village to Lawndale to Austin and the Island is part of the “Far West Side,” according to the map. Englewood, West Englewood, Gresham, Marquette Park, Brighton Park and a host of other neighborhoods are part of the “Southwest Side.”…

A spokesman for the city department in charge of official maps pointed out that Old Navy has a presence in Chicago, which might excuse a mistaken T-shirt.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this reflects what a suburbanite or a tourist might know. Most of the smaller areas are closer to the Loop and Lake Michigan. The O’Hare and Midway Area neighborhoods are named after the one location in each place that an outsider might ever visit.

2. Another possible defense for the neighborhoods listed: it would be harder to fit all 77 official community areas and 178 official neighborhoods on a shirt.

3. It would be interesting to know how well Chicagoans know all the community areas and neighborhoods.

4. How many of these shirts could Old Navy sell? Several thousand? Perhaps the company should know better but the map may have had more exposure through the media reports about it than through actual sales.

Mapping county votes in the 2018 House elections

More media outlets are using maps to illustrate the results of the 2018 election. See this story from NPR that uses country level voting to show where the two parties picked up or lost House seats:

NPRcountyelectionresults2018.png

Of the 41 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue this election, 38 were suburban, according to an analysis by The New York Times. (Democrats may pick up one to two more seats, once all votes are counted and elections are certified.)

But more granular than congressional districts overall are the counties that compose them. We mapped the percentage of House ballots cast for the party that received the most votes in each suburban county, and we looked at how that compared with 2016.

This map hints at metropolitan regions swinging toward one party or another while still generally adhering to the patterns of big cities and close suburbs vote Democratic and further-flung suburbs vote Republican. Regions like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston swung entirely Democratic. Some were more split: Denver, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.

Mapping how wealthier suburban voters helped deliver the House to Democrats

The Washington Post has a story with great maps that illustrate how suburbanites helped swing the 2018 House elections toward Democrats:

In Tuesday’s election, House districts on the outskirts of major American cities were the site of electoral shifts that propelled Democrats to power.

Wealthy and middle class voters delivered the suburban votes for enough Democratic pickups to secure a majority. In several cases, the battleground districts were wealthy and highly educated places that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, exposing the vulnerability of those Republican lawmakers.

The addition of quality mapping data in recent years to stories about election results is great. It helps highlight the clear patterns from recent elections regarding where the two parties have stronger bases, Democrats in cities and close suburbs and Republicans in rural areas and further suburbs.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

New standard and platform for city maps

Maps are important for many users these days and a new open data standard and platform aims to bring all the street data together:

Using giant GIS databases, cities from Boston to San Diego maintain master street maps to guide their transportation and safety decisions. But there’s no standard format for that data. Where are the intersections? How long are the curbs? Where’s the median? It varies from city to city, and map to map.

That’s a problem as more private transportation services flood the roads. If a city needs to communicate street closures or parking regulations to Uber drivers, or Google Maps users, or new dockless bikesharing services—which all use proprietary digital maps of their own—any confusion could mean the difference between smooth traffic and carpocalypse.

And, perhaps more importantly, it goes the other way too: Cities struggle to obtain and translate the trip data they get from private companies (if they can get their hands on it, which isn’t always the case) when their map formats don’t match up.

A team of street design and transportation data experts believes it has a solution. On Thursday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the nonprofit Open Transport Partnership launched a new open data standard and digital platform for mapping and sharing city streets. It might sound wonky, but the implications are big: SharedStreets brings public agencies, private companies, and civic hackers onto the same page, with the collective goal of creating safer, more efficient, and democratic transportation networks.

It will be interesting whether this step forward simply makes what is currently happening easier to manage or whether this will be a catalyst for new opportunities. In a number of domains, having access to data is necessary before creative ideas and new collaborations can emerge.

This also highlights how more of our infrastructure is entering a digital realm. I assume there are at least a few people who are worried about this. For example, what happens if the computers go down or all the data is lost? Does the digital distance from physical realities – streets are tangible things, not just manipulable objects on a screen – remove us from authentic streetlife? Data like this may no be no substitute for a Jane Jacobs-esque immersion in vibrant blocks.