The Stack Archive

What does Big Data have in store for online map services?

Fri 31 Jul 2015

New research from a PHD student at London’s University of Greenwich has prompted me to consider some possible futures for online maps services such as Google Maps. Some are ‘bug-fixes’, others qualify as ‘added value’ – and others are potentially rather more dystopian.

The paper presents possibilities for changes that online map-providers such as Google, Bing, Apple and CityMapper could implement in order to make their services more useful to pedestrians as well as drivers. In ‘Evaluating Pedestrian Routes[PDF] Ebiteme Botu, together with Prof. Mike Worboys, a specialist in spatial informatics at GU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and post-doctorate researcher Jia Wang, consider six initial possibilities for improving the provision of zero-gas journeys.

Among the proposed requisites is Safety, which would need to call in secondary factors such as time-of-day of the proposed journey, in order to evaluate whether there is adequate street lighting for the journey. Other factors include type of surface, pavement width, route congestion, ‘sinuosity’ (how direct a route is), ‘pleasantness’ (vehicle exhaust, weather and others), accessibility (signage and rest places), and closeness to amenities, among other considerations.


As regards disabled access, Botu notes Google Maps’ omission of information about the disabled access provided at the Greenwich foot tunnel – and in any case, none of the major maps providers, including GM, Bing and CityMapper, make any provision for the disabled.

The missing topographical and meteorological data in online maps


Where big data explodes in one sector, uptake into mapping is fairly prompt, if not always entirely authentic. CityMapper’s IOS app will tell the user how many calories are likely to be burnt on a particular pedestrian hike (see image right), though it calculates this on an average, without access to the kind of real-time cardio data and input information which makes health trackers such as FitBit better able to approximate calories burnt. Trackers such as the Withings Pulse use an integrated altimeter to measure elevation, and therefore more accurately understand the difference between calories you’ll burn on a plane versus a steep incline.

Google Maps already has access to elevation information within the ‘Terrain’ data of its massive geographical recordsets; but this data, which could not only warn the disabled or infirm of steep rises ahead but could also make calorie-burnt estimates on map routes more meaningful, does little more than ‘shade in’ topographically variable sections on a map – its actual usefulness as data seems to have been reserved for Google Earth Pro, as far as discussion on the matter can ascertain.

The potential for plugging meteorological data into map services is nascent at best in this period; CityMapper has a ‘dead’ database of areas which it will advise to avoid in the event of rainfall, though it does not poll services such as OpenWeatherMap to find out if and where rain might be predicted or occurring. Neither do Google, Bing or Apple provide access to this kind of information in their maps services.

The pedestrian as ‘second-class guest’ in online mapping services

One needn’t be disabled to feel that pedestrian routes supplied by popular mapping services live up all too well to their name. Calculating walking routes is the most recent innovation in maps, moving out of beta for Google Maps some years after its introduction in 2009.

In the UK at least, the legacy of the ‘satnav’ era is still clear in walking routes. Walkers using Google Maps for their journey will find themselves hampered by numerous indications about ‘A’-road’ numbers, even though such numbers are practically never displayed in London signage. Additionally only Apple’s Maps seems to understand that overlaying opaque dash-marks that obscure the name of the streets that comprise your route is likely to be counter-productive.


Perhaps inevitably the most prominent information in map apps for the pedestrian is easy information about how to get back on four wheels, one way or the other (see right).

The risk of adding third-party data sets to map services

The availability of trustworthy data is the key issue in expanding the functionality of online map services, with companies such as Google unlikely to place trust in open-source, perhaps crowd-sourced data sets which may have an impact on the safety or medical advisability of a calculated route, whether for pedestrians or bicyclists, which are far better catered-to in most map services.

There’s precedent for such circumspection: in 2010 a woman sued Google with the claim that following walking directions on its maps service led her onto a busy highway where she was struck by a vehicle. The case was mostly decided in Google’s favour.

So the feasibility of adding ‘lateral’ functionality into map services either depends on letting users ‘opt-in’ (perhaps with a clear and, optionally, a repetitive message) to ‘off-brand’ data sets such as crowd-sourced mappings*, or else investing in the generation of such data; or else encouraging local or national government to develop such schemes on a national or metropolitan basis.

Potentially sinister ‘tagging’ in online maps services

At a certain threshold the challenge of including new data sets in mapping services transcends the technical issues and enters the moral realm. For instance, there is significant public interest not only in discovering the ethnic make-up and ‘look and feel’ of a new potential neighbourhood – something that real estate agents are prohibited from disclosing (even if it were in their interests to) – but also merely knowing how safe that neighbourhood might be.


Neighborhood crime rates on an online map

Neighborhoodscout allows the curious, for a modest annual or quarterly fee, to research the crime rate and ethnic mix of any neighbourhood in the United States, also offering data assessment on factors such as unemployment rates, migration and mobility and ‘ancestry’. The data is clearly far more ‘neutral’ than the intent for its use, and one wonders how controversial it might prove to plug such a database into a popular maps service from the likes of Google, Microsoft or Apple, assuming an API so liberal as to let a developer experiment with other data sources.

There are other potentially controversial databases which could be grafted into mapping services, such as the ability to calculate the risk of violent crime from walking in a particular area by cross-calculating the time of day (or night) of the walk with crime statistics from municipal police databases. Such databases can also furnish the residences of registered sex-offenders, with maps of this kind of information available at the likes of crimereports.com:


So in effect one already has availability to some uncomfortable viewing in the field of online maps. But services which will outline a walk through a high-crime area with an above-average population of sex-offenders are unlikely to also provide calorie-counts or information about local points of interest. Nor, quite reasonably, are they even likely to let you plan A>B walk or jogging routes.

Nonetheless interoperability and the increasing interest in Open Data presents distinct possibilities for creative, inventive, useful and also potentially worrying functionality-sets for mapping – a kind of Yahoo Pipes for the geographical sphere. It’s unlikely that the permanently lawyered-up bastions of Google, Microsoft and Apple will ever offer more than a hermetically Disney-fied ‘official’ map service, likely as not building on the growing trends in health-data via wearables – but rather more outlandish or divisive maps may be only a Pilate-like disclaimer away in a few years.


As I write, Google Maps’ developer programme is currently closed for new edits due to a micturating robot which caused some offence. I suspect there is considerably more to come.

*The open-source scheme AXS Map is building up a global and predominantly urban data set regarding accessibility to business, with corresponding apps in iOS and Android which lets users rate places for accessibility as well as search for locations that are already well-rated in this respect.


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