99 Problems for Google Maps

The internet got a laugh this week when we realized just how easily one person can influence something as seemingly infallible as Google Maps. Berlin-based artist Simon Weckert pulled a wagon full of 99 phones at a walking pace down empty city streets and tricked the world’s preeminent mapping platform into thinking Berlin’s traffic was at a standstill. 

Google Maps, and other similar platforms including Waze, collect some of their data through crowdsourcing. All 99 phones in Weckert’s wagon (and presumably one more in his pocket) were pinging a slow moving location to Google’s servers, leading the platform to display the dreaded deep-red traffic warning–cars trapped in gridlock–that in reality was one Berliner and his wagon walking down quiet city streets.

Weckert’s piece, titled “Google Maps Hacks,” was intended to draw attention to the ubiquity of mapping platforms and our indiscriminate consumption of geographical data. We all have people in our lives who use Google Maps for a trip down the block. One survey found 77% of smartphone users reporting regular use of navigation apps. People are becoming so reliant on these platforms that they are losing their ability to navigate without an app. 

Two images showing Weckert pulling a wagon of phones and the resulting display of traffic on Google Maps.

Weckert pulling his wagon of phones (right) and the ensuing display on Google Maps. Source: Simon Weckert.

Google Maps users certainly take advantage of the application’s up-to-the-minute traffic data to plan their trips or find an alternative route to avoid a slow-down. Few users would venture near displayed traffic to verify a stoppage or risk a few minutes stuck “in the red” when they can use the app to speed to their destination.  “[T]his process is pointing out the fact that we are highly focused on the data and tend to see them as objective, unambiguous, and interpretation free.” Weckert said. “In doing so, a blindness arises against the processes that data generates and the assumption that numbers speak for themselves.”

Blind trust in maps may stem from our early experiences seeing them displayed on our classroom walls. Maps have earned a place in our minds as an unbiased reference resource, when they are really a method of interpretation and a reflection of one distinct point of view. Weckert explored this phenomenon with his work: “Maps have the potential as an instrument of power,” Weckert said. “They substitute political and military power in a way that represents the state borders between territories and they can repeat, legitimate, and construct the differences of classes and social self-understandings.” Even when displaying traffic information, Wekert showed us what is displayed on our phone’s map is only a singular interpretation of reality. 

Other ethical dilemmas arise from the realization that one denizen can control a widely-adapted mapping platform. Weckert acknowledged that his performance would reroute vehicle movement and possibly cause another traffic jam in the city, calling into question the legitimacy and security of Google’s data sourcing and vetting techniques. Should a criminal with similar ideas contribute confounding data to our mapping platforms, the implications could be tremendous: emergency response vehicles could be rerouted and delayed or security forces could be sent to an incorrect location. How can these giants in geodata accumulation and dissemination ensure we are protected in an age of dependence on mapping platforms, and at what point do they bear responsibility for the consequences of their maps? 

At EthicalGEO, we are interrogating the way we consume maps and also how we build them. Who has the power to select the data displayed on the map? How do the major players (and minor actors) define their roles and exercise their power in the realm of geospatial science and technology? As smarter, open-sourced, and mobile tech platforms and our reliance on them grow, how do we grapple with the ethical questions surrounding their use and proliferation?

We had one more question of Weckert’s project…why 99 phones? Weckert reported because tech giants, like Jay-Z, have “99 problems”…and keeping citizens and our data secure is just one of them.

Katherine Cann manages the EthicalGEO Initiative for the American Geographical Society. As a geographer, she uses geospatial tools to better understand the world around her. As a citizen, she engages with geotech privacy debates. Become a part of the EthicalGEO conversation, follow us @EthicalGEO or email info@ethicalgeo.org.