Crowd Pleasing

On a ride into San Francisco one day my brother pulls out his smartphone, hooks it into a cradle on the dashboard. So let’s check out the traffic on Google maps! Up pops the live traffic situation — the freeway is green if it’s smooth sailing, yellow if it’s slow and – 10 points if you can guess the color – if it’s stop-and-go.

How do they figure that out? Does the satellite look down, count the number of cars or their speed, judge the traffic flow, and upload the color? No, Dave tells me, it’s a clever app that takes advantage of the fact that most Californians have two things in common: they have GPS-enabled smartphones and they’re obsessed with avoiding traffic jams. Here’s an explanation of how it works from an official Google blog back in August 2009:

When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you’re moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions.

That one sentence confuses me: “when we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road…” My speed, or my phone’s speed? Am I my phone? Without my phone, what am I? Do I exist as a traffic-inducing object? Me, the smartphoneless oddball, the iconoclast without a GPS, the curmudgeon that insists on a land-line? I’ll set that little existential dilemma aside for the moment. So my phone is sending ‘anonymous bits of data’ back to Google. They know where I am. They know how fast I am moving. They know that I just accelerated like a maniac and then slammed on my brakes. No, wait, it’s just the phone they’re tracking, it’s not me, no need to be paranoid. No way California Highway Patrol can hack into Google.

I wonder if the app takes into account the percentage of people that are likely to have Google Maps-enabled smartphones on any given freeway at any given hour and adjusts accordingly? I imagine they do. Going into Silicon Valley at rush hour? Smartphone-saturation guaranteed. Stockton to Sacramento at 3 pm? Less obvious. If little old tech-ignorant me has thought of it, there’s no way those geek-gods at Google haven’t got it programmed into the app somehow. I am in awe.

Dave then tells me you can use the same idea, which is called crowd-sourcing, to find out how long you have to wait in line at Disneyland. It amazes me that all these smartphones Californians are engaged in quasi-continuous anonymous data exchange just to avoid wasting time waiting around in lines. Never mind the number of text messages they are probably sending during a fifteen-minute wait for Space Mountain. Imagine, for a minute, the sheer amount of information traveling wirelessly, invisibly, all over the place, all around us. What if we could see it? I’m pretty sure we’d call it pollution. I’m still in awe.

4 thoughts on “Crowd Pleasing

  1. Nice post, Mary!

    This stuff is a great example of the yin and yang of technological progress. Having real-time traffic data or wait times is wonderful, but the loss of privacy is a bit scary. I'm something of a tech-curmudgeon (I hate Twitter and Blackberries, and, as you saw, I don't have a big-screen TV yet) but I do love my toys. I got a smartphone about 6 months ago and I really love it. Driving into San Francisco the last month, having the live traffic info has been very helpful!

    It's all about balance: knowing the risks and making decisions about what makes your life better (Yelp) and what makes it worse (Ticketmaster).

  2. It is incredible isn't it? Check out Mendeley ( crowd-sourcing academic bibliographies – making things better for everybody. The good thing is you can justify your nerdiness as helping others and contributing to the common good!! T

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *