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Tech IRL: Dynamic maps and how we get directions

Eliza Mills Nov 19, 2014

Tech IRL: Dynamic maps and how we get directions

Eliza Mills Nov 19, 2014

It’s the golden age of maps. GPS technology, used by countless companies in unique ways, is helping us explore new places and get where we want to go as quickly as possible. 

Dynamic maps are interactive. They offer users more depth, the ability to see beyond Thomas Guide pages, and updates, digitally, in real time. Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze — these apps tell you where to go and how long it will take.

They show you satellite images of the city you’re visiting. They let you look at the streets you’re driving on. They tell you when the highway is getting a little congested, they route you around a bad accident, they tell you when a cop is pulled over on your left, or when the road is obstructed up ahead.

But can you trust a map?

It’s one thing to plug in an address when you’re in an unfamiliar place, but when you drive a familiar route, or use maps to find the quickest way to make a regular commute in the city where you live, trust issues can come into play. 

Maps try to save you time, even if a cumbersome re-route shaves a minute off your commute. If there’s bad traffic on the highway, an app like Waze might tell you to get off, just to get back on the next entrance. And sometimes, speed can be pretty inconvenient. There are little glitches  a map app might not know about the notoriously bad stoplight on a street, or that it’s directing you somewhere without a left-turn arrow.

Generally speaking, dynamic maps do know the fastest way, but users are the key to accurate maps.

Most of the information map apps use comes from other drivers. If users allow Apple Maps or Google Maps to use their geo-location information, they can provide useful up-to-date data about where they are and how fast they’re moving.

Mapping companies rely on this data to report on traffic, to understand regular congestion and point out larger traffic problems. With Waze, users directly report incidents, problems on the road and police checkpoints, so drivers might know more specific details about the roads than they used to. Google bought Waze in 2013, so traffic information from the Waze app shows up on Google Maps, too.

Google also relies on historical data to make predictions about the traffic at various times of day, and days of the year. So even though it might not know until you’re in the car how long it will take you to get home for Thanksgiving, it’ll know about similar drives in the past.

But using a free app may come at a cost: Users become a product, a tool that the companies use in trades of information and money. The apps and maps are free, and compared to the pricey GPS and mapping tools that used to come as standalone devices suction-cupped to your dashboard, these apps are a value.

So what are the tech companies getting out of this? 

On a basic level, Google, Apple, and other companies know a lot about where you are and where you’re going. They could use this to advertise, down the line. Waze seems to have struck ad deals with certain banks or gas stations, alerting users when they’re near a branded ATM.

But sometimes, if the data isn’t for sale, it’s being traded. Waze has been known to trade user stats in return for traffic information from local governments. Waze gets sensor and camera information from the cities it partners with – like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the state of Florida  and in return cities get information about Waze users on the road.

For now, it’s anonymous.

Other apps make money directly for tracking their users  a biking app called Strava makes 80 cents per tracked user from municipalities that want to improve their own dat base. Users don’t have to opt-in to be tracked, but it’s the default setting.

The same goes for people using any mapping app with geo-location tracking  you can turn off the ability to let Google Maps see where you are, but it makes it that much harder to get to where you’re going.

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