Google Maps: online interventions with offline ramifications

Google Maps: online interventions with offline ramifications

The places where online life directly intersection with that lived offline will be forever fascinating, illustrated perfectly through a recent performance piece involving Google Maps, a cart, and an awful lot of mobile phones.

Simon Weckert, an artist based in Berlin, Germany, showed how a little ingenuity could work magic on the ubiquitous Google Maps system. Turns out Google hadn’t accounted for what happens when 99 phones go for a relaxing walk down the streets of Berlin. The system was fooled into believing the world’s most aggressive traffic jam was taking place. Let’s see how it happened.

How does Google Maps help with traffic?

Back in the day, Google Maps dived into the world of traffic sensors to get a feel for how commutes and directions were impacted by traffic patterns.

In 2009, they made use of crowdsourcing, and phones with GPS enabled sent anonymous data allowing Google to figure out how vehicles were moving and where any traffic jams happened to be. The more people taking part, the greater the accuracy and benefits for all.

Things kept on moving, and in 2020 it’s a combination of sensors, user data, and satellite technology to keep things keeping on. You’d think a trolley of phones would be no match for this elaborate weave of crowdsourced mobile pocket power and additional data sources.

You would think.

Maps versus trolley

Imagine our surprise when one large jumble of phones trundled its way toward disruption heaven, proudly announcing 99 cars were not going anywhere anytime soon. Whatever failsafes Maps had in place, it simply couldn’t figure out shenanigans were afoot.

Streets formerly flagged as green (all clear) would suddenly show as red (traffic jam ahoy), with the knock-on effect of rerouting cars to other roads which may well have been free of cars but would now feel the impact of people trying to avoid the trolley hotspot. I think my favourite part of this story was when the trolley rumbled right past the Maps office. Chaos, then, but artistically done. Not the first time though…

Mapping out an artistic tribute

Art being used to make a point about technology, Google, and even Maps itself is not uncommon. Last year, an artist made use of their Google account to upload weird and wonderful pieces of 360 degree digital art using Google Business View. Sure, you could use it to give potential customers an in-depth look at your eatery before venturing inside—or you could generate chaotic mashups and loosen up the clinical aesthetic of vanilla Google Maps instead. The choice, as they say, is yours (unless someone says “no” and removes it all).

What could cause user generated content to be removed from Maps? Funny you should ask.

When does art become vandalism?

Maps may make use of crowdsourcing to great effect, but crowdsourcing alone is one consistent method to ensure chaos in the end. A few years ago, enthusiastic cartographers had the ability to make edits to Maps using the Map Maker tool. If you had a nice tip or a cool landmark you felt warranted closer inspection, you could add it manually to the map. This was one way to help out in regions where mapping hadn’t taken place, because even Google couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Other users would check and verify before edits went live. If you eventually gained enough kudos from the rest and your edits were constant and legitimate, you eventually bypassed the need for others to make sure you weren’t doing anything problematic.

Step forward, someone doing something problematic. 

Slowly but surely, people started to play pranks on the system and post a variety of spam and other nonsense. It’s possible Map Maker may have carried on if the dubious edits had been small, unnoticed, and otherwise unlikely to end up front page news.

On the other hand, this could happen and Map Maker could be thrown from the highest of cliff edges, never to return. Some features of Map Maker have made their way into regular Maps, but sadly this was lights out for the genuinely useful tool. If I could draw a 300-foot “RIP Map Maker” onto the side of a digitised mountain in the Himalayas, I would, but this written tribute of ours will have to suffice.

Getting down to business

Maps locations for businesses have also been exposed to shenanigans over the years, and not all of it confined to Maps exclusively. Whether it’s restaurant owners going out of business because of wrongly-listed opening hours,


or Google+ (remember that?) listings directing hotel chain visitors to third-party websites generating commission, the conflict is nonstop and the repercussions can be enormous for those hit hard. If you’re not online much or familiar with the technology involved, then you have almost no chance of setting things straight.

Trouble in other realms

It isn’t just Google Maps beset by these antics. Other major platforms run into similar issues, and if the platform doesn’t provide the mapping tech directly, then the pranksters/malicious actors will simply go after the third-party suppliers instead. Mapbox found themselves facing a terrible edit, which worked its way into Snapchat, the Weather Channel, and others.

For as long as the ability to make use of the wisdom of the crowds (or, in many cases, the lack of wisdom) exists, these disruptions will continue to happen. A surprising amount of services we take for granted can’t really function well without an element of trust granted to the user base, so this isn’t exactly the easiest to police.

Sure, some of the shenanigans are lighthearted and may occasionally be quite funny. Some of these methods for gaming the system could also be profoundly troublesome and cause maximum discomfort with a little bit of effort.

On this occasion, at least, we can be content that the end result is “cool art project makes us think about online/offline interaction” and not “someone’s drawn a rude picture on the side of the Empire State Building.”

We make no guarantees about next time.