“Those Unconscionable Maps”

Maps have always been indispensable references materials.  Commerce, science and personal transportation would be irrevocably more difficult without them.  Though we take it as a given now that we can plug in our destination’s address and will be shepherded there by a soothing mechanical navigator; this was certainly not always the case.  Maps have only recently become an interactive venture.  What once was the domain of the scattered cartographers in offices around the world is now a much more complex infrastructure of surveying and imaging equipment, humans on all ends checking, amalgamating and utilizing the information with digital infrastructure storing it and often automizing the work.  Google Maps represent the next step in mapping infrastructure, mainly through decentralizing while standardizing the way cartographic information is stored.

There are numerous levels of middleware that mediate between the geographic reality of the Earth (the Bottom Layer) (Mars and the Moon, for the extraterrestrially inclined) and the maps presented on one’s iphone or computer (the Top Layer).  Not only must images be produced of every corner of the globe at every conceivable level of detail but an entirely seperate “logic map” (referred to within google as “Ground Truth”) of the transportation system must be created and stitched to the original. Additionally, unlike attempts to map the cosmos, the system to be understood is constantly changing.  Images and the GT must be reviewed and edited every time a new road is built.  Thats where the users come in.  Because google can’t be assumed to keep up with every transportation infrastructure project going on around the world they rely on their user submitted problems with the map to alert them to new changes, creating an essentially mediated wikipedia of maps.

Google’s specially designed car and other “in the field sensors” are a burgeoning middleware with incredible potential for future knowledge creation. Providing 360 degree visuals and correlated GPS coordinates, the Street View car seems like the first step towards a data-oriented transportation infrastructure.  Google already provides traffic analysis through “crowd-sourcing” the amount of traffic by tracking the GPS locations of smart phones accessing its service.  This data has more use than simply live predicting traffic conditions and should be put into public domain.  Municipalities should be provided with access to an anonymous account of this data to better predict future traffic patterns and design more efficient traffic systems.  Additionally, this data, particularly tied to one’s search history among some of the other statistics google invariably ties to your identity presents incredible value for tracking the spread of diseases, measuring the effects of climate change, among other uses; which obviously brings up the chief concern surrounding all of this, privacy.

Google’s cartographic infrastructure lies within the much more vast, and decidedly more complex infrastructure of google itself.  While few would condemn a mapping company that tracks its users to produce a more accurate map, or a search company that tracks its users interests in order to serve up better hits in the future, or even a retail company that tracks its users purchases so as to provide customer appropriate discounts; people seem to have more of an issue with a company that does all of these at the same time while photographing every inch of the globe.  As if this were not enough, Google is developing the digital resources to OCR (convert the text and logos captured in its images to more machine processable data) and analyze this trove of data.  It is not just its vastness that often gets google into trouble, but frequently its deployment of cutting edge technology that function in gray areas not yet fully regulated.  Google has already been caught taking more information than some felt comfortable with; the Street View cars processed the names and MAC addresses of wireless networks as they roamed.  Upon discovery of this there was some uproar, and Google agreed to delete the wireless information it had gleaned.  Despite these privacy concerns, the US Federal Government has stated that it has found no evidence of prosecutable harm.  At the end of the day, these privacy issues are the price consumers pay for access to an assortment of free application; while opt-out settings are starting to emerge, customers need to weigh the cost and benefits of having an interconnected platform for several (if not all) of their online activities.

(Full disclosure: I was planning on posting The Atlantic article linked in the first paragraph as a current event post but decided that it made some interesting points about middleware as well)

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One Response to “Those Unconscionable Maps”

  1. kmcmeek says:

    Great points. I think privacy concerns and the emergence of opt-out settings could really shake up the use of the interactive maps. If middleware elements, such as users themselves, begin to speak out against potential privacy issues this could lead to a sharp decline in the quality of Google Maps. After all Google does depend on users to notify them of new roads, the closure of roads, etc. Interesting perspective!

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