My Way or the Highway

Christoph Niemann for The Times Magazine

I’ve long had an interest in maps that has only grown since taking a couple of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) courses in grad school. I recently came across a series of funny Google Maps-inspired art that I thought I’d share. If you’re like me, you rely on Google Maps so much that you’ve stopped building in extra time when driving places you’ve never been before. This means that when its information isn’t perfectly up-to-date and accurate, you’re probably going to be late, as I was last week when I drove to a hospital I’d never been to and road construction on a crucial street forced a 5-minute detour. I use Google Maps almost daily–to measure and plan runs, find businesses and homes, plan routes, and even just because it’s fun to look at maps, but how does it all work?

I came across a great article in The Atlantic recently that explains how Google’s maps are made and maintained, how complex they really are, and speculates on where it’s going in the future. Apparently they have people who manually adjust streets and intersections so that their maps match as closely as possible to what’s on the ground. One of their next steps is to take all the data from their Street View project to collect information from all the traffic signs so that it knows, for example, where you can and can’t make a left turn.  It’s scary to think about a future in which we travel in self-driven Google cars, have our location constantly monitored on our Google phones, and still have Google control all our e-mail and internet search histories, all while trying to make a buck off of us. However, in the end, I’m optimistic about how open access to maps and massive amounts of spatial data will improve our lives, whether we’re trying to find the best place for a refugee camp or tracking outbreaks or even just trying to get from point A to point B quickly.