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Why You Can’t Always Trust Map Apps

For travelers with a smartphone, map apps are among the most frequently clicked icons on your screen. In fact, map apps are a huge part of why people use smartphones; according to Pew Research, 74 percent of smartphone owners use their phone for directions and other location-based information, such as searching for nearby stores, restaurants or attractions. These maps are not only helping us get from Point A to Point B, but they are helping us decide where to stop along the way as well.

As we hand off many of the decisions about how and where we travel to our smartphones, now might be a good time to step back and look at where that information comes from, how it might be manipulated, and exactly what we are and aren’t being told when we ask our smartphones questions about the world around us.

It’s worth noting that these mapping services are still very young and under development; heck, some of the map apps can’t even map stuff correctly. It wasn’t so long ago that Apple’s disastrous launch of iOS 6, which gave the company’s own proprietary mapping app status as the default app instead of Google’s app, sent people to roads that didn’t exist, put rail stations in the water, made roads look like cliffs and more. The Apple app was truly terrible; comments at the time blamed the Apple app even for marital strife as couples bickered over directions. Eventually Apple CEO Tim Cook was forced to issue a public apology and suggest that folks should probably use Google’s map app instead, oof.

But as companies work out the kinks of the actual road maps, they are turning their sights on how to monetize them — and that could be critical to our understanding of how maps affect our lives.

Here There Be Monsters: The Ghetto Tracker Site

Last month, a website called Ghetto Tracker was launched, resulting in a fair amount of blogosphere clamor. It was later renamed to Good Part of Town and began offering “advice” on the safest and least safe neighborhoods, based on user votes and comments.

Ghetto Tracker was largely crowdsourced — that is, users of the service post which neighborhoods they think other users should avoid. This approach quickly resulted in accusations of providing a platform for racism or classism, as many of the warnings were based largely on the race and economic means of the residents. One blogger called it “the worst site on the Internet” (to which Good Part of Town responded by subheading its link to with “the best website on the Internet”).

According to many experts, other companies are starting to use computers to sort through demographic information to do the exact same thing. For example, Microsoft’s “Pedestrian Route Production” GPS effort endured very similar criticism last year — including the mocking nickname “Avoid Ghetto.” According to the patent Microsoft was granted, the service would help pedestrians avoid passing through an “unsafe neighborhood” or “an open area that is subject to harsh temperatures.” A service of this nature could conceivably steer someone of a certain income level, socioeconomic status or even skin color away from a neighborhood that is very different from them. So where an app like Ghetto Tracker has individuals offering sometimes explicitly racist characterizations of neighborhoods, these data-based apps ultimately may be doing the same thing, but without the inflammatory name.

New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

How different is this from Let’s Go or Lonely Planet creating a rutted road of travelers following their guidebooks? After all, their writers did not send folks to desolate or dangerous areas in most cases, and their recommendations were based on information either from people very similar to them (fellow travelers) or from those who likely gave a somewhat sanitized view of the area (tourist offices, hotel concierges, even locals seeking more tourist trade).

I just took a quick look at the pre-Internet 1987 “Let’s Go USA” guide and found the following passage:

The poorest New Yorkers live in Harlem, East Harlem, East Morningside Heights, and Upper Manhattan, communities that produced the Harlem Renaissance of black artists and writers in the 1920s, and the revolutionary Black Power movement of the 1960s. Although the area is torn by crime, Hamilton Terrace and Edgecombe Ave., just north of St. Nicholas Park, between 140th and 150th Streets, are safer and more attractive.

I dunno — doesn’t that read a bit Ghetto Tracker-ish? For what it’s worth, the guide does not dis solely the poorer neighborhoods; the passage just prior to the one above addresses the Upper East and West Sides, including Columbus Avenue, with the comment, “Visitors are likely to dismiss the unintelligible snobbery of both and embrace the eccentric spunk of the Columbus Ave. thoroughfare.”

So the poor neighborhood you visit at your peril, aside for a couple safe havens, but sure, go embrace some snob-watching in the rich districts. It doesn’t take a semiotician to figure out what is going on here.

Of course, giving travelers reliable information on the relative safety of neighborhoods is not necessarily a bad thing; I lived for several years in the very center of one of the areas mentioned above, and would not have advised friends and family to wander around pointing expensive cameras at the architecture. Advice and curation based in part on traveler safety certainly has its place — which is why we might want to be more concerned not with what map apps tell us to avoid, but with what they leave out because they are paid to do so. Read on.

On the Grid or Off the Grid Could Be Decided by Who Pays the Most

While steering folks away from neighborhoods an app guesses they might not like or fit into demographically is one type of concern, the more likely scenario is that these services will steer travelers to places that have paid for preferential listings. Current power users of map apps not only look for the best way to get from one point to another, but also want to find businesses, restaurants, tourist attractions and more, and the concern is that those who pay the most will be displayed the most. This is already a serious issue among search engines; are they showing you what you want to see, or what they (and their advertisers) make the most money from having you see?

This type of paid priority placement is thought to be on the near horizon for map apps, and the likely loser in this game will be the smaller, independently owned establishments that most travelers are seeking out when looking for authentic local experiences.

A case study: Near my current home town, there is a truly killer coffee shop (Small World Coffee) that has become almost a destination in itself for many folks. It serves countless functions: a place for students to cram for exams, for professors to consult with students, for folks to work, for writers and freelancers to escape self-imposed solitude for a spell, for priests and pastors to meet engaged couples — you name it. Small World brews its own coffee, makes it strong and tasty, plays good music, and doesn’t hassle its customers for hanging out. The place is huge, well-lit, and brimming with tables and chairs. It is a local treasure, as they say.

Just barely around the corner is a Starbucks. Admittedly, it is a “good” Starbucks — it takes care to make its coffee well, the staff is friendly and helpful, etc. — but it is much smaller and darker than Small World, and as such has limited utility as a community gathering place. A lot of folks think the coffee isn’t as good as Small World’s either.

But Starbucks is a giant global corporation, with 17,500 stores worldwide as of 2012, while Small World has two stores in one small town, about one mile apart. Starbucks can afford to buy a heap of advertising from Apple or Google in exchange for preferential placement on maps, and honestly would be almost crazy not to. It might not be a targeted effort to beat out a little guy like Small World; it could just be a global ad campaign.

Unfortunately, Small World sure can’t afford Starbucks kind of advertising, so it might show up less prominently on the maps. That might not kill Small World — its local, loyal customers will keep coming — but it might hurt you when you visit, as you may never find it if it doesn’t show up in your map search.

Even now, the main, larger branch of Small World doesn’t show up when I do a Google Maps search for “coffee” in the neighborhood; Starbucks does (as does local company Chez Alice, and the much smaller Small World shop a mile away).

The main concern of mapping experts and sociologists is that as our reliance on mapping applications becomes more pervasive, entire communities, neighborhoods and businesses could be almost literally “wiped off the map,” depending on who is looking and even more on who is writing the map apps. Whether you are kept from knowing about something because someone finds it unsavory, or more likely because they find it less profitable, this should be a constant concern for anyone relying on a digital mapping application.

That said, the mapping company with the most complete and error-free information is going to win in the end, so there may be some very strong incentive to figure out a way to include truly everything, while still offering a degree of personalization (which is how mapping companies often refer to showing you what they think you want to see), as well as monetizing specific searches. Hopefully that market pressure works well for map users as well as map makers.

For sure mapping applications are among the most intensely contested industries right now; the frenzy of startups, mergers and acquisitions in recent months shows how high the stakes are.

In the end, as technology infiltrates every part of the travel experience (and our lives), it may be enough to be aware of what map makers are up to, as you can’t be fooled if you already know the trick.

Are you concerned, unconcerned, ticked off or even grateful for map apps that steer you without your consent?

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