Google's Google Maps team has been on quite the tear this summer, enriching its platform and beefing up location-based services such as Google Latitude. In just the past two months, the search and Web services giant has offered multiple searches for one search destination session, shown users how to get Google Maps on Websites, and offered a Street View tutorial.
The innovation machine hasn't stopped cranking. Today, Aug. 25, Google rolled out live reporting of traffic conditions on back roads for some cities. After you've done your Google Maps search, zoom in on your city of choice and click the Traffic button. Software Engineer Jordan Weitz of the Google Traffic Team wrote:
"As you zoom in closer to an area of interest, we'll color the arterial roads, in addition to the highways, to show current traffic conditions. Just as with the highways, the colors correspond to the speed of traffic (relative to the speed limit of the road): green is free sailing, yellow is medium congestion, red is heavy congestion, and red/black is stop-and-go traffic."
Google provided this traffic map example of its engineering office in Seattle, but I thought a search for traffic around "Microsoft headquarters, Seattle" would be more fun. I clicked on the traffic button and saw this:
You can also check the traffic history for different times -- 8 a.m., noon or 5 p.m. -- for any day of the week. Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land mapped traffic routes into midtown Manhattan.
This conversation takes on a more interesting note when you use the traffic map tool for Google Maps for Mobile. Those who use that application with GPS enabled on their phones can warn fellow travelers when traffic is too heavy, just by having the Google Maps for Mobile app launched on their smartphones. Dave Barth, product manager for Google Maps, explained how it works:
"When you choose to enable Google Maps with My Location, your phone sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you're moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions. We continuously combine this data and send it back to you for free in the Google Maps traffic layers. It takes almost zero effort on your part -- just turn on Google Maps for mobile before starting your car -- and the more people that participate, the better the resulting traffic reports get for everybody."
Here are traffic patterns on Google Maps for Mobile:
Essentially, Google is asking users to crowdsource to push traffic data to Google via their mobile devices. Barth noted that the Google Android-based T-Mobile MyTouch 3G and the Palm Pre come with Google Maps and traffic crowdsourcing preinstalled. Surprise: The iPhone Maps application does not.
I applaud this effort from Google because I believe crowdsourcing is an important practice in propping up almost any kind of Web application you can think of, whether you're using search and decision engines or advice pages and recommendation engines for travel, shopping and other tips.
The problem with location-based services is that they effect a skittishness in people. Concepts like location-based services that send "bits of data back to Google" tend to make people nervous. Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great report on the intersection of location services and privacy.
Does this rate too high on your creepy, Big-Brother meter, or would you help your fellow travelers avoid traffic snarls?
Barth promises, "We only use anonymous speed and location information to calculate traffic conditions." Moreover, he said, "When a lot of people are reporting data from the same area, we combine their data together to make it hard to tell one phone from another." Does this make it any less nerve-racking for you?
You can stop your phone from sending anonymous location data back to Google by following these opt-out instructions.