TECH

Google Maps: Where Is It Going, And What Data Will You Have To Give Up To Use It?

10/27/2014 04:31 pm 16:31:32 | Updated 27 October 2014

Google has a problem, which is that if you're feeling paranoid, use the right combination of language or just aren't paying attention, its best products sound a bit... sinister.

Take Google Maps. Did you know that if you use Google Maps you may already be sending back data on your walking speed to improve how Google directs pedestrians around cities? (Emphasis added for maximum tabloid outrage).

Did you know that Google knows which restaurants you visit (and review) and will suggest new places to go based on your movements, or that your future travel plans will allow it to give you traffic advice before you knew you needed to leave?

You should do. Google not only makes it clear when you sign up to its products that it's going to do all of those things, but that functionality is, by definition, Google's product. It's what allows it to make something as useful as Google Now or innovative as Inbox - and sell advertising. And it wants more:

"Making the world better for people is about making use of the information we already have more intelligently," Google's geospatial technologist Ed Parsons told HuffPost.

"But there's still much more data we need to collect about all sorts of things."

Unfortunately it's also this sort of stuff that left one Lady O'Cathain, a member of the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee, "horrified" recently after discovering Google Maps nine years after it launched. "I was horrified the other day when I was given a certain website to look at. I could see the roses in my garden," said the baroness, who is charged by parliament with overseeing technology in a 21st century economy. "It was on a Google map or something, and I have no idea how it was taken."

Obviously, she should have done. But she didn't. And if Google wants to take Maps to the next level, and have its users opt-in to those cool, but implicitly worrying services, it will need to resolve this problem.

Luckily, Google knows this.

google maps

"We try to be transparent, and say 'this is what we're doing, this is where the information is coming from'," Parsons told HuffPost on the suggestion that the 'creepiness' factor can be a barrier to adoption of Maps' coolest new features.

And let's face it: concern about data generally isn't just paranoia, either. Recent revelations around government internet tracking and use of private 'secret' data have been serious. Every T&C, Service Agreement or 'anonymised' service an already bamboozled user signs up to, the worse this gets.

While not specific or unique to Google, the debate which has emerged has left consumers confused and worried, justifiably, about the potential for intrusion. Or even just for something entirely legal, but creepy, seeping into their lives.

Parsons said Google explicitly asks for permission at every step, to inform on - and counter - those types of worries.

"On Google Now, when you fire up a card you haven't seen before we'll tell you 'this is where the information has come from, this is why we made this visible at this time'. If it's not suitable or doesn't work for you, get rid of it. Having that transparency and the option for the customer to say 'no' is a really good signal for us and we won't show it to them again."

Parsons, who in a previous role he was the first (ever) Chief Technology Officer at the Ordnance Survey, was speaking at an event held by Google to showcase Maps, Google Now and other services designed to keep you in the loop while on the move. Its recent Android Wear announcements (including GPS) are also done in that spirit.

The ultimate vision for Google Maps says Parsons is a personal concierge. A map that knows you implicitly, and knows not only what sort of food you like, but whether you prefer restaurants that open late, serve particular brands of beer or keep their Nest-brand thermometers set to a chilly 19 degrees.

"Ultimately what we want Google Maps to be is someone that's an expert to wherever you're travelling."

"So when you start speaking to your device more, you're asking for directions to places you've not visited before, but then we start to recognise patterns in the sorts of restaurants you might choose or the types of hotel we can make those recommendations to you, and be a bit more personal."

Judging from Google Maps' latest innovations, from providing free satellite imagery to charities to just directing you to interesting lunch spots, the result will probably be a really useful, mobile product that can indeed improve lives. And ultimately, Google Maps will reach fruition when it knows where you want to go before you do.

But there will also be a negotiation involved with its users - and about what you're willing to give up.

"There will be a combination of stuff does passively in the background, and other times where you as an individual want to share information with a fixed circle of friends," said Parsons. "It's not one or the other."

"But there's a whole use of maps that is just about exploring. If we could offer more qualitative, thematic information that would be a direction for us to go in."

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