Google Maps is a great tool for drivers wanting traffic updates in real time. It tells you when there’s congestion, road works, a better route – the works. As someone who reviews cars regularly, I prefer it to in-built navigation systems that become outdated quickly if you don’t get them updated at a service centre.
But Maps is far from perfect. As it turns out, its real-time data can be manipulated – which is exactly what one bloke recently did to create a virtual traffic jam.
Performance artist Simon Weckert recently put Google Maps to the test by taking 99 used phones and pulling them through the streets of Berlin in a cart. This resulted in Maps recognising a ‘spike in traffic’ and displayed that area of the street with a red line, which tells users there’s congestion.
Weckert filmed his ‘hack’ and uploaded it YouTube. It shows him walking down the street with the cart of phones, as well as the resulting virtual traffic jam in the Maps app.
Weckert also wrote about the experience on his website and discussed how Googles Maps has “fundamentally changed our understanding of what a map is, how we interact with maps, their technological limitations, and how they look aesthetically. In this fashion, Google Maps makes virtual changes to the real city.”
He goes onto state that the reliance food delivery, ridehsaring and even relationship apps have on Google Maps gives the platform an immense amount of power.
“All of these apps function via interfaces with Google Maps and create new forms of digital capitalism and commodification. Without these maps, car sharing systems, new taxi apps, bike rental systems and online transport agency services such as Uber would be unthinkable. An additional mapping market is provided by self-driving cars; again, Google has already established a position for itself,” said Weckert.
While this virtual traffic jam is quite funny, Weckert isn’t wrong when it comes to how potentially problematic it is – especially if Maps can be manipulated so easily.
“Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymised data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community,” said a Google spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
The company also had a bit of a sense of humour regarding Weckert’s demonstration.
“We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked traveling by wagon. We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this as it helps us make maps work better over time.”
It’s also worth noting that Weckert’s claims of hacking Maps doesn’t seem to have been independently verified as yet.
This article has been updated to include comment from Google.