Has Google Maps Been Giving You False Information for Years?

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After four years, Google Maps quietly deleted its traffic feature, only providing an explanation when the critics started to speak out

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Nearly four years after introducing its traffic feature, Google Maps has quietly killed the project because it may have been misleading its customers from day one. Just about every search for directions from one point to another made on Google since the traffic feature was rolled out on August 1, 2007, was accompanied by two estimates for how long the trip would take -- one estimate without traffic and one with. The image below and to the right, captured by Barry Schwartz at the Search Engine Roundtable, the first blogger to discover the change as best I can tell, shows what Google Maps results used to look like. The screenshot above is an example of what they look like today.

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Google's users who noticed the change before Schwartz did turned to the Google forums for answers. After a few people weighed in, Daniel Mabasa, a Google employee, followed up. "[W]e have decided that our information systems behind this feature were not as good as they could be," Mabasa wrote. "Therefore, we have taken this offline and are currently working to come up with a better, more accurate solution. We are always working to bring you the best Google Maps experience with updates like these!"

Not all customers were satisfied with Mabasa's answer; they had been using the predictive traffic data for four years, after all. "I miss this feature dearly," forum user tainitam wrote. "It was indispensable when planning out how long it would take to get to places in L.A."

Others wanted some clarification. "I am a little curious," xobpzz wrote. "Why were the information systems not good enough. The inaccurate traffic flow information? The driving behavior of the users? The un-predictable traffic lights?"

As of now, we don't know what the problem was. As Schwartz pointed out in his own post on the subject, Google's traffic data has long been celebrated for being more accurate than other options. In late 2009, the search giant started crowdsourcing traffic data, feeding bits of information sent to its servers from smartphones into the database that powered the Google Maps traffic feature. "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," Google explained in an official blog post. "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."

Presumably, Google is receiving far more data points now, in mid-2011, than it was in 2009. The problem, then, must be on Google's end. The problem must be in how the company was interpreting the information it received by watching over your shoulder as you drove around for the past two years. That seems a reasonable, if unsettling, inference; unsettling given how much we've come to trust Google's algorithms over the last decade. We won't know what the issue was, though, unless Google decides it wants to talk about it.

Image: Google Maps.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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