Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is Google taking us for a ride?

Outsourcing does not work.

Not too long ago I was riding in a vehicle with someone who had a GPS -- a device I considered worthless before the trip. The robot voice instructed us, on more than one occasion, to make poor choices, like drive the wrong way down a one-way street. Because I knew the area, we were able to shut the useless device off. Google Maps, another not-so-local entity, is as senseless as a GPS. Give me a potentially outdated atlas any day. At least it's likely to have traffic flow clearly marked.

I know I am supposed to feel gleeful that Google has decided to add the bicycle mapping feature. Already I could request directions for trip taken by car, public transportation, or on foot. Even knowing the way the pedestrian map feature let me down, as it never let me travel through parks or along railroad tracks, I felt a split second of hopefulness and joy.

Google Maps for Bikes (or whatever they're calling it) is worse. Not only do they ignore the ability for bikes to travel through parks (you can map a trip through a small part of Bushnell Park, but not all or even most of it), they ignore that the East Coast Greenway -- a major bike trail! -- goes through the park. So, whether a cyclist wants to follow the ECG or simply take a more scenic route, she can not rely on Google Maps to send her there.

But wait -- there's more! Out of curiosity, I requested directions from home to work. Besides not knowing that the ECG exists, Google Maps instructed me to pull a U-Turn on a one-way street and then backtrack to go up Broad Street, down to Asylum Street, and so forth. Illegal maneuvering aside, this is silly because I could have made a simple left-hand turn from Capitol Avenue onto Broad Street.

I know that some folks think Google can do no wrong and that I should just be patient as they make updates to their database, but I maintain that companies should iron out the wrinkles before, not after, releasing a product. Also, we should stick to making our own maps in the community. If Google can not create common sense instructions, acknowledge a major bicycle path, or recognize one-way streets, how can we trust it to know where construction might be interfering with a route?


dougyfresh said...

I haven't tried google maps for bicycles yet.

However, I, too, am a big fan of looking at a map. Planning said route and going out on that route. I can't stand these GPS devices. They always take you in the wrong direction when intuition has won me over many times in getting to the destination quicker than the QPS.

tg said...

Just take note that this is a Beta release of Google Maps for Bikes and it is also relying on the community to let them know about errors and suggestions. So if we take a few minutes to report an error or the existence of a trail that is not recognized this could in fact be a great tool. Especially when traveling to unknown areas!

Schleppi Longstocking said...

tg, I've noted that. If Google isn't cutting me a paycheck, I'm not sure why I ought to help them out in that way.

No thanks. I'll stick with the existing resources for cyclists.

tg said...

And that is fine to stick with existing if that works for you. They are not sending out paychecks but are providing a FREE service that could be really great if the community pitches in. I will be, and I know this was a very highly requested item. I do agree that is is a bit rough right now but I have high hopes. To each their own.

Froggie said...

I'm with tg on this one...they probably released it early (before all the bugs were worked out) so that they could get customer feedback. At least give them credit for doing that...far too many businesses these days DON'T do that.

Yeah, they may not be cutting you a paycheck for helping them. But at the same time, as tg noted, they're also offering it as a free service. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours..."

Anonymous said...

It's definitely in beta. I blogged my experiences here:

Highlights include them trying to route my bike down a flight of stairs.

I do expect that it will improve, but I don't know if it will ever be more than a novelty for me. The truth is, I do use Google Maps pretty heavily to figure out bike routes, but I do it by hand, usually clicking through streets on Street View to see how friendly they are, and picking my routes accordingly.

Steve said...

The maps aren't perfect right now, far from it. Definitely. Acknowledged.

But this represents an entirely different approach to innovation and product development in this age. You actually summed it up pretty well, maybe without realizing it: "iron out the wrinkles before, not after, releasing a product."

This is exactly the difference now between successful tech enterprises and unsuccessful ones. The successful ones fail early and fail often and use the feedback of users and the crowd to learn from those mistakes faster than the products that are meticulously developed and tested and re-tested and improved and polished before they are launched.

With something like the bike maps, it simply won't be successful if the crowd doesn't participate, just like Wikipedia would be a failure if no one edited anything. Having it public now and inviting the feedback of the crowd will make the maps better in one month than the small team of Google engineers could make it in 6 months on their own.

If the need for a paycheck keeps you from helping fine-tune it, it's no big worry — there are thousands and hundreds of thousands of people that will do it for free. (Though the quality of directions in your city may suffer as a result without you sharing your knowledge. Knowledge is free, and I heard someone say at SXSW last week that the unwillingness to share free information is just "spiteful.")

It's just a great example of what you can do with crowd and user-generated data — something that you can't with a top-down centralized model.

Worth reading a Clay Shirky book sometime if you happen to see one. He really opened my eyes to this world.

Time will tell if it succeeds and improves. And our involvement (and that of a million others) will help determine it.

Steve said...

BTW, you're totally entitled to not being a part of that crowd. Didn't want to sound too critical there... Thx!

Matt Wright said...

You're really going to complain about a FREE service that is in the beta stage of development and clearly disclaims that the directions might not be all that great yet? What do you feel like you're entitled to here?

Schleppi Longstocking said...

Yea, Rah Rah Technology!

Sorry, can't jump on the bandwagon. We can call it "Beta" or whatever, but the product is still released and available. People may rely on the information in order to make routes for themselves, and many of these people may not be tech savvy enough to know where to even find all the fine print announcing that this project is not finished yet.

What strikes me here is that we have resources already in existence which are reliable. Sure, they are not all in one place, but I can trust that the ECG maps are going to be accurate and I can trust that resources put together by local cyclists who regularly use the roads and paths, will be up to date. My concern is not that I can not find my route to work. I know how to get there. But this very simple route was mangled by Google Maps. How can I trust this if I want directions for a place I am not familiar with?

It's too much like Wikipedia -- a nice concept that can not be trusted for anything beyond entertainment.

Schleppi Longstocking said...

And yes, I am going to complain about a free service. I am sort of surprised that so many people are defending this monster corporation that is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and in a time when so many people are not employed, they are expecting the people to fill in their errors without offering to pay them.

tg said...

The whole idea of a Beta product is to release it with caution. It helps iron out bugs. Companies too often release products supposedly out of Beta and they are a mess. It is feedback to provide a better service to US in the long run. If you don't want to contribute, then don't and try it again when it is out of beta.

Steve said...

"Outsourcing" does not equal crowdsourcing.

It's not so much expecting people to "fill in their errors" as it is to fill in the information that there's no possible way they could go out and get on their own with a team of 1,000 engineers, no matter how smart they are or how long they have to put it together.

You may not realize it, but you clearly see the value in crowdsourcing: local cyclists pooling their time and knowledge and resources to make the ECG and other local maps reliable. No one is getting paid, yet everyone benefits from the knowledge.

What's the material difference between that and the model that Google is working from? (Ignoring the fact that Google is for-profit — Maps are a net money-loser for them.)

I do think you also underestimate the usefulness of Wikipedia. Sure, some contentious topics (health care reform of 2010) are wrested about, but it's a phenomenal success story of using this same model to benefit all of us. Go read the article on Washington, DC, where I live, for example. It's informative, reliable, and far from just being inaccurate entertainment. It's every bit as good as going to the library and picking up Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

I'm sorry the free service isn't to your satisfaction. Nevertheless, despite whatever quibbles one might have over accuracy, we have a global corporation whose products are available in every home endorsing bicycling as a way to get from here to there. That makes me pretty excited.

thedanglingconversation said...

I've always preferred cue sheets or just the studying of a map before a bike trip. Before I venture out on a bike trip to an unfamiliar place, I study a map and ask other cyclists first. In Pittsburgh, we have an organization called bikePGH which publishes a city map every year with streets rated by their level of bike-friendly-ness. This has been and continues to be an enormous help for me.

Brendan said...

What's the big controversy here?

Google is offering a new service so that we look at more ads, in the same way that television networks put on new shows so that we look at more ads. I don't think that Google is doing something altruistic or magical here.

Ms. Longstocking is lamenting that it doesn't work very well right now and she's right.

Billy Hoyle said...

@Steve: Knowledge is definitely not free, although the cost has clearly plummeted with increasing literacy and the internet and mobile communications. The cost to me of reading stuff on the internet is the stuff I could be accomplishing instead, plus all the infrastructure that's needed for me to log on.

@Schleppi: I like this post. You sparked a good conversation here. Broadly speaking though, I disagree with you on this stuff. I think wikipedia is useful, especially articles that are thoroughly backed by citations. As for Google, sure the company is audacious and filthy rich, but I also think people using the "free" services they provide can build community and redistribute power by sharing knowledge and information at very low cost. Look at all the ways the beatbikeblog is helping save the world, for example.

apbauman said...

I sent in a pair of nonexistent bike lanes to Google a week ago and they're still on the map. While I'm sure they're getting deluged by errors like these right now, they better move up their response time or their product will not be useful.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like Google. Don't use.

I use google all the time.

It's not perfect so I make lots of adjustments.

You kind of sound like people years ago who would not use spell-checkers since they were not perfect.

It is a messy world out there and Google definitely helps.

Zeke said...

To those who are not satisfied with the quality of Google's data I would suggest you take a look at the Open Street Map Project:

Bushnell Park in Open Street Map

Bike Directions through Bushnell Park on

It's the Wikipedia of maps. Anyone can contribute. And anyone can export the map data to use as they like. Current renderings may not be as easy on the eyes as Google Maps, but the data is often more up to date, more accurate, and richer than anything Google will ever provide, especially for cycling and walking. If it's not better in your area, get involved and make it so! There's no need to wait for Google to get around to fixing the error you told them about a month ago. Fix it now on Open Street Map and see the results instantly.

rusty505 said...

Anything that might help open up the world of biking to even just one more person should be seen as a good thing. Frankly, I see it as an awesome sign that such a huge corporation finds it worthwhile to encourage and provide a service to budding members of the biking community. Granted I too know my local bike map like the back of my hand and will probably use my local knowledge more often than checking what google has to say, but this free tool is something to be celebrated and embraced. I'm sorry, but your attitude is the exact cliquey attitude that turns many people away from the world of biking.