Google Maps Timeline: Interesting or Valuable?

I was at a dinner party last night where a friend was talking about his Google Maps Timeline year-end report. Another friend asked:

Do you find it interesting or valuable?

This is a very good question to ask about technology in general.

Personally, I find Google Maps Timeline interesting, but not valuable. It’s generally interesting as journal. I’d love to import a static copy of the data automatically into Day One or other journaling software. (Lazy Web, has anyone done this already?)

Using it to track movement is interesting and potentially valuable. In 2018, I traveled 27,711 miles total, about one time around the world. I walked a bit less than a mile a day averaging 2.25 miles / hour — not as much or as fast as I would have liked. Tracking this data more regularly might encourage me to move more, but fitness trackers provide this same data in less creepy ways.

More valuable is the transit information. In 2018, I spent over 21 days on some sort of ground transportation for a total of 9,575 miles, about 26 miles / day. This was surprising for someone who works from home at least twice a week and sobering from the perspective of someone who cares about carbon emissions. That said, I don’t know that trying to optimize these totals further is very valuable. I already take lots of public transportation, carpool when I can, and drive a Prius. I could lower my carbon footprint much more dramatically by changing my diet.

I’m not sure whether Google Maps Timeline will ever be valuable for me individually. However, I do think Google makes this data valuable for me in aggregate. For example, Google is able to tell me the average wait time at my favorite coffee shops and restaurants. I could imagine this data in aggregate could be very valuable for urban planning. I would like for it to be used this way, and would be happy to give this data to someone if I trusted they would use it in useful and also ethical ways.

And there’s the rub. We still don’t have good, trusted agreements between organizations and individuals. I don’t trust the government to handle my data competently — to anonymize it appropriately, to store it securely, etc. — or to put it to good use. I trust Google to put it to good use, but I am very skeptical that they will use it ethically. That said, I trust Google a lot more than most companies, which is also potentially misguided.

Way back in the day, I did some work on these kinds of issues in community with good folks like Phil Windley, Doc Searls, and Identity Woman. Aman Ahuja and his friends at the Data Guild have also done a lot of good thinking around ethical guidelines for using data. I’m heartened by the work they’re all doing. If you know of others doing great work in this space, please share in the comments below. Be specific — what is the problem they’re tackling, and how are they going about it?

Why Are We Afraid of Data?

My friend, Gbenga Ajilore, is an economics professor. Last month, he gave a great talk at AlterConf in Chicago entitled, “How can open data help facilitate police reform?” It concisely explains how data helps us overcome anecdotal bias.

I was particularly struck by his point about how we need police buy-in for this data to be truly useful, and I was left with a bit of despair. Why is buy-in about the importance of data so hard? This should be common sense, right?

Clearly, it’s not. Earlier this year, I expressed some disbelief about how, in professional sports, where there are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on outcomes, there is still strong resistance to data and analytics.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

The first time I started to understand the many social forces that cause us to resist data was right after college, when I worked as an editor at a technology magazine. One of my most memorable meetings was with a vendor that made a tool that analyzed source code to surface bugs. All software developers know that debugging is incredibly hard and time-consuming. Their tool easily and automatically identified tons and tons of bugs, just by feeding it your source code.

“This is one of the best demos I’ve ever seen!” I exclaimed to the vendor reps. “Why isn’t everyone knocking on your door to buy this?”

The two glanced at each other, then shrugged their shoulders. “Actually,” one explained, “we are having a lot of trouble selling this. When people see this demo, they are horrified, because they realize how buggy their code is, and they don’t have the time or resources to fix it. They would rather that nobody know.”

Seeking Google Alerts Replacement

Google Reader officially died today. I was not one of the legions of people who expressed dismay and displeasure at Google’s decision. I can’t argue with a company’s desire to focus, I don’t have any insider information as to why they made that decision, and I’m not interested in participating in tech punditry theater.

My general feeling is that, if a service that’s valuable goes away, the marketplace will replace it. That’s exactly what happened here. Feedly and several other companies moved very quickly to fill that void. I migrated to Feedly shortly after Google made its announcement, and while the service has some warts, my overall feed reading experience is better than it was with Google Reader. Score one for markets!

Despite my overall apathy toward the shift, I was annoyed to receive a notice this morning saying that Google Alerts no longer supports RSS feeds. I suppose it validates speculation that Google is de-emphasizing RSS, as I see no substantial technical reasons why it should kill what amounts to another serialization format.

So it goes. I’ve decided to use this as an opportunity to find a replacement stalking personal dashboard notification tool. Unlike Google Reader, Google Alerts has been gradually fading on its own for months now, so this is a good excuse to find something better. I’ve already been using Newsle for several months now, which I like quite a bit, but it’s centered around people, and I want something for topics as well.

Any suggestions?

Successfully Integrating People and Technology

My work is about helping groups come alive. There is nothing inherent about this work that requires digital technology, although I often find myself leveraging it in different doses.

The reality is that many people want to work with me because I know a lot about technology. They think it gives me a leg up in leveraging technology to support people work.

They’re wrong (despite what I’ve said in the past). It helps, but it’s not the primary reason I can do this kind of work successfully. The main reason for my success is that I have an uncomplicated relationship with technology.

Your level of technology literacy has little to do with how complicated your relationship is with technology. Lots of people who know a lot about technology end up worshipping at its altar, seeing the world through a tool lens that often distracts them from the goal. They’re the type of people who will lecture you on features or inner workings without actually addressing whether or not a tool will help you do your job.

Then, of course, there are people who don’t know much about technology because they are afraid of it. A lot of these folks are smart, high-functioning people who suddenly become paralyzed at the notion of interacting with a screen or keyboard. They are the ones who are defensive about their lack of knowledge, who preface every statement with, “I’m not a techie, but….”

Basing your identity around what you don’t know is just as insidious as basing it around what you do know. It serves as an obstacle to what’s actually important, which is having a learner’s mindset regardless of what you already do or don’t know.

The best tools have wonderful, magical properties, but at the end of the day, they’re still tools, and their job is to do what I want them to do. As long as you understand that, and as long as you approach your work with a learner’s mindset, you can be successful at leveraging technology to help groups come alive.

It’s a lot easier said than done, but it’s doable, regardless of how much you already do or don’t know about technology.

Somatic Computing

A few months ago, I sat down to a meeting with Kristin Cobble, Gwen Gordon, and Rebecca Petzel. We were all on our laptops, pulling up notes and sending off last minute emails. As the meeting was about to start, we all closed our laptops with a deep breath, looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.

We had all noticed the same thing at the same time, and we had communicated that to each other nonverbally. Closing our laptops had completely shifted the energy of the room.

Space matters. It affects our bodies and their relations with the things around them, and there is wisdom and energy inherent in that.

Most of our interfaces with digital tools were not invented with our bodies in mind. They were created to serve machines, and for the most part, they haven’t evolved much. We’re starting to see that shift now, with mobile devices, with touch, and with gestural interfaces. When our technology starts to augment our body’s natural wisdom, we are going to see a huge shift in its power.

My friend, Anselm Hook, gave a great talk at AR Devcamp last year, where he explored the notion of developing software somatically (what he’s calling the “Slow Code movement”):

The technology we need to build these sorts of interfaces exist today, and I think we’ll see an inflection point soon. But that inflection point won’t come because of enterprise-driven markets, despite the opportunity that these interfaces hold. Those markets simply aren’t big enough. It will come because of games.

This is no great insight, but I think that many of us are remarkably blind to it, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of this over and over again. It’s no accident that Kinect — one of the most remarkable and successful research-driven products for personal computing — came out of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 group and not one of its other divisions.