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?