Posted by: crudbasher | October 31, 2011

How Google Maps Infers Traffic Data

Let’s take two laws of computing and put them together.

The first one is called the Law of Accelerating Return. As far as I can gather it was coined by Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and writer. Basically it states that not only is technological progress moving quickly, the rate of change is accelerating. This is because one innovation in technology enables the next one and so on. It snowballs.

The second one is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  This of course isn’t a technology law, but certainly applies to it. It says that many innovations also bring side effects that weren’t foreseen and often aren’t desired.

(cc) 27147

So how does this lead me to Google Maps? This morning it was raining in Orlando so I checked Google Maps on my iPad to see how bad the traffic was. Turns out, not that bad. This lead me then to a Google search to see what other traffic apps there were for iOS. Turns out there were quite a few but I found this story that discussed how Google actually figures out the traffic.

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. 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. We continuously combine this data and send it back to you for free in the Google Maps traffic layers. 

Wow! See, this is why Google is an information vacuum cleaner. I’m sure when Google made the maps app, they didn’t expect to be able to easily include traffic but they got that as an unintended consequence of the rest of the information. Information gets more useful the more if it you have. Hey let’s have another one of my equations!

Information value = Information Quantity * Information Quantity

I’m not sure it goes up in the square of the quantity but you get the point. 🙂 You can do more with information, the more of it you have. So how does this relate to education?

In the current model of schools, students are restricted to certain information sources. In fact in some schools it is still just the textbook and what the teacher says in lecture. Imagine how much more creative the students could be if they were just turned loose on a mass of information? Let’s let them use their smartphones and laptops to work together.



  1. […] part is to start to connect up data to derive additional meaning from it. They do this when they put traffic on Google Maps. What happens at the third stage then is to start to assign contextual meaning between pieces of […]

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