After losing a couple of flights to Mumbai’s congested traffic, I now make it a point to check Google Maps before setting my foot in a car. Isn’t it impressive how this app tells you the estimated travel time with incredible accuracy most of the times. You also get to know whether the traffic is moving slower or faster than usual. If that wasn’t enough, the app knows about the roadblocks and unfortunate incidents that may leave you stranded. It is also quick to offer alternate routes to keep you on the fastest possible way to your destination. In last few months, I have been deliberately keeping a close watch on this app’s predictions, and I can safely say that at least in metro cities, Google’s live traffic predictions are spot on. But, how does Google manage to achieve such accurate predictions about something so chaotic? I’m sure many of you must be scratching your head over this too. So, let’s find out the magic behind Google’s traffic crystal ball:
Before getting to the heart of the system behind the search giant location services, let’s revisit how traffic prediction worked a decade ago. If you were heading to the office with a bad temper (because it is a Monday), clogged traffic would almost certainly cause a meltdown. The only other option to this was switching on your car’s radio to put up with a cringe-inducing radio jockey. This was necessary because between garbage music and handing out vile relationship advice, radio jockeys blurted out local traffic updates. Radio stations used to get this information from people stuck in the traffic. You can say that it was crowdsourcing in its rudimentary form. Radio stations relied on people who would voluntarily call and provide accurate information. Since there was a high chance of pranksters feeding in wrong information, multiple corroborating sources were important. Fast forward to today, and Google’s backend works on the exact same principle. The only difference is that the volunteers don’t have to take extra efforts to feed in the information. You can also say that the volunteers don’t even know that they are volunteering.
Not wanting to build more suspense, let me tell you that Google’s traffic information comes from you, me, and millions of other users. When you fire up the Maps app, your smartphone continuously sends information regarding your locations, destination, speed, and whatnot to Google. This data is then processed in real time to offer you live traffic information on your trip. The reason behind its insane accuracy is the sheer scale of Google Maps’ userbase. Last time I checked; this app had clocked in 5 billion installations. Moreover, a recent report claims that Google’s location app has over a billion monthly active users. By sourcing information from hundreds or thousands of cars on any route, the app understands not to confuse your brief visit to McDonalds for traffic congestion. Google also saves all the trip information to build up historical data. Among many things, it comes in handy to determine whether traffic is moving slower than the usual. So basically, the time predictions and route choices offered by Google Maps are based on a combination of real time and a large cache of historic data.
When it comes to roadblocks and accident information, Google uses multiple sources. In many countries this data comes from local authorities, companies with a network of road sensors, and fleet operators. Waze was one of the first apps to enable people to report closed roads and hazards. Since Google purchased this Italian start-up for almost $1 billion 2013, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the search giant must be using Waze’s data for its maps. In India, Google has also partnered with brands such as Uber and Zomato for consistent flow of reliable data in cities.
There’s no denying that the Google Maps are fantastic. On the flipside though, many would be surprised to find out the amount of data Google is harvesting from you. Google claims that that the data souring is completely anonymous. On its official blog, the company with biggest ad network in the world claims that, “we find the start and end points of every trip and permanently delete that data so that even Google ceases to have access to it. We take the privacy concerns related to user location data seriously…” That’s a bit rich coming from brand that stole data from random people’s Wi-Fi network using its StreetView cars. Google would like you to continue feeding data to its servers to make its traffic predictions more reliable. However, if you would like to opt, go to your phone’s Settings, click on Location, and flip the switch on ‘Access my location’ option.