A German man has outsmarted Google Maps by using a handcart full of smartphones to trick the app’s algorithm into creating a virtual traffic jam.
Artist Simon Weckert searched for directions within the Maps app on 99 second-hand smartphones, then walked them in all a handcart down several main thoroughfares in Berlin, including outside Google headquarters.
The cluster of phones reporting the same location to Google led the app to determine there was a large traffic jam in the area and update its map directions accordingly.
In a statement on his website, Weckert said his intention was to make changes in the physical world by using digital means.
99 smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps. Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route! #googlemapshacks https://t.co/3gixMxopE6 pic.twitter.com/6KcMm1XgAF
— Simon Weckert (@simon_deliver) February 1, 2020
“Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red, which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic,” he wrote.
He said he was interested in the day-to-day use of technology in all aspects of life within cities, including in navigation, accommodation, dating, transport, and food-delivery.
Citing a journal article by anthropologist Moritz Ahlert, he wrote: “Google’s map service has fundamentally changed our understanding of what a map is, how we interact with maps, their technological limitations, and how they look aesthetically.
“All of these apps function via interfaces with Google Maps and create new forms of digital capitalism and commodification,” the article continued.
Google says its algorithm ‘hasn’t quite cracked travelling by wagon’
Far from being embarrassed by the stunt, a spokesperson from Google said the company was impressed by Weckert’s creativity.
“Whether via car or cart or camel, we love seeing creative uses of Google Maps as it helps us make maps work better over time,” a spokesperson said.
The company clarified how its traffic data was quantified and explained how Weckert’s walking pace and use of a hand-drawn wagon contributed to the success of his experiment.
“Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymised data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community,” the spokesperson said.
“We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked travelling by wagon.”