Happy 15th birthday, Google Maps! You’ve been hacked!

Google Maps was launched on February 8, 2005. It turns 15, today! And it is also one of the few apps that I’d pay to use on my phone; I find it that indispensable!

But, this is one of those ‘How did no one else think of this before?’ ideas!

German performance artist, Simon Weckert hacked Google Maps recently. What he did was extremely ingenious. To change Google Maps’ display of an otherwise empty road (displayed in blue) into ‘red’ (meaning high traffic), he simply took 99 internet-enabled (with Google Maps and GPS running) phones on a single wheelbarrow and walked down that empty road.

As he walked, Google Maps’ algorithm understood it as 99 vehicles on the road and turned it into red! The best part is, he did it outside Google’s Berlin office!

The first thought that came to my mind – why won’t Google Maps treat them as, say a large bus? If the bus had about 90+ people in it and all of them had GPS enabled phones, that would be the same thing, right? But, if Google still took this as a traffic jam, then it is likely that Simon put all those 99 phones in car-navigation mode inside Google Maps!

We often talk about technology as the eye-in-the-sky. But when that eye is enabled to look at the world in a particular manner, it misses the obvious right front of it! The trick also demonstrates the lack of a 2nd or 3rd level confirmation layer for Google Maps to corroborate what they are showcasing!

Bloody smart hack, this!

Why did Simon do this? According to Simon,

“Google Maps makes virtual changes to the real city. Data is not objective and the maps themselves have biases. Showing how the data can be hacked and manipulated is like pointing out the Emperor has no clothes.

In this process it is pointing out the fact that we are highly focused on the data and tent to see them as objective, unambiguous, and interpretation free. In doing so, a blindness arises against the processes that data generates and the assumption that numbers speak for themselves. Not only the collection of data provides an interpretative scope, but also computing processes allows further interpretations.

Thus data are viewed as the world itself, forgetting that the numbers are only representing a model of the world”

Source: Vice and Simon’s website.



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