Google Maps: Confusing Time & Place

One of the most incredible pieces of software developed in the past few years in Google Street View. The notion that you can use your computer to see what a neighborhood looks like is literally magic. What’s more, you can virtually drive through the neighborhood, experiencing it like a local.

I mean, a person had to drive a car to take that photo, a machine had to stitch all those photos together and it’s now available to you anywhere you can get a decent web connection.

The mind boggles.

What’s even more mind boggling to me is that sometimes your linear trip down the street turns into a trip down memory lane. As you seamlessly slide your “drive” from place to place along the street you suddenly find yourself whisked through time. Drivers change, leaves fall off trees – but more interestingly, sometimes entire cityscapes change.

A building disappears and its replacement reappears or you change an angle and suddenly there’s a construction site.

This happened to me recently looking at New York’s Astor Place.

I wanted to see the new building that’s going to house IBM’s Watson group. Here is it, looking from Astor Place & Lafayette:

Watson BuildingI drove my virtual car across Lafayette so that I could get a closer look:

Missing Building

But wait; what building is that? That yellow building wasn’t there a second ago…

Let’s drive a bit further and look backwards:

Watson Building Under ConstructionTime has shifted yet again and now we see the building under construction.

On the one hand the techie in me thinks there’s nothing interesting here: Google’s servers will update their imagery over time and eventually become consistent.

The romantic in me likes to imagine a scenario where the algorithm occasionally burps and historical images begin to appear when you least expect them. 25 years from now you’re trying to find a place on the map when suddenly a long-vanished building appears only to disappear when you turn the virtual vehicles view.

Or perhaps there’s a new feature that turns Google Maps into a virtual version of Ed Ruscha’s All The Buildings on the Sunset Strip.

He’s been going back every few years to the strip to update the photos but now Google will have done it globally on a regular basis. You’ll literally have a map of all places in the world for regular intervals since 2005.


In my opinion, one of the greatest innovations of the past five years is how location has become a part of everyday life.  Google Maps or its equivalent has become a standard tool in many people’s life.  When you’re looking for directions, a place, etc. you simply call it up; no more guessing where you are.

We’ve come a long way in the past five years, but a couple of recent experiences reminded me of just how far there still is to go.

First one: I can walk from NYC to Ottawa in 5 days.

As Wen and I were going home for Christmas, I decided to see what the directions would look like ‘by foot’.   I was impressed that it would only take about five and half days to do that.   That’s about 72 miles a day.

You get a great sense of how Google’s algorithms work here.  The average human can walk about 3 miles per hour.  There are 24 hours in a day.  Ergo, 72 miles per day and 5.5 days to Ottawa.

My second moment came when I stumbled upon this nameless street when trying to find a cafe:

Of course, this street does have a name (Greenwich).  And this example speaks more to the power than limitation of online mapping tools: they’ve become such a part of my life that a part of me almost questions why the street has no name, rather than thinking there’s something wrong with the program.

I Know I Run Fast, But…

I pride myself on being a quick runner, but this is ridiculous.  Wen and I were using my iPhone to navigate from New York back to Ottawa, courtesy of Google maps.  They were kind enough to give us a lot of options: by car, by bus or by foot.  I was interested in how long it would take by foot.  Turns out only five days:

Google Maps Directions: NYC to Ottawa by FootThat’s not too bad, right?  400 hundred miles in 5.5 days.  Totally doable, right?  Oh wait, that’s six miles an hour 12 hours a day.  What’s interesting is that the average finish time for a man in a marathon is ~4:30 – or about 5.8 miles/hour.  I guess we all just need to learn how to run faster than average marathons back to back to back to back and then we’ll have a similar fitness level to those at Google!

(Note: this is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek post.  It’s awesome that you can drive around and get on the fly directions.  Just might need a little bit more work on those ‘walking’ ones)

Subway Mapping

Last week Google added subway lines to the list of items that it shows in Google Maps for NYC.  What’s neat about this is that we can now plot where the subway lines are in the real world vs. where they appear on the MTA subway map:

Google vs. MTA New York Subay Maps

A couple of themes emerge:

  • Manhattan is ridiculously oversized in the MTA version.  Note how much smaller it should be
  • If you live in East Brooklyn or the entire borough of Queens you’re pretty much out of luck when it comes to subway transport
  • It is ridiculous how far the subway lines are from both JFK and LaGuardia

Mapping the City

I went to the Conflux Festival on Saturday morning and attended a talk by Matt Knutzen entitled Rebuilding the Historical City.  Matt’s a cartographer working at the NYPL and he was explaining a new tool they’ve built – and the Very Big Idea behind the tool.

The NYPL has over 60,000 maps of NYC in their Digital Gallery, but they’re simply digitized images.  They lack any actual mapping points: latlongs, etc. that can actually be use to project the map onto other maps.  As a result, they’ve decided to build a tool – the Map Rectifier – that allows anyone to convert an image of a historical map into an actual working map and share the results with the world.

The process is simple: you find an old map you want to convert into a working map.  You put it side by side with an OpenStreetMap map of New York.  You then click on a point in the old map and click on a corresponding point in OpenStreetMap.  Once you’ve done at least four points, you click “rectify” and the system warps the image of the old map to fit it onto the real map.  At this point, the old map is converted into a set of latitude and longitudes and can be used elsewhere (the system is also smart enough to tell you if you did a bad job).  I’d show you screen shots, but I can’t get a login to the system; it’s still in invite only mode 🙁

There’s some other cool functionality in the tool: it’s got the ability to crop maps (so you can skip parts of the map) and you can also trace out buildings and add data about them (e.g., it’s a public house, etc.).

This gets better and better because once you’ve converted the map into a set of KML coordinates and you can view it in Google Earth.  For example, here’s a projection of a 1924 aerial set of photos vs. what’s there today (a lot more farmland back then):

Long Island Aerial Images

Here’s another example, from the 20th Ward’s fire insurance map.  You can see what Madison Square looked like before the Garden and the Farley post office were built:

Madison Square with old fire insurance map projected on top

This technology is impressive as you can start to tell and visualize the history of the city.  Moreover, once the system launches, it’s going to be open to the public and anyone can rectify a map (that’s a sea change in how libraries work).  Also, kudos to the NYPL for making the entire system open source: you’ll be able to install the software on your own server and start rectifying your own maps.