Bad Directions from Google Maps Lead to Lawsuit
The route plotted by Google Maps for a woman's walking directions in Park City, Utah. She was struck by a car on Deer Valley Drive.
Lauren Rosenberg, a California woman, has sued Google for allegedly providing her with unsafe walking directions. The suit claims a Google Maps pedestrian guide accessed on Rosenberg's phone led to her being injured by a motorist while she crossed a broad street without sidewalks at night in Utah.
The case invites discussion on how Google, Garmin and other route-planning and real-time direction providers balance safety with getting people to their destinations efficiently.
This challenge becomes that much greater when going off-road for pedestrians and bicyclists, a growing trend for these digitally generated guides. Google Maps , for example, just rolled out biking directions a few months' back.
A good degree of common sense, however, is needed when following the course plotted on these maps. The satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) is only so accurate, and on-the-ground conditions change with weather, construction and so on.
"Some people turn off their brains and blindly follow [these] directions without thinking," said Hartwig Hochmair, a professor in geomatics at the University of Florida.
"In the old times, you had a paper map, and you compared the map to the city and its landmarks," Hochmair said. "Now with GPS, you just follow 'left' and 'right' and you don’t bother to learn the street names . . . and it distracts you."
These turn-by-turn direction guides , while popular, have led to many anecdotes and incidents about computers getting people lost.
For example, in an episode of "The Office," Michael, the boss played by Steve Carrell, trusts his car's navigation system to a fault. "The machine knows where it is going!" Michael yells, hitting the accelerator and then driving right into a lake.
So that people do not assume its directions are similarly infallible, Google has a disclaimer on the walking directions option in Maps. (This feature is in "beta," meaning still in development and undergoing field tests by a sampling of people to work out kinks.)
The disclaimer reads: "Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths."
At the bottom of the Web page, there is more: "These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly. You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route."
A Google spokesperson told the Associated Press that every software version for desktop computers and mobile devices has had a disclaimer since the pedestrian feature launched in 2008. However, some bloggers have disputed that claim, saying that mobile versions like that used by Rosenberg do not always carry such a disclaimer.
Google had not responded to a request before filing time for this article regarding the suit or how the company creates its direction services. At any rate, Google is known to be secretive about its proprietary algorithms that govern most services, from search to route-planning.
"Google doesn’t publish their algorithms," Hochmair told TechNewsDaily. "You can only guess at what they are based on the output they generate."
Insight into how Google makes its directions can be gleaned from similar projects, such as BiKE Broward, an online interactive planning tool that allows bicyclists to get around South Florida's Broward County. Hochmair is one of its key developers, and much of BiKE Broward's operability and design applies to pedestrians as well.
The project uses Google Maps as a background, and locations of interest such as restaurants come from Google, but the directions-making algorithms are custom-designed.
The way they work is by assigning values to particular variables compiled from government documents and other public information sources, plus some community feedback.
An important data mine for BiKE Broward is a so-called road conditions index. Made by the county government, the index scores the level of possible interaction between cars and bicycles on every road. This rating-based index is based on a couple dozen or so variables, including the number of lanes, their markings, and the availability of street parking.
Getting there fast versus getting there at all
There is oftentimes a tradeoff between the distance a biker has to cover and the rider's safety, Hochmair said; the shortest route will likely involve roads with a high degree of vehicle-bicyclist interaction, meaning the route is less safe than an ideal, off-road trail through a park.
"People don’t want to make a route twice as long as the shortest one if it need not be," Hochmair said. "They might take maybe, say, a 50 percent [more time-consuming] detour if they get a safer route."
A weighted score that also takes into account what a user wants – say, the shortest route, or a scenic one – determines the ultimate planning of the route. Hochmair said developers tweak the weighting of the score to figure out what gives the best results.
Other elements come into play as well, such as traffic density at certain times of the day and avoiding an "overly complicated route, because people do not want to have 50 directions to get from A to B," said Hochmair. "They might want more like 10."
Some areas on the map, of course, are straight-up off-limits. For example, Google Maps does not send non-motorists onto highways and interstates where people and bikes are not legally allowed for obvious safety reasons, Hochmair said.
BiKE Broward – and also Google Maps, Hochmair thinks – also does not direct non-motorists to cross big, "uncontrolled" intersections that do not have traffic lights.
Whether Google did lead a woman astray and into harm's way as contended by the Utah lawsuit remains to be seen. But if "The Office" offers any sort of moral to the story regarding computer-based directions, it is best to look before you leap.
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