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Ninety-nine used smartphones, rolling down a sunny street…
It turns out, if you’re creative enough, you can use one of the most common of childhood toys to make Google Maps display false real-time data. All you need is a little red wagonand a hundred cheap smartphones.
The little red wagon full of phones is the idea of German artist Simon Weckert, whose projects focus on “hidden layers” in technology and examine the social and moral effects of the modern electronics-based lifestyle.
Google Maps determines congestion by gathering the location and motion speed of phones in a given area. Generally speaking, those phones are going to be in the road because they’re with drivers, inside vehicles, and so measuring the phones’ speed is a reasonably decent proxy for measuring vehicle speed. Those data points, aggregated, make a road look green on the map if traffic seems to be moving smoothly, or they look red on the map if traffic appears to be severe. When traffic is severe, the map’s navigation software will reroute drivers around the congestion when possible.
The crowdsourced data system more or less seems to work for millions of drivers worldwide. Unless, of course, you generate a whole bunch of deliberately incorrect data, such as by piling 99 secondhand phones into a cart and moving at the speed of a walking humanbetween 2 and 4 miles per hour, on averagerather than at the speed of even a very slowly driving car. Then you can not only make a wide-open road appear blocked but keep it wide open even longer as cars reroute away from the supposed congestion.
Weckert shared a video (posted above) to his website that shows very clearly how he was able to make Google Maps report congestion in the near-complete absence of any cars by strolling down the street with his cartload of phones.
Weckert isn’t the first to try foiling modern GPS. Residents of formerly quiet streets have for years been increasingly frustrated with the increase of traffic driven to their residential roads by Google Maps or Waze (also a Google subsidiary), and they have tried various tactics to redirect traffic back to arterial routes.
Traffic on residential roads appears to be going up nationwide in the mobile GPS era, but residential neighborhoods in California appear to have been hit particularly hard.
“One need only skim the city of LA’s Complete Streets Official Guide to understand how counter to traditional traffic planning it is to empower untrained amateursbacked by a massive for-profit corporationto intentionally wreak havoc on the traffic patterns of America’s second-largest metropolis,” Los Angeles Magazine wrote last summer. “No street, certainly not your residential 25-mph variety, is safe from being Wazed into a makeshift freeway or thoroughfare.”
Some municipalities, and drivers, are trying to fight back by putting ghosts in the machine. The town of Los Altos Hills, California, put up signs saying “no thru traffic” in 2017, Slate reported, to make Waze amend the rules it used for directing drivers.
A Maryland man tried to take matters into his own hands, The Washington Post reported in 2016: “Every rush hour, he went on the Google-owned social-media app and posted false reports of a wreck, speed trap or other blockage on his street, hoping to deflect some of the flow” of Washington DC’s many commuters.
He was able to keep filing reports for about two weeks before getting kicked out of Waze, the Post said. Perhaps next time, he should park a wagon full of smartphones in the street.
Listing image by Simon Weckert
139 with 92 posters participating