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Google: Nairobi motorists using our Maps to evade alcoblow


Giant technology firm Google has revealed that its maps product is one of the tools Nairobi motorists have been using to evade police crackdowns on those driving while drunk.

Ever seeking to be a step ahead of the police, some city motorists know that Google Maps has a feature that can indicate a traffic jam, when drivers who have enabled location services on their Android devices stay at one place for some time.

If, for example, tens of drivers who have allowed Google Maps to track their location through their phones coalesce at a certain spot of a road, the application is likely to indicate a possible gridlock there, and another driver might use that information to change routes in advance. City residents who love their drink found a novel way to use this. Heavy traffic is usually depicted by red while yellow denotes mild traffic and green normal traffic.

“I have observed a peculiar use of Google Maps in Nairobi; where users use traffic data very late in the night (for example after 2am) to deduce where alcohol checking points may be,” said Jacqueline Rajuai, the programme manager at a Google department called Geo for Everyone.

“Please don’t drink and drive,” she warned.

NEW MAP

Saturday (February 8) marked 15 years since Google Maps was launched after the tech giant acquired it from two Danish brothers. The initial concept by Google, as announced back then, was to make movements easy.

“We think maps can be useful and fun, so we’ve designed Google Maps to simplify how to get from point A to point B. Say you’re looking for ‘hotels near LAX’. With Google Maps, you’ll see nearby hotels plotted right on a crisp new map,” said a 2005 blog post by Google announcing the launch.

In Kenya, the product is used by many for business, to find their way through places, among other functions.

Ms Rajuai spoke with Nairobi News on Thursday ahead of the 15th anniversary, detailing the work that went into creating the maps.

She flashed back to 2007 when she was recruited by the American tech company to develop Google Maps for Africa. In those early days, she recalled, the imaging systems at their disposal had many limitations.

Using images taken by satellites, Ms Ooko’s team was tasked with creating maps by use of a tool they had been given, and due to the limited technology, sometimes they could label a river as a road.

“Satellite imagery was really poor outside of urban centres. But given that we really wanted to see good coverage for our maps all over the country, we would map whatever line looked visible and reasonable as a road,” she said.

“When the imagery would be updated to our amazement, we would find that we had traced over a river instead of a road,” noted Ms Rajuai.

“This was always fixed before any public launch,” she quipped.

FEEDBACK

When the map-making system was opened to Kenyans in 2008, it came with ways in which users could help label various places to ensure accuracy.

Today, the maps service incorporates local guides and users who use Google’s feedback platforms to correct any wrong labels on its maps.

Our interview happened at a time when a video was circulating online about a man who loaded 99 phones in a wagon and dragged them through clear streets, to create an impression of a gridlock.

The video was shared by Simon Weckert, a Berlin-based artist who focuses on the effect of technology on everyday lives.

By having Google Maps navigation activated on the 99 phones, the signal that went to other motorists was that the road was full of traffic.

The Verge asked Google to explain this and the tech company said it has not “quite cracked” how to track traffic data coming from toy wagons, though it can differentiate between vehicles and motorcycles.

Asked whether Google has fool-proof ways of gauging traffic data, Ms Rajuai said traffic information is collected from various sources.

“Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously based on a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymised data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community,” she said.

DIFFICULTIES

There are also Kenyans who have been complaining about the difficulties encountered in identifying their businesses on the map so that customers could find them easily.

Ms Rajuai said Google discourages labelling of private residences, noting that it has a tool that businesses can use to list themselves.

“For homes, we don’t allow users to add their homes, for example, ‘Jackie’s House’, for their own safety and security,” she said.

Ms Rajuai also took us through the creation of StreetView, a product that allows a person to walk through Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and other areas of Kenya through his or her gadget without moving an inch.

For every place visible on StreetView, she said, a fleet of cars was involved, each with nine cameras “that capture high-definition imagery from every vantage point possible”.

In its early days, the StreetView product covered the Samburu National Reserve and was launched in 2015.

“Three years later, we began expanding our StreetView footprint by driving and collecting imagery in other parts of Kenya including the major cities and towns. In September 2018, we then published 9,500km of beautiful imagery of Kenya with in-depth imagery collection in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nakuru, Nyeri and Malindi,” Ms Rajuai said.

Google says its mapping service is a free product that does not bring any profit, though some users dread its potential to cause harm if the user data it collects lands in the wrong hands.

Editor’s note: The earlier version of this article erroneously identified the person interviewed as Dorothy Ooko, the head of Google communications for Sub-Saharan Africa. The error is regretted.