Exploring the City of Tomorrow

A hypothetical Aura Map of Istanbul's Golden Horn.
Google Transit wants your city to get on their bus. At the American Public Transportation Association's recent TransITech conference the web giant's mass trans-tracking maps app (say that five times fast) challenged every transit agency in attendance to upload their schedules and information to the site by Earth Day of 2008. If Google's effort at TransITech is successful, live, up-to-date GPS-powered transit tracking for every major city in the country (and beyond) could be a reality much sooner than one might imagine.

It's a bit freaky at first; there's a whiff of Big Brother, and a dash of 1984. But once the knee-jerk paranoia passes, the benefits begin to sink in. With live-feed transit information, Google Maps and Google Earth could eliminate the need for standing on a windy or snowy street corner for twenty minutes, waiting for a late bus. Outside it could be pouring rain, but you'd know exactly when to leave the house to catch your train. Even making connections could be more easily choreographed. Suddenly, one of mass transit's biggest drawbacks -- unreliability -- is eliminated. Overcrowding becomes less of a problem, and the whole system runs more smoothly. Everyone wins.

Online mapping technology has come a long way since the basic click-navigation maps of MapQuest hit the web back in the 1990s. Nowadays you can easily access street-level views, satellite images, and highly-detailed maps of buildings and amenities of dozens of cities. Certainly, this makes the prospect of taking an exploratory walk through a new part of town less daunting; you can preview your route, get a feel for landmarks, even decide where you want to stop for lunch. But there's still a dimension missing. Online maps are still very much stuck in the 3D-level, at least as far as the masses are concerned. We're still figuring out how to map the most important factor in cities: people. Not individuals (again with the creepy 1984ishness), but crowds, traffic patterns, and even emotions.

Think back, once again, to the SimCity game franchise. In later versions of the game, players could open up maps that charted everything from traffic to crime to the general happiness (aura) of the entire city. Live. Can you imagine the potential of people-mapping technology as a tool for planners and policy-makers?

A scenario: it's 8:00pm on a Friday in the year 2015, and you're looking for something to do. You grab your wi-fone and fire up the GoogleCity live maps app. There are three parties within a ten minute walk of your house being advertised on GoogleSocial (a convenient MeetUp/Bebo-powered mashup), a wifi-gallery showing one of your favorite artists from deviantArt four subway stops to the south, a restaurant opening on the corner where that hookah bar just closed last spring, and a band whose iSpace page you just subscribed to because you heard one of their songs on Pandora's new Loc:Audio channel. There's no excuse to be bored. And oh, look -- if you leave now, you can catch the next bus, but it'll be at least five minutes for a train. Perhaps tonight will be a concert night? The e-stars have aligned...

You're happy. You're entertained. You click a button on the screen that tells Google that someone on your block is in high spirits. The block's aura jumps up one point. At City Hall a few weeks later, the general happiness trend of your neighborhood is noticed to be on the rise. Civic officials study the area to learn why this spike in aura has been occurring, and use this people-powered live information to liven up some less brightly-colored spots on the map. Repeat this process with any resource, tangible or otherwise. The places that need something get it more quickly, and the decrease in wasted funds leaves more tax money to be distributed wherever it's most needed.

Now you, as a citizen, have every right to see this information if your elected officials are looking in. So the aura map overlay is available via GoogleSocial. You tap the screen, pull it up. There's a spike near your friend's apartment building downtown. What's the deal? Street fair. You are so there. You lift the phone to your ear, call the friend, and then check a transit map. You just missed the train, which means 10 minutes of waiting. But oh, there's a cab around the corner. You ping it with the push of a button, and you're on the road a few seconds later.

The next day, you're ready to go for a run. You check out air pollution and crowd overlays. The wind is blowing everything to the south today, so air quality will be best on the north side of town, which is good, because that's where you live. The big orange blob in the middle of the park closest to your house suggests some kind of festival is going on. Not wanting to deal with people-dodging, you check out the riverfront. Clear as crystal. And you're off!

The full potential of maps, in terms of improving the quality of life in cities, is just beginning to be realized. Soon, maps won't just tell you where movie theaters are; they'll tell you which ones are less likely to be crowded, dirty, or noisy. Get ready for the cartographolution.

Get Your City On Google Transit (WorldChanging)

How Google Earth Ate Our Town (Time)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you looked at hopstop.com? I use it all the time in NYC. the site is a life saver for me. I dont know how else id get around without them. I think what google is doing is pretty cool the more the merrier!