Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Real-life geographic divides are now visible in a new way.
Maps often feel like objective representations of the world, especially in an era when GPS and GIS technologies underpin so many fundamental tools of daily life. When I summon a Lyft, check Google Maps for directions, and search Yelp for a bar, I don’t give much thought to the layers of subjectivities—what streets are labeled, what landmarks are shown—resting in my palm. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Google Maps, maybe the most ubiquitous navigation tool on the planet, rolled out a suite of changes last week. Mostly these were aesthetic tweaks aimed at a cleaner map-reading experience. But one new feature is substantial. In a shade of pale orange, Google Maps now highlights “areas of interest,” or “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do,” determined by “an algorithmic process that allows us to highlight the areas with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and shops,” according to the company’s blog.
You’ll notice these blotches appear when you zoom into urban landscapes, both in the app and on the desktop version. Much of Manhattan, for instance, is now the appealing color of a Creamsicle. San Francisco’s Mission District is a patch of peach. Likewise Chicago’s Loop.
The feature is surely useful for visitors looking to orient themselves to the busiest, most tourist-friendly thoroughfares and neighborhoods. But the introduction of “areas of interest”—which you can’t turn off, by the way—raises an important question: of interest to whom? Zooming around even just a handful of U.S. cities, a disconcerting answer takes shape.
Above is Westlake, a neighborhood towards the east side of Los Angeles. This is a dense, relatively low-income, predominantly Latino area, packed with restaurants, businesses, and schools. There are only a few lots highlighted in orange.
Compare the first map to the mostly residential, mostly white neighborhood of Sawtelle, on the wealthier, west side of Los Angeles. Wilshire and Santa Monica are major thoroughfares, but the neighborhood’s other streets are all homes and schools. Still, nearly the entire area is shaded orange, for no clear reason.
In Northeast Washington, D.C., H Street, Benning Road, and Maryland Avenue meet at the well-known “starburst” intersection pictured above, which is also now on the route of the new D.C. streetcar. H Street NE is one of the District’s most successful commercial strips of the past decade, while Benning Road’s significant economic challenges have, fairly or not, recently been immortalized in song. Low-income housing, where residents are virtually all black, lines several blocks of the corridor. There are plenty of businesses and food spots along Benning, particularly in the part of the map shown above. However, Benning Road is not “of interest” on Google Maps. The intersection’s real-life divides are now manifest in a new way.
Another example can be found along Boston’s Dorchester Avenue. Small blotches of orange can be found along this commercial corridor, which in life is filled with shops and services owned largely by immigrant families from Vietnam and the Caribbean. But by and large, the area appears fairly vacant on the map.
On the other hand, Newbury Street, a high-end shopping district in Boston’s core, glows cantaloupe.
One thing that these “non-interest” neighborhoods and corridors seem to have in common is that they are poorer than the cities that surround them. In two of them, English isn’t always the language you’re most likely to hear on the street (Westlake is heavily Spanish-speaking, while in Dorchester you’ll hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican and Haitian creoles, among other languages). Large swathes of Northeast D.C. have some of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the District. Businesses without an online presence appear to have a distinct disadvantage; Now more than ever, until they make themselves known to Google, they won’t be very visible to map users.
Point being: Could it be that income, ethnicity, and Internet access track with “areas of interest”?
“’Areas of interest’ appear in a variety of different neighborhoods throughout the world, regardless of socioeconomic factors or local language preferences,” is how Google Maps spokesperson Elizabeth Davidoff puts the company’s view. It’s true that, in addition to the examples shown here, I found commercial strips in lower-income and non-English-speaking U.S. neighborhoods that got the peachy treatment. It’s also true, as Davidoff explains, that a key metric for discerning “interest” is the density of commercial activity. That tracks with some of the examples shown above; Bars and restaurants are certainly more concentrated along H Street than they are along Benning Road.
But that doesn’t square with the examples in Los Angeles, where a relatively wealthy, residential neighborhood is highlighted, while a dense, lower-income mixed-use district is not. (UPDATE 4 PM: Asked why, Davidoff responds that Google is still fine-tuning the algorithm.) Again, Google’s measure of the density of activity is only about as good as the activity it is aware of. Although some venues without an online business listing are included as “places of interest,” says Davidoff, “if a place isn't on the internet or Google, it's hard to account for it.”
There is a self-reinforcing flip-side to this disparity: “Areas of interest” makes an implicit assumption about who the Google Maps user is, and what they are “interested” in. That imagined map reader, it seems, is less interested in Benning Road than they are in H Street. They may not want to venture up Alvarado Boulevard any farther than Langer’s Deli. They might prefer to shop on Newbury instead of Dorchester. And by coloring the map with these assumptions, Google may very well shape the “interests” of its map readers—as it already does in other ways by, say, personalizing listings based on your search history.
Google Maps is an authority, relied upon by 41 percent of all Internet users. As its subjectiveness becomes more and more plain, it will be up to map readers to accept it as objective, or not.