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Hey Google, which way are we being led?

If you do not know the directions to a certain place, you use a digital device to find your way. With our noses glued to the screen we blindly follow the instructions of Google Maps, or its competitor. But do you know which way you are being led?

Mobility is a social issue

Mobility is an ongoing debate in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is at a loss on how to deal with the large cars on the narrow canals and smaller municipalities such as Hoogeveen is constructing a beltway to offset the Hollandscheveld area. Governors want to direct the traffic on the roads and as a result they deliberately send us either right or left.

If all is well, all societal interest are weighed in on that decision. If one finds that the fragile village centre should be offsetted, the road signs in the berm direct the drivers around it. If the local authorities want to prevent cars from rushing past an elementary school, the cars are being routed through a different path.

Being led by commercial interests

But we are not only being led by societal interests. More and more we use navigation systems to move from A to B. Those systems are being developed by an ever smaller groupRecently Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi changed from TomTom to Alphabet. In time, all of their cars are outfitted with Google's Android of companies, of which Google seems to be the frontrunner. Hardly anyone still navigates using a map and the traffic signs on the side of the road. We only listen to the instructions from the computer on the dashboard. At best a sign with the command 'navigation off' keeps us from that.

In this way a commercial enterprise determines which route we take. That commercial enterprise has other interests than the local authorities, who wants to service his customers as best as possible. But who are these customers? For some companies that's us, the road users, but with others - often those where the navigation is free for the users - are the customers that really matter the invisible advertisers.

Who decides how our public space is being used? The local authorities or a commercial enterprise?

Too much of a short cut

And even that is too limited of course. Because which consideration the developer of the navigation system really takes is rarely or never transparent. Take this route in Amsterdam for example, to get from the Westerpark to the Oosterpark. By bike obviously. What is striking is that Google leads you around the canal belt, instead of through it.

Why would that be? Maybe Google's algorithm is optimized for the straight street patterns of San Francisco and is it unable to work with the erratic nature of the Amsterdam canals. Maybe it is the fastest route available. Or maybe it is a very conscious design choice so that the step-by-step description of the route does not become too long. But which is also possible: the residents of the canal belt are sick of the daily flood of cycling tourists and have asked Google, or maybe paid, to keep the tourists out of the canal belt. We simply don't know.

Being misled

Incidentally, the latter-mentioned reason is less far-fetched than you would think at first. When you are in Los Angeles, you can't miss the letters of the Hollywood Sign. A lot of tourists want to take a picture with it. The people living on the hill underneath the monumental letters are sick of itWhy People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps. They have, sometimes illegally, placed signs on the side of the road that state that the huge letters are not accessible through their street.

With the rise of digital maps that action became less and less successful. Pressurized by a municipal councillor Google and Garmin adjusted their maps so that tourists are not being led to the actual letters, but to a vantage point with a view of the letters. Both mapmakers changed their service under pressure of an effectively lobbyed councillor.

This is also about the loss of autonomy to, as a society with a locally elected administration, shape our living environment.

Serving a different interest

Very rarely it is transparent which interests companies like Google are taking into consideration. We do not know which decisions those companies take and on which underlying data and rules they are based. We do not know by whom they are being influenced. We can easily assume that the interests of such companies are not always compatible with the local public interests. This has a major impact on the local situation. If a company like Google does listen to retailers, but not to residents, the latter will be disadvantaged. The number of cars in and around the shopping streets is growing - which sucks if you happen to live there. And even more so if the local authorities do try to route the cars differently.

And again this is another good example of how the designer of a technology impacts the freedom of the user of the technology. But also that of society as a whole: we lose the autonomy to shape our living environment with a locally elected administration.

Moreover, this story is not only about the calculated route, but also about the entire interface of the software. The Belgian scientist Tias Guns describedGuns was quoted in a Dutch article that very aptly: "There is, for example, an option to avoid highways, but an option to avoid local roads is not included." As a driver, try and spare the local neighbourhood then.

The platform as a "dead end"

Adding to that – ironically – is that the major platforms are not always reachable. Where do you have to turn to if you want Google Maps to route less traffic through your street? Or, actually more, if you are a retailer? On a local level this is different. There is a counter at the city hall where you can go and there is a city council where you can put traffic problems on the agenda. This, by itself, is already very difficult to coordinate. The Chief Technology Officer of the city Amsterdam recently told in an interview"Amsterdam wants 'fair' computers" (€) about the use of artificial intelligence in the local authority:

"In some areas residents have a larger capability to complain. Think of the city centre or the 'Oud-Zuid' area both more affluent areas and home to a large number of lawyers. It's general knowledge that in those areas a complaint is made far easier than for example the less affluent are of Amsterdam "Noord". This is not difficult for trained operators. They can handle experienced grumblers, and can judge for themselves whether whether the complaint is valid. A computer can not."

Which does not help either: some digital mapmakers are so large - and will continue to growSoon Google will update you on speed traps - that they can afford to listen selectively.

Some digital mapmakers are so large that they can afford to listen selectively.

Who determines the path?

In short, who decides how our public space is being used? Is that a local city council or a commercial enterprise? This makes quite a difference. Citizens can participate in the first case, decisions are made democratically and there is a certain measure of transparency. Are trucks rushing through your street? You know who to turn to. In the second case you have no information on why your were led either left of right. Or why the shopping streets have become desolate overnight. Most likely the rule is: whoever pays gets to decide. The growing power of commercial enterprises in the issue of mobility is threatening to put local administrations - and with that us, the citizens and small companies - out of play.

Oh, and we have not even discussed the question whether the data that a company like Google gathers is actually a public good. That is going to come some other time.

This article was translated from Dutch to English by two volunteers of Bits of Freedom: Alex Leering and Amber Balhuizen. Thanks!

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