12.4. Example: Street Maps

This example analyzes the impacts of street map applications on society.

A. According to your sources, what is the purpose/use of the technology?

Street map software, such as the original MapQuest, the dominant Google Maps, and the open-content OpenStreetMap, allow users to browse maps on the web and plan driving routes. They often have other features, such as searching for businesses in a particular geographical area, planning trips with multiple stops, and predicting traffic.

B. According to your sources, how does the technology use computation?

The main data used is a spatial description of the map itself, including not only the coordinates of significant landmarks and turns in the road, but often detailed descriptions of shapes. That information is rendered into map tiles that can be presented to a user. Most street map software also has some integration with top-down satellite imagery to present a different view. Google Maps offers Street View, which allows users to view some locations as though standing nearby, using VR stitching to assemble hypothetical views out of photography gathered by Google.

C. How is this use of computation beneficial and who benefits?

Access to detailed, accurate street maps that can be accessed on the web and shared has many benefits. Software predictions about driving times are more precise than estimating distances on a paper map, and can incorporate live information about traffic and construction. Street View is a useful feature for people who navigate visually to be able to recognize landmarks along their route, and has been leveraged to make unexpected new applications including games. Businesses can leverage their appearance on the map to attract customers. People can share locations and directions for a variety of meetings.

D. How is this use of computation harmful and who is harmed?

There is also harm to both people who use the map and people whose locations appear on the map. Street View suffers from many privacy concerns. Coverage of street map software is incomplete, and some locations do not appear or—worse—appear wrongly, so that people relying on the software are led away from their destinations. Cartography is complex, and by relying on software, people lose the skills of making and reading maps.

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