This article titled “Can Google really tell us how busy a place is?” was written by Gavin Haynes, for The Guardian on Wednesday 23rd November 2016 16.52 UTC
One of the creepiest – and most useful – Google inventions has been its ability to predict traffic jams by using anonymised ping-backs from mobile phones to tell how fast everyone is moving.
Now, the technology giant is rolling out the same thing for places using live data. Although, since July 2015, the Popular Times section of Google Maps has provided a bar graph showing how busy a bar, museum or restaurant is at any given time, this is just based on averages.
How accurate will the new feature be? Rather than just believe our Alphabet overlords, we road-tested the system by dawdling around five of London’s biggest attractions.
At the Tate, a number of people hover in the little dark room where you have to clap to make the art strobe go on, while, up in the ziggurat, a slightly sparser crowd than normal are standing at the windows ogling the residents of Richard Rogers’s Neo Bankside building in their exposed lounges. Down at the Turbine Hall, a man at the info kiosk says it is “just about as busy as usual”. According to Google, he is 100% correct.
As we enter the main courtyard, the Tower swallows up a phalanx of 100 or so tourists in one go. Despite this, Google says it is under-populated compared with the average crowd between noon and 1pm on Wednesdays. The Beefeater-ish woman at the main gates agrees: “It’s a bit quieter than usual.”
Is it slightly less of a hellscape today? It seems borderline-agreeable as a few pigeons gull about and some half-empty glass orbs arc skywards. According to Google, it is quiet today. Not that anyone here seems to know. “You’ll have to go on the website and look up the contact details for our marketing department if you want that kind of information,” a manager says.
“To be honest, we’re never not busy,” says the woman at the other end of the line at this Indian tapas joint. Such humblebrag aside, Google agrees that the restaurant is exactly as busy as normal. Which is pretty damned busy, apparently.
Yotam Ottolenghi could expect a turnout boost at his flagship restaurant after being on Desert Island Discs last week. “We’re as busy as normal,” the Australian assistant says, with a pleasing authority, after a moment on hold. However, his assertion is undermined by Google’s phone-ping polygraph, which suggests he is a good fraction less busy than normal. Are Nopi diners the type to turn off their phones? Are they so rich that there’s a phone porter who comes and casks diners’ phones in their vaults? Clearly, the technology has a few imperfections. Some of which will be smoothed out over time as users contribute visual feedback. All told, as ever the creepiness will fade, the glitches will be fixed, and there will be endless benefits that we have barely begun to imagine.
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