Recommended feature for Google Maps Application

Gratitude First – I am really thankful for Google for the traffic layer on its Maps application. Like most others in Delhi, I have become a regular Google Maps user now, checking the traffic updates and choosing the route that I should take to reach my destination. So much so, that my driver also insists on it.

I started tracking my typical usage behavior and interesting things surfaced. I would open the application if:

  • I am going to a new/unusual place or
  • To the usual place at a not-the-usual time,
  • I don’t know the route or the traffic conditions or both
  • Faced with a traffic build-up on my usual route to work(or back) to see how long the jam was and what was the situation on alternate routes

And amongst the situations listed above, almost 90% of my usage was due to the last one – traffic buildup ahead of me on my usual route to work or back home.

Also, since my daily commute is almost 40kms one side, many a times there are multiple congestion points that I encounter. And some of those develop while I am on my way. Hence even if I check the traffic at point A and see that everything is clear downstream, chances are that the situation would change when I reach the downstream point B.It can be very frustrating, trust me.

There’s another scenario that kicks in – given the resolution at which maps open up basis my current location, I need to scroll a lot to check out the whole path. Many a times I miss out checking the traffic congestion at far-off points.

google-maps-traffic-layerAnd this set me thinking – wouldn’t it be a great feature for Google maps to

    • allow me to set my usual route for work/home
    • jump directly to my route showing the areas with traffic build-up or

better still, alert me even without my opening the Google Maps app that there are places where there is slow traffic. This would have been true delight.If this is possible, can we build a web-app to send traffic updates to people who do not have a smartphone. Can such users register their routes and get SMS updates? Why not?

As I toyed with the idea, I started wondering, why hasn’t Google done it already.

This is a very simple and intuitive need, surely someone at Google would have articulated such a need long time back.

So I started understanding how Google Maps work and what I discovered in a quick 2-3 hours of research was the following:

  • Google has a similar feature (time to destination – work or home) in its Google Now set of widgets. But its not really the kind of delight that I was referring to.
  • Google might not want to do it – Google collects and calculates traffic data from users who are using Google Maps and sending their locations to the Google servers. This means, Google would always need higher number of users to stay-on with their Maps/location services for them to get more data-points to have a better traffic estimate.
  • And maybe independent developers also cannot do it – The Traffic heat-maps are a “layer” on the Google maps and they are provided in a similar way in the API – a visual layer that sits on top of the geographical UI. This means that any developer would not get a feed of locations/latlons along with the traffic feed. To develop the kind of app/feature I referred above, the Google traffic API would not be helpful.

 Update:

With today’s experience I think Google should still go ahead and build this feature. I now feel that this feature would kick-in more signins into Google Maps. Why?

If I get an alert that there is traffic in my usual path and the alert doesnt mention the specific points, I would be tempted to login into Maps and see where the blockage is. What are the alternate routes and what is the situation there.

One challenge here is that not every one might have their GPS on and it might be tough for Google to know if the person is already on the move or not. It could choose to send these alerts only to those with GPS on. This would serve two purposes – more people would keep GPS always on, hence provide the feed to Google’s server to better calculate traffic pattern. Also with the GPS on, Google would know when the user is on the move on the pre-defined specific route.