Can you draw that for me? Visualizing wayfinding in the age of Google Maps

Rebecca Noone

In the early 1960s, artist Stanley Brouwn walked through the streets of Amsterdam asking passers-by for directions. He requested they draw the route with the paper and pen he kept in his pocket. He repeated the interactions collecting line drawings of Amsterdam’s pathways, which he collated in books and presented in galleries under the title This Way Brouwn (1961).

Today, stopping people on the street to ask for directions seems less and less necessary given the pervasiveness of the location-aware mobile map. Google Maps is the most popular application for mobile devices with over 1 billion people using the application every month (Russell,  2019). According to Google, one-in-every-five web-based searches and one-in-every-three mobile searches are location-related (Google Developers, 2017). Google Maps offers “real-time” directions visually represented on the application’s graphical interface or transcribed in text-based turn-by-turn instructions. Directions are operationalized through Google’s proprietary search algorithms, private and public geographic information systems, and the Google Street View imaging database. Of course, the mobile map does not preclude the plethora of adhoc strategies used to get around a city, but it nevertheless presents new conditions for everyday wayfinding.

Sixty years after Brouwn’s intervention, I approached passers-by in the streets of Toronto (Tkaronto), New York (Manahatta), Amsterdam, and London, and asked them for directions. Like Brouwn, I requested the passerby draw their directions using the paper and pen I kept in my pocket. I asked for directions to a variety of preselected sites such as shopping areas, transit hubs, civic squares, and public libraries. In total, I received 220 unique route maps of city streets, 55 per city, with corresponding fieldnotes about the encounter and 20 follow-up interviews. Some of the maps were highly detailed, while other drawings included only a few lines, or scribbled text. Other times the markings were the ones the informant instructed me to draw as they provided a spoken translation of Google Maps’ directions. Some maps are simply blank, resulting from encounters when they “showed” me the way using Google Maps visualization instead of committing to a drawing.

About 1/3 of encounters used Google Maps or a digital mapping platform.  In some of these cases Google Maps used to find the “best” or “fastest” route. Other times, it was used to double-check an initially spoken instruction, to verify an intersection, to “show” me the way, or to locate us if the informant was unfamiliar with the area. Sometimes Google Maps was difficult to use: the helpful passer-by could not establish where we were on the ground in relation to our position on the map (“Is it pointing that way?”) or data would cut out and the map could not be accessed. In another encounter, a search term was incorrect, and I was directed towards a site in a different city, a 50 hour walk away. Sometimes the street I was directed along (the A11 in London, for example) followed a different naming logic on the ground. Parallel to these events, some participants remarked that Google Maps was a “better” way to visualize directions than the act of drawing directions because Google Maps gave the “complete” picture and it was “objective.” But how objective is Google Maps?

The myth of computational objectivity is a pervasive one. For the most part, Google does not share how Google Maps works reflective of a modern internet, largely under private control (Roberts, 2019). This includes mystery in how the algorithms of search and decision-making are performed and who moderates the information (Roberts, 2016, 2019; Noble, 2018). The delivery of information is designed to appear seamless and unbiased to the user. However, there are human decisions and labour that develop and maintain these systems. Google Maps is encoded with a set of values and those values translate into the design of its computational processings (Noble, 2013, 2018; Vaidhyanathan, 2011). At a time when the autonomous vehicle and the smart city loom in the popular imaginary – endeavors undergirded by digital mapping infrastructures – there is a need to reflect on how proprietary maps promote and normalize specific forms of spatial conditions, perceptions and mobilities. Whose routes are held up in these moments?

Rather than getting the “inside scoop” of how Google Maps work, I am interested in reflecting on the values Google Maps outwardly projects by looking at the discourse used in the Google Maps application and online. Situating the wayfinding encounters in the context of this rhetoric, the question becomes, what types of orientations and mobilities are normalized and reified through proprietary mapping platforms?  In this, there is a repeated imperative to “discover” and “explore” with emphasis placed on acts of personalization by way of “your world” and “your plans.”  “Explore” is framed by locating and promoting restaurants, coffee, bars, and hotels, and other sites of consumption. Navigation is a means to access the “best route,” defined as being the fastest, avoiding traffic and speed traps, emphasizing the car as the means to get around. Google Maps’ discursive maneuvers based on ““making the world your own” promote reliability, ease of use, exploration, and the commoditization of experience as central to practices of wayfinding. In this context, Google Maps is positioned more than a guide but an orientation (Ahmed, 2006) towards a Google spatial imaginary.

Collecting mundane line-drawings shows some of the ways the city is made legible in these moments. The visualizations produced through the wayfinding encounter are constituted by their own symbolic structure of wavering lines and hurried marks that simulate the memory of place, communicate ambient attentions to the environment, and the initiate action of moving through city. The question of everyday wayfinding is one of on-the-ground connections between mobilities, visualizations, and behaviours of search. The encounters and the maps reveal a tension in these orientations between the assertion of computationally produced “objective” set of directions and the local knowledges and individual affects of space that orient everyday urban wayfinding. To close, here are some examples of the directional line drawings, some drawn from memory, some traced from Google Maps, and some a negotiation.

New York

Rebecca Noone is an artist and PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Information (expected completion, summer 2020). She brings together art and information & media studies as a way to think critically about everyday information experiences. Her dissertation work focuses on wayfinding in contemporary conditions of Google Maps.

One thought on “Can you draw that for me? Visualizing wayfinding in the age of Google Maps”

  1. Hi
    I really liked this blog – so interesting how digital mapping changes our encounters with the city. This reminded me of a ‘failure’ in a focus group with young people a few years ago, when we asked them to draw a map of their route from home to school (this used to be a great way to get people talking about what is in their neighbourhood) – this time they all looked blank, then pulled phones out, and just turned them to show the line on the phone. We needed to rethink methods!
    Good luck with the dissertation, and I’ll look forward to seeing papers from it.

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