How my Google Maps collapsed
Google Maps is terrific.
It provides unrivaled directions over public transit, driving, biking, or walking. It offers route alternatives, given traffic gleaned by other Google Maps users. Its Places information offers overviews, links, and open hours, which has saved me many frustrating hours (“This location may be closed by the time you arrive… are you sure?"). And I value its reviews and photos over any other online reviews — they seem more authentic and believable. And Google Street View!? Whether it’s looking at the roof of my house, checking out the AirBnB’s pool, or the neighborhood of a hotel I’m considering staying at, it’s gold.
It’s best to think of Google Maps as a temporary stopping point for your mapping information that can change or go away at any time.
But all this value doesn’t come for free. Google is a for-profit company; profit determines the Google Maps product roadmap. That introduces tension between what’s good for customers and what’s good for Google’s ROI. It’s best to think of Google Maps as a temporary stopping point for your mapping information that can change or go away at any time.
Here are some problems I’ve noticed:
Google Maps became cluttered. If you’ve favorited a few dozen restaurants that you might visit if you’re close by, your favorites are now competing with Sponsored Ads from businesses — the square icons — as well as traffic notes, closed roads, map icons for restaurants, shopping, monuments, hospitals, tourist places… a lot of “chartjunk” as Edward Tufte would describe it. I’ve been particularly frustrated with business ads: I 100% don’t care about therapy clinics, barber shops, or luxury apartments when I’m trying to find that restaurant I thought I saved.
Google’s graveyard is ever-growing. Take a stroll through Killed by Google to get a sense of how frequently Google changes and kills off its services. Recently, Google killed Google Street View standalone app, which stranded users who loved creating 360° location views, and can’t access their work anymore. Ouch. I spend a lot of time researching, documenting, and archiving places: I’d be devastated if my work were lost.
Google Maps was not designed for long-term trip research, trip notes, or trip archives. Mappers discovered this years ago when you could “star” favorite a place. Users began to notice starred places disappeared. The feature had a (then) undeclared limit of 500 places, after which new starred places would be shown, but older ones would not. This leads to all kinds of troubles.
Saved Places is a dog’s lunch for trip archives.
Google introduced Saved Places Lists to help solve the “500 favorites” limit: rather than have every place saved in a single list, you can create separate, topical, or date-based lists. Mappers like me proceeded to produce tons of lists:
- “Favorite patio restaurants in my neighborhood”
- “Pastéis de nata bakeries in Lisbon”
- “2022 SW Germany Roadtrip”
The problem is that Saved Places Lists eventually collapse under their information overload. On an iPhone, I can’t:
- Sort my lists: there’s no sort mechanism available. It seems like more recently used lists bubble to the top, but once you have a dozen or so lists, it’s very difficult to find the right one.
- Order the items in a list: order is essential, and on a trip might signify relevance or first vs. third choice, but there’s no list place ordering available on iOS.
- Search over places on a list: you can spend your time curating a list of places, but there’s no way to search over them.
- Categorize items in a list: when building a trip plan like “2022 SW Germany,” I’d love to distinguish between hikes, museums, restaurants, and hotels easily, but there’s no tagging feature available. So everything shows up the same.
- Save metadata: when did I visit? What did I think? Where did I come across this place — what was the source? There’s a ‘notes’ field but not much else, and it’s hard to use. Not everything I write about a place should become a public review.
- import or export easily: there’s no easy way to move your content in and out of Google Maps. There is a sort-of export, through Google Takeout, that we’ll explore. But it’s not in Google’s interest to enable you to manage your information.
In short, you don’t own your content in Google Maps. You’re only renting time.
So what am I going to do about it?
Introducing: personal GIS. I first came across GIS in a work consulting project and became fascinated. I realized that Google Maps is just one version of GIS focused on generating ad revenue and data for Google.
I’m a massive fan of Obsidian.md, a private, flexible, open note-taking system that uses open, non-proprietary data files — you’re never locked in, and you can preserve your data for the long term. So could I achieve my dream personal GIS state? I’d want to:
- Own my own GIS content and be able to migrate in the future as needed
- Support visual mapping on desktop and mobile devices
- Have various views, including everything, or just particular trips or themes
- Tag places, so I can see hiking locations vs. restaurants
- Support trip writing and research with detailed notes on locations
- Support my memory of past trips taken
There are likely a dozen more use cases. Over the next few posts, I’ll document my migration from Google Maps to Obsidian using a plugin, Map View. Let’s get to it!