Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate"

Google is now being sued for giving someone bad walking directions that contributed to her being hit by a car. I'll try to keep this brief, as I'm on a public computer with a QWERTY keyboard.

1. Unless there's some really extraordinary circumstance I absolutely hope she's successful in her suit against the driver. There's rarely a good excuse for hitting a pedestrian on the road.

2. Commenters on the story suggest there is a pedestrian path paralleling the roadway. Essentially functioning as a sidewalk. If that's the case, suing Google in this particular case is pretty silly. You need to have some basic situational awareness. You have to decide whether you can handle a situation, or whether you should turn back. As a runner and cyclist I've come down on both sides many times.

3. I think, as my title suggests that there's a communication problem here. I just (unsuccessfully) interviewed for a job at Google, and talked to a number of Google programmers. I think they see a world full of data, and that when they find a way to present it to people they've done the world a service. As I point out in my bike directions post, that might not always be the case. They certainly push the state of the art forward with beta-quality projects like these, but they also send people on bad routes quite often.

Among the geeks that have some understanding of the data Google's working with, the limitations of its route-finding ability are obvious. But among the general population it's not so obvious. Instead of a neat little application trying to squeeze something extra out of a data set, it's taken as authoritative. Perhaps Google needs to communicate the philosophy and spirit of how it presents data, and of the meaning of its projects, a little better.

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