When artist Simon Weckert took to the streets of Berlin with a cart full of smartphones in an attempt to “hack” Google Maps, he was very clear about his objective: to showcase exactly how Google Maps’ traffic algorithms work and highlight the extent to which we rely upon technology.
Weckert rented 99 Android smartphones, installed them with 99 individual sim cards, turned on Google Maps, and loaded them into a little red wagon. He then went out onto the streets of Berlin during low traffic.
Every street that Weckert traversed gradually appeared as a traffic-laden “red zone” on the Google Maps app, thereby rerouting drivers away from the apparently heavy traffic and onto clearer roads.
Weckert uploaded his saunter around town with his little red wagon to YouTube on Feb. 1, 2020, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the Google Maps app.
“99 smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate [a] virtual traffic jam in Google Maps,” reads Weckert’s video description.
“Through this activity,” the artist continued, “it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic.”
Weckert even boldly towed his cart in front of Google’s Berlin headquarters. To date, the artist’s footage has over 3.1 million views and counting.
Many YouTube viewers left supportive, contemplative, and humorous comments for the controversial artist.
“Wow what a hack, just realizing how Google maps works,” wrote one. “You’re truly a genius.”
“I want to live in a place like this where you could walk through the streets with a wheelbarrow full of phones without getting robbed,” another said.
“The best part is he did it outside of the Google Berlin building,” one viewer shared, while another added, “Can I hire you to walk up and down my street so cars stop cutting through?”
A representative from Google said in a statement that they were, in fact, grateful for Weckert’s contribution to their research and development.
“Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources,” Google said, “including aggregated anonymized data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community.”
The spokesman said the company has already developed the capacity to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in India, Indonesia, and Egypt, but hasn’t yet “cracked traveling by wagon.”
“We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this,” the representative added, “as it helps us make maps work better over time.”
Weckert revealed to Wired that it had been “quite clear” to him from the very beginning that his project would go viral. He shared that the inspiration for his “Google Maps Hack” came back in 2017 when he attended a May Day demonstration in Berlin and noticed that Google Maps was indicating a massive traffic jam despite an absence of vehicles on the road.
The artist soon concluded that it was the throng of people and their smartphones that was fooling Google into registering congestion on the roads.
“The question was if it might be possible to generate something like this in a much simpler way,” Weckert said. “I don’t need the people. I just need their smartphones.”
Video courtesy of Simon Weckert
Weckert remains preoccupied with the connection between technology and society and the ways in which we rely more and more heavily upon data to provide us with seemingly objective truths.
“I have the feeling right now that technology is not adapting to us,” Weckert told Wired. “[I]t’s the other way around.”