Ah, the all-knowing Google is up to its old tricks once again. The latest idea to roll off the Mountain View production line is Google Maps’ timeline feature.
If you think that Google logging everywhere you go and then displaying that information on a map/timeline is creepy, you’re probably right. In fact, we’d absolutely hate it — if it wasn’t so damn cool!
So let’s take a look at Google’s latest and greatest idea, exploring some of its features along with the practical benefits it offers.
Where Did It Come From?
The timeline feature certainly hasn’t just appeared out of nowhere. Rather, it’s a natural next step in the evolution of Google’s location-orientated product range.
It all started when Google bought SMS-based location service Dodgeball back in 2005. Users could text their location to the network, and in return they would receive notifications about nearby friends, services, and points of interest.
In 2009 Google replaced Dodgeball with Google Latitude. It had a couple of core features: 1) to allow users to locate themselves on a map (a precursor to the now familiar “Show Your Location”, and 2) to let you see exactly where your friends were in real-time.
Latitude also saw the introduction of “Location History”, a feature that records a physical log of everywhere you’ve been. It is the current iteration of this feature that the timeline now relies on.
What Can It Do?
As the name suggests, the service’s main purpose is to show you a timeline of everywhere you’ve been. In reality, the features extend way beyond that.
In fact, this is another step in the increasingly integrated range of Google services. It seems that Google is intent on pulling together all its apps and products into one centralized offering. Google Now, Google Plus, and Google Inbox are all early versions of these attempts.
In a similar vein, timeline draws on data from across your Google account, including the aforementioned Google Now, but also Google Maps, Google Photos, and the omnipresent Google Search.
The result is that your timeline will show you where it thinks you’ve been, when you arrived at and left each place, and how you travelled between places.
It’ll also automatically attach any photos you took while at said destination, log events about each “trip” into town (such as time/route taken), and make lists of the places you frequent the most, offering tips and recommendations for other similar nearby places.
Managing Your Timeline
To access your timeline on your Android device, open your Google Maps app then navigate to Menu > Your Timeline.
If you’re not already sharing your location history with Google, you’ll be prompted to enable it. Thereafter, your timeline will start to become populated. All of the logging and timeline creation is done automatically and without any input on your part.
Errors do happen, however. If you live in a place with patchy mobile signal you might find Google thinks you’ve mysteriously jumped several miles in an incredibly short time frame. Thankfully, you can edit any location that’s incorrect and amend details such as mode of transport and time spent at a place — just select the day in the app then click on the event itself.
It’s also possible to entirely delete days, just navigate to the day you want to remove then click on the trash can icon.
Of course, it’s also important to know how to disable the feature and delete all its associated data.
The best way to do that is to open the Google Settings app, then go to Personal info & privacy > Activity controls > Places you go > Manage activity. Once there, click on the gear icon in the bottom right-hand corner then select both “Pause Location History” and “Delete all location history“.
How Is It Useful?
These features all sound well and good, but how useful are they in real life? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is very.
For example, it can be useful when you’re trying to log the events of a holiday — you can think of it like a scrapbook for the 21st Century. On a long holiday that visits lots of locations, it will help stop some memories from slipping away from you, while giving you a nice visual representation of where you’ve been.
It also helps with general day-to-day memories, mainly because it will automatically remind you of previous visits to a certain location.
For example, if you went on a day trip and found an awesome little restaurant to have lunch in, the service can easily remind you where it was and show you how to find it again the next time you visit.
What About Security?
At the moment, the feature is entirely private — but that doesn’t mean it’s free of security concerns.
Aside from the obvious “should Google know everything about me” debate, the biggest concerns are safety and privacy.
From a safety perspective, is it really prudent to have your location permanently stored somewhere? What would happen if a would-be criminal got access to that data? They would know when you weren’t at home (making you a prime target for property theft), and they would know exactly who you were with thanks to the photos, thus putting your friends at risk as well.
From a privacy perspective, there are all sorts of reasons why you don’t want your location saved at all times. Facebook has already been responsible for countless broken relationships; it’s not hard to imagine this having the same effect.
Even if you’re an honest and monogamous person, what if you’re planning a surprise for someone? Or you’re trying to tell your boss that you’re sick only for Google to record that you went to a rock concert?
It seems like there are two clear features which should, and probably will, be added.
Firstly, the ability to broadcast your real-time data and location publicly. This would complete a full circle back to the days of 2009 and the release of Latitude. It would allow you to see if any of your friends were nearby for a quick drink in a bar, or help you find your buddy if they got separated from you at any kind of public event.
Secondly, the ability for the timeline to recognize who you were with on a certain day, combining your stories together. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem too complicated to achieve; it would be straightforward to add a tagging tool, and Google Photos already has facial recognition.
Amazing or Creepy?
A service like this is certain to be divisive. Some people will love having all this data at their fingertips, some will view it is a gross violation of privacy.
Which camp do you fall in to? Why? What could make you change your mind?
As ever, we’d love you hear from you. You can let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.