With this year’s Independence Day celebrations fading into memory, I was thinking about the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to travel across great swaths of this wonderful and beautiful nation. In one sense, I’ve been everywhere (man) — from coast to coast to coast to coast. In another, I haven’t been to nearly enough destinations.
I’ve wanted to write about the map feature in the Google Photos app (Android and iOS) for quite some time, but it was hard for me to summarize why I feel this feature is so amazing. The Fourth of July celebrations brought this picture into focus as I realized that I’ve been able to visit so many different destinations, as specified in many of the songs about our nation.
The first song that came to mind was “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. This song stands out strongly in my memory in part because we sang it every morning in kindergarten when I was living in Southern California.
For as encompassing as the song is, “This Land is Your Land” mentions only four specific destinations and they’re in the first verse — “From California to the New York island/From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.”
Of those four, admittedly broad locales, I realized that I’ve been able to either visit or live in all four over the course of my life. Unfortunately, the map feature in Google Photos doesn’t reflect this — my trips to New York and the coasts of Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina all predate when we all carried cameras with us on a daily basis and where we could take endless numbers of photos without worrying about loading or developing film (so before the iPhone, basically).
Using the photos that are uploaded to the site/app, Google Photos generates a heat map based on the location data in the user’s photos plus whatever identifiable landmarks Google can identify in the images itself. The features is accessible under the search menu. It shows up as “Your map” (but it’s not available on the desktop version of the app).
I will note that Apple Photos also has the option of showing photos based on where they were taken, but I don’t find Apple’s solution as engaging or appealing as Google’s. Apple Photos shows thumbnails based on location. Zooming in will increase the number of thumbnails, but it seems clunky and inelegant compared to Google’s heat map.
The heat map evokes memories of past travels, family reunions and other adventures. I’m agog seeing some of the paths that I’ve taken over the past 39 years.
It evokes the spirit of roaming and rambling from Woody Guthrie’s song. There’s also some of the energy from the burgeoning lists of destinations called out in songs like “I’ve Been Everywhere” or “Living in America.”
The map displayed by Google Photos also reminds me of the map from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” by C.S. Lewis. In that book from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a magician gives the captain of the titular ship a map of the ship’s voyage to that point. The map was so detailed that when one looked closely with a magnifying lens, they could see accurate drawings of the actual place albeit at some distance. On the other hand, the map was incomplete in some areas because it could only depict where the ship had traveled.
The Google Photos map can feel like magic at times, even though it is simply a matter of technology and information (although Arthur C. Clarke did say something about technology and magic…). Zooming in on the map offers some joy as I can see the areas where I’ve been able to visit. Like the magician’s map from “Dawn Treader,” it can show documented locations in remarkable detail but be incomplete in areas lacking photos.
When one zooms in far enough, one can sometimes see individual points along a trip, which can be an interesting way to relive a past journey. At other times, the data can be a bit of a muddled mess — good luck sorting through the 2,800 photos I’ve taken over the course of six years around the venue where I curl, the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. The Oval is my most-photographed location by far.
The heat map of the Utah Olympic Oval also exposes some inaccuracies with the location data. GPS can give a good approximation of where a photo was taken (or where your phone is at a given point), but it’s not 100% accurate all the time. Some of the photos that the map says were taken outside the building were very much taken _inside_ the building (the ice is usually a giveaway, particularly in the summer).
It’s amazing that over 27,000 of my photos have been tagged — it’s probably about 95% of the photos that I’ve ever taken in my life. The vast majority of photos have tags because I took them with a smartphone with GPS. That era essentially started for me in September 2013 with an iPhone 5 issued for work (I bought a Samsung Galaxy SII in April 2013 but it didn’t have a data plan).
For the earlier era where photos were taken with a film camera, a digital point-and-shoot, a “dumb phone” or a feature phone, I’ve had to go back and manually map where I took the photos. That process is inevitably incomplete — there are some places that I don’t remember exactly where I was or there are photos where it doesn’t make sense to tag (including photos of loved ones taken by others but I was not actually present for).
Before tonight, I didn’t know how many photos were tagged by Google based on its ability to identify landmarks. When I first discovered that Google was attempting to locate photos way back in 2017, the process could be hit-or-miss. For example, I had taken a photo of a train car during a 2009 trip through California. For some reason, Google thought the photo was taken in Kunming Shi, China. It’s northwest of Vietnam — and nearly 7,500 miles from the nearest Amtrak stop.
Since then, Google has appeared to get better as guessing where I might have been. It’s been interesting to take photos or videos during plane trips (when the phone is supposed to be in airplane mode) and to later see that Google had apparently located where they had been taken (again assuming that I wasn’t a dummy and I remembered to put the phone in airplane mode during the flight).
For example, here’s a screenshot of a photo I took of the Salton Sea. Google Photos was able to correctly identify the location.
Apparently, Google Photos has estimated locations for about 6,200 of my images. Interestingly, it doesn’t include some of the aerial photos of the St. George area that I thought Google was able to place. That must mean that I was an insensitive jerk and didn’t use airplane mode during that trip. Whoops.
By the way — It may seem creepy for Google to have so much location data and it can be. Unfortunately, it appears that Google Photos only has an option to remove the estimated location data. As Google notes, “If the location of a photo or video was automatically added by your camera, you can’t edit or remove the location.” In that case, it seems that the best option is to disable location data on the phone/camera _before_ taking the photo.
I don’t necessarily mind saving location data because I find it to be a useful set of information. I do try to be selective in the images that I share, but if I needed to be extra careful, I would need to take additional steps to ensure that people couldn’t find geodata (or identifiable landmarks) in the images.
While I find this data useful, it seems like it would be difficult for a stranger to really root through the information. Google Photos presents the location data in a heat map that someone needs to interact with to learn any additional context (such as dates). The map also doesn’t appear to be shareable.
Google has taken the additional step of turning off location sharing by default in some common ways of sharing information like shared albums or conversations (it can be turned on by the user and was apparently on prior to 2021).
I also know that the heat map is woefully incomplete — as I mentioned earlier, the map can only show places that I’ve taken photos of. I’ve visited or traveled through 42 states, but the heat map can’t show that because there simply aren’t many photos from my time living in the Southeast or my lengthy trips across the Sun Belt, Midwest or the Northeast (or visits to Canada and Mexico, for that matter).
The map can also exaggerate single trips across great distances. This can be seen with my single trip aboard the Empire Builder train across the Upper Midwest in 2009. It was memorable, but my only trip through North Dakota and Montana is depicted as a giant blue ribbon on the map.
The map is ultimately a fun look at where I’ve been. It is truly amazing that we have so much freedom to travel about the country. It’s a right that has sometimes been denied to Americans (and regrettably still is to some extent today). I certainly don’t wish to take this right for granted.
The map also indirectly shows places where I haven’t been. Even in areas where it looks like I’m well traveled, there are destinations that I haven’t yet been able to visit such as national parks in Utah.
I don’t know if I’ll get to some of these locales — such expeditions depend on time, money and planning. If I do, I’ll make sure that photos from those trips are added to my Google Photos map.