30 April 2021

Travel insights from Google Maps Timeline

Speaking of personal tracking for the purpose of creating better products, one of my favorite examples is Google Maps’ Timeline feature. I have discovered its true potential only after switching to Android, as I think on iOS the Google Maps app does not have permanent access to the device location. In a sense, the Timeline is a nicer, user-friendly representation of Location History, which Google happily collects in the background from every Android user.

You may of course turn this feature off or selectively delete portions of this history. Personally though, I love to be able to scroll back in time and see where I was months or years ago (well, three years ago at the most, as little was saved while I was using an iPhone): the place, when I arrived and left, if I was walking, in public transportation or in a car. It is a very convenient way to log my travels and recount them later, in case I would like to revisit those places. For a good portion of time, I also used this to fill my timesheet at the office, as my company’s badge did not correctly register the time I arrived and left the building. For photographers, daily tracks can be exported in a standardized format, which you can then use in Lightroom to add location to photos captured on that day. I use a dedicated app for that, but it’s good to have a backup option in case the app fails or gets discontinued at some point in the future.

The location logging is not always perfect: GPS positioning has limited accuracy, which can sometimes translate into your recorded location randomly jumping around the map; sometimes it interrupts in areas with poor cellular connection, which it uses in additions to the GPS signal; and of course missing whenever you turn off the phone. The Timeline allows you to correct some of these problems, confirming places or adjusting them, in case it tags the wrong business in a crowded area. I regularly check the history on desktop and fix as much as possible, for my future self.

Google Maps My 2019 Timeline update Google Maps My 2020 Timeline update
My Timeline updates from Google Maps: 2019 versus 2020

Another aspect of Timeline I enjoy are the monthly emails summarizing where I have traveled during the past month. Evidently, their contents have become sparser since the start of the pandemic. The yearly digests show a stark contrast between 2019 and 2020 as well: in 2019 I have traveled to 6 different countries and 169 places (no idea why there is a pin in Florida, I have never journeyed that far west) – apparently 50% around the world or a distance of 20,046 km – whereas in 2020 I never left Romania, visited 93 places and covered a distance of merely 3,581 km, which includes the daily commute for the first three months of the year. The 2020 yearly update is more comprehensive, detailing walking, driving and transit times, likely an update inspired by the pandemic. The resulting graphic clearly shows when things started getting serious in March 2020 and I stopped going to the office, and the relaxation during summer.

My 2020 Google Maps Timeline Visits details My 2020 Google Maps Timeline Travel details
More Timeline updates from 2020: Visits and Travel statistics

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