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Google Maps tries to tell us which SF blocks matter, with odd results

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Computers have weird tourism priorities sometimes

If you open up Google Maps these days, it looks like the city has come down with a strange rash.

Those orange blotches are actually a new feature the Silicon Valley tech giant recently added to its well-utilized mapping service. The orange bits represents "areas of interest," those blocks and corridors crammed with shopping, dining, and tourist attentions. An algorithm shades in the interesting areas based on how much Google attention and activity those blocks generate.

A quick look at San Francisco reveals that the program obviously works pretty well, but it also doesn’t necessarily tell you anything you don’t already know. The city’s most active areas are places like Haight Street, the Mission between 24th and 15th, most of Chinatown, the area around AT&T Park, etc.

Rather than an algorithm, Google could have employed any local in their sleep and gotten mostly the same results.

Upon closer inspection, though, some weird patterns do emerge. Pan down to the Bayview for a second: You’ll only find a single, bare speck of orange. It’s not as if there aren’t other businesses there. It’s just that, as we can now see, they’re not businesses with a lot of presence on Google, nor ones that people not already living in those neighborhoods are likely to seek out.

CityLab suggests that this feature may be (quite literally) highlighting the city’s socioeconomic divide. And, yes, that possibility is hard to ignore. Some wealthier neighborhoods are similarly neglected too, though, Noe Valley’s shopping corridor doesn’t merit orange hues, for example. Neither does any of the area around Dolores Park.

However, the few blocks of Sixth and Market streets do. That’s a nice bonus for the hardworking small businesses on that corridor. Tourists who head in that direction might be a little unprepared, though. Meanwhile, the rest of SoMa looks like a desert.

Well, Google can always chalk it up as a work in progress. In the meantime, it’s almost lunch, and it looks like there’s a nice Vietnamese place on Sixth that we should be checking out.