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31 July 2015

Google wants to put an end to queueing

Google has been tracking our locations, and now it's using the information to tell us when destinations are least busy. 

By Barbara Speed

At its basest level, the internet is actually a very economical tool. It lets you communicate instantly with people all over the world, which means that if you have the book/sofa/house/bitcoin someone else needs, the likelihood is that you’ll find each other. They don’t need to buy a new sofa, and you don’t need to dump yours in landfill. Everyone wins. 

The macro version of this is known as the “sharing economy”: phenomenally successful apps like Airbnb or Uber which, essentially, connect rides and spare rooms with the people that need them, quickly and cheaply. This week, Google has launched a feature which brings a whole new dimension – time itself – into the mix. 

“Popular Times” is a tool that clocks the time of day phone users visit certain locations, like coffee shops or libraries.Then, it throws the information together in a graph, like these two for the same cafe on different days of the week:

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Essentially, the tool lets users see when the facility has more availability and change their behaviour accordingly: based on these graphs, you might decide to get your coffee on a weekday morning, when the cafe is quieter. This could help you avoid queues, but it could also help businesses get a more consistent stream of business through their doors. If customers take notice of the data, it could help them share facilities more effectively with one another. 

As far as we can tell, the feature is currently only available on mobile (you search a location, click on the title Google throws up and scroll down). In a company Google Plus post (well, someone has to use it), Google describes it thus:

Do you ever find yourself trying to avoid long lines or wondering when is the best time to go grocery shopping, pick up coffee or hit the gym (hint: avoid Monday after work)? You’re in luck!

Now, you can avoid the wait and see the busiest times of the week at millions of places and businesses around the world directly from Google Search.”

If you’re an even slightly cynical person, you’re probably wondering how Google got its hands on all this information about our daily routines. Last year, the internet community began to realise that buried in Google’s terms and conditions was the fact that Google apps and Android phones automatically track your location unless you tell them not to (instructions on that here). Earlier this month, the company revealed one use for this data when it launched a feature called “Your Timeline” for desktop and Android, which shows a rundown of where you’ve been. And now, Popular Times shows that Google is also bundling all that personal information together to track our movements as an entire species. A little creepy, yes – but then again, no one likes queueing. 

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