Interpreting Google Takeout Location History Data

Everybody knows we’re officially in the future and being in the future comes with many perks. Depending on who you are, these perks could include having the largest GPS crowdsourcing initiative ever imagined. That’s the position Google finds themselves comfortably in. In the era of big data, GIS data is one of the biggest.

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Screenshot of the Google Maps layer that plots your historic locations

The proverbial Big Brother has formally arrived and brings with it some interesting concepts. The use of cell phones with GPS functionality allows big data giants like Google and Facebook to request location data from your device and build profiles like the layer seen above. Wifi connections can provide similar information that helps paint a precise location history.

Google makes this data available to the users of its services either in raw data from or viewable in a browser already affixed to a map as we see above.

Of course, this is all in the name of transparency. It’s not the end of the world if someone collects some personal information from you with the intent of giving you a more relavent advertising experience. It’s also not the end of the world if a users wishes to opt-out of this data collection. These services are the backbone to many luxuries including apps that find stolen or misplaced electronics. Microsoft incorporates a “Find My Device” service similar to Google’s “Device Locator”.

The link above is the portal for users to view the data Google collects and manage the settings about the collection. The old redirects here now. The process is still the same. Creating an archive with the Takeout service will have a compressed archive sent directly to your email from Google. With this data we can do some interesting some fun presentations.

The different data metrics available for export directly from Google

The data isn’t just layed out in a notepad. Many of the metrics exist as .json files which can be tricky to explore and use for an inexperienced user. Luckily to task is made easly by the awesome apps on the following webpage.

Unfortunately it costs $69 to unlock its full functionality. We can, however, take a look at the free heatmap feature. This parses the .json file and plots the coordinates onto a map powered by Google Maps. My map is rather boring compared to what yours may look like.

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A heatmap visualization of the location history data provided by Google

The map achieves a satisfactory resolution at smaller scales.

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Imagine having the data for millions of people and what the heatmaps for entire populations would look like. This is the power of big data and harnessing this great power provides insights that are unimaginable.

A Trail of Digital Breadcrumbs

LAte in 2014 I fould myself in the Shenandoah Mountains almost daily, taking GPS coordinates. I used an app to track my movement and then georeferenced these tracks and stiched them together to create a trail map of the area. There weren’t any complete trail maps of the area when I had Google searched at the time, so I decided to make my own. This was my first pioneering project that really piqued my interest in applied geography and GIS.

Each day a different trail was tracked. Each of these result screenshots showing the trail were cropped, made semi-transparent, and transposed onto a basemap in Photoshop.

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Hone Quarry recreation area and its trailheads with a location history trail in red tracked using the MapMyRun app

The topgraphic elements made the orthorectification easier when incorporating the data onto the basemap. Luckily, MapMyRun, Nike+, and several other free options had app has a companion site that allows you to view high resolution, interactive maps of the data. This alleviated the need for a lot of resolution acrobatics.

Using Google Maps’ resources, I was able to take screenshots of area and stitch them together to create a high resolution image. This method isn’t the most efficient but it go the job done.

One part of the collection of Google Maps topographic images that were used to create a high resolution topographic map of the area.

The work was originally done in photoshop but with the .psd plugin for it’s not necessary.

This map is the result of the stitching and overlaying the tracking layers:

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Full resolution:

This was a fun exercise in georeferencing and, of course, field work. It’s interesting to see the real 3D space that the 2D maps are projecting.

It correlates with the official National Geographic trail map of the area, which I had to order online. The receipt of this official map concluded this project. I’d consider myself an expert navigator of these woods now, both in the analog and the digital worlds.

An insert from the official National Geographic trail map of the George Washing National Forest on the border of Virginia and West Virginia

Full resolution:

This type of georeferencing is becoming more and more integrated with daily life as our spatial lives are encoding in the digital world. Future National Geographic maps might have a “you-are-here” feature. The sky is the limit.