As with most new Google announcements, the news that Maps (and a plain old Google search) will now offer live wait times for bars and restaurants is both useful and also just a tiny bit terrifying.
Useful because who wants to go all the way to a place just to learn you’ll have a ninety-minute wait for a table? Terrifying because of how Google is calculating the wait time.
The update will arrive to Google search and Maps “soon.” It will show you how long you’ll have to wait to get a seat at a restaurant at any particular hour. Google says it’ll have wait times for nearly a million sit-down restaurants around the world.
To access the feature, users just search for the restaurant on Google, open the business listing, and a Popular Times section will be displayed with an estimated wait in real time. You can also tap on any hour on the bar graph to see how long the wait will be for that period, in case you want to plan ahead for dinner.
There’s also a summary of how long people spend at the restaurant on average, and how long people will wait during peak times. Google says the estimates are based on “anonymized historical data,” which is how it calculates wait times for businesses like museums and grocery stores.
Google rolled the feature out for some bars last year, but the restaurant feature is new. It’s that “anonymized historical data” bit that’s interesting, though, because that doesn’t exactly sound reassuring. If you have an Android phone with location tracking turned on, for example, you can look up where you were on a specific date and time using Google’s Timeline feature. It’s interesting to have that record, but it’s also a bit creepy!
For example, here’s everywhere I’ve been in the past 2 years, all tracked and ready for access, right down to the minute, with specific routes outlined if you were able to zoom in:
It’s not infallible data, first of all; I haven’t been to D.C. in the past few years, but I worked for a company with a D.C. location, and the employee wi-fi must have routed me there. (Amusingly, the Map function for the day says I went from Fort Wayne to Washington in 18 minutes.) But it’s certainly all kept and stored, and that’s how Google gets this information. In theory it’s all private, and anonymized, but it’s only that way until it’s not.
And for the live wait times, it’s only fair to wonder if it’s factoring in the number of people currently at the location. After all, historical can mean just a few seconds old.
In the end, I don’t really care about broadcasting my general whereabouts on a continent-wide level, as evidenced by the fact that I posted that map. But I’d probably get nervous about letting all of you dig into that data for daily routes and time spent in different areas. Again, not because I’m doing anything illegal, just because I do like a bit of privacy. You can turn it off, of course, but it’s not an intuitive process.
(And if you can somehow hack my data simply via that screenshot, well, please don’t.)
Still, as much as I dislike having my personal travels data-mined for the benefit of a company that sells advertising based on my life, I do also really hate showing up at a bar or restaurant only to be told there’s a two-hour wait.
It’s a dilemma!