We’ve all made that mistake of rallying our friends to some hot, new no-reservations restaurant at 5 p.m.—only to find it empty. Or we’ve casually headed to a favorite place on a Wednesday night only to find it unexpectedly packed.
Earlier this year, Google launched a feature called Popular Times, which showed predictions of how busy a restaurant might be each hour of the day when you scoped it on Google services. Now, the company has updated the feature in a big way: Popular Times now shows how crowded places are in real time—at the very moment you search.
Restaurants. Bars. Supermarkets. Big box stores. Even public spaces like parks. They’re all fodder for Google’s simple bar graph showing if the location is busier or emptier than normal.
The information is based upon "aggregated, anonymized location history data," a spokesperson explains—though "history" is an odd word choice in this case. Because what that really means is that all smartphone users searching things on Google, Google Maps, or even using a geolocating Google services like the voice assistant on the Pixel phone, are sharing their location data. And Google is collecting this, throwing it into a mass pile, and resharing it immediately.
Of course, Google—much like Facebook, or even our phone carrier—has known for a long time exactly where we are much of the time when we’re using our phones. Analytics companies like Flurry (recently acquired by Yahoo) can track the way you use several apps anonymously and combine that data to build a profile of you with such an accurate estimate of your home address that they claim to blur their own data within a few blocks radius before sharing it with developers and marketers. Even everyday websites can see your approximate location as soon as you open a link.
Companies make a lot of money off our data. Google and Facebook both use the information to feed us highly targeted ads—Google made $75 billion off their AdWords system that does just this in 2015, while Facebook pockets $14.34 on U.S. customers each year thanks to targeted ad revenue.
But what’s different with Popular Times is that Google is giving some of this big, surveillance-style data directly back to the consumer—which is, in fact, exactly what it’s doing when the company spots traffic jams on Google Maps or learns from your searches how to make results better, too. And while maybe it’s still a little creepy, because Google has given me a way to avoid the line at some new restaurant that I really want to try? I care a lot less, by design.