Why Google Should Add Carbon Emissions Data to Google Maps

There are two types of ideas out there. The baby-shaking-iPhone-game type (bad). And the add-cherry-syrup-to-Coca-Cola kind (good). Here’s a really good idea that Google can use that could make a serious dent in climate change: add carbon emissions data to Google Maps, so users looking for transportation routes can see the environmental effects of their choices.

Entrepreneur-engineer Saul Griffith, who co-founded the energy management web site WattzOn.com and has raised money from Google.org for his high altitude wind power startup Makani Power, spoke about this idea during a breakfast we had earlier this year — and he’s not the only one. Robin Baker, head of Business Development for AMEE, a startup that’s aggregating the world’s carbon data in order to determine the carbon footprint of just about anything, tells us AMEE has been talking to Google about the idea, too.

Google Maps is one of the most visited mapping sites in the U.S., according to data from Hitwise and ComScore. It trades off with MapQuest for the leading mapping data provider, and it currently has around 44 million monthly unique visitors. Exposing that kind of traffic to carbon emissions data could be one of the most widespread carbon projects ever implemented.

Not only would it be an educational tool that would remind users to take routes and modes of transportation that cut down on carbon, but the data could also be used for carbon databases that inform policy decisions. AMEE’s Baker says it could empower consumers to opt for “Low Carb Travel” and start considering the impact of “Carbs per Mile,” instead of just the quickest route. Baker points out that the carbon data could also be aggregated over time to create a personal carbon travel ID, so a user could see their progress or carbon travel patterns over weeks, months or years.

And it wouldn’t have to be all that intrusive. Look at the Google Maps site, and you can see that there’s an “options” section that you can show or hide with the ability to customize your query to avoid tolls and highways. Why not add in a check box to show how much carbon is emitted for your route, depending on length, time and mode of transportation? It’s opt-in so the user would have to actively tag it and could easily untag it if need be.

We asked Google if they are thinking about adding carbon emissions to Google Maps. A Google spokesperson said:

We don’t have anything to say about adding this sort of data to Google Maps, but there is a good deal of information like that available in Google Earth — users/organizations can create KML files displaying detailed information.

Lame. The reason to integrate the data into Google Maps is so the 44 million unique users will start thinking about the impact of their transportation choices. While carbon emissions data in Google Earth is very cool, it’s engaging viewers that are largely already interested in that kind of information. We know adding features to the Google Maps landscape is a huge deal, but so is climate change, and Google has clearly indicated that it’s interested in making a difference. So, Google, we challenge you.

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