Google Apologizes for Offensive Map Search Results

Google Maps had to apologize again last week, this time because searching for racist terms gave results like the White House and Howard University. The results were derived from online discussions: idiots using an offensive term to describe a place associated the term with the place in Google’s search algorithms. Google says it’s changing the algorithm to fix the problem (because algorithms are to Google what procedures are to bureaucracies—the source of, and solution to, all life’s problems). Boing Boing, Engadget.

Previously: Google Map Maker Program Suspended.

Google Map Maker Program Suspended

Google is temporarily suspending Map Maker, its tool allowing user contributions to Google Maps, until they fix their edit moderation system. Auto-approvals of map edits had been suspended in the wake of the notorious and high-profile edits to the map near Rawalpindi; since then edits to the map have required manual approval, which has created a massive backlog. “We believe that it is more fair to only say that if we do not have the capacity to review edits at roughly the rate they come in, we have to take a pause.” Via The Verge.

Previously: Google Maps Edits Cause Embarrassment; A Google Map Maker Roundup.

Google Maps Edits Cause Embarrassment

Some embarrassment for Google Maps last week, as they were forced to apologize for an image of the Android mascot peeing on an Apple logo that turned up on the map near Rawalpindi in Pakistan. To say nothing of the phrase “Google review policy is crap” etched into nearby Takht Pari Forest. Both have since been removed. Boing Boing, the Guardian, The Verge.

To be fair to Google, crowdsourcing map data does have its pitfalls: OpenStreetMap has to deal with this sort of thing all the time. You have to have something in place to deal with bad-faith edits. None of the edits I’ve made to Google Maps went through without someone reviewing them, so I’m surprised that this could happen. That said, when you need your map updated fast (such as during natural disasters like yesterday’s earthquake in Nepal), it’s hard to beat crowdsourcing.

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that all online maps have their shortcomings.

Apple, Google and China: iOS Maps

First, how to report a problem in iOS 6 maps: MacRumors, Macworld. Jamie Ryan reports that reported errors are being corrected quickly.
More information about Google Maps’s removal from iOS 6, and whether it will return with a Google-built app. Eric Schmidt said Monday that, contrary to rumours, Google hadn’t submitted an app yet, and things got muddled from there. The Verge and the New York Times’s Bits Blog reported last night that there was still a year left on Apple’s contract with Google, and that Google was caught flatfooted by the move and is scrambling to build its own map. They are building one, though. It’s just a matter of when we’ll see it.

One place where Apple’s maps are demonstrably better than Google’s is China, where Apple was able to draw upon maps from a Chinese company. The drawback is that the maps aren’t integrated with those in the rest of the world. Anthony Drendel, AppleInsider, Wall Street Journal.

TUAW argues that Apple dumped Google because it wasn’t allowed to do turn-by-turn navigation with Google Maps. Engadget’s Brad Hill believes that the switch was “shrewd, inevitable and an indicator that Apple understands the true battle it wages.” See also AppleInsider’s detailed multipage review.

Reactions to Apple’s Maps

Apple’s maps have been out for 26 hours, and they’re already getting pummelled. See coverage from AppleInsider, BBC News and MacRumors. Ian Betteridge: “iOS 6 Maps is a mess.” Max Slater-Robins: “Apple Maps is, in a word, awful.”

What’s happened here is that Google Maps usage has become so ubiquitous, so relied upon—especially on mobile—that any change will be seen as a downgrade.

There’s no question that Google Maps is the best online map product out there at the moment. There’s no question that switching from Google Maps will result in a downgraded mapping experience, no matter how hard anyone tries. But that’s not to say they’re flawless, or that their competitors can never beat them at one location or another.

I’ve been covering Google Maps since its launch in 2005. It’s come a long way since then. It’s gotten a lot better in that time, but it too has had its growing pains, especially when it switched its mapping data providers: first from Navteq to Tele Atlas, then to its own mapping solution, which at the outset was a significant downgrade—sound familiar?

Frankly, a lot of the glitches pointed out here have been found on Google Maps at some point, including the warped bridges, misplaced points of interest, and so forth. If you can’t find similar problems in every map platform, you’re not looking hard enough.

There will be glitches, and errors, and missing data in Apple’s maps for years to come. I know this will be the case because that’s what happened with Google. They started out small, and added features, and added countries, and eventually got good.

The difference this time is that there’s already a Google, with all that good stuff that Apple can’t match yet. Google didn’t have to worry about that kind of competition (MapQuest didn’t even have satellite imagery!).

Bottom line: Apple’s maps are going to suck for a while, folks. Some of you will be able to use them without much trouble; others will find them impossible, in which case you should probably look into an alternative. You could use the Google Maps website until Google gets around to releasing its own Maps app. There are also plenty of third-party map and navigation applications that make use of Bing, OpenStreetMap, or other mapping data.

Hubris and the Times Comprehensive Atlas

When the publishers of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World announced that the newly released 13th edition showed that Greenland’s ice sheet had shrunk by 15 percent, climate scientists went ballistic. While Greenland’s ice is retreating, it’s not nearly by that much, and this is just the sort of error that encourages climate-change denialists.

How did Collins Geo allow this to happen? This is the question Mark Monmonier explores in a piece on the New Scientist website. Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps and many other books, argues that hubris was behind the mistake: that the towering reputation of the Times Atlases led to overconfidence.

An explanation lies partly in Collins Geo’s apparent decision to produce the map in house. If that was the case, the firm might have avoided its embarrassment with the obvious quality-assurance step of sending page proofs to carefully chosen experts. Appropriate scientists seldom decline invitations to serve as reviewers. […]

It seems likely there was a belief that external review was unnecessary. Moreover, it seems that none of the publisher’s marketing mavens compared their provocative God’s-eye view with competing treatments on readily accessible scientific websites or Google Earth.

Hubris is not too strong a word to explain HarperCollins’s predicament. A press release promising “concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever” invites critical scrutiny by mainstream climate scientists as well as the self-proclaimed sceptics who are ever eager to pounce on overreaching pronouncements by the former. In Atlasgate, the pro-warming community, which outnumbers naysayers by perhaps 50 to 1, wasted no time in trashing the HarperCollins map.

Previously: Map Books for Fall 2011.