Meanwhile, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, seems to be scaling back its satellite imaging ambitions: it’s apparently in talks to sell its Terra Bella division, which it acquired as Skybox Imaging for $500 million in 2014, to competitor Planet. [Engadget]
Typically, mint green highlights designate publicly owned wild spaces on Google’s maps. But as of this writing, some of those public lands have gone gray. The locations are still searchable, but if you don’t already know the park or forest exists, and where exactly, you might not be able to find it.
No green space is safe: Many of the missing parks are national forests, but some are state forests, Bureau of Land Management recreation areas, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. Some, like the Blue Hills Reservation in Massachusetts, are just a few thousand acres. Others, like the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, are over 500,000.
Because Palestine, after all, has been removed. It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate. Yet in our digital age, a search on Google Maps for Israel produces a map without Palestine. It displays Israeli urban centres down to a few thousand inhabitants, and even marks Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank. At the same time it shows no Palestinian place-names or urban centres, not even major ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus. The dotted, inconsistent borders of the occupied territories leave the impression that they are not claimed or administered by anyone. […]
Historians of cartography have long studied the practices and consequences of cartographic omission. In a landmark study, “New England cartography and the Native Americans”, published posthumously in 1994, the British historian of cartography J. B. Harley analysed seventeenth-century maps to follow the progressive replacement of the Native Americans with European settlers. In Harley’s analysis, the maps were something more than historical records of that process. Because they made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population, they were also instruments of colonial legitimisation.
Many colonial mapmakers preferred to leave the areas of predominantly indigenous presence blank, rather than to reproduce an indigenous geography; one example is Herman Moll’s 1729 map of New England and the adjacent colonies, seen above. The traces of indigenous presence, past and present, were gradually removed from the maps as the colonists pushed west. The apparent emptiness helped to justify the settlers’ sense that they had discovered a virgin territory, promised to them by Providence. The pattern was the same in all areas of colonial activity, including Australia and Africa.
As the Disputed Territories site, which catalogues how Google manages various contested borders, points out, “Google’s maps of disputed territories differ depending on who’s looking at them.” As we’ve seen recently with regard to Crimea, that doesn’t always keep Google out of trouble. An online petition asking Google to label Palestine on Google Maps has garnered more than 300,000 signatures since March. The petitioners accuse Google of removing Palestine at Israel’s insistence; but, as the Guardian reports, “the truth is, it was never labelled by Google in the first place.” (The West Bank and Gaza Strip had their labels removed by a bug; Google’s restoring them.)
The swiftness of the backlash, though, is not just about the wish for justice on behalf of an occupied people, but about the belief—now punctured—that our technology is neutral, that it presents an unbiased, infallible version of the world. […]
While it might seem imperialistic for Google to decide how the US should see the rest of the world, perhaps it would be equally troubling to see the company wade into global verdicts on the righteousness of every international occupation. That it allows its sketch of the geopolitical climate to reflect the perspective of who is viewing it, rather than impose the prevailing popular opinion in the west, may not be neutral or unbiased, but it is probably the most fair.
Google Maps’s new, cleaner look, which rolled out last month and replaces clusters of points of interest with coloured “areas of interest,” “represents the company’s ongoing efforts to transform Maps from a navigational tool to a commercial interface and offers the clearest proof yet that the geographic web—despite its aspirations to universality—is a deeply subjective entity,” writes Henry Grabar in Slate.
As is often the case with disputed boundaries, what online maps show depends on who they’re showing it to. So when it comes to Crimea, which annexation by Russia two years ago many countries refuse to recognize (not least of which Ukraine!), Google Maps shows Crimea as Russian territory to Russian users, as Ukrainian territory to Ukrainian users, and disputed territory to everyone else. As the Washington Post reports, that didn’t stop Google from getting in trouble with Russia last month, when Google changed Crimean names in all versions of Google Maps to conform with a 2015 Ukrainian law that removed Soviet names from Ukrainian territory. Russian Crimean politicians called it “Russophobic” and “topographical cretinism,” according to the Post; by last Friday, though, the name changes had apparently been reverted. [WMS]
Fast Company profiles Google’s geospatial technologist Ed Parsons, whose name should be familiar to longtime Map Room readers. (I first encountered his work when he was still at the Ordnance Survey; he joined Google in 2007.) In some way the profile uses Ed to understand Google’s mapping ambitions, which Ed discusses at length. Understanding the corporate via the personal, as it were. (Parsons was also the subject of a similar profile in The Independent in 2014.) [Owen Boswarva]
In an essay called “What Happened to Google Maps?” Justin O’Beirne notes that between 2010 and 2016 Google Maps has changed from emphasizing cities at the expense of roads to emphasizing the road network at the expense of cities—a turn he chalks up to the shift to mobile device usage—and turns to a 1960s-era paper map to demonstrate what he thinks a balanced Google Maps should look like. An interesting look at the design choices in online maps. [Cartophilia]
The problem with Google Maps becoming a de facto cartographic authority is that it isn’t a legal authority. As we have seen over and over again, this has implications, both for Google, which must often walk a fine line between countries’ cartographic demands (for example, China and India have laws mandating “correct” borders on maps that are mutually exclusive; the border Google shows you depends on where you are), and for Google’s users: a 2010 border skirmish between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was triggered by an error in Google Maps. A discussion of that incident begins Ethan R. Merel’s note published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, which explores the problem of Google being thrust into a role it may not have expected.
Since Google is now producing the world’s most important maps, a task previously done by nation-states, the company is “getting confused with a nation-state, and not just any one, a really important one—a powerful one.”92 At first, Google reaped the benefits of waning state control over the practice of map making, but more recently, Google has started to face the criticism and responsibilities which accompany such possession of power.93
“Although Google Maps is fast becoming the ultimate authority on navigation,” writes Karen Turner for the Washington Post, “the program is proving vulnerable to mistakes and hackers with results that at times can be catastrophic.” Turner focuses on Google and problems with its error-correction and verification processes; it’s worth remembering, though, that all online maps suck in some way: no map service has a monopoly on accuracy or error. [via]
NPR graphics editor Alyson Hurt discovered that this month’s blizzard was showing up in Google Maps as traffic delays, and whipped up a little script that took regular screencaps of Google Maps’s traffic layer. She then created an animated GIF from the screencaps. The end result (above) dramatically shows the storm sweeping across the mid-Atlantic states.