So many COVID-19 maps: some misleading, some mislabelled or with other design flaws, some lacking key information, some misunderstood or misused. On GIS Lounge, Mark Altaweel explores how the COVID-19 “infodemic”—the overabundance of information, some reliable, some not—has manifested itself in online coronavirus maps.
A couple of years ago, Amanda Ripley discovered that Google Maps had two locations listed for her home, which made giving directions difficult. As the change propagated to services that used Google Maps, the problem worsened. Deliveries kept turning up at the other location. But it turned out that there was no way to notify Google of this specific problem. She had to use her media credentials as a workaround to get it fixed. (Check out Google’s statement at the end: it’s a textbook case of customer service gaslighting.)
Swiss topographic maps are legendary for their precision, but that hasn’t stopped cartographers from having a little fun. As Zoey Poll reports for AIGA Eye on Design, whimsical little drawings can be found hidden in some editions of Swiss topo maps:
But on certain maps, in Switzerland’s more remote regions, there is also, curiously, a spider, a man’s face, a naked woman, a hiker, a fish, and a marmot. These barely-perceptible apparitions aren’t mistakes, but rather illustrations hidden by the official cartographers at Swisstopo in defiance of their mandate “to reconstitute reality.” Maps published by Swisstopo undergo a rigorous proofreading process, so to find an illicit drawing means that the cartographer has outsmarted his colleagues.
It also implies that the mapmaker has openly violated his commitment to accuracy, risking professional repercussions on account of an alpine rodent. No cartographer has been fired over these drawings, but then again, most were only discovered once their author had already left. (Many mapmakers timed the publication of their drawing to coincide with their retirement.) Over half of the known illustrations have been removed. The latest, the marmot drawing, was discovered by Swisstopo in 2016 and is likely to be eliminated from the next official map of Switzerland by next year. As the spokesperson for Swisstopo told me, “Creativity has no place on these maps.”
The article suggests these drawings are a coping mechanism, an opportunity to blow off a little steam. I can believe it. [r/MapPorn]
We expect maps to tell the truth; indeed we need them to on a fierce and primal level. “I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe,” wrote Charles Blow last fall; he was writing in response to Trump’s petty defacement of a hurricane forecast map with a marker. The reaction to Trump’s stunt, was, I thought, revealing. It’s part and parcel with what Matthew Edney refers to as the ideal of cartography: striving toward a universal, unbiased and perfect map.
When a map has a mistake on it, when it’s wrong, it does something funny to our heads. We obey our phones and dashboard GPS navigators even when they send us off a cliff. We concoct nutty theories about ancient civilizations because a 16th-century portolan chart had a funny bend on a coastline. We wonder, because someone wrote “here be dragons” on a map, whether dragons were actually real. We make brain pretzels trying to force maps to be truthful even when they are manifestly wrong.1
Maps have to tell the truth. They simply have to. Maybe that’s why stories about mistakes on the map, and the havoc those mistakes cause, fascinate us so much. Which brings me to three books, all published for the first time in 2016, that talk about map errors of an older kind: islands and other features that appeared on maps, sometimes for centuries, that in the end turned out not to exist.
Map data is not perfect and users are too trusting. They believe maps to be accurate, and the map data that GPS receivers, online maps and smartphones rely on is riddled with a thousand insignificant errors that show up in unexpected cases. Whenever we read a story about some driver getting themselves into trouble because they followed the directions their GPS receiver or phone gave them, that’s what caused it.
Take, for example, last month’s incident where Google Maps’ response to a traffic accident was to route traffic heading toward Denver International Airport along a private dirt road that was muddy and nearly impassible due to recent rains: about a hundred cars got stuck. That Google Maps thought the muddy part of East 64th Avenue was a viable route would not likely have been spotted were it not for the accident; said accident routed dozens of drivers along an unfamiliar route that they had no real option other than to trust Google on. [Jalopnik]
Meanwhile, see Dan Luu’s Twitter thread on Google Maps (and other map providers’) errors, their persistence, and the trouble it can sometimes take to get them dealt with.
The Wall Street Journal goes in-depth on a problem Google Maps has had for years: fake and deceptive business listings posted by scam artists that crowd out legitimate local businesses—as many as 11 million such listings at any given moment, according to experts.
Online advertising specialists identified by Google as deft fraud fighters estimated that Google Maps carries roughly 11 million falsely listed businesses on any given day, according to a Journal survey of these experts.
They say a majority of the listings for contractors, electricians, towing and car repair services, movers and lawyers, among other business categories, aren’t located at their pushpins on Google Maps. Shams among these service categories, called “duress verticals” inside Google, can snag people at their most vulnerable.
Those experts and Google disagree as to the extent of the problem. (Which is exacerbated by how easy it is to set up a business listing.) And the scam artists aren’t simply displacing local businesses: they’re resorting to outright extortion: pay up, or we’ll swamp you with bogus listings. [Engadget, The Verge]
On Last Week Tonight’s 17 February episode, host John Oliver took a moment to look at how New Zealand keeps getting left off world maps—the case of IKEA’s map poster being the most recent example. They are nothing if not helpful: as a solution, the show’s Twitter account has posted a cutout map of New Zealand to print and paste on any map that has left it off.
IKEA’s going to need extra security.
IKEA is apologizing after it was discovered that one of its BJÖRKSTA world map posters left off New Zealand. (Yes, that again.) IKEA says the product will be phased out; it’s still available in my country, for the moment. Note that there are three other world maps in the BJÖRKSTA series (which consists of framed pictures, including art, photos and maps); the other three do include New Zealand.
IKEA had better hope no one finds out about the map art that uses the Mercator projection.
Remember the farm in Kansas that, thanks to an error in MaxMind’s geolocation database, became the default physical location for any IP address in the United States that couldn’t be resolved? It’s happened again, this time to a couple in Pretoria, South Africa, who received online and physical threats and visits from the police because IP addresses that were from Pretoria, but whose precise location couldn’t be resolved any further, defaulted to their front yard. Kashmir Hill, who covered the Kansas incident, has the story for Gizmodo. It’s a fascinating long read that burrows into the sources of geolocation data and the problematic ways in which it’s used.
In this case the problem was traced to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which assigned the lat/long coordinates for Pretoria to this family’s front yard. The end result: one home becomes the location for one million IP addresses in Pretoria. (The NGA has since changed it.)
The problem here is twofold. First, a failure to account for accuracy radius: a city or a country is represented by a single, precise point at its centre. That’s a real problem when the data point being geotagged can’t be more specific than “Pretoria” or “United States,” because the geotagging is made artificially precise: it’s not “somewhere in Pretoria,” it’s this specific address. Second is the misuse of IP location data. It’s one thing to use a web visitor’s IP address to serve them local ads or to enforce geographical restrictions on content, quite another to use that data for official or vigilante justice. The data, Hill points out, isn’t good enough for that. [MetaFilter]
An incident of map vandalism roiled the Internet last week. Users of several online services, including CitiBike, Foursquare and SnapChat, discovered that New York City had been relabelled “Jewtropolis” on the services’ maps: see coverage at Gizmodo, Mashable and TechCrunch. The problem was quickly traced to Mapbox, which provides maps to these services. Mapbox, understandably upset about the act of vandalism, soon figured out what the hell happened.
The problem was traced to OpenStreetMap, one of Mapbox’s data sources. On August 10 an OSM user renamed a number of New York landmarks, as well as New York itself, after a number of alt-right and neo-Nazi memes. The edits were quickly reverted and the user blocked—on OpenStreetMap. They nevertheless entered the Mapbox review pipeline, where they were, in fact, caught and flagged on the 16th, but a human editor mistakenly okayed the renaming of New York to Jewtropolis. A simple human error, but with a delayed fuse: the edit turned up on Mapbox’s public map two weeks later. When all hell broke loose on the 30th, the map was fixed within a few hours.
Vandalism of online maps isn’t a new thing: in 2015 Google ran into trouble when a series of juvenile map edits exposed the shortcomings of the Map Maker program’s moderation system and led to a temporary suspension of Map Maker (it closed for good in 2017) and an apology from Google. Anything involving user contributions needs a moderation system, and OpenStreetMap and Mapbox both have them. But moderation systems can and do still fail from time to time. (That’s a take on this incident that isn’t on Bill Morris’s list.)
Traffic. Traffic congestion is a key feature of mobile mapping, and predicting it involves looking at historical data. CityLab reports on a recent study suggests that time-of-day electricity usage patterns can be used to predict traffic congestion patterns. A household that starts using power earlier in the morning gets up earlier and presumably will go to work earlier.) It’s another variable that can be put to use in traffic modelling.
Trail difficulty. OpenStreetMap doesn’t differentiate between “walk-in-the-park” trails and mountaineering routes, and that may have had something to do with hikers needing to be rescued from the side of a British Columbia mountain recently. The hikers apparently used OSM on a mobile phone app, and in OSM trail difficulty is an optional tag. The wisdom of using OSM in safety-critical environments notwithstanding, this is something that OSM editors need to get on. [Ian Dees]
Prince Edward Island is to maps of Canada what New Zealand is to world maps: it’s left off them an awful lot, and the residents are sore about it. Now, CBC News reports that there’s an exhibition about it: Missing the Island, “[a] light-hearted look at a small selection of maps and graphics that have omitted P.E.I.,” runs until October 7 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown. [WMS]
Speaking of lost islands, invented places, myths and mistakes, our friend Alejandro Polanco’s latest project is this poster map of lost worlds—he calls it “the fantasy map I always dreamed of.” See his blog post (in Spanish) or the project’s Kickstarter page:
Over the last twenty years, in my work as a graphic designer and mapmaker, I have enjoyed reading numerous books on lost continents, mythological animals, phantom islands and cartographic errors. However, I have never found all those ingredients gathered in a single fantasy map. That’s why I decided to create “Lost Worlds,” a poster in which I have compiled some of the main details about lost continents, historical errors on famous maps, islands that once were believed to really exist, fantastic animals. . . . The documentation work has been meticulous and, for the final design, I have chosen the cases that I consider to be the most representative. It is, in short, a map to feed our imagination and our dreams.
Like his previous project, Minimal Geography, it’s full of inset maps and descriptive text. The main map locates lost continents, phantom islands and cryptid creatures; the inset maps include examples of old maps that contain the sorts of imaginary and erroneous features Edward Brooke-Hitching covers in The Phantom Atlas.
Alejandro is, as I mentioned, crowdfunding this map on Kickstarter, where it’s already past its (nominal) target. Available as a digital download; prices start at €6 (higher tiers include other products.
PBS NewsHour talks to Edward Brooke-Hitching about his book The Phantom Atlas, his book about lost islands, invented places, myths and mistakes on old maps. Direct video link, transcript. The Phantom Atlas was published in the U.K. in late 2016 and saw its U.S. edition launch in April of this year. [WMS]
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong looks at a problem in the public health response to this month’s Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo: inaccurate maps of the areas affected by the virus.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization released a map showing parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that are currently being affected by Ebola. The map showed four cases in Wangata, one of three “health zones” in the large city of Mbandaka. Wangata, according to the map, lies north of the main city, in a forested area on the other side of a river.
That is not where Wangata is.
“It’s actually here, in the middle of Mbandaka city,” says Cyrus Sinai, indicating a region about 8 miles farther south, on a screen that he shares with me over Skype.
Almost all the maps of the outbreak zone that have thus far been released contain mistakes of this kind. Different health organizations all seem to use their own maps, most of which contain significant discrepancies. Things are roughly in the right place, but their exact positions can be off by miles, as can the boundaries between different regions. […]
To be clear, there’s no evidence that these problems are hampering the response to the current outbreak. It’s not like doctors are showing up in the middle of the forest, wondering why they’re in the wrong place. “Everyone on the ground knows where the health zones start and end,” says Sinai. “I don’t think this will make or break the response. But you surely want the most accurate data.”