The notion expressed in Monday’s xkcd, particularly in the alt-text—
OpenStreetMap was always pretty good but is also now really good? And Apple Maps’s new zoomed-in design in certain cities like NYC and London is just gorgeous. It’s cool how there are all these good maps now!
—is unexpectedly more on point than not.
In 2013 I wrote a screed saying that all online maps sucked: that no one map platform had a monopoly on errors. At the time Exhibit A for the suckiness of online maps was Apple Maps; since then, and particularly since 2018, Apple has been putting in the work. Not that they’re done, but still: the product is fundamentally better now than it was then. And it’s not like the other platforms have been idle in the meantime. No one platform is going to achieve Cartography’s ideal of the universal and accurate Map—that’s inherently unachievable—but better? I’ll take better.
Adam Engst of TidBITS: “I’ve been working with mapping services a lot of late and wanted to share some of my experiences in the hope that they’ll help you boost your mapping game beyond simple navigation.” Mostly focuses on fitness-related mapping, but also on how to correct errors on online maps.
.@googlemaps This is an abject failure. You are sending people up a poorly maintained forest road to their death in a severe blizzard. Hire people who can address winter storms in your code (or maybe get some of your engineers who are stuck in Tahoe right now on it). pic.twitter.com/IzagAXzBtA
Other dispatches from Twitter allege that the service—particularly its mobile app—directed people to closed-off highways, mountain passes and lakeside roads to get around. This is in direct contrast to Caltrans’ messaging to avoid workarounds. Caltrans District 3 spokesperson Steve Nelson told SFGATE on Monday that they were seeing drivers trying to skirt highway closures with side streets. “They’ll take side roads and try and sneak past the closures, and that never ends well,” he said.
Google engineer Sören Meyer-Eppler responded on Twitter to spell out some of the technical and logistical problems involved in rerouting traffic during bad weather: the difficulty in finding timely data (and in such cases data need to be really timely) and the risk of false positives. More at Jalopnik.
The Guardian: “Scottish mountaineering charities have criticised Google for suggesting routes up Ben Nevis and other mountains they say are ‘potentially fatal’ and direct people over a cliff.” Google Maps’s issue with Ben Nevis is that it routes to a parking lot nearest the summit, then more or less straight-lines it from there; as a dotted line it’s meant to indicate a route very imprecisely, but it also corresponds to a higher-difficulty ascent route that could land even experienced hikers in trouble. Not meant to be taken by people who don’t know what they’re doing—the people who might have no clue that it’s a bad idea to use Google Maps for mountain hiking, for example.
To be clear, I think this one’s on Google. A lot of people trust online maps implicitly because they have poor navigation skills and have a hard time overruling what the directions tell them: this is why people keep driving into rivers and onto tracks. It’s a design failure not to account for this in every circumstance.
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.)
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.
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]
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.