Recent Google Maps Errors

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.

Millions of Business Listings on Google Maps Are Fake: WSJ

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]

‘Last Week Tonight’ Solves the Missing New Zealand Problem

Last Week Tonight cutout New Zealand mapOn Last Week Tonight’s 17 February episode, host John Oliver took a moment to look at how New Zealand keeps getting left off world mapsthe 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.

New Zealand media is all over this: New Zealand Herald, RNZTVNZ.

Previously: IKEA Map Poster Omits New Zealand; New Zealand Launches Campaign to Get Itself Back on World Maps; Maps Without New Zealand.

IKEA Map Poster Omits New Zealand

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.

Previously: New Zealand Launches Campaign to Get Itself Back on World Maps; Maps Without New Zealand.

Another Geolocation Horror Show, This Time from South Africa

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]

Previously: A Geolocation Glitch Creates a ‘Technological Horror Story’.

Anti-Semitic Map Vandalism Strikes Mapbox

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.)

A Mobile Mapping Roundup

Rerouting. Lifehacker talks about how to prevent mapping apps from rerouting you on the fly, and lists some options. [R. E. Sieber]

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]

Missing the Island: An Exhibition of Maps without PEI

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]

Previously: The Omitted Island; ‘Potato Drop’.

Alejandro Polanco’s Lost Worlds

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.

Inaccurate Maps of the Ebola Virus Outbreak

World Health Organization

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.”

The WHO map in question, reproduced at the top of this post, can be found here. See Virology Down Under’s roundup of maps put out by the various NGOs, which the Atlantic article refers to.

New Zealand Launches Campaign to Get Itself Back on World Maps

Frustrated by being left off world maps, New Zealand has launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign called #getNZonthemap, the highlight of which is a three-minute video featuring New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and actor Rhys Darby, who goes full conspiracy theory in the clip. Fun all round. See the video on Facebook or Vimeo.

Previously: Maps Without New Zealand.

More on Two Books About Nonexistent Places

Two items on books about nonexistent places on maps and other map errors, each of which we’ve heard of before:

  1. The Santa Fe New Mexican has a piece on The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching, which came out in the U.K. in late 2016 (previously); that edition is available via Amazon on the U.S. and Canada, but a separate U.S. edition is coming in April from Chronicle. [WMS]
  2. Meanwhile, at National Geographic’s All Over the Map blog, Greg Miller takes a look at The Un-Discovered Islands, Malachy Tallack’s book about phantom islands: places once thought real, but later proven nonexistent. Like The Phantom Atlas, it first saw publication in 2016; its U.S. edition came out last November (previously). Miller’s piece includes examples of such nonexistent places on maps from the Osher Map Library.