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.
An exhibition both online and at the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center through 23 October, Hy-Brasil: Mapping a Mythical Island looks at the island that appeared on maps of the Atlantic Ocean over a period of five centuries. “In this online exhibition of forty maps from the collection at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library and the Mapping Boston Foundation, visitors will see the transition of Hy-Brasil over the course of five centuries from legitimate island destination, to ‘imaginary’ place, to simply a ‘rock,’ before it finally stops appearing on maps in the late 19th century. A variety of map formats are included in the online exhibition, such as portolan charts, woodcut engravings, copperplate engravings and lithographic prints. Hy-Brasil even makes an appearance on a 1492 globe.” [WMS]
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]
BuzzFeed’s Jim Waterson calls out a map making the social media rounds that purports to show the results of the 2016 local elections in the U.K. Only it doesn’t. It’s apparently being spread by Labour supporters keen to defend their party’s performance in the elections and convinced their party is receiving unfair media treatment—and of course, people tend to believe what they want to believe. Waterson goes on to show how to make a fake map of your very own. [Thierry Gregorius]
Not every geographic database uses Null Island. When MaxMind’s geolocation database, which matches IP addresses to physical locations, can only identify an IP address’s country, it uses a default location roughly at the centre of that country. In the case of the United States, it turned out to be Joyce Taylor’s farm in Potwin, Kansas. Fusion’s Kashmir Hill has the horror story that has ensued: MaxMind’s database is used by thousands of online services, whose users mistook a default location with a precise address.
For the last decade, Taylor and her renters have been visited by all kinds of mysterious trouble. They’ve been accused of being identity thieves, spammers, scammers and fraudsters. They’ve gotten visited by FBI agents, federal marshals, IRS collectors, ambulances searching for suicidal veterans, and police officers searching for runaway children. They’ve found people scrounging around in their barn. The renters have been doxxed, their names and addresses posted on the internet by vigilantes. Once, someone left a broken toilet in the driveway as a strange, indefinite threat.
As Hill’s article points out, Taylor is far from the only one to be hit by this problem. MaxMind is updating its database to correct this and one other case by moving the default location to a body of water. (I can’t help but think that we will soon start hearing stories about people driving into the lake as a result of this change.) There’s no such thing as a set of coordinates that can’t be represented precisely. What’s the solution?
“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]
On Cartastrophe, Daniel Huffman points out the problems in Decision Desk HQ’s interactive cartograms for the U.S. presidential primaries, which maintain a state’s shape but resize the counties as the results come in. “Unfortunately, in so doing, they shuffle the counties around any old which way. The Lower Peninsula of Michigan has 68 counties in reality, the Upper Peninsula has 15. But Decision Desk HQ has shoved most of the counties into the Upper Peninsula, which now has 58, vs. 25 that remain in the Lower Peninsula,” Huffman writes. “This means that we can’t really see spatial patterns, which is sort of the point of having a map.” [via]
We’ve all seen business listings on online maps that don’t quite jibe with reality: the map marker’s on the wrong place, and driving directions don’t get you to your destination. The Wall Street Journal reports on how businesses deal with online map errors. Getting a wrong listing fixed is a rather high priority (a lost customer is a lost customer, if you follow me), but it turns out to be a more time-consuming—and expensive—process than I thought: there are firms that charge thousands of dollars to solve this for you. [via]
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.
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.