Google Maps Edits Cause Embarrassment

Some embarrassment for Google Maps last week, as they were forced to apologize for an image of the Android mascot peeing on an Apple logo that turned up on the map near Rawalpindi in Pakistan. To say nothing of the phrase “Google review policy is crap” etched into nearby Takht Pari Forest. Both have since been removed. Boing Boing, the Guardian, The Verge.

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.

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that all online maps have their shortcomings.

OpenStreetMap’s New Map Editor

OpenStreetMap has launched a new map editing interface that runs, for the first time, in HTML5. (Potlatch, the previous web-based map editor, uses Flash, and JOSM runs in Java, which I always thought was ironic for an open project.) The editor, called iD, is live now, and is designed to make editing the map more accessible to beginning mapmakers. I’ve given it a quick try this morning. My summary judgment is that if you have any experience using another editor, you should stick with it. iD is far slower than Potlatch at the moment, and does things sufficiently differently that you might have a hard time finding things. I made a mess trying to edit the existing map. But will it lower the barrier to making new contributions, particularly for casual or non-technical contributors? I hope so.

When Mapping Gets You Arrested

Wired UK reports on how an OpenStreetMap contributor got arrested in Reading after “a paranoid guy called the police.” (Here’s the contributor’s own take.)

On-the-ground surveying with a GPS is a great way to contribute to OpenStreetMap, but it’s not hard to see how it might be construed as suspicious activity. The problem isn’t actually the GPS, which is inconspicuous enough unless you’re staring at it every five seconds, it’s the note-taking that goes along with it. Even here in Shawville, when we were surveying a couple of residential streets, one of Jennifer’s co-workers spotted us and later asked us what the hell we had been doing. We were writing down house numbers to add to the map — but stopping every few metres to write down the house number at each corner does look a bit odd. So does taking a photo of every street sign (to confirm road names independently of third-party mapping data). It helps to be as discreet and non-creepy as possible.

Fortunately, it’s a small town and we’re known, so we haven’t run into any serious trouble yet. If asked, I usually explain that I’m mapping the town for a website called OpenStreetMap, which is like Wikipedia for maps: everybody runs around with a GPS to create a map of the world. (At that point their eyes usually glaze over.)