There’s been a lot of controversy and discussion – there is still a lot of controversy and discussion – about Google’s search results. Google does not disclose the algorithm that decides its search results (some speculate that Google itself does not perfectly understand it) so whenever something goofy happens with a search result, we get news, speculation, and some opining that Google should be more transparent. And nothing ever changes.
However Google has another product which makes a lot of weird mistakes but is not subject to the transparency issues of Google’s Web search. I’m talking about Google Maps.
Why aren’t we all talking about Google Maps?
First let me make something clear: I am not talking about local businesses ranking or anything like that – that gets back into algorithms which aren’t transparent. I’m talking about Google Maps making ridiculous errors that impact lives.
- Techly: Tourists in Norway are being directed disastrously by Google Maps. “Hundreds of tourists in Norway go on the search for the stunning Preikestolen cliff formation, better known as Pulpit Rock. Now unlike their predecessors, they opt for using trusty Google Maps, over an atlas to get them there. This has become a slight issue as Google Maps has proven to not be a reliable orienteer and instead is sending hundreds of tourists to the tiny village of Fossmork, 30 kilometres away from the actual cliffs.”
- The Age: Google Maps has shifted Collins Street to the middle of Africa. “Google Maps has moved one of Melbourne’s busiest streets to the outskirts of Ghana, Africa.”
- Tenplay: Tourist shot in Rio after Google Maps led her through crime-ridden slum. “A tourist is fighting for her life after she was shot multiple times when Google Maps directed her through Rio De Janeiro’s infamous favela slums on the way to the city’s Christ the Redeemer statue.”
- The Scotsman: Google error transforms Bishopbriggs into tropical paradise. “Bishopbriggs in East Dunbartonshire is a middle-class commuter town boasting a large shopping centre and three golf courses. But Google Maps’ online picture of the community actually shows a £1,200-a-head resort in the Indian Ocean paradise of Mauritius.”
- CBCNews: Google Maps glitch sends tourists to frustrated rancher’s front door. “Red Rock Rancher Pete Stoner has tried in vain to contact Google Maps to fix an error that keeps leading hundreds of strangers to his door. The popular online mapping system directs visitors along Highway 97 south of Prince George B.C. to a trail head for Fort George Canyon Provincial Park. The problem is they end up on private property with a river and a cliff between them and their desired destination — even if they did cut through Stoner’s field and climb a rock wall.”
I’m not including in these examples all the Google Business listing problems I’ve read about – stores being marked as closed when they’re not, massive spam listings, businesses being renamed as pranks, etc. That goes back into algorithm territory and it’s a whole ‘nother rant.
I want to instead just focus on map errors because it seems to me there’s no cause for opacity. In most of the world there is little controversy about map borders. This state is here, that state is there, this country starts here, that country ends there. Therefore it does not seem to me that there is a great need for secrecy in exploring this. How did Google Maps decide that a part of Australia was actually in Ghana? Why is Google Maps sending tourists through slums? Why is Pete Stoner’s private properly ending up as part of Google Maps directions?
There are three reasons I’m getting more and more troubled by this. The first is that Google, the same company that accidentally mapped a part of Australia to Ghana, is touting the emergence of AI and technology as a solution to many of life’s problems. Yet here we are with the mapping issues. Why? Does Google have a “good enough” approach to its technology research? Are other aspects of research taking a priority over Google Maps?
Which brings me to the second reason: these Google Maps problems are problems which can cause injury and worse to users. Someone was shot over bad directions. Travelers are climbing rock walls on private property in accordance with Google Maps’ instructions. Tourists in Norway are driving on terrible roads to get to a tourist attraction that’s thirty kilometers away.
But most troubling of all is that Google Maps is being used in the commission of government action and even diplomacy. Authorities in France are using Google Maps to find homes with undeclared swimming pools. A court in India has ordered Google Maps images so it can assess the destruction of wetlands around Mumbai. And as the serious capper, Pakistan and Afghanistan are going to use Google Maps to resolve a border dispute.
Of course Google can’t control how a government uses its products – at least not without a lot of legal wrangling. But, recognizing that it is happening, it would be good to see Google be more straightforward about these errors, more transparent about how they are happening, and provide more information and context about how they’re being addressed, before one of these errors ends in an unfixable tragedy.