Archive for the 'Google' Category


The Vanishing Kingdom

Yesterday evening, I was having a conversation with one of my roommates about Beaver Island, which lay in the north of Lake Michigan. It’s a sizable chunk of land with some interesting history. It was, at one point in the 19th century, home to a kingdom inhabited by a breakaway Latter-Day Saints sect, until the US government facilitated the assassination of its eccentric ruler and the ejection of the Mormon settlers. While mentioning the island to my roommate, I pulled up Google Maps in order to show him where it is. Except it wasn’t there. An entire archipelago, in fact, was missing from the map. Compare the satellite photo to the map and note the difference:

Screenshots from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Perhaps more amusing is the fact that, when you zoom in sufficiently, the road network for Beaver Island (which has a population of about 650, according to Census estimates) still appears.

Screenshot from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Now, I don’t know how the sausage is made over at Google, but I’m guessing it’s a mostly automated process, given the magnitude of their undertaking. And this is what happens when you let computers keep running with insufficient oversight. This is not exactly a tiny island — it’s 55 square miles, and given how large of a scale Google lets you zoom in to, it’s not something that should be left off. Whatever algorithm they’ve used to generalize their data, it’s in need of tweaking. It’s leaving some smaller islands, but eliminating larger ones. Note the smaller Manitou Islands in the south of the first images above, marked as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Despite being uninhabited and smaller than Beaver Island, they made it on the map. One of them is rather terribly distorted, however — the polygon is way too simplified for the scale.

It’s been said over and over again, but it’s still worth hearing: be careful when using Google Maps and its cousins. There are very few human hands in their creation, and not enough of the scrutiny required to prevent gaffes of this magnitude. Of course, you should be careful when using any map; once humans start making the data and design decisions rather than computers, major geographical errors may become infrequent, but more insidious problems crop up, as we discussed a few months ago.

This is also where learning lots of random geographic facts can be handy. It’s easier to catch the omission of Beaver Island if you know ahead of time that it exists. This is how I justify spending way too much time on Sporcle taking geography quizzes — it will hopefully make me less likely to make an error like the above.

The lessons from today’s map are obvious, but it’s always good to be reminded from time to time of the importance of careful editing. And the end result is a bit amusing here.

One Nice Thing: At least they’ve got a form on the page which I can use to report this error.

Tomorrow marks one year of blogging here on Cartastrophe. I really wasn’t sure that this experiment was going to last more than a few months, but your comments and emails and support have kept things lively. I appreciate your coming along for the ride. To all who have sent submissions: thank you. I don’t use all of them, but I appreciate everyone keeping an eye out and thinking of me, and hope you will keep doing so. This blog has been great for my own growth as a designer, and I hope that you have gained something from it, as well.

Finally, it comes to my attention that there’s another blog out there in a similar vein to my own. If you’d like a double dose of map critique, have a look at Misguided Maps.


A War without Humans

A colleague of mine, Tim Wallace, recently alerted his classmates to the existence of this Google MyMaps mashup of US drone attacks in Pakistan:

Click to go to the actual map

This map is the poster child for emotionally inappropriate symbology. A lot of people think of maps as simply carriers for data. But they do more than transmit information — they influence our thoughts and our feelings as well. They’re artwork. One point symbol is not as good as any other, and I believe that bright red and green pushpins are completely unacceptable for a map about death, and war, and terror. These are human lives we are talking about here, not regional sales numbers in a spreadsheet. This map is dehumanizing. This map makes war look tidy and fun.

The internet has brought a lot of changes to cartography. Data are cheap, distribution is cheap, and access to the technology to make maps is opening up to more and more people (though we would do well to remember that the touted geoweb revolution is still confined to the iPhone-toting wealthy western elite — click here for more of my thoughts on this). All of this is, to my mind, good stuff. But, right now, the tools are still in the formative stages. The problems with this map are not really the fault of the creator. They had a data set that they wanted to get out there and share with the world. Google provided them a free, easy to use tool to accomplish this. Ideally, better tools and better cartographic education would be available to the new influx of people interested in mapping their world, but the above shows that we’ve still got a long way to go.

And, of course, this data set is all laid on top of an unnecessary satellite photo, along with some roads that will mean nothing to most readers. But, that’s par for the course with these early days of free web maps. It is my hope that the mapmaking infrastructure will continue to improve as demand for custom mapping applications rises.

Finally, I should point out that the yellow and green pushpins are largely indistinguishable to certain types of color vision impairments.

I am glad the author made this map and shared it with the world (I am, in fact, using the data in a personal project of my own). The problems are largely forgivable and understandable. But they are still serious problems, and we need to be aware of the effects this map can have on us when we look at it.


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