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.


8 Responses to “The Vanishing Kingdom”

  1. 1 Charles Fulton
    29th June, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    How very strange; they definitely used to have it. Another recent wrinkle a friend noticed: Google Maps doesn’t recognize the eastbound crossing of the Blue Water bridge. Try mapping Port Huron, MI to Sarnia, ON and you get routed via Algonac, a detour of 63 miles.

  2. 2 Karenee Herman
    29th June, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Ah, the joys of technology.
    I have a slight objection to your post, regarding the appellation “Mormon” being applied to break-off sects of the LDS Church. Whatever affiliations they may claim to our faith, they are not Mormon, and calling them so can add to the misconceptions many already hold about us.
    Congratulations on the one-year anniversary of Cartastrophe! I’m not a regular blog visitor, but this is one I drop in on from time to time, and there’s always something interesting to see and read. Thank you for your efforts!

  3. 5th July, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I’ve seen quite a few of these “landless” islands on Google Maps. Beaver Islands is far from the only one.
    The sad part is a very simple spatial query to quickly identify all these “sunken islands”.

  4. 4 Dave Hamm
    9th July, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    The Mormons on Beaver Island were a group lead by James Jesse Strang. After Joseph Smith was assassinated in Illinois Brigham Young led the majority of the Mormons to Utah, but a significant group also followed Strang… first to southeast Wisconsin, then to Beaver Island.

    There is an excellent book on the subject called “The King of Beaver Island” that I recommend to anyone who wants to read about a very interesting slice of lost history. You learn that Lake Charlevoix was originally called Lake Mormon and that there was a gun battle there between Strangs people and the Irish fisherman who had settled the island first. You also learn how Strang was assassinated by a raiding party from Mackinaw Island with the backing of the US Navy.

  5. 5 rozele
    9th August, 2010 at 12:49 am

    perhaps it’s my ineptitude showing, but i can’t quite figure out how to contact you to nominate a cartastrophic map for inclusion… so here goes, inappropriately enough.

    the new NYC subway map is impressive.

    first, it continues the basic problem with the last version – a failed attempt to split the difference between geographical accuracy and depiction of the system’s structure – and exaggerates its faults: manhattan is even more disproportionately large, staten island more disproportionately small, the bronx, brooklyn and queens more distorted. then, adding muddiness to misleadingness, it changes its color coding of parks and built-up and from a reasonably differentiated (and even kinda pleasant) grass-green/yellow-tan to a tonally similar (and ugly) olive-drab/taupe-ish.

    it deserves your keen eye and sharp tongue.

  6. 6 momers
    24th November, 2010 at 4:20 am

    Its strange how much people in the developed countries expect from their maps!

    We in the developing nations have been hand building our country maps with the help of google map maker, and if such omissions occur, we simply understand! There are no gripes about if the technology messed up or the people…its actually both!

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