One of my earliest memories involves my parents and a globe. I asked where we live, and they showed me the dot marked Seattle.
So far, so good.
Then, trouble: I asked where my next-door neighbors live, and they pointed at the very same dot. I wondered how it was possible for two families to live on the same dot when our neighbor’s house was very clearly next to ours, and not right on top of it. An excellent question, really, if you think about it.
Until now, Google Maps was no better than a globe. Type in the name of a city or a country, and the service would return a single point marked with an arrow marker.
But early this morning, I found myself on Google Maps. One minute, it was returning results as it always had. The next, it suddenly began to outline boundaries – municipal, state, international, etc. – in red.
The new Google maps is certainly an improvement over the old – and over a globe:
For a few minutes, I had fun typing in random cities just to see which ones look like they were drawn by kindergarteners. Like Austin:
Others look like they were drawn by Canadian kindergarteners:
But then I got curious: how did Google decide to deal with territorial disputes?
Let’s take a little tour:
Compare those to a country untouched (so far as I know) by border conflict:
I spent some time trying to deduce the thought process that went into deciding which countries deserved a nice, red outline, and which didn’t. Turns out, this isn’t strictly an issue of borderline accuracy, since the borders are often right on the map through a traditional view (see above) that just doesn’t incorporate the cool, new feature.
It also doesn’t seem to be an issue of Google hoping to avoid any and all disputes. Wikipedia has a list of international border disputes longer than the US-Canadian border (which, it turns out, is itself disputed), from which the company seems to have simply chosen which disputes to reflect at random.
For instance, Lebanon believes it has a border dispute with Israel, but:
Meanwhile, in reality, Syria and Lebanon have no officially-demarcated border (even though we just saw Lebanon’s, clearly-marked). Here’s Syria:
Now, you might have thought that Google censored Syria’s borders due to the desire of its Kurdish minority to create an independent state. But I would encourage you to check out Iraq and Turkey, which have far more serious Kurdish independence movements, not to mention Turkey’s ongoing dispute with Syria over Hatay:
Turkey’s territorial integrity is respected even in the face of its never-ending dispute with Greece, which would also appear to be doing just fine, at least according to Google Maps:
And Google certainly isn’t concerned with offending anybody; North Korea doesn’t have so much internet, so they’d never even know* if Google moved the border a few inches north:
For a company that managed to systematically compile satellite images of nearly every square foot of this planet, and then decided to drive all over it in a car that can take pictures and collect wireless passwords, and then stitch all those images together into a single map/interface, Google’s system for determining which conflicts are important and which not seems to have been decidedly haphazard.
My favorite discovery in the course of researching this article was that Ireland is now considered so safe that if you type in ‘North Ireland’, Google won’t direct you to Northern Ireland, but to, well, regular Ireland:
Gives you hope that, one day, every country will be outlined in red on Google Maps.
*Nothing would make me happier than for an army of North Koreans to descend on Paper Treiger to dispute this claim.