Google Maps inadvertently steps into political mine field & back out again

On August 8th, this post (and several just like it) appeared in the Help Forums:

Hi

I am on Google maps and i was aghast to see that the north eastern state Arunachal Pradesh is projected as not part of India!! Infact, the names are being shown in Chinese. This is blatant violation of India’s national view and I am apalled to see Google toe the Chinese line despite being supported hugely by a democratic literate India.

A number of Indians work at Google and despite this, Google seems to care little for Indian sentiments. Google should correct this anamoly immediately.

Yesterday the Google LatLong blog addressed the issue and the fix:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 6:20 PM

Recently, as part of a routine data update to maps.google.com, we inadvertently added Chinese language names to some locations in Arunachal Pradesh that were previously unlabeled or labeled with English language Indian place names.

The data was published accidentally in an unintended form. As soon as we discovered this, we reverted maps.google.com back to its original state. We’d like to make it clear that we at no point meant to indicate support for one country’s view over another.

Posted by Gabriel Stricker, Director, Search Communications

Mapping all of the world’s information has a way of becoming political very quickly. Which language should be used to describe an area? What are the actual boundaries? Who is in control now and who was last week? The world is a dynamic place and for better or worse when you map it, it becomes a static representation of the point of view of the mapper. Mapping by its nature forces the creator to take a postion that is often at odds with a large population with a valid point of view.

Even the way that a map is laid out can create false impressions that affect our sense of reality. For example it is little understood by many that the commonly used Mercator projection, used in Google Maps, “like all map projections that attempt to fit a curved surface onto a flat sheet, the shape of the map is a distortion of the true layout of the Earth’s surface. The Mercator projection exaggerates the size of areas far from the equator“.

As a recent poster in the forums noted that this projection “distorts the world, giving the false impression that Greenland is the size of South America, Asia is ginormous and Alaska is bigger than Mexico – all inaccuracies that are being presented by Google. Google’s reputation for accuracy means that these distortions are reinforced in our conscience as facts”.

So why does Google use the Mercator Projection despite its flaws? Because it works for what Google is trying to do.

Hi John – Thanks for the feedback. Maps uses Mercator because it preserves angles.  The first launch of Maps actually did not use Mercator, and streets in high latitude places like Stockholm did not meet at right angles on the map the way they do in reality. While this distorts a ‘zoomed-out view’ of the map, it allows close-ups (street level) to appear more like reality. The majority of our users are looking down at the street level for businesses, directions, etc… so we’re sticking with this projection for now. In the meantime, you might want to look at our favorite 3D view of the world.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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