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Google’s Bad Data Wiped Another Neighborhood Off the Map

Medium’s technology publication ran a 3,600-word investigation into a mystery that began when a 66-year-old New York woman Googled directions to her neighborhood, “and found that the app had changed the name of her community…”

It’s just as well no one contacted Google, because Google wasn’t the company that renamed the Fruit Belt to Medical Park. When residents investigated, they found the misnomer repeated on several major apps and websites including HERE, Bing, Uber, Zillow, Grubhub, TripAdvisor, and Redfin… Monica Stephens, a geographer at the University at Buffalo who studies digital maps and misinformation, immediately suspected the geographic clearinghouse Pitney Bowes. Founded in 1920 as a maker of postage meters — the machines that stamp mail with proof it’s been sent — Pitney Bowes expanded into neighborhood data in 2016 when it bought the leading U.S. provider, Maponics. In its 15-year run, Maponics had supplied neighborhood data to companies from Airbnb to Twitter to the Houston Chronicle. And it had also just acquired a longtime competitor, Urban Mapping, which has previously supplied Facebook, Microsoft, MapQuest, Yahoo, and Apple. Though Pitney Bowes is far from a household name, the $3.4 billion data broker is “a huge company at this point,” says Stephens, with enough influence to inadvertently rename a neighborhood across hundreds of sites…

In the early 2000s, Urban Mapping offered new college grads $15 to $25 per hour to comb local blogs, home listings, city plans, and brochures for possible neighborhood names and locations. Maponics, meanwhile, used nascent technologies such as computer vision and natural language processing to pull neighborhoods from images and blocks of text, one former executive with the company said… I visited the Buffalo Central Library to find the source of the error… Sure enough, one of the librarians located a single planning office map that used the “Medical Park” label. It was a 1999 report on poverty and housing conditions — long since relegated to a dusty shelf stacked with old binders and file folders… Somehow, likely in the early 2000s, this map made its way into what is now the Pitney Bowes data set — and from there, was hoovered into Google Maps and out onto the wider internet. Buffalo published another map in 2017, with the Fruit Belt clearly marked, and broadcast on the city’s open data portal. For whatever reason, Pitney Bowes and its customers never picked that map up.
This is not the first time Google Maps has seemed to spontaneously rename a neighborhood. But for Fruit Belt the reporter’s query eventually prompted corrections to the maps on Redfin, TripAdvisor, Zillow, Grubhub, and Google Maps. But the article argues that when it comes to how city names are represented online, “the process is too opaque to scrutinize in public. And that ambiguity foments a sense of powerlessness.”

Pitney Bowes doesn’t even have a method for submitting corrections. Yet, “In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Google defended its use of third-party neighborhood sources. ‘Overall, this provides a comprehensive and up-to-date map,’ the spokesperson said, ‘but when we’re made aware of errors, we work quickly to fix them.'”

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