A Lost Scottish Island, George Orwell, and the Future of Maps

A 141 square-mile island vanished from Google Maps in early July, and the company has yet to restore it. What do mapping glitches mean for little-known places?
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Google wiped Jura off the face of the map. (Google Maps screenshot)

You can't find the Western Scottish isle of Jura, a remote 141-square-mile mass of green and bog in the Atlantic's Inner Hebrides archipelago, on Google Maps any longer. Its name -- thought to be derived from the Norse term for "Island of Deer" -- and its single road now simply float in the middle of the pixelated ocean, unconnected to any actual geographic feature.

Rising seas have not swallowed the territory; its odd disappearance is merely a product of a data glitch somewhere on the computer giant's servers. Locals first discovered that their remote island -- which is 31 miles long and has lots of wilderness but only one real village -- had fallen into the digital abyss at the beginning of July, according to an initial report from the Scottish press agency Deadline. Lisa McDonald, an employee of the Jura Hotel in Craighouse, a small hamlet on the eastern shores, confirmed to the outlet that, despite their digital absence, Jura-ians were still very much alive. "It's definitely still here," McDonald said. "I'm on it at the moment. We're all safe and sound." More than three weeks later, the coastline is still submerged.

Last week, the BBC ran a news brief with a boilerplate apology from a Google spokesperson in Europe. "We are sorry about that. We're aware of the problem, and our engineers are beavering away to fix it," she said."We hope to have the map of Jura back to normal as soon as possible." A U.S.-based Google representative acknowledged that there was some type of error in the system, but declined to answer more detailed questions about it, referring me to the Europe office's statement. 

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Jura (center) is now viewable in the satellite setting only. (Wikimedia Commons)

Scotland Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Mike Russell, who has previously had to report misspellings of other locations in the region, was displeased with the Internet company's progress in correcting matter. "It is disappointing that they don't seem to regard getting their maps right as a priority. I would have thought making sure every part of the globe was on it was fairly basic to the making of any map, on paper or online," he told The Scotsman last Friday. "I was alerted to the problem with the disappearing island of Jura at the end of last week, but Google had told one of my constituents then that they had the correction in hand."

This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Back in 2010, Nicaraguan troops blamed a misdrawn border on Google Maps when they crossed into Costa Rican territory. That same year, two French islands off the coast of Newfoundland met the same fate as Jura.

***

According to long-time cartographer Mike Dobson, Ph.D., founder of the digital geospatial consultancy TeleMapics and a former chief cartographer of Rand McNally, fixing simple glitches in a highly intricate system like Google Maps can be less straightforward than it seems. The task of mapping almost every detail on Earth -- as Google now successfully does with its sidewalk-level views -- in near real-time produces an extraordinary heap of data. Generally, an automated software program sifts, scrapes, filters, and evaluates new information from government agencies, businesses, and a number of other authoritative sources and spits out updates. In some cases, the source data is just plain wrong. Coordinates are misaligned, names may be misspelled, or "critical attributes of the geography may be missing," according to Dobson. There's no foolproof way to catch all the mistakes. But usually a user spots the error, reports it, and the problem doesn't take much time to fix.

But in other cases, a small change in the content of the source information or a new internal software coding scheme can disrupt how the data is processed. The nuances can confuse the system's structure and corrupt important identifiers and markers -- where a coastline begins or a road or railway ends. "All of these data have a string of variables attached to them," he said. "You have a big database system that tracks all these identities. Keeping order in that system can sometimes be difficult." With new layers and updates, things can easily go awry. Given the amount of time that's elapsed since Jura vanished, he speculates that the service may be grappling with a deeper structural issue, but he can't be sure.

Dobson never had to contend with this level of complexity back when he was working in print. "Old time cartographers couldn't present that much detail because they couldn't print a book that big," he said, let alone produce with such frequency. But now with every new zoom or feature, digital mappers are grappling with a whole new world of potential failure. The code renders maps in a staggering, almost miraculous level of detail, but that can also be a curse when it comes to diagnosing a single error. "It really is the essential problem of digital mapping," he said. "If you mess up any of those switches, if you mess up any of that metadata, it's a world of hurt to figure out what that thing is." 

More than anyone, cartographers understand the intrinsic connection people feel to their geography. At Rand McNally, Dobson regularly fielded phone calls from small-town residents demanding to know why their hamlet wasn't pictured. He'd usually have to politely explain that it was actually on page 26, right south of the river, but that there wasn't enough space to list them in the index. "Almost everyone wants their place to be on the map," he said. He also recalled a time when he counseled a distressed spa owner in Southern California that found his blog and pleaded for help. A boundary error had produced faulty directions in Google Maps and had been sending potential customers zooming past his business. "This poor guy was almost in tears."

***

Accessible only by ferry, small boat, or water taxi, Jura is only home to under 200 people, far fewer than its 5,500 roaming red deer. But what it lacks in bodies, it appears to make up for with spirit, legendary literary folklore, and good whiskey.

Most notably, it's the place where George Orwell sought creative refuge from the grind of weekly London journalism starting in 1946. (In 1945, he had penned 110,000 words for an assortment of publications.) In an isolated and modest farmhouse known as Barnhill on the northern end of the island (reachable only by a 20-mile drive along a narrow road, followed by five or so miles of hiking or motorcycling over potholed bog), he began scrawling his classic 1984.

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Orwell's old stomping grounds (Wikimedia Commons)

His existence there was almost primitive -- "busy shooting rabbits, catching fish etc. to get enough to eat," according to a 1946 letter to his French translator -- but it also had a certain rugged mystique. He captured the splendor of that balance in another letter anticipating the visit of his future wife, Sonia Brownell, in April 1947:

I am afraid I am making this all sound very intimidating, but really it's easy enough & the house is quite comfortable. The room you would have is rather small, but it looks out on the sea. I do so want to have you here. By that time I hope we'll have got hold of an engine for the boat, & if we get decent weather we can go round to the completely uninhabited bays on the west side of the island, where there is beautiful white sand & clear water with seals swimming about in it. At one of them there is a cave where we can take shelter when it rains, & at another there is a shepherd's hut which is disused but quite livable where one could even picnic for a day or two.

Not more than two months after the letter was sent, Orwell attempted to navigate his boat back from the west side of the island to his home in the east through the treacherous waters of the infamous Corrievreckan Whirlpool on the northern coast, where he nearly drowned. His son, Richard Blair (Orwell's given name was Eric Arthur Blair), remembers the misadventure in incredible detail:

We had arrived at this spot when my father realised that he had miscalculated the tidal stream so that instead of calm, manageable water, the tide was still on the flood. The consequence of this situation is that a standing wave is created in the middle of the tide race. This causes the surrounding currents to become extremely confused, giving it the local title of 'whirlpool'. It was here that we found ourselves in real trouble. The little outboard motor became swamped and died and, unable to re-start it, Henry took to the oars and managed to row us to one of two rocky islets, where he jumped out onto the rocks and taking the mooring line, tried to secure the dinghy. At this point the swell receded and our dinghy rolled back and overturned, throwing father, Lucy and me into the sea beneath the boat. Fortunately I had been sitting on my father's knee and he was able to pull us both out from under the dinghy. Lucy did the same and we all scrambled onto the rocky islet. Everything in the boat was lost.

After being rescued by a lobster vessel and returning home, Orwell fell ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly thereafter. Before his death in 1950, he managed to type out the last pages of 1984 in his bedroom at Barnhill -- often from the mattress -- and married Sonia Brownell.

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The whirlpool off of Jura (Creative Commons/Walter Baxter)

***

Soon after Jura sunk, the island's eponymous single malt Scotch distillery began receiving confused phone calls about its location. The map places the distillery off the main road, which now means it would be in the sea. The small distillery, which is managed by Glasgow-based Scotch company Whyte and Mackay and is owned by a larger India-based beverage conglomerate, saw humor in the mistake and set about capitalizing on it by encouraging Jura's followers on Twitter to tweet back its coordinates (#FINDJURA) for a chance at winning a 16-year-old bottle, and later, a gift box sans alcohol. Both prizes have already been claimed.

"When we spotted the error we thought we should immediately reassure our fans that their favourite distillery was still there!" Jill Inglis, a spokesperson for Jura and Whyte and Mackay, said in an email. "[The islanders] know that Google is on the case in fixing the error and that the chatter created around the mishap is in a way really putting Jura on the map, in terms of making people aware of this tiny island," she added.

The tech giant, as Dobson notes, obviously delivers an infinitely more impressive and valuable service through its Maps product than a print map ever could, despite its glitches. And of course, most of these irregularities will eventually be caught by one of the service's countless users. "These maps receive a visual examination by so many millions of people," Dobson told me. "There's nothing more fun than saying, 'Aha! Here's an error."

Surely Orwell would find amusement, if not great irony in this. The island where he wrote about a dystopian government that manipulates reality has been accidentally disappeared by technology.
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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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