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.

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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."

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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.

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Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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