Google Maps seems to have gotten itself involved in a naming debate that has the company siding with protesters camped out in Oakland's central plaza. Officially named Frank Ogawa Plaza, the open space in front of City Hall appeared as Oscar Grant Plaza on Google Maps for a few hours on Wednesday. That's what protesters call their campsite, after the man shot and killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009. The local public radio station KQED noticed on Wednesday that the plaza had suddenly started showing up on Google Maps as Oscar Grant Plaza, not Frank Ogawa, even though it's never been officially renamed. It's not the first time Google has suddenly changed place names on its maps, with politically charged results.
The debate over renaming the plaza has been part of the conversation around Occupy Oakland since it started, and not everyone's on the same side. SF Gate blogger Zennie Abraham pointed out on Sunday that Grant's name carried some negative connotations because of the violence of the protests that followed his death. Somebody tweeting under the name Emperor Norton (after the famous San Francisco character) suggested last week that the plaza be renamed after Scott Olsen, the Marine veteran injured in the protests. But Occupy Oakland's own website and Twitter feed both refer to the plaza as Oscar Grant.
We've reached out to Google's press team about the name change and are waiting to hear back from them (Note: They did write back. See below the image for Google's response). Meanwhile, we did a search for "Oscar Grant Plaza" on Google maps (while signed into our Google account) at about 12:15 p.m. EDT and saw the changed place name. A search for "Frank Ogawa Plaza" also returned a map labeled "Oscar Grant," as did a search for "Oakland," on which we zoomed in to see the plaza:
However, when doing the same searches after signing out of Google at about 12:40 p.m., the map showed Frank Ogawa Plaza once more. After signing in again, we got no more returns for Oscar Grant Plaza. That leads to the conclusion that the new name was a mistake on Google's part that the company has since fixed.
Update (1:30 p.m. EDT): A Google spokesperson emailed provided the following statement, noting that the change to the map came from a user-submitted edit that went live "when it should only have been made a search reference:"
The location previously labeled as "Oscar Grant Plaza" in Google Maps has now been re-labeled with its official name "Frank Ogawa Plaza,” but can continue to be found via searches for both names. We're committed to providing our users with the richest, most up-to-date maps possible, and as part of that effort we continuously explore ways to integrate new information. We’ve built our map from a wide range of authoritative sources, ranging from the public and commercial data providers, imagery references, and user contributions. Overall, this provides a very comprehensive and up-to-date map, but maps are constantly changing along with the real world, so we’ll continue to review data and make changes as new information becomes available.
This isn't the first time Google Maps has found itself in a naming dispute. Back in 2009, Indian bloggers and press cried foul when the names for that country's Arunachal Pradesh region showed up on Google Maps in Chinese. As Stefan Greens pointed out in his blog Ogle Earth (and then to WNYC's On the Media), Google issued a statement saying, "the change was a result of a mistake in our processing of new map data," and promised to change the map labels back to the original Indian.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.