There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map

There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map

Who knew that asking for directions to the Hollywood Sign could be such a complicated question? Well, it is. After writing recently that a group of residents have succeeded in effectively erasing the Hollywood Sign from Google Maps to lead tourists astray, I was floored by the response that came from every corner of the globe.

I began to see a larger worry that echoed from many of the comments: How can we rely on any kind of online map when we know they can be changed at the whim of a special interest?

Turns out I had a lot of new questions about the process of designing bias-free maps. I went first to Lyzi Diamond, a former Code for America fellow who will be starting at Mapbox in January. She reminded me of one very important thing: “Maps are subjective by nature. “

“A map cannot possibly show everything that exists on the ground, so a cartographer chooses what aspects of the physical environment will be shown on a map,” Diamond said. “The Mississippi River is simultaneously a waterway, a historical trail, a county boundary, a state boundary, and a city boundary. How do you show all five of these things on a map? They all have to be moved slightly to be shown. This happens on all kinds of maps for all kinds of reasons.”

Beyond that, it’s important to remember that today’s digital cartographers — Google, Apple, Microsoft — are private, competitive companies.

“If I recall correctly, back in the days of MSN maps, searching for Infinite Loop in Cupertino [where Apple is headquartered] showed a blank spot on the MSN map, as if there wasn’t anything there,” said Diamond. “There is no such thing as an accurate map. It’s all up to cartographers.”

But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily powerless in the hands of the corporate cartographers. Take OpenStreet Map, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of maps — anyone can edit it at any time. The open source map has some of the most accurate information about the location of the Hollywood Sign and how to get there.

“This isn’t to say OSM should be trusted more or less than Google or Apple. Every map has its bias,” Diamond said. But OpenStreetMap is at least transparent in showing every edit made to its maps, and why.

The Hollywood Sign is clearly denoted with the orange dot on OpenStreetMap

As a consumer, you also have choices. You could switch to a navigation system that uses crowdsourced data. I reached out to Telenav, which switched to OpenStreetMap for its navigation app Scout six months ago. The benefit? Richer data and real-time updates, said Rohan Chandran, VP of mobile for Telnav.

“Wikipedia is a great parallel that exemplifies the power of harnessing the crowd, and in our case we can do that both actively, and passively through anonymized data from people who are driving with our OSM-based solutions.”

Thanks to more crowdsourced data like OSM and the release of public information, mapmaking tools are starting to shift what was once a proprietary industry into the hands of citizen cartographers. More cities are publishing their geographic information systems data (GIS data) so developers can create their own maps and directions to local landmarks. And there are open-source systems for managing and displaying trail data, including OuterSpatial and OpenTrails.

There are even some great examples of how these tools can be used to help people plot better paths to the Hollywood Sign and places like it. When a group of homeowners were attempting to block access to some Malibu beaches last summer, activist Jenny Price used public data to create an app, Our Malibu Beaches, which clearly showed the location and access points to these beaches.

Which brings us back to the Hollywood Sign debacle. As I was reminded by several readers, anyone can make suggestions to Google Maps using its Google Map Maker tool. If you go there, you can sure enough get slightly more accurate directions to the sign than the regular Google Maps (including an alternate route from the west). Reader Dan Austin noted that he was able to change the main route to the sign, Mt. Lee Drive, from a private road to public and mark it as a trail, which it was not previously. That’s good news.

Also, perhaps coincidentally, Bing Maps now offers directions to the Lake Hollywood Park I recommend as the best place to view and hike to the sign. (I asked Microsoft to comment on the change and they said they had nothing to add.) Although there’s something funny about seeing the marker for the Hollywood Sign when birds-eye view shows the actual letters just above it, right there on the hill. But hey, it’s a start!

As many reminded me, the GPS coordinates for the sign itself don’t lie (for your reference they’re 34.134115,-118.321548, guard them with your life!) and anyone could simply use those to get to the sign. But knowing where the sign is and how to get there are two different things. If a map can’t give you accurate (and safe) walking directions to get to certain coordinates, isn’t that a symptom of a larger problem?

While accurate online directions are important, there’s an analogue solution that’s needed as well. One of the reasons that Hollywood Sign tourists get confused is because there are actually no wayfinding directions in the park at all, like trail signs and distance markers. A grassroots effort spearheaded by some neighbours is actually already underway to bring this kind of system to the sign trail.

Current DIY signage tactics include faux no parking signs on recycling bins and road-closed signs taped to repurposed street services sawhorses, photos by Jade Chang

But online maps and trailheads might not help much when some residents are still trying to physically block access to the landmark with homemade blockades and DIY signage. Which they are.

My friend Jade Chang spent last weekend exploring the different access points to the Hollywood Sign and the not-very-clever ways that residents were trying to keep visitors out, including turning to old-fashioned traffic laws; last week, permit parking signs went up in the neighbourhood that prevent non-residents from parking on the residential streets on Saturdays and Sundays.

I should note that I also got plenty of very nice emails from residents who disagree with this. Neighbours like George Abrahams also sent me great proposals for new viewing areas, shuttle routes, and parking access in different areas of the park. Apparently Universal may be donating old shuttle buses to the cause.

Then, just when I was thinking that we needed some kind of celebrity-driven social media campaign to step up for access to the iconic sign, last Sunday LA Mayor Eric Garcetti posted this Instagram photo of his morning hike:

From the angle of his photograph, he took the same walking route to the sign which many people in the area claim to be closed. The same route that fake blockades from neighbours are trying to hide from the public.

The same route that Google Maps swears does not exist.