July 2016
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Digital maps send all ‘bad’ requests to same coordinates; land of lousy data

If You Can’t Follow Directions, You’ll End Up on Null Island

Digital maps send all ‘bad’ requests to same coordinates; land of lousy data


The map of a fictional place called Null Island is encoded as a default location for mapping mistakes in many digital mapping systems. It is an inside joke among cartographers. Photo: Library of Congress


Robert Lee Hotz

Updated July 14, 2016 11:49 a.m. ET

Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect. It’s called Null Island.

This lonely way station in the Gulf of Guinea is, according to its website, a thriving republic with a population of 4,000, a roaring economy, a tourism bureau, a unique native language and the world’s highest per capita use of Segway scooters. In the realm of digital cartography, it is one of the most-visited places in the world. The only problem for its millions of visitors is that there isn’t much to see.

Null Island doesn’t exist.


In the world of geographic information systems, the island is an apparition that serves a practical purpose. It lies at “zero-zero,” a mapper’s shorthand for zero degrees latitude and zero degrees longitude. By a programming quirk introduced by developers, those are the default coordinates where Google maps and other digital Global Positioning System applications are directed to send the millions of users who make mistakes in their searches.

“There’s always a spot where the system goes when it really doesn’t know where it should go,” says Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, chief cartographer of Mapzen, based in New York, which promotes open access to map data. “That’s Null Island.”

About seven years ago, Mr. Kelso, who had heard the phrase used by other cartographers, encoded Null Island as the default destination for mistakes into a widely used public-domain digital-mapping data set called Natural Earth, which has been downloaded several million times. On a whim, he made the location at zero-zero appear as a tiny outcrop one-meter square. In no time at all, other mappers gave the “island” its own natural geography, created a website, and designed T-shirts and a national flag.

“People talk about it as a mythological place—being banished to Null Island,” said cartographer Tim St. Onge at the U.S. Library of Congress, which houses eight million maps in its collection. “It is a recognized location in geographic information systems where errors end up.”

The phantom geography of Null Island, awash in a Sargasso Sea of geocoding errors, offers a glimpse into the technological challenges for the burgeoning business of digital mapping.

Everyone knows the world isn’t flat, but it is not so round either. Strictly speaking, it is a lumpy egg-shaped geoid that challenges the mathematical skills of cartographers.

They must program geocoding software to correctly match location requests to signals from orbiting satellites, cell towers or Wi-Fi hot spots, and then to digital coordinates from up to 5,700 different kinds of spatial surveys and more than 10 million geographic place names—all in an instant.

“There is a lot of terrible-terrible-terrible math involved,” said Kenneth Field, a senior cartographer at the Environmental Systems Research Institute in Redlands, Calif., which makes geographic information and analysis systems. “Every part of the planet differs from every other part and that is why we have all these different maps.”

Moreover, cartographers now are melding geography and data to track mobile-phone use, target ads, and analyze retail sales or insurance risks, demographic trends, disease outbreaks, neighborhood crime, traffic jams, and even the intensity of Christmas lighting.

“It is so easy to relate to very complex data by using your location as a lens by which to view it,” said Sean Gorman, CEO of a data analytics company called Timbr.io in Charlottesville, Va., who helped popularize the Null Island myth. “Location is so personal.”

With so many overlapping grids, geocoding mistakes are unavoidable.

No one seems to know who started routing them by default to the Atlantic Ocean. “It is really a bug affecting the importing and exporting of data,” said Kate Chapman, chief technology officer for the Cadasta Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., which documents property rights. She is generally credited with making the first Null Island T-shirts, which she started handing out to friends at technical conferences in 2009.


Kate Chapman, chief technology officer for the Cadasta Foundation, stands in front of the flag of the fictional Republic of Null Island. Photo: Chris Daley

Some mapping mistakes are random. Recent search-engine requests for a bike-sharing location in the Netherlands, a car-rental agency in Portugal, and a polling place in Washington, D.C., were sidetracked to Null Island, most likely the result of typos or coding errors. On one day in June, Mr. Kelso counted 1,708,031 misguided location requests in the Mapzen system that had landed there—a fraction of the total from all mapping services and applications world-wide.

Other errors are systematic. The crime mapping application for the Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, several years ago made City Hall look like the center of a crime wave when its mapping analysts made it the default location for hundreds of crime reports with undecipherable addresses.

To fix that problem, the analysts routed mislabeled crime reports to Null Island.


Cartographer Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso encoded the fictional Null Island as the default destination for mapping mistakes into a widely used public domain digital mapping data set. Photo: Ian Rees/Mapzen

“One of the reasons that Null Island became such a popular joke is that you are seeing the data-processing world and the geographers’ world bump into each other for the first time,” said Michal Migurski, vice president for products at Mapzen, who was among the first to add the name to commercial mapping software.

“It is becoming shorthand for all the weird data-processing issues that we bump into,” he said. “Null Island is almost a way to say we all make mistakes.”

Data-analytics expert Steve Pellegrin, now retired in Seattle, is credited with giving Null Island the most elaborate treatment online. In 2008, he created a website for The Republic of Null Island.

“I had started thinking about these poor unfortunates who lived on Null Island, who keep getting bad data landed on them,” he said.

His website features a souvenir shop that sells coffee mugs and baseball caps embroidered with Null Island’s official motto: “Like No Place On Earth.”

Not everyone gets the joke. A Dutch travel agent repeatedly emailed the Island’s bureau of tourism, via an address listed on the website, hoping to manage island tours. Mr. Pellegrin replied that any business relationship was unlikely.

“We have only recently discovered that we don’t exist,” he wrote her. “No one was more surprised than us.”

GIS Courses at Rio Hondo College

riohondoPassing this along:

Rio Hondo College GIS courses start the week of August 22nd. Registration is open for classes on campus including a Cartography course located off site at the LA County Department of Public Works (900 S Fremont Ave, Alhambra).  Directions for applying for admission and registering for the classes can be found at http://riohondo.isteaching.com/fall-semester-2016.html

For additional information, contact Prof. Warren Roberts wroberts@riohondo.edu

eGIS Committee Meeting Agenda

The meeting agenda for tomorrow’s eGIS committee meeting is attached here: eGIS meeting notice and Agenda – July 26 2016

It is a full agenda, with discussions around the GIS exams, GIS Day 2016, LARIAC update, a handover of the chair of the committee, as well as presentations from Public Works about how GIS improves services, and ESRI providing an update on the road ahead!

See you tomorrow!

LARIAC status meeting and kick-off

Hello LARIAC participants,


This Thursday we have our LARIAC4 status update, and LARIAC 5 kick-off meeting.  The agenda is attached.  This is an important meeting to attend.  Pictometry will be providing lunch after the meeting, so it is important that you RSVP so we can get an idea of how much food to get.

Please RSVP for the kickoff meeting here: http://egis3.lacounty.gov/dataportal/lariac/lariac5-kick-off-meeting/




Congrats to Martha Selig (Regional Planning) Esri Conference 2016 Map Gallery Award Winner

Kudos are in order for our very own Martha Selig, Senior GIS Analyst with the LA County Dept. of Regional Planning.

Martha was awarded second place for her poster “Protecting Los Angeles County’s Scenic Ridgelines” in the Analytical Presentation Map category at this year’s Esri International User Conference 2016 Map Gallery.  Hers was one of hundreds of entries from her peers around the world, so well done. To see all of the award winners, go to http://www.esri.com/events/user-conference/exhibits/map-gallery-results.

Los Angeles County was well represented at this year’s Esri UC. Thanks also to Tia Morita of our Internal Services Department for coordinating with our various departments and for working with Esri to group our entries together.


Martha’s poster


LA County “alley” at the 2016 Esri UC Map Gallery


LA County opening GIS exams for its GIS Series

gis examsI am please to announce that the County of Los Angeles is opening GIS exams for the recruitment of talented staff to fill a number of vacant GIS positions within the County and to support its GIS recruitment and retention efforts.  There are limitations on the number of applications that we will process, so be ready to apply when the exams open July 18th at 8 AM.

Download the flyer here, which links to salary and to the positions: GIS announcement 7-12-16.pdf

Important information

Some of the exams will close after the first 100 applications are received – I anticipate them filling very very fast!

These exams do not come around often – so if you are interested in working in the GIS profession with LA County, this is your best opportunity for the next year or so.  Don’t miss this chance!


The County’s civil service procedures may be arcane to students and other folks who have worked in the private sector – I’ll highlight the steps here here:

  1. Upon receiving an application, Human Resources will ensure an applicant meets the Minimum Requirements (MRs).  Each position that you may apply for has a set of MRs – make sure that you meet them, and prove that you do, otherwise you don’t move forward.
  2. A set of online tests will be administered for each position that requires one that will ensure you have the basic GIS skillsets that are required.
  3. If those tests are passed, you may be called for an interview if that is part of the requirements for the position.

The results of steps 2 and 3 are combined into a final “score.”  Candidates are then banded, with high scoring candidates in Band “A”, next levels in Band “B”, etc.

Being placed in a high band does not guarantee a position, but you have to be on a band to be hired.

At this point departments that have open positions will review the list of candidates, determine which one(s) they wish to interview for their specific needs, and then reach out to those candidates.

This process can be lengthy.  Sorry to say that.  However – I would say that it is worth it – the County is both an interesting and rewarding place for GIS professionals.

Good luck!


City of Los Angeles GeoHub Presentation at ESRI

Congratulations to Lillian Coral and the City of Los Angeles for a great presentation on the value of GIS and how it is benefiting the City of Los Angeles.  It’s a 9 minute video:

LA County buildings being loaded into OpenStreetMap (in 3D!)

Since we made our Building Outlines public a few years ago, I have received requests here and there for that information in order to load that information into Open StreetMap (OSM).  The scope of the project is huge (over 3,o00,000 buildings) and OSM doesn’t allow, as far as I know, the ability to just upload a massive file (that would make this really easy).  So I figured it would never get done.

But I was wrong!!!  MapTime LA has been working on this over the past few months, and I wanted to give them kudos for embarking on this massive project.  Jon Schleuss from the group (and LA Times) let me know that they are progressing well, and even kept the height attributes that we had requested, which allows the buildings to be visualized in 3D!!  He passed along a link which will show the buildings the way that I hoped they could be shown!

Take a look in a WebGL browser like Internet Explorer


Every Single Trail in California on One Map

cali-hiking-map-fullThanks for a couple of folks passing this along.  Pretty amazing work by one person – although it would be hard to take this one with you 🙂



Big Data Day L.A.

What is ‘Big Data’? If we gathered all the digital data our civilization has collected from the beginning of time until the year 2000, it would be less than what we now create in a minute.

The dramatic rise of internet usage by phone and the use of other smart devices is something that Esri and many other software companies are paying attention to. Feel free to visit Esri’s Hadoop page. Even today’s economy cars have more sophisticated electronics than the original lunar spacecraft that landed on the moon. Luckily, there is an event!

Event: Big Data Day LA 2016
Date: July 9, 2016
Location: West Los Angeles College, 9000 Overland Avenue, Culver City, CA 90230
Cost: Free
Description: Big Data Day LA is the largest conference of its kind in California, packed with informational speakers.
Homepage: http://www.bigdatadayla.com/
Hash: #BigDataDayLA