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.”