Why OpenStreetMap matters: Where did Dokdo go?

One of the rocky outcrops under dispute. Photo // CC BY NC

Battle lines have always been drawn over maps. Place names are political, cultural, temporal: from Constantinople to Istanbul and Burma to Myanmar what a place is called matters.

In the digital age, however, you have no idea who is behind the changes and why.  The companies that make the maps millions of people use every day change names following opaque processes that appear to depend on who lobbies loudest at the moment. It’s a strong argument for free, public, editable maps like OpenStreetMap where both the changes and the debate are transparent.

About a week ago, I spotted this poster petitioning Google to put Dokdo back on the map at San Francisco’s Korean American Community Center of San Francisco & Bay Area.

They’re a small group of islets off the coast of South Korea with a host of potential names. The Korean name for them is Dokdo, in Japan it’s Takeshima; Liancourt comes from a whaling-era French ship that almost wrecked on these jagged rocks.

In 2012, the centuries-old fight between Korea and Japan went digital and, bowing to pressure, Apple Maps and Google Maps changed the name from Dokdo to Liancourt Rocks. The drive to change it back hasn’t ebbed, as recent as April 2018 the islands cropped up in a dessert that didn’t sit well with Japanese diplomats.

The Silicon Valley companies who reside roughly 5,400 miles away from the contentious spot never publicly stated why. And if this sounds like just arcane name-calling – at stake are fishing rights, resource rights, national security rights. (The dissection of why this matters in “Prisoners of Geography” is definitely worth a read.)

Considering the 2012 date on the poster, I wondered whether the question had been settled. Nope. Open up the map that’s an extension of your brain (aka your smartphone) and neither Google Maps or Apple Maps will get you to Dokdo.

Google does a slightly better job, at least acknowledging that the place you’re looking for when you type in Dokdo is what they’ve decided to call Liancourt Rocks.

Apple Maps assumes its users have fat fingers and shows places with “Tokyo” in the name.
The exception: if you’re searching close to South Korea, it directs you to the Dodko Museum, dedicated to the territorial question.
On OpenStreetMap, by contrast, you’ll find Dokdo.
Even if you’re not logged in, you can see when the last edit was made. Sign up for a free account and you can see the history of the edits and join the discussion. The last tag on the page shows what the “wrong name” is.
It’s not perfect. If you search for Liancourt Rocks, it’s a little confusing because there are no results on OpenStreetMap but there’s a result from database GeoNames.
Looking up just “Liancourt” gets you two OSM results  in France, with the GeoNames entries “Liancourt Rocks” rolling through France, Canada and Haiti before getting to the search term.
There’s a lot more to be done — for starters, getting OpenStreetMap as the every-pocket cellphone map. For an itch-scratching project, I’m testing a bunch of OSM-friendly apps (mainly for editing but most also provide navigation) and there is a ways to go.

But until Google and Apple launch open, community-driven forums for questions surrounding map making (much like they are proprietary-driven companies but still have open-source departments) OSM willl be the fairest, most transparent public map around.


Quick preview of forthcoming book “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey”

Most of us have swerved a few wrong turns or hacked through some questionable trails and cursed the map. Most of us, though, wouldn’t spend seven years and engage dozens of experts to make a better one.

Then again, most of us aren’t Bradford Washburn. This climb-every-mountain polymath was let down by the sketchy trail maps of the Grand Canyon available in 1969. At the time, age 60 and director of the Boston Science Museum, he knew what made a good map. Washburn was the first climber to scale 20,320-foot Denali and his map of the peak is still considered the definitive map of the region. A pioneer in aerial photography, he’d go on to map Mount Everest and the Presidential Range.

But it’s his National Geographic Grand Canyon map, finally published in 1978, that illustrates his “extreme dedication to the craft of map making” says Betsy Mason, co-author of Nat Geo’s All over the Map blog. Mason previewed one of the 80 stories and showed off some of the 200 maps from forthcoming book she wrote with colleague Greg Miller titled “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey” at the recent California Map Society spring meeting.

It was the best of crowds (people who readily chime in with the correct pronunciation of “theodolite” and already grasp the merits of hachuring) and the worst of crowds (after lunch on a warm Saturday) but the story behind the Grand Canyon map kept people mostly awake and ready to push over the 45-minute session limit with questions.

Mason and Miller first started the Map Lab blog back at Wired, then moved it over to National Geographic in 2013. Mason, taken with Washburn’s Grand Canyon map the first time she saw it, went archive diving at her new employer’s and found a “huge trove of boxes” about the making of the map.

Photo brewbooks on Flickr. // CC BY NC

She spotted Washburn’s pitch to fund the Grand Canyon map describing the most current 1962 map (at a scale of 1 inch = 1 mile with 80-foot contour lines) as “simply inadequate” and “disturbing” for the “incredibly rough country” with “extremely intricate trails.” His map would be an “exciting addition to world cartography and one of the most magnificent cartographic challenges.”

Komo Point. Washburn’s reference point – a globe core – used for aerial photography still marks the spot. Photo brewbooks on Flickr. // CC BY NC

The acceptance for his proposal was swift, but that was the only thing that happened fast. By the time Washburn and his intrepid volunteers had spent 147 days in the canyon, made over 700 helicopter landings and mapped 100 miles of trail, the original $30,000 cost had already ballooned to $100,000 (about $500,000 today, Mason says.)

“The hardest part was to come. Turning the field work into a map would turn out to be just as laborious,” Mason says. The tech and techniques involved in the Grand Canyon map are as fascinating as they are unfathomable to software-driven mappers today — for starters, translating aerial photos and surveying information into contouring sheets by hand etching them. Those sheets were then condensed into one map at a scale of 2,000 feet per inch with 50-foot contours. You’ll have to check out the book for more on the artistry of rendering the curves and dips of the canyon leading to the published version of the map, which was not a commercial success.

As map lovers who are journalists, Mason and Miller focused on digging up the stories behind the maps rather than on history or cartography. Some of the maps she previewed included pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s 19th-century map of the retina and Jerry Gretzinger’s map of a fictional world — 50 years in the making and counting.

You’ll be able to wrap your hands around the hardcover “All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey” on October 23, 2018 — in time to put it on your holiday gift lists and make room on the coffee table.

Europe Tests a New Tsunami Monitor

Geostar, Europe\'s TsunameterAccurate, timely tsunami alert systems have proved more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster, but a new prototype testing the waters in the Atlantic may change that.

Three-ton Italian-designed Geostar (Geophysical and Oceanographic Station for Abyssal Research), set down about 150 kilometers off the coast of Portugal in the Gulf of Cadiz, has been monitoring movement and water pressure since 2008.

Geostar squats 3,200 meters below the surface on a site known for tectonic twinges — the epicenter of the 1755 Great Lisbon Quake and resulting tsunami — where researchers expect at least three or four small seismic events during testing.

Ocean bottom seismometers and pressure sensors in the station detect both quakes and changes in the height of the water column, this one-two approach may help better determine which quakes result in killer waves. Continue reading

Italian Priest Launches “Karaoke Mass” for Forgetful Parishioners

Tired of looking out on a silent congregation, a priest in Southern Italy has launched Karaoke-style mass.

Back in May, Father Antonio Russo was appointed parish priest in the church of Santa Sofia in Albanella, a town of about 6,000 some 300 kilometers south of Rome. Finding himself surrounded by mute parishioners, Don Russo decided to take action.

Santa Sofia: Where Karaoke Mass is Held

Santa Sofia: Where "Karaoke" Mass is Held

He installed a large screen near the altar that provides all the words to the liturgy plus all the verses to the songs, hoping to get some more participation. A lay person controls the Karaoke board from the pews with a remote control.

“The spirit is to get the faithful to participate,” said Don Russo. “We hope to make the church an important point of reference. ”

The battle may be an uphill one: 90 percent of Italians are baptized but only about a third are churchgoers.

Italian Inmates Work on Al Capone’s Farm

Inmates at Milan’s Opera prison work on a farm named after famed gangster Al Capone.

The name, Fattoria di Al Cappone, is a play on words from the Italian “capone” or capon, though the 15-or so men who work here raise quail and a few crops.

In 300 square meters on prison grounds (about 3,200 square feet), they raise the birds whose eggs are sold at a nearby Coop supermarket and a farmer’s coop, Consorzio Cascina Nibai, in the outskirts of Milan.

Launched a few months ago, the farm is the brainchild of journalist Emilia Patruno, a long-time prison volunteer whose association il due also developed the “stolen kisses” chocolates project.

Funded by a bank, before hitting the hoes inmates followed training courses given by the farmer’s coop. The group is working on a new potato, a purple Andean variety, that it hopes to patent for when the Expo comes to Milan in 2015.

Image courtesy Fattoria Al Capone.

iPhone App for Italian Soccer Games

iskySoccer fans can keep up with Champion’s League games and Italy’s Serie A games on their iPhones thanks to a free web app developed in cooperation with Sky.

Stats, line-ups, photos, and play-by-plays (for the moment, in Italian only) are available at http://i.sky.it/

The web app was developed by CEFRIEL, an ICT research hub for three Milan Universities, with a special eye to Apple-friendly design. One example: a list of team members can be rotated horizontally to a soccer field view which shows the positions they play.

A lot of men here in Italy used to carry transistor radios on Sundays listening to soccer games.

Of late, these have been replaced by videophone services that allow fans ignore wives and friends while having a stroll. The nice thing about this app is that you can keep on top of the score without ruining conversation over Sunday lunch.

24 Karat Tuscany: Gold Found in Them Hills

Golden Tuscany

The rolling hills of Maremma near Grosseto are normally just considered a goldmine for tourists, but after two years of searching, geologists have found “significant” gold deposits in Tuscany.

“This is a land full of gold. Hundreds of indications point to it. Now the scope of our research is to search for a deposit,” geologist Franco Maranzana told Italian newspapers. “Because only if there is, as we suspect and hope, all the work we’ve done in recent years can become a business.”

Two Canadian firms are hunting for gold under the Tuscan sun, Adroit resources and Tuscan Minerals. They have permits to search in areas including: Follonica, Suvereto, Campagnatico, Manciano and Scansano, the hilly country better known for producing Morellino di Scansano DOGC wines.

Recession has just made the gold rush stronger. Analysts expect a gold price hike in 2009, which would make mining a more profitable business. The rub? Permits for research are some of the cheapest in Europe ( €8-9 euros a hectare) but mining permits are more difficult to wrangle. Both firms have research permits that will allow them to see if they can strike gold in 2009.

iPod Defense Rocks Perugia Murder Case

Holds toilet paper and an iPod, but is it an alibi for murder?

Holds toilet paper and an iPod, but is it an alibi for murder?

In 2007, British student Meredith Kercher was murdered in Italy, during a study abroad program in hill town Perugia.

About a year later, Rudy Guede was sentenced to 30 years for his part in the killing, for which Kercher’s roommate, American student Amanda “Foxy Knoxy” Knox and her boyfriend, Italian IT grad, Raffaele Sollecito, are still awaiting trial.

Guede’s appeal now before the Italian court hinges on an iPod.

During what has been hypothesized was some sort of late-night Halloween sex game where the 21-year-old Kercher was an unwilling participant, Guede maintains he was in the bathroom of the young women’s apartment.

While she was being killed with a knife, he was listening to music on iCarta, a toilet paper holder roll that doubles as an iPod dock.

Guede’s lawyers tried to head off what they thought might be viewed as a sort of Twinkie defense for the digital age in a statement to Italian media (below translation mine):

“It is nothing more than a confirmation of how some abnormal behaviors are apparently normal among young people today,” said laywers Valter Biscotti and Nicodemo Gentile. “Just as Facebook is their virtual world, they now listen to music everywhere, even in the bathroom. The marketing of such products implies a certain routine use.”

The statement was published without details on how the defense team might further the bathroom defense in court.

Floods Mean Surf’s Up in Venice, Italy

Dutch wakeboarder Duncan Zuur took to the waters of Venice the other day.

Not Venice Beach California, but Italy’s famed La Serenissima. Zuur made a blink-and-you-missed it four turns around the city’s famed St. Marks square before calling it a day.

How did Zuur pull it off? With the help of a sponsor, naturally.

Once in Venice, Zuur’s team waited for the waters to reach about 4 1/2 feet (1.35 m), then sprang into action. They pulled a 20 horsepower motor winch from a hiding place, setting it up under the square’s arcade.

One team member, appropriately clad in rubber boots, pulled the winch cable across the square, then handed one end to Zuur.

Zuur, who in the meantime had suited up, surfed across the square. Four elegant turns later, Zuur’s feat was applauded with a standing ovation from surprised, waterlogged tourists.

Speed was key: the stunt was up and over so fast that police patrolling the square didn’t take notice.

Floods, known as acqua alta in Italian, have long been a problem in Venice prompting solutions such as the Moses floodgate project and text-message alerts. This year, the flooding reached over five feet, the worst it’s been in 20 years.