First it was Edward Snowden in the White House. Then it was the Android robot peeing on the Apple logo. For weeks Google has been scrambling to clean up pranks caused by flaws in the open source component of Google Maps. But even now that the company has disabled its Map Maker feature, people are still discovering inappropriate changes.
Searching for the N-word in Maps brought users to the White House, with historically black college Howard University and the U.S. Capitol building as other results. Searching “f--k ni--ers” also brought up the Capitol and “ni--er university” also produced Howard.
Beyond the racial slur, “c--t house” was also redirecting to the White House, and “shit hole” was set to bring users to different places based on their locations. You get the idea.
Meanwhile, searching “why can’t we be friends” brings up American University Washington College of Law.
A Google spokesperson told the Verge in a statement that, “Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be, and we apologize for any offense this may have caused. ... Our teams are working to fix this issue quickly.”
The company does seem to have cleaned most of these problems up, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Internet users discover a few more pranks hiding in Maps. Crowdsourcing maps data is a great way to improve accuracy, but it’s also an open door for hate speech and other bigotry. Hopefully Google is working on improving its screening system for submissions.
Update, May 22 2015, 11 a.m.: A post on the Google Maps blog explains that searching for offensive phrases was showing particular locations (rather than just returning nothing) because of the way that Maps automatically uses forums and discussions to make inferences. Based on how people talk about certain places or how often a phrase and a place name show up together, Maps draws connections. As a result, along with the problems with pranks, racist and sexist comments from around the Web were fueling the inappropriate Maps results. Jen Fitzpatrick, Google vice president of engineering and product management, wrote:
Like many of you, we were deeply upset by this issue, and we are fixing it now. ... Our ranking systems are designed to return results that match a person’s query. For Maps, this means using content about businesses and other public places from across the web. But this week, we heard about a failure in our system—loud and clear. ... Simply put, you shouldn’t see these kinds of results in Google Maps, and we’re taking steps to make sure you don't.
It seems pretty obvious that if your algorithms are going to be pulling in data from around the Internet, there should be screening against the hate speech we all know is out there. Other than a few locations with problematic names, there's no reason the N-word should ever even be relevant to a mapping and directions feature.