Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Real-World Effects of Google Maps’ Neighbourhood Labels

Caitlin Dewey, OneZero:

It was late spring in Buffalo, New York, in 2015 — a season that was unusually hot that year, and heated. The wood-paneled meeting room at Gethsemane Grape Street Baptist Church hummed with anxious homeowners from Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where a burgeoning, billion-dollar medical complex threatened to displace them.

Poor folks had called the Fruit Belt home for more than 150 years — first German immigrants, then African-Americans. Lott’s parents bought their pale turquoise two-story house in 1955, moving north from Bluefield, West Virginia, to help build up a community that would become the heart of Buffalo’s black working class.

Now that community was under threat — or so it seemed to Lott. The 66-year-old had Googled directions to her neighborhood and found that the app had changed the name of her community from the “Fruit Belt” to something called “Medical Park.”

Google has a history of applying perplexing names with uncertain sourcing to neighbourhoods. Due to the company’s status, it’s very easy for these names to replace existing names as they become more widely-used.

For what it’s worth, I checked Apple Maps. True to form, its biggest problem is that neighbourhood naming is inconsistently shown. No neighbourhood names are visible in Calgary, for example, but they are plentiful in San Francisco; I cannot, however, judge their accuracy. In Buffalo, “Fruit Belt” is not shown as a neighbourhood name; neither is “Medical Park”. If you search for “Fruit Belt” in Apple Maps, a pin is dropped approximately in the middle of the neighbourhood outline; a search for “Medical Park” drops a pin on the medical complex.