Syria: is it possible to rename streets on Google Maps?

Syrian protestors are trying to remove the president’s name from Google Maps. Just how is it done?

In their struggle to free Syria from the clutches of President Bashar al-Assad, anti-government activists have embarked on a project to wipe him off the map. Literally. On Google Maps, major Damascus thoroughfares named after the Assad family have appeared renamed after heroes of the uprising. The Arab Spring has form in this regard. When anti-Gadaffi rebels tore into Tripoli last August, the name of the city’s main square on the mapping service changed overnight – from “Green Square”, the name given to it by the erstwhile dictator, to “Martyr’s Square”, its former title.

The internet giant’s mapping service has a history of weighing in on political disputes. Two years ago it accidentally gave Arunal Pradesh, a contentious Indian territory bordering Tibet, to China, littering it with Mandarin place names. The mistake made bilateral talks between the two countries, due to start a few hours later, a little awkward. Elsewhere, its labelling of the body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the “Arabian Gulf” triggered a million-strong petition in Iran for it to be renamed the “Persian Gulf”. It now displays neither. Google’s response to all of the above has been to blame data errors, taking great pains to distance itself from accusations of political bias.

The Syrian activists, and the Chinese name changers, are exploiting Google’s trust in the wisdom of crowds. A few years ago it introduced Map Maker, allowing anyone with a Google profile to make edits to Google Maps, relying on Wikipedia-style community moderators to police edits before approving them. This is crucial: edits must be approved.

To test this, this I renamed a street in Azerbaijan “Benji’s boulevard of wondrous joy” and got a few friends to approve it. The request remains pending.

a) If the street becomes “Benji’s boulevard of wondrous joy”, this will suggest that Google’s maps system can be easily exploited. Google has a problem. (And I will change the street name back.)

b) If the street name remains unchanged, this suggests that streets cannot be renamed easily. This means that the Syrian, Libyan and Chinese renamings may have been knowingly approved. Google has a problem. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

from Benji Lanyado


Leave a Reply