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Opinion What happens when Google Maps gets it wrong

The Google Maps app is seen on an Apple iPhone 4S on Dec. 13, 2012.
The Google Maps app is seen on an Apple iPhone 4S on Dec. 13, 2012. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

Amanda Ripley is a contributing writer at the Atlantic

Two and a half years ago, my dad and his wife took an Uber from the airport to my house in Washington, D.C., as they’ve done many times before. Only this time, it took them to the wrong place: an empty lot by a cemetery, two miles from my house. My dad told the Uber driver it was not my house, but the driver didn’t believe him. His app had led him here, so it must be right!

They all sat there for a few minutes, staring at the driver’s phone, paralyzed by the startling gap that had opened between the app and reality.

This is how we discovered that Google Maps had two locations listed for our home. One was right, one was wrong. This seemed like a pretty minor problem in the scheme of things, and it was. For a while, I even thought it was kind of wonderful. We could be anonymous! Even Google didn’t know where we lived!

But over time, as Google Maps got embedded in more and more apps, the problem worsened. Google Maps is used by Uber, Instacart, Lyft, Door Dash and even something called the Zombie Outbreak Simulator.

The second-most-popular maps app in the United States is Waze. Guess who owns Waze? Google Maps again! Soon Waze had our address wrong, too. Eventually, almost everyone who tried to find our house was directed to the wrong place.

When I tried to warn people about this problem (“Don’t go to the ghost house!”), it didn’t help. Google Maps is so accurate so much of the time, and we are so reliant on its omniscience, that it seemed inconceivable it could be totally, utterly wrong. People nodded and smiled at me — and then wound up at the ghost house anyway.

This past December we had a holiday party, and half a dozen people (that we know of) found themselves at the cemetery. Last month, a huge truck full of lumber waited at the ghost house for hours, unbeknown to us, while two contractors sat around our house in an alternate universe, waiting for it to arrive. Once, I tried to use Instacart, but the driver got so angry about the whole mix-up that I’m afraid to use it again.

It’s worth noting that the District is laid out on a grid. There’s very little mystery to the map. And yet it was hard for people to believe their phones could be wrong. It was almost as though people expected reality to conform to the map, rather than the other way around.

My husband and I tried to correct this error many times. The only way to do so is through Google Maps’s edit tool, which has specific drop-down options — none of which apply to our problem. We didn’t need to add a missing address; we needed to remove one.

But there was no way to do that, no number to call, no “Other” box to fill out. Every time we tried to fix the error using the existing tool, we probably made it worse — verifying the ghost address by flagging it for Google Maps.

There are upsides to relying on private companies to create public infrastructure, and there are downsides. This is a downside. There was nowhere to take my complaint. Google Maps is responsive to its users, and in fact relies on all of us to fix errors and add restaurant reviews and photos. Every day, users contribute more than 20 million pieces of information to Google Maps. In fact, it was a user who added our home address to the wrong place — years ago, as it turns out.

Yet when it came to fixing a user’s mistake, I was as lost as my missing party guests.

I did find one email address you can use — if you are a member of the media. I emailed that address. Then, like magic, I heard from a real, sentient human.

Two days later, Google followed up with an email: “This misclassification was unfortunate and has been resolved.”

Google’s parent company Alphabet has a valuation of $1 trillion. It would be easy for Google Maps to provide an email address for non-reporters with ghost addresses to use. It would create jobs — and reduce errors. But Alphabet is not a public utility, it’s a publicly traded company.

In my case, Google Maps also provided a statement from Kevin Reece, a director of product: “The world is a complex, constantly changing place, and our goal has always been to provide the most comprehensive and accurate map possible. One way we do that is by giving people easy-to-use tools so they can directly report inaccuracies or propose updates to us.”

Notice that this statement did not acknowledge the existence of the error.

It’s almost as though it never happened — as though phones are always right after all.

Amanda Ripley is a contributing writer at the Atlantic.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this op-ed: Why Google Maps is a nightmare for some unlucky people

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Amanda Ripley: Americans are at each other’s throats. Here’s one way out.

Jeff Smith: The Amish use tech differently than you think. We should emulate them.

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