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Why Google Maps might send you to the wrong address August 25, 2010

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Follow directions on Google Maps to Port Isabel Junior High School near South Padre Island, and you will end up in front of an office building on the wrong street. Search for Sam’s Club in north Brownsville, and the program will pinpoint the discount store at a residence more than a mile away from its actual location on Alton Gloor Boulevard.

In McAllen, the system can’t seem to tell the difference between Expressway 83 and Business 83 — and good luck looking for farm roads near Donna or Edinburg. Its mistakes are so bad, one Brownsville resident joked, that federal land surveyors in Washington used it to design the path of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence.

For all of its artificial intelligence, Google doesn’t know the Rio Grande Valley or South Texas, some area residents say — and neither do Bing, Yahoo, Mapquest or other companies with mapping services. At least they all seem to become less reliable the closer one treks to the southern tip of the state.

But the corporations do not share all of the blame. They rely on information and address databases from a variety of sources to map the area, including those provided by city and county departments. And like other rural regions across the nation, South Texas has taken longer to develop that mapping technology.

That’s not to say county and city planners have not made significant progress, but more remains to be done, as the glitches can be an annoyance at best and a hazard in emergency situations at worst.

Companies with mapping services rely on a wide array of authoritative sources to build their basemap data, which includes the names of places, borders and road networks. Google Maps, which tends to be the most popular, relies on a mash-up of information from publicly available sources, ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to commercial data providers.

It uses satellite, aerial and Street View imagery to complete its map and is continuously exploring ways to integrate new information from users and partners, Google spokeswoman Deanna Yick said in an email.

“Overall, this provides a very comprehensive and up-to-date map of the U.S., but we recognize that there may be occasional inaccuracies that could arise from any of those sources,” she said.

In Texas, geocoding, or the process of converting addresses into geographic locations, is about 70 percent accurate through Google, said Gordon Wells, program manager for the Center of Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin. That means its map program will take you to the curbside of a residence or business at a particular street address about seven times out of 10 across the entire state.

Of course, the reliability of the system will vary from city to city, depending on the region’s available mapping data, or geographic information system (GIS), Wells said. Large cities have uniform, well-maintained databases of all addresses and geographic points in their vicinity they can easily feed to Google and other mapping companies.

All addressing in Houston, for instance, is done by Centerpoint Energy, an electric transmission and distribution utility servicing the city’s entire metropolitan area.

“But in the Valley, you’ve got many towns that have grown together through time,” he said. “Addressing has been done by individual towns and communities, or the county may have done all the addresses. But that information may not have been shared back to Google.”

Some area residents joke that in South Texas — especially in the Valley — GPS systems, iPhones and other smart phones with map applications enter a black hole, often leading their users astray. But the Valley has made major strides in the last 10 years to develop its geographic information system because while faulty directions are an inconvenience, they can also be dangerous in times of in need, city planners said.

Wells and his team at the university’s space research center are part of the Governor’s Emergency Management Council, a group of Texas agencies and organizations that coordinate the state’s response to an impending disaster. In the Valley, the council focuses on hurricanes.

He and other researchers have come down to the area on multiple occasions to look for infrastructure, such as new schools and office buildings, which could be used for public assistance shelters during severe storms. Google Maps and competing programs have led them to the wrong locations more so in the southern part of state than in other places, Wells said.

But “the counties are well aware of the problem, that is why they have 911 services for the entire area,” he said. So, even if Google Maps and Mapquest have wrong address data, cities and counties are constantly updating their mapping systems to prevent mistakes.

The 911 departments of counties and cities throughout the Valley have been instrumental in digitizing address information across the region, said Joanna Sanchez, a GIS instructor at South Texas College in McAllen.

“We were in the dark ages in terms of how we did things not too long ago,” she said. City and county departments kept separate records of roads, buildings and addresses on paper and rarely shared information.

With the area’s rapid growth in the last decade, county and city leaders have moved to develop digital, uniform databases within their own counties, but the Valley as a whole still lacks a centralized GIS, said Sanchez, who worked as the GIS coordinator for the City of McAllen from 2007 until February.

The problem lies in jurisdiction. A city has control over what to name a road in its own area, even if the highway or street runs into another city. Texas Highway 495, for example, is called Pecan Boulevard in McAllen but referred to as Ferguson Avenue in Pharr.

As long as these issues remain unresolved and are not updated to companies like Google and Yahoo, map programs and applications are going to keep sending travelers in the wrong direction.

“We still have issues in accuracy, but there is a lot of hope,” Sanchez said. “It is going to work out. We are just going through the growing pains.”

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