FEATURE-'Took away our identity': Google Maps puzzles residents with new neighbourhood names

By Umberto Bacchi, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI, July 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Home to a Peach Street, an Orange Street and a Lemon Street, the Fruit Belt district of Buffalo, New York, has been known by that name since German settlers planted orchards there in the 1800s.

So, local resident Veronica Hemphill-Nichols was surprised when she opened Google Maps on her first, freshly bought smartphone about 10 years ago and saw the area rebranded as Medical Park.

"I flipped my wig when I found out they changed our name," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Since Google Maps first launched in 2005 and grew its user base, puzzled and angry residents in cities around the world have increasingly reported finding neighbourhoods with incorrect or unfamiliar names, geography and data researchers said.

Names chosen by Google, with more than one billion people using its mapping service every month, often end up sticking as they influence how real-estate agencies, travel websites and home-sharing apps refer to an area.

"In many ways, Google is defining the world," said Matthew Zook, a professor of geography at the University of Kentucky, adding the tech giant has set itself out as the world's leading map-maker.

"You'll see Airbnb and others ... referring to these neighbourhoods on the map in ways that are reflecting Google's view of the world rather than maybe the local view of the world," he said.

But, labelling mistakes highlight the tensions between the company's drive to get clear, comprehensive global data and the complex identities of local areas - leaving some communities feeling misrepresented, Zook said.

A spokeswoman for Google said that the company gets its data on neighbourhoods from a combination of third-party providers and public sources and stressed that it encourages everyone to report any errors.

"Overall, this provides a comprehensive and up-to-date map, but when there are inaccuracies, we work to address (them) as quickly as possible," she said in emailed comments.


FRUITS OR MEDICS?

To Fruit Belt residents, the new name looked like a nod to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a large medical centre that was being built on the edge of the working-class, predominantly African-American neighbourhood, local activists said.

At the time, locals said they were starting to be priced out of their homes by wealthier medical workers coming to live in the area, and many interpreted the name change as a signal that the community was losing its battle against gentrification.

"When they took away our name, they took away our identity," said Hemphill-Nichols, a housing campaigner, adding she thought that would lead to the medical park eating up more of the neighbourhood.

Sarah Warner, a spokeswoman for the medical centre, said it never requested any name change on Google Maps.

The Buffalo council also offered residents few answers, Hemphill-Nichols said, adding that at a town hall meeting called after the change emerged, an official pointed to a long forgotten, four decade-old planning assessment as a possible source for the name.

The council was not available to comment.

The Fruit Belt eventually returned to its original designation earlier this year, after a local daily contacted Google for an article about the issue.

"You have no idea what a load was lifted off me," said Hemphill-Nichols.


NOT MY NEIGHBOURHOOD

Zook said that Google, hungry for data, often gets its place names from whatever maps it can find, even if they are not strictly official, and ends up giving that information more authority than its authors originally intended.

For the Italian city of Milan, Google appears to have largely drawn from a map created by local blog Urbanfile, said its author Roberto Arsuffi, who explained that he had made up some of the place names.

Arsuffi said that he sometimes used little-known landmarks to describe small, unnamed areas when coming up with location labels for his map.

For example, he named the district of Acquabella after an old farmhouse and a nearby railway junction, both of which have since been demolished.

But on official maps, Acquabella does not exist as a distinct area with its own name - its territory is split between two larger districts.

Google Maps picked up Arsuffi's names a few weeks after the Urbanfile map was published about five years ago, Arsuffi explained.

Suddenly some Milanese found themselves living in unknown neighbourhoods.

"I've been here 10 years and I've never heard of it," said a local bar owner after being told that, according to Google, his property was within the boundaries of Acquabella.

Arsuffi said he had contacted Google to flag inaccuracies he spotted online, but received no reply.

Google said it had not directly taken names from Urbanfile's map but that users had made those edits to its map through Map Maker, a now-defunct tool that allowed the public to make contributions to Google Maps.


PREVENTIVE STRIKE

With Map Maker out of service since 2017, map enthusiasts in Leeds, England, have been testing other methods of preserving beloved place names perceived as being at risk of disappearing.

In 2018, upon hearing that a developer was planning to build new flats in the area known as Quarry Hill - once home to the largest social housing complex in Britain - and rename it SOYO, local writer Chris Nickson sent a complaint to the council.

"In a stroke, this erases centuries of Leeds history," he wrote in the letter, which he also posted on Twitter.

The appeal against the moniker SOYO, which stands for "South of York Road", was taken up by Thomas Forth, head of data at the Open Data Institute Leeds, a think tank.

He marked the area in central Leeds as Quarry Hill on OpenStreetMap, a Wikipedia-style mapping service, hoping it would be picked up by Google and other online map providers.

"Changing a name could be seen as an extreme example of gentrification," Forth said in a phone interview.

"Especially if former or current residents feel that the names they use are not welcome anymore".

A spokeswoman for SOYO said in an email that the development will cover only part of Quarry Hill and will regenerate the site, bringing new residential housing, as well as bars, restaurants and a hotel.

She said the company would work to update signage, reference points and online information with the new name as construction progressed, adding that the area had been a car park for more than 40 years after the council blocks were demolished.

"Our project marks the beginning of a new chapter for this part of the city," she said.

But for now, that chapter has no name - at least on Google Maps. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)