The Apple Maps Disaster

If you’re a fan of cartography, then the launch of Apple Maps on the new iPhone must have given you a fair few laughs. Apple removed Google Maps from iOS devices during the second half of 2012, and users waited impatiently for a substitute. When Apple Maps finally arrived, it was not what users expected.

Apple Maps

Apple Maps


On release, Apple Maps was full of strange bugs and errors. Among the alleged mistakes, Shapespeare’s birthplace was missing, Australian travelers would have their routes direct them to a national park rather than their actual destination, and, in a strange act of diplomacy, the Senkaku islands were duplicated – one set being Chinese, and the other set being Japanese. Since the political situation of those islands is blurry, that’s an interesting solution to the problem, but hardly one that helps people needing directions. Even Transport For London mocked the Apple Maps situation.
Apple maps is back in the app store now. Apple seem resigned to the thought that it will take a long time to fix the issues with its mapping software. They’re probably going to have to crowd-source a lot of data, especially for major city routes, in order to get their software up to the level of Google’s. The question is, will they be able to do this, or will the software never gain enough traction with users to get the crowd-sourcing off the ground?
Map makers or web designers have never had it easy. The early map makers lovingly created their map illustrations, filling in unknown areas with “Here there be dragons”, or descriptions of the known places nearby. That sort of thing isn’t acceptable today, though. We expect our GPS to be accurate to within a few meters. We’re missing out on something now that we don’t have to pour over illustrated maps and hand-crafted globes. Perhaps the art of folding paper maps back to their original shape is going to be lost in favor of tapping and prodding at a screen. If so, that’s a sad thing to think about.

Is This The End of Cartographer’s Gaffes?

Today, we are accustomed to our maps being perfectly accurate. If you want directions somewhere, simply pull up Google or Bing Maps, and they will be able to give you turn by turn directions to your destination. Sometimes the maps are a little out of date – if your destination is a newly constructed building, or there have been some major changes to the road system then you might be in for a nasty surprise, but those instances are rare and usually only a minor inconvenience. It’s not like Google is telling you that there’s an invisible mountain range in landscape in front of you, or anything so extreme. It hasn’t always been that way.

Classical Cartography Map

Classical Cartography Map


When Greek scholars decided to try to put together a huge map of the world, they decided that the world was sort-of round. This was a groundbreaking idea at the time, and it’s impressive that they got this right considering the tools they had available at the time. They even managed to identify three continents, the ones that we today call Europe, Africa and Asia. There were many omissions, however.
While most cartographers were happy to simply leave unknown areas blank, some chose to fill in maps based on stories, guess work, or religious warnings. Some maps made during the 11th century included references to Paradise, Hell, and mythological creatures. These illustrated maps were popular in churches, and achieved a lot in terms of religious instruction, but did little to expand the general population’s understanding of the world at large.
Deliberate guesses or artistic insertions are one thing, but perhaps the most interesting “gaffe” is the creation of the Mountains of Kong. These mountains were supposed to be in Africa. They were “discovered” by James Rennell in 1798, and were duplicated on maps made by other cartographers for almost 100 years until it was discovered that they did not actually exist.
Many other cartographers have created their own small imperfections or hidden additions, a sort of hallmark on their work. Today, those hallmarks are easily discovered, and most navigation software, naturally, aims for 100% accuracy. It’s unfortunate, but it seems that cartographers have had their fun.