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Afghan Students Punk Apple, Reveal Systemic Problem with Apple Maps

Hillbilly-Hameed2Apple Maps has been an embarrassment for Apple ever since it debuted, with many people (including police and rescue agencies) pointing out numerous inaccuracies. This week the embarrassment took a turn for the absurd when the Kabul bureau chief for the WSJ noticed that numerous streets in Afghanistan’s capital city had obviously fake names.

Yaroslav Trofimov was looking over the Apple Maps for Kabul some odd and amusing names for some of the streets. According to Apple, one of the major thoroughfares was named Bad Monkey.Further investigation showed that there were streets all over Afghanistan with names like Hillbilly Hameed and MoJo Way.

The culprit of these many injokes turned out to be the Afghan college students who had originally helped create an open source street map for Afghanistan by contributing to the Open Street Maps project.

The thing is, these street names weren’t a joke played on Apple; they’re the kind of pranks that crop up in any open source data project (even Wikipedia has pranksters submitting fake entries). This is the kind of joke which is corrected as a project grows and new editors go through and verify the data. In fact, the 3 prank names mentioned above are no longer listed on the OSM website. But they’re still present in Apple Maps and that gives us an example of why proprietary projects aren’t always better.

Apple clearly copied parts of the OSM database, but one thing they forgot to do was go back and copy the updates. (Apple also doesn’t appear to be contributing to OSM, but that’s an argument for another post.) Apple also neglected to verify the data they copied. Then again, they probably don’t have the staff to verify all the maps they’re using for Apple Maps.

And that is why open source projects can be better. Lots of people decry Wikipedia as an untrustworthy source when in reality it is only as unreliable as the community supporting it will allow. So long as an open source project has a large and active community behind it that project is going to have a fast correction process which will prevent pranks like the ones inadvertently played on Apple.



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