tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Israel, Palestine and Google Maps: Pleasing some of the people some of the time

It started as a random search. We thought we'd look up "Jenin Refugee Camp" on Google Maps to see if we could figure out when the satellite photograph was taken, based on the visible evidence of the rebuilding of the camp after the 2002 Israeli invasion.

Problem is, "Jenin Refugee Camp" doesn't return a search result in its actual place in the north of the West Bank. Fair enough, maybe Google doesn't do refugee camps. So we tried simply "Jenin" in Google Maps. Jenin is the fifth-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. We should get that much from Google. But here's what we got:

Jenín, Czech Republic.

At least, that is the first search return. The second is Jenin, Poland. And the third and final search result is a partly cloudy place called ג'נין Israel.

Funny how that works. The Czech and Polish versions of Jenin are by all evidence just small towns. Palestinian Jenin is large enough to have been granted "Area A" status - or Palestinian Authority rule - under the Oslo interim agreements of the 1990s. And for that reason, too, one would be hard pressed to say Jenin is in "Israel." It's in the "West Bank," or "Palestine," or "the occupied territories." Pick your term. But Israel?

Now here's what you're all wondering - what happens when you enter the search in Arabic? جنين

You get a place that is transliterated as "Janine" - a very small town in northern Lebanon. Hmm, at this point, we're starting to feel extra sleuthy for a Saturday.

So we look up other major Palestinian place names and see where they fall, nomenclaturally speaking.

"Ramallah" is in the "West Bank," according to Google. That was easy. Ramallah is the unofficial capital of the West Bank, without much specific historical claim by Israel, Israelis, or Israelites.

What about Bethlehem - birthplace of that famous guy, now practically a suburb of Jerusalem, but nevertheless a Palestinian city under nominal PA control? According to Google Maps "Bethlehem" is in Israel whether you enter it in English or in Hebrew - בית לחם. But enter Bethlehem under its Arabic name - بيت لحم - and all of a sudden Bethlehem is in the "West Bank."

And Jericho? Is Jericho in the West Bank? Or is it in Israel? Or is it in New York (which is what comes up when you type in the Arabic name أريحا.

And Hebron? In ِArabic, it's in the "West Bank." In Hebrew, it's in "Israel." In English, it could be "Israel" or the "West Bank"!!

But then there's Nablus - historically important Palestinian city, trade crossroads, famous for its olive oil soap, population 150,000 or so. In Google Maps, Nablus is in Israel only - as שכם of course - important historically to Jews as the site of Joseph's Tomb. Nablus doesn't come up West Bank at all. Google can't quite place its Arabic name correctly.

All this is frighteningly perplexing, especially for an enterprise that is supposed to untangle the World Wide Web for the lay surfer.

Now wait, what about Gaza, you say? Remember the disengagement? Google doesn't, or else they haven't figured out the taxonomy yet. Gaza, apparently, is also in Israel. Wha-?

And even in Arabic - غزة - the search result also says Israel. The optimist says, maybe Google has left "Israel" in place because the Israeli occupation hasn't ended. Maybe not.

So what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, Google is probably using Israeli cartographic and toponymic data to generate its maps. For another, Google is probably trying to steer clear of politics - which is nearly impossible when it comes to projecting maps, certainly in the Middle East - by avoiding the term "Palestine." But in doing so, Google feeds the monster of conspiracy. It's probably not a conspiracy - to keep certain Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank (and Gaza!) above the rubric "Israel" - but let's just say the evidence does not look good.

After all, when you Google Map "Palestine," you get Texas.


Anonymous said...

It's just because there's no data for geocoding for palestine yet - there are (quite bad) maps, but the geocoding hasn't been built yet (because the data's not good enough). Google's trying to source better data to make geocoding work. (BTW geocoding doesn't yet work for most of the world).

backpackadventures said...

I searched for Palestine using google earth. The program zoomed in on Palestine TX.

The Tuque Souq said...

"Anonymous" makes a good point. Vigilance in choosing map projections (as good enough for Google's standards, e.g.) is important when there are so many bad maps out there. This might explain why "Jenin Refugee Camp" doesn't show up (although for such a known place, news-wise, there's little excuse). And why "Palestine" doesn't show up at all (in the Middle East, that is).

But it still doesn't explain why entering a Palestinian place name as a search term in Arabic would yield an English-language result "West Bank," while entering the same place name as a search term in English would yield an English-language result "Israel."

Clearly Google can geocode "West Bank." So having "Bethlehem" come up as "West Bank" instead of "Israel" should be a corollary to the geocode. Or am I missing something?

!&# said...

You can geocode Palestine locations with Google Maps, but you have to use a less convenient feature of the API: searching within a region. Google considers Israel, West Bank and Gaza to be three different countries. Some places in West Bank are identified as Israeli, such as Bilin and Nilin, which interestingly enough fall between the apartheid wall and the green line. So the way to work around this is to make geocoding queries using the ll and span parameters.

Baqad said...

I believe the problem is much more than maps only and covers a wider spectrum. I have been trying to search for news sources about the what is happening in Gaza and apparently most search results only produce pro Israeli site and news sources. The same applies to blog searches and interestingly the only exceptions to these news and blog searches have been Al Jazeera and say Huffington Post. Maybe I could be wrong but I smelling something here.