Google's Map Maker temporarily suspended due to vandalism

An Android logo peeing on an Apple logo forces Google to shut down Map Maker

Remember the pranksters who used Google Map Maker to draw a park on Google Maps in the shape of the Android logo peeing on the Apple logo and were involved in other acts of spammy vandalism, Google has announced that it will temporarily shut down its Google Map Maker for the foreseeable future while it thinks over its approval process.

Search Engine Land, who was the first one to notice the statement by Google, made it clear that the service is temporarily shut down while a new moderation system is under construction. “Given the current state of the [moderation] system, we have come to the conclusion that it is not fair to any of our users to let them continue to spend time editing. Every edit you make is essentially going to a backlog that is growing very fast,” Google rep Pavithra Kanakarajan wrote. “We believe that it is more fair to only say that if we do not have the capacity to review edits at roughly the rate they come in, we have to take a pause. We have hence decided to temporarily disable editing across all countries starting Tuesday, May 12, 2015, till we have our moderation system back in action.”

The hidden image of the urinating Android was not the first case of cartography-based vandalism, but it was perhaps the highest profile and, probably, the straw that broke Google’s back.

Map Maker is an important tool for cartography. In 2008, when Google launched the easy-to-use, crowdsourced map editor, it basically turned Google Maps into the Wikipedia of maps. Google Map Maker, a browser-based online map editor let’s users to add to and edit Google Maps. There are tools for roads, railways, buildings, walking trails, bike paths, parks, lakes, and complex road geometry. The fact that Google Maps is crowdsourced gives it a upper hand on Apple Maps. In reply to this, Google’s other big competitor, Nokia, launched its own online map editor in 2012.

How did the prank images appear on the real Google Maps? Doesn’t Google have some kind of approval system? It does, but that process depends on trust. Map Maker edits are done in a sandbox that allows a user to test and save map drafts. When a new user saves an edit, it is sent into a queue for manual approval. An edit shows up on the public Google Maps once approved and can be viewed by everyone.

Active users after a certain amount of approvals though become “trusted” and their map edits get auto-approved and fast-tracked to Google Maps.

As of May 12, 2015, Google Map Maker is unavailable to all users. Pavithra Kanakarajan, Google Map Maker product manager in a post on the product forum mentioned that a recent rapid increase in spam was to blame.

Google in its official statement said that the user who caused the “most recent incident” was “a strong user in our community,” pointing out that the person possibly had auto-approval rights and suddenly turned dishonest. One of the recent changes carved “Google review policy is crap” into the map, putting forward some kind of a point by the user. This is one of the occurrences that had led Google to the decision to suspend the service.

While Kanakarajan convinced users that the services were stopped temporarily, she stated that it will take “longer than a few days.” Google is currently making a formal assessment of all edits as a part of a manual review process, as a course correction. The Map Maker team is also working towards the betterment of moderation system to help avoid these issues in the future.

“While this is a very difficult, short term decision, we think this will help us get to a better state faster. More importantly, we believe it is simply the right thing to do to all of you, our valued users who continue to edit with the hope that your changes might go live as fast as you’ve been used to,” wrote Kanakarajan.

As of now, there is no clarity as to when would Google Map Maker would be available again. However, one thing is for sure that whenever it comes back, the editing process will be notably less open to users.

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