Here’s an odd discovery. If you search Google’s geolocator for “New York”, it will give you the following coordinates: Latitude: 40.7143528 Longitude: -74.0059731. If you search for “Boston”, it responds with: Latitude: 42.3584308, Longitude: -71.0597732. Chicago: Latitude: 41.8781136, Longitude: -87.6297982. These locations look a little something like this.
Not bad, right? I mean, Google pretty much nailed it. Those are indeed New York, Boston and Chicago.
But’s let’s say you want to know the street address of these locations. I’ll admit it, I’m curious enough to wonder about these types of things. For years now, we’ve known that—for whatever reason—Coffeyville, Kansas is located in the exact center of the United States on Google Maps. Just load Google Maps and zoom in: Coffeyville. Let’s take this a step further. Say you want to verify that the coordinates Google has just given you are indeed located within the city you have specified. Say you want to know the places Google considers to be the exact center of New York, Boston & Chicago. Google allows you to do this via the “reverse” option in their Geolocation API.
Before I go any further, I’ll give a little background to provide some context (why would I even have stumbled upon this, anyway?). About a year ago, I was mid-semester in a cartography seminar here at UW-Madison. Our goal: create a series of animated maps showing global Twitter trends. It was—in some ways—a shameless attempt to go viral via two extremely hot forms of media. I mean, let’s face it, in the realm of place-based data derived from social media, what’s hotter than Twitter? And in cartography—regardless of data quality or clarity of message—what gets more attention than animated maps? Maps we tend to see most tweeted are things like Alexander Chen’s Conductor: MTA.ME and the OpenStreetMap 2008: A Year of Edits.
Our seminar was a mild success, creating three animations that more or less went unnoticed on the blogosphere (continue not noticing them here). Ironically, the only thing to go viral that had anything to do with our seminar was a static map. Daniel Huffman, with the aid of Jeremy White’s Twitter Hitter application (created for the seminar), received a bit of press for his map which was used as cover art for Cartographic Perspectives.
But I digress. The point of this post is to bring attention to something bizarre I just noticed about the Google Maps Geolocation API. One of my tasks during this seminar was to investigate the feasibility of geolocating non-geolocated tweets. Gosh, that sounds like gibberish. What I mean is this: some folks have fancy phones which attach coordinates to their tweets; others do not. The vast majority of tweets (nowadays, anyway) do not have coordinates attached to them. They do, however, have user-specified place names (Oella, Maryland, for example). So, my task was to see if it was possible to geolocate (get coordinates for) tweets that did not have user-specified coordinates. To be frank, the whole thing was a debacle. My findings: geolocating tweets via a non-coordinate-based system was not possible (or at least not advisable). Feel free to read about it here and here.
Nevertheless, some decently useful tools were born of my geolocation frustrations. Specifically, I wrote a handy little Python script that did the following:
- Read a spreadsheet for place names
- Sent place names to Google geolocator
- Recorded coordinates from Google geolocator back to original spreadsheet
- For error-checking, the Google coordinates were sent back to Google’s reverse geolocator
- New place names from the reverse geolocator were added to spreadsheet to check against original place names (and to catch ambiguous place names, like “Porland” or “Springfield”).
A year ago, when I wrote this script, the search terms “New York”, “Boston” and “Chicago” would yield the same coordinates as above. But, when I dug out this script yesterday, blew the dust off of it and took it for a spin, I noticed that something fundamental had changed about the reverse geolocator. Last year, it would yield a little something like this:
But now, these search terms yield:
What!? So… the reverse geolocator does not give you an address any more? It gives you a business? Is the reverse geolocator telling us, “If you are at Lat 40.714 and Long -74.005 and you have a tummy ache, give Dr. Suneeta a call!”? Hmm… I wonder if the parameters are all wonky in my script. I mean, surely not all places are centered around a business, right? Think of how quaint and cute it is that little Coffeyville, Kansas is the center of the United States. Uh-oh, hold the presses…
D’oh. That’s a business… and it’s not even in Kansas!