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Blank Spot No More: North Korea Now Visible on Google Maps, Via Volunteer Cartographers

BY Julia Wetherell | Tuesday, January 29 2013

A view of downtown Pyongyang, via Google Maps.

Three weeks after Eric Schmidt’s visit, Google has made its first inroads in North Korea — at least virtually. The once-blank spot occupied by the country on Google Maps has been revised to include a wealth of geographic and locational detail, including the stops on Pyongyang’s subway system, historical and cultural sites, hospitals, hotels, and, eerily, a number of prisons, including an isolated, 87-square-mile gulag near the Chinese border.

Apparently unrelated to the Schmidt’s visit, the newly detailed map is in fact the result of several years of collaborative effort on Google’s Map Maker tool, a kind of geographic wiki that enables crowdsourcing to improve the Maps platform. Volunteer cartographers contributed to the project over a period of several years — many from South Korea, and at least one non-Korean speaking Australian. A Seoul-based participant told the Washington Post that much of the information was already available online; a comprehensive Google Earth-based satellite map of the DPRK has been available at Curtis Melvin’s North Korean Economy Watch blog for several years.

The inclusion of North Korea into the large Google Map-o-sphere makes this information accessible on a wide scale – yet given the inscrutable nature of the country, it may not be infallible. In a blog post published yesterday, Jayanth Mysore, the senior product manager working with the Map Maker group, acknowledged the data is likely “not perfect,” and encouraged “people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.