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By renaming a square in Berlin after Adolf Hitler.  It was an accident, and they have since changed it back to “Theodor-Heuss-Platz”, but this is still one of the worst mistakes that Google could possibly make.  And it shows again the importance we attach to place names.

Google Maps Image of Berlin showing “Adolf-Hitler-Platz”, which has since been changed (via PC Mag)

Such a colossal error was made possible by the open process of google maps editing.  We have come a long way from the days when only men of money and means could publish maps.  Now, anyone with an internet connection can suggest a change to Google Maps.  The only thing standing in the way of that change making it onto Google’s vast online database is a Google Maps moderator.  And as this case has shown, it may be easier to obtain a moderator’s approval than one might think.

An anonymous user suggested that “Theodor-Heuss-Platz” be changed to “Adolf-Hitler-Platz”, and moderator “Vilashi” approved that as the single name to be used for that square in Berlin, Germany.  It has been reported that this moderator has approved 24,000 edits in the span of about 18 months, so maybe this one just slipped past his radar.  Maybe he was adhering to historical precedent– the square did bear Hitler’s name from 1933 to 1947.  If anything, it could be listed as an alternative name, but it would still be completely unacceptable, especially in Germany.

In the end, Google realized the mistake, fixed it, and issued an apology.  Given the relative openness of the editing process, though, I wonder if this kind of error will be made again in other places.

The usage of Hitler to name a square in Berlin is just one extreme example of the power which attaches to placenames.  A name itself does not change a place, but a name can be deeply offensive since it is used to honor or commemorate a person or an event in time.  Think about how St. Petersburg was named Leningrad up until the end of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Changing the name back to Leningrad today would be seen as a terrible insult for many Russians as a memory of the oppression of that regime.  But the harm caused by placenames has also been felt in the U.S.  Racially insensitive terms have used freely throughout the country to describe such places as creeks and mountains, but fortunately most of these have been changed.  The name on a map signals to all who see it what that place represents to all, and an offensive name essentially says, to certain place, “this place is not for you”.

So I ask that we all read Google Maps a little more closely to see if we can spot any of these mistakes and ensure that they are corrected.  In this digital age of open editing, we are all cartographers now.

More information about this story here: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2429422,00.asp