A localization failure


This image below is taken from Google Maps. It shows a portion of the countryside around the point where Cambridgeshire, Essex, and Hertfordshire meet. This is a beautiful and quiet area of low rolling hills that I often visit by bicycle, so it would be nice to be able to use Google Maps to help plan these rides. For example, what’s the best way to get from Littlebury Green to Brent Pelham?

This is of course a trick question, because the map doesn’t show you where Littlebury Green and Brent Pelham are. In fact, it shows just two (Clavering and Stickling Green) of the couple of dozen villages and hamlets in this region.1 And even if you happened to be confident of the locations of Littlebury Green (near the top right, east of Lee Wood) and Brent Pelham (on the B1038 near the bottom left) then the map would still be useless for planning your journey, because:

  1. The lack of village names gives you no help at the junctions. For example, when heading southwest from Littlebury Green, the second junction you reach has a signpost whose arm points to “Duddenhoe End”. Should you take this turning or not?

  2. There is little or no distinction between minor roads (grey lines), airfields (also grey lines), rivers (blue-grey lines), and contour lines (thin grey lines). For example, is there a road from the junction of Park Lane and Bull Lane (a point that would be labelled “Langley Lower Green” on any sensible map) to Meesdenhall Wood?

You can make the village names turn up, by zooming in. But you have to zoom in once to get “Brent Pelham” to appear, and twice to make “Littlebury Green” appear, by which time you can’t see both places on your screen at the same time, even though they are only 13 km apart.

The labels that do reliably appear on the map are names of roads and names of woods. I have no idea why Google has such love for woods, but I have a theory about the road names. In the United States, typical rural junction signs tell you the names of the roads meeting at that junction, but not where they go. Whereas in the UK, typical rural junction signs tell you the destinations visited by each road:

So when navigating in the US, you follow a sequence of roads, rarely knowing which villages and towns you are passing through. But when navigating in the UK, you pass through a sequence of villages, rarely knowing the names of the roads. So I guess that Google Maps’ algorithm for deciding which labels to place on the map was tuned for the US and never properly localized to the UK.

For comparison, click on the “OpenStreetMap” button, which shows the corresponding area on OpenStreetMap using the “Cycle Map” tiles.

  1.  If you’re wondering about “Fish Fish Fish”, it’s an advert for an aquarium supplier based at that location.