Google and others struggle to map Iceland
Google has mapped the moon, Mars and the sky, yet amazingly cannot provide a roadmap for Iceland. While every other European country has been road-mapped for years on its website, Iceland remains a black hole when it comes to finding directions to simple landmarks like Hallgrímskirkja or the Blue Lagoon. Google Map commands (such as “pizza in Reykjavík”) that typically work in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo also will leave locals and tourists stranded. While Google does include aerial photography of the country as well as new Flickr and Wikipedia features, streets, landmarks and businesses remain missing. So what is the problem?
“We usually acquire data from commercial mapping companies (e.g. Tele Atlas), and they do not include Iceland in their products,” said Ed Parsons, geospatial technologist at Google’s London office.
“Normally, Google Maps has privately owned data,” explained Iceland’s Ministry of Environments’ National Land Survey service manager Gunnar Haukur Kristinsson. “In Iceland, there aren’t many map companies. Unlike the US, whose maps are public domain, we must sell our data by law. In recent weeks, we were contacted by Google, which was looking for data and asking how much.” While Parsons wouldn’t divulge how much Iceland was charging the company to purchase the maps, insiders speculate that Iceland’s government charges exorbitant amounts for the rights.
Karl Arnar Arnarsson, a staff member from Ísgraf, an Icelandic company specializing in selling mapping software, said that he had a few theories about Iceland’s long absence from Google Maps. “Now that Google has mapped [everything else], they’ve moved on to Iceland and because the maps are owned by the government, they’re not willing to pay a lot for them,” Amarsson said. “They’re not looking at Iceland as an isolated problem; they’re looking at the overall picture.”
Other mapping-based companies like Garmin have run into similar mapping difficulties for the country. To remedy the problem, Google appears to be circumventing purchasing expensive mapping rights with the creation of Google Mapmaker, a program where users can add geographic information to selected areas
Google Public Affairs rep Clara Armand-Delille said this new program would help make local Icelanders “citizen cartographers.” “No one knows local information better than the people that live there,” according to Armand-Delille. “We believe that the knowledge of our users will improve and expand the depth and breadth of coverage in Google Maps [and] will eventually be added to Google maps but it may take a few months to show.”
As to whether Iceland’s map companies were intimidated that Google is allowing users to take matters into their own hands with mapping the country themselves, Kristinsson remained at ease. “We don’t see [Google Mapmaker] as a threat, our customers want verified data. It will not hurt our business, only widen the use of geographic information”” said Kristinsson.