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SocietyLost in translation: Ethiopia's Google Maps navigation challenge

Lost in translation: Ethiopia’s Google Maps navigation challenge

In the fading light of a crisp November evening in 2023, a determined group of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and intrepid journalists embarked on a riveting expedition through the enchanting landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia. Their destination: the vibrant city of Jima, where a world of untold stories and humanitarian endeavors awaited.

On November 29th the group embarked on their journey from the vibrant town of Bonga making their way to the bustling city of Jima. After a grueling day in the car, the weary travelers finally arrived in Jima, as dusk settled upon the horizon.

However, their hopes of a smooth arrival were quickly dashed when the task of locating their pre-booked hotel transformed into a perplexing ordeal.

Circumnavigating the labyrinthine streets of Jima, they found themselves retracing familiar paths, seemingly caught in an endless loop of frustration. Undeterred, the team relied on the trusted companion of Google Maps, its digital guidance promising a way out of the convoluted maze. The driver dutifully followed its instructions, even navigating invisible turns and phantom roads, as if the very fabric of the city was in flux.

A spirited debate ensued within the vehicle, with some advocating for seeking guidance from the knowledgeable locals, while others clung steadfastly to the infallibility of technology.

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In the midst of this turmoil, a foreigner among them, captivated by the allure of cutting-edge innovation, adamantly insisted that the digital guide could do no wrong. But the native Ethiopians in the group, intimately acquainted with the nuances of their land, recognized the limitations of their digital companion, understanding that the city could not be captured within the confines of an algorithm, that its essence was intertwined with the wisdom and knowledge of its people.

Caught in the crossfire, the bewildered driver struggled to navigate the conflicting orders. Some even contemplated spending the night cocooned within the vehicle’s confines, resigned to their fate.

Yet, just when it seemed all hope was lost, a glimmer of salvation appeared on the horizon. The weary travelers stumbled upon a group of amiable residents, whose welcoming smiles illuminated the pedestrian-filled streets. Alas, much precious time had been squandered whilst aimlessly meandering through the city’s streets.

Curiously, it turned out that the hotel had indeed been precisely located in accordance with the initial guidance provided by Google Maps. Regrettably, the hotel had since relocated, unbeknownst to the digital cartographer. Thus, both the technological wizardry and the astute residents held a modicum of truth in their hands.

This predicament is not an isolated incident.

Numerous drivers in various towns and cities, including the bustling metropolis of Addis Ababa, have found themselves ensnared in a frustrating deadlock, blindly following the path suggested by the Google Maps app, only to be met with disappointment.

Delivery company drivers, in particular, bear the brunt of these technological shortcomings, enduring arduous challenges when the app fails to guide them accurately.

Tadios Meles, a seasoned driver who provides transportation services for two local companies, recently shared his frustrations with navigating the bustling streets of Addis Ababa. While he confidently transports Addis Ababans around the city with ease, it is the foreign clients who pose a challenge, often insisting on relying solely on Google Maps for directions.

“I have never seen a foreigner actually using Google Maps,” Tadios laments. “They always want us to use it, but I’ve wasted countless hours trying to make sense of its directions. In the end, I either have to cancel their requests or ask them to hand over the phone if they have a local friend with them.”

Tadios has found solace in the location maps provided by the local driving service companies he works for. These maps, he claims, are more accurate and up-to-date, ensuring a smoother journey for his passengers.

Semachew Belegn, another experienced driver in Addis Ababa, echoes Tadios’ sentiments.

He highlights the ever-changing nature of the city, where buildings and landmarks can disappear overnight, leaving Google Maps outdated and unreliable.

“You can’t rely on Google Maps here,” Semachew asserts. “It doesn’t account for the rapid transformations happening in Addis Ababa.”

Agemase Gebeyehu, the manager of the Ethiopian Digital Address System research project at the Ethiopian Space Science and Geospatial Institute, shed light on the underlying issues with Google Maps.

According to Agemase, the accuracy problems stem from the input and information update systems, as well as the management of data. “The data on Google Maps relies on contributions from volunteer individuals, and the identification of places is based on information added by these volunteers, followed by peer reviews,” Agemase explains.

The manager noted that the privileges of these volunteers increase with the amount of data they contribute. If a place is identified by a significant number of volunteers, it may even lead to a digital name change for famous landmarks. This, according to Agemase, has previously occurred with Addis Ababa’s most renowned square.

While this crowdsourcing approach has its benefits, it also means that anyone can add or edit information without any accountability. “There is no authoritative entity responsible for the accuracy of the map,” he added.

Agemase highlights the limitations of Google Maps’ road navigation systems.

Although the application utilizes its own satellites to capture detailed imagery, the translation of this data into navigational directions is not always flawless.

“The data is extracted from the satellites and then put through an algorithm. The issue is, some pavements or non-navigable areas may be mistakenly identified as roads, leading to confusion and potentially hazardous situations for drivers relying solely on the app’s guidance,” he said.

According to Agemase, Google Maps suffers from irregular updates and a bias towards politically significant locations. Hepointed out that even in Addis Ababa, where updates are relatively more frequent, the map still misplaces spots and mixes up institutions and businesses.

“For instance, Google Maps shows stores located within the building of the Ministry of Affairs, which is clearly inaccurate,” he said.

To address these road navigation and mapping challenges, the Ethiopian Space Science and Geospatial Institute has developed the Ethiopia Digital Address System.

This new system, set to become operational in just 10 days, will provide a website and application service. It aims to assign a unique digital address to each house, offering precise location information.

The pilot system, already set up in Bishoftu (Debrezeit), has successfully assigned 10-digit digital addresses to 33,000 houses.

Agemase explains that the system includes all houses within the urban structure and also features a comprehensive road navigation system, including alternative routes that can optimize travel throughout the city. The map also encompasses tourist sites, hotels, guest houses, and other businesses, providing a comprehensive tool for locals and visitors alike.

With the imminent launch of the Bishoftu Address system in less than two weeks, there is hope that these new digital addresses and advanced mapping capabilities will alleviate the challenges faced by drivers and ensure more accurate and reliable navigation throughout the country.

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