Google unveiled its new maps of North Korea on Monday, beginning to fill what was once a blank expanse on its digital maps with streets, subway stops and even the locations of infamous North Korean prison camps.
The crowdsourced maps were created by volunteer “citizen cartographers” who share and check geographical information, using a system that allows anyone to add and update data, Google said Monday. They bring more information about the isolated country onto the widely used website, landing Kim Il Sung Square and Bukchang Gulag on the same platform routinely used to check driving directions in Los Angeles or peruse street views in Houston.
The new maps come just weeks after Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt made a controversial and closely watched trip to North Korea, urging the heavily restricted country to open up to the Internet.
Because the Web is barred to all but its most elite scholars, North Koreans themselves are unlikely to see the new maps. In a Monday blog post, Google suggested the information could be useful for South Korean citizens with “ancestral connections” or family in North Korea.
Though the newly detailed maps set off a flurry of excitement among Internet users and the media, the Google project is far from the first effort to map the “Hermit Kingdom.” For years, North Korea researchers have pored over satellite photos and quizzed defectors and visitors about buildings, roads and borders, hoping to shed more light on the reclusive country.
“North Korea does not allow foreigners to just roam around, so satellite imagery is one of the few ways we can get eyes on the ground,” said researcher Curtis Melvin, who partnered with the 38North website to launch a widely praised “digital atlas” of North Korea using Google Earth.
Mapping has helped him explore the growth of black markets, track the construction of new power plants and trace the expansion of its electricity grid, Melvin said. Earlier this month, he spotted a new area that bears “striking similarity” to other known prison camps.
Getting solid information about North Korea is already a tall order, but figuring out exactly what satellite photos are showing becomes especially difficult further into the countryside, researchers say.
“Fewer people have had access to those areas to say, ‘This is a factory. This is a road that leads to here,’” said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38North. “Anything we haven’t been able to verify hasn’t been defined.”
Melvin alluded to an apparent error on the Google map on his blog Monday, noting: “There is no golf course on Yanggak Island.” He had earlier blogged that the golf course had been destroyed.
Google encouraged people to offer new information to keep refining the map. Its “Google Map Maker” system operates much like Wikipedia, allowing anyone to add or revise the site.
“We know this map is not perfect — one of the exciting things about maps is that the world is a constantly changing place,” Google Map Maker senior product manager Jayanth Mysore posted on a company blog Monday.