If Simon Borghs wanted to eat a takeaway pizza fresh out of the box, he would have to sit in the local park. Taking a taxi meant lengthy discussions with the driver to ensure that he got to his flat. Getting a delivery meant walking down the road with his phone in his hand looking for the courier.
His problem was that the postcode for his east London flat was incorrect on Google Maps, so any driver using the service for navigation ended up not at his address, but in parkland at Three Mills Green, Bromley-by-Bow, half a mile away as the crow flies, but a mile and a half to drive.
What was an easily fixable error resulted in three years of frustration for Borghs, who first noticed the problem when an Uber driver took a wrong turn when taking him home.
He is far from alone. Google’s community centres for Maps regularly has posts from people who have found themselves in a similar position and are attempting to correct the error. It underlines our increasing reliance on private companies and the data they hold – and the resulting problems when it is wrong.
“The problem is with third-party companies using Google Maps as the basis for their operations,” says Borghs, who moved to London from Belgium seven years ago. “The major issues are with Uber, Uber Eats and Deliveroo etc.
“The food delivery drivers and cyclists consistently end up in the wrong place or get lost and are at risk of ‘losing their ticket’ – ie, not getting paid – if they don’t figure out where to go, or we find them first within their delivery time slot.
“In fact, in most cases, they get lost in the middle of a massive building site to the north of us. The road through has restricted access so they end up in the park to the east of us.”
To get around the problem, Borghs has tried putting instructions in the notes for deliveries, or using a different address nearby and going out to intercept the drivers. “This applies to anyone that goes on the postcode – plumbers, cleaners, family,” he says.
The change in his Google Maps’ postcode, he says, came about randomly. On one day in 2018 he had no problem with deliveries and the next, his home had been relocated to the park. While the actual postcode remained the same, Google had assigned it to the new location.
Google says that it wants its mapping service to “model and reflect this ever-evolving world” and puts together its maps using a combination of information from different sources.
Satellite imagery and data gathered via its Street View cars tell the company where roads, buildings and addresses are. This is added to with information from local governments, which can upload data about new roads and addresses in an area.
After that, comes people – Google has a community of “local guides” who can correct the map if they are confident a change is necessary. If there is something wrong, Google Map users are encouraged to report it to the company via a feedback button.
This is exactly what Borghs says he has done over the last three years. “In Chrome, I’ve tried the ‘send feedback’ approach to alert ‘wrong information’ – these tickets were closed without any answers. I’ve also tried to add our full address through ‘add a missing place’, which wasn’t successful, either,” he says.
A community forum on Google Maps also provided no answers. “I’ve tried five or six times to post a question here but never get a reply,” he says. “If you browse through it for a few minutes you’ll find many similar posts about UK postcodes – some get answered, some don’t.
“This shows that this is a widespread issue that should be dealt with by Google in one go, and not by volunteers in a piecemeal way. There’s no way to get them to do this that I’ve found – which is probably the most frustrating bit.”
Our daily lives rely on this information being correct – you could argue it’s a public service that is not being dealt with
Three years since the problem first arose, it took less than 24 hours for Google to take action once the Observer made contact – it even thanked us for flagging the error despite the years of Borghs trying to do the same.
Google says it uses automated and manual ways to check for accuracy and tries to correct errors as soon as they arise. But it failed to answer questions on why the problem persisted in Borghs case. Nor would it tell us how many people contact it to correct errors.
“We use a number of sources to accurately model the real world, including authoritative third-party sources, contributions from users, and Street View and satellite imagery,” it says.
“Overall, this provides an accurate, up-to-date map, and when there are inaccuracies, we work to address them as quickly as possible. As always, we encourage users to let us know when something is incorrect by using our ‘report a problem’ tool.”
But as Borghs points out: “Our daily lives rely on this information being correct – you could argue it’s a public service that is not being dealt with, with the appropriate level of care.”