How Afghan Amateur Mappers Unintentionally Punked Apple

Wall Street Journal Kabul bureau chief Yaroslav Trofimov noticed something strange when he loaded Apple’s map of Afghanistan’s capital city on his iPad today –the existence of a street named “Bad Monkey.” Amused, Trofimov tweeted his odd find, appending his tweet with a screenshot. Then he noticed a street near the upscale and heavily fortified Serena Hotel labeled “MoJo Way.”

Had the municipal government adopted an irreverent approach to naming its thoroughfares while no one was paying attention?

No, but the truth was just as goofy.

Apple had copied old open source maps of Afghanistan’s cities in their entirety from OpenStreetMap (OSM), the site sometimes described as the “Wikipedia of maps,” without checking the veracity of the information they contained. Essentially, it had lifted the earliest rough drafts of the maps.

The old maps were created by a small group of Afghan university students and mapping enthusiasts who assigned prankish fake names to streets that lacked official names or were subjects of naming disputes due to decades of overlapping conflicts. Eventually, these digital cartographers replaced most of the fake street names with the names most commonly used by locals, or simply removed them and left the streets nameless.

“The issue is that Apple took an old snapshot of the OpenStreetMap data and hasn’t updated it since, so things like ‘personal’ street names are in there, even if they have been fixed since,” explained Kate Chapman, Indonesia-based director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, OSM’s humanitarian mapping initiative. “The fact that they don’t update the data shows that the incentive for people to improve the map just isn’t going to be there.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Humanitarian OSM Team and the growing popularity of OSM mobile editing apps among smartphone-wielding aid workers, the maps of many cities in the developing world are more detailed in the open source platform than anywhere else, even if they do contain a few humorous (and sometimes intentional) inaccuracies.

So far, Apple hasn’t shown much interest in providing maps of areas where few people are likely to own iPads or iPhones.

“What I think is interesting is that Apple didn’t choose to use OSM for other areas,” Chapman wrote in her email to me. “Today I write to you from Kupang, [Indonesia] and if you look on Apple Maps there is only a dot for the city name, but in OSM there is a quite detailed map.”

Until Apple updates its Afghanistan maps to reflect more recent edits to their open source counterparts, uninformed users of Apple Maps will be left wondering why one of the main roads in eastern Afghanistan’s largest city is called “Hillbilly Hameed.”