Since its debut in 2004, Google Maps has come to the forefront of cartography and mapping technologies, coming up ahead of services like MapQuest, which had their heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the online mapping service often provides urban solutions in some cities, like mapping wheelchair accessibility in London and cycle paths in Mexico City. More than 10 years after Google Maps went live, urbanists are concerned that the digital mapping of the world is widening the urban-digital divide.

There are currently 32 countries of all of Google Maps’ viewable maps that do not have clearly delineated borders, mostly due to disputed borders and territories that have yet to be resolved by the nation-states themselves. The borders of South Tibet, which is a territory that China has lain claim to, but is administered by India, are altered depending on which country you’re viewing the map from. Similar to the case of South Tibet, Google came under intense criticism from the general public when it reportedly replaced Palestine with Israel on the map, causing an uproar over the highly disputed region. The reality was that Palestine was never added to the map in the first place.

In the bigger scheme of things, what this does is widen what the urbanists present at the World Urban Forum 9 (WUF9) in Kuala Lumpur are calling the urban-digital divide, which refers to the difference between how landscapes and cities are presented digitally and how they are in reality. With Google’s Street View cars deployed around the world, recently captured images map cities, giving viewers the opportunity to view the typography and urban configuration of most landscapes around the world.

The urban-digital divide also creates an issue with virtual representation of city streets for Google’s “Street View” option on Maps. A team of researchers from the New School in New York City and the University of Buenos Aires used the Argentinian suburb of Avellaneda as a case study to gauge the differences between landscapes that are visible on Google Maps and those that actually exist. They found that the majority of the images that claim to be from Avellaneda do not show the trash that has filled the Arroyo Sarandí, nor do they show any of the environmental conditions that residents are complaining about, such as volatile vomit-inducing gases. This is due to the urban-digital divide between reality and its digital representation.

Since Google Maps is available for individual use and corporate use as well, the implications of relying on Google’s city representation throws into question the accuracy of the images. “Google Maps Street View is crucial because it is a proxy to the formal city,” said Margarita Gutman, professor at the New School, at the conference in Kuala Lumpur. 

There are a multitude of ways that Google Maps negatively impacts how individuals interact with the world around them and widens the urban-digital divide. These negative impacts can range from enabling intelligence and other governmental agencies to spy on citizens, to selling off the images as big data. Earlier this year, Fast Company published an article claiming that American soldiers’ fitness devices were storing their movements and locations while in military training, posing a grave threat to the secrecy of the U.S. military.

Google Maps is also used as a trip planner, providing users with the information to navigate a city using public transport or most practical walking routes. Albeit a practical means to moving around a city, relying on computer-generated understandings of the city leave residents with little know-how of the city away from the digital map. In another instance, Google Maps was used in a study to determine the socio-economic spatial segregation of city residents by identifying the make and model of the cars parked in their driveways.

The question here is not whether Google Maps is accurately mapping the world or if it’s influencing politics because, in reality, political crises often shape how countries are mapped on Google Maps, and not the other way around. The fear from the ‘digital-urban divide’ is, rather, that people will actively remove certain parts of cities and landscapes around the world so as long as they cannot see them on Google Maps and other digital representations. At the World Urban Forum 9, Gutman warned, “What is not visible doesn’t exist, and if it doesn’t exist, we don’t have to take care of it.”