A pedestrian passes euro grafitti sprayed on a wall in Athens, Greece. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

‘Digital Graffiti’ on Mapbox Highlights the Pitfalls of Open Data

(Bloomberg) -- For roughly an hour on Thursday morning, users of dozens of different map applications -- including Snapchat and the Weather Channel -- saw New York City labeled as “Jewtropolis.”

The problem stemmed from Mapbox Inc., an eight-year-old startup that consolidates geographic data from hundreds of different sources to help companies like Snap Inc., the Weather Channel and the New York Times build custom maps of their own. Late last year, Mapbox raised $164 million in funding in a round led by SoftBank Group Corp. The startup is seen as a significant piece of SoftBank’s efforts to develop navigation tools for self-driving cars.

The renaming showed up after Mapbox accidentally allowed an anti-Semitic edit from a user to slip through its systems and go live across its customers’ products. The edits came from a user on OpenStreetMap, a public platform where anyone can change and improve maps, which Mapbox and others use to inform their own maps. All of the person’s edits were flagged by Mapbox’s artificial intelligence systems, but a human worker accidentally approved one of them, resulting in the New York name change, said Mapbox Chief Executive Officer Eric Gundersen. The company is investigating what he called a “system failure.”

"What just hurts so bad about today is the AI caught all of this," Gundersen said. "It doesn’t matter how smart your AI is, if in the end your ultimate confirmation point comes back to the human side."

The accidental renaming is the latest example of how companies that package and sell data from a variety of sources that include user input can find themselves in hot water when nefarious actors try to manipulate them. Gundersenlikened the incident to "digital graffiti."

It was the second incident in as many days of place names incorrectly changing on major mapping services. Yesterday, Google Maps briefly displayed the name of the Russell Senate Building in Washington D.C. as the "McCain Senate Office." After Senator John McCain’s death the renaming had been publicly discussed, but hadn’t actually happened.

Problems with user-submitted content gets harder to police as political tensions rise online, Gundersen said.

“This is a bigger issue than just maps, this is about a degradation of discourse across the internet,” he said. “This guy didn’t just make one edit, he went on an anti-Semitic tirade across New York.”

Much of the internet’s core infrastructure, including maps, has been built using public data and feedback over many years. A major benefit of public access means maps can evolve quickly so they continuously reflect reality, like street closures and new construction for example. But just as Facebook and Twitter are struggling to keep foreign agents from using their services to manipulate public opinion, companies that make money from open-source products are facing their own struggle to protect their systems.

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