News that Google has successfully constructed and published maps of North Korea is stirring the imagination of social media aficionados around the world, but may also stir international political tensions.
Google Maps' latest creation – simply type North Korea into the relevant search bar – is a significant social media development because it was produced not by expert map makers or a spy organisation, but by “citizen cartographers” who worked for several years, using the company’s Map Maker software, to share and fact-check geographical information obtained from satellite images available from Google Earth.
It is an example of “crowdsourcing” and, while Google admits the map may not be 100% accurate, it is further evidence of the “wisdom of the crowd” – a somewhat controversial notion that challenges modernist notions of genius, and of “experts” as the primary and most efficacious creators of human knowledge.
Google’s map of North Korea is not the first example of crowdsourcing on a global scale or for accomplishing quite technical tasks. In the early 2000s, NASA – via its Clickworkers site – recruited amateur astronomers to help it identify and categorise craters on Mars from thousands of photographs taken by the Viking orbiters.
Between 2000 and 2001, more than 80,000 people identified around two million craters for scientific measurement and study and classified the relative age of another 300,000 – a task that would have taken scientists years, if not decades, to complete.
Furthermore, and significantly, American Scientist reported that this collaborative public effort was found to be almost as accurate as work done by expert planetary geologists.
As “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," Wikipedia stands as the exemplar of crowdsourcing, with more than 24 million articles available for free, versus 120,000 articles in the comprehensive Encyclopaedia Britannica sold by subscription, and found to be almost as accurate as its expensive, expert-produced competitor in a study by the scientific journal Nature.
The concept of crowdsourcing is being closely watched by businesses, governments, scholars, journalists and publishers around the world, because members of the public working for free can help design products and provide services for much less cost and more quickly than traditional production and service delivery processes.
Collaboration and crowdsourcing, drawing on what sociologist Pierre Lévy called “collective intelligence," challenges the long-established notion of “gatekeepers” who act as intermediaries in media and other production processes to filter content and correct inaccuracies and errors. Many see professional intermediaries as essential to avoid the distribution of misinformation and poor quality products and services.