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Thursday, Jan 17, 2013 6:25pm
Prank data fouls Apple Maps street names in Kabul
Just as Apple Maps has regained user trust by correcting many of the major problems with early versions of its maps, an old prank by some Afghan university students is giving the company another black eye over inaccurate street names shown for areas of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. A reliance on outdated data from OpenStreetMap -- a source used by Apple for some areas, and which is editable by users -- seems to be the source of the joke street names.

The fake names, such as "Mojo Way" and "Bad Monkey," were noticed by a Wall Street Journal Kabul bureau chief and reported in a series of tweets. OpenStreetMap is a geographic equivalent of Wikipedia; anyone can upload or edit street data, and though most work to ensure accuracy, errors can be deliberately introduced, though they are often quickly corrected.

Apple seems to have obtained a file of older OpenStreetMap data and used it without double-checking it, though it is not clear when the erroneous names were introduced into Apple's Maps app. For its part, OpenStreetMap says the prank names were removed over time, either substituting the correct street names or just leaving them blank when they could not be verified. None of the joke names exist on the OpenStreetMaps database now, the company says. The error was likely unnoticed for a while due to the paucity of iPhone users familiar with the cartography of the capital in the country.

Errors not dissimilar to this plagued Apple Maps' initial launch and apparently continue in less-used areas. Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized publicly for the botched data, and SVP of Internet Services Eddy Cue replaced some engineers responsible for the missteps (the company also ousted former iOS head Scott Forstall in part over the debacle) and vowed to work tirelessly to improve the service.

Indeed, many of the more egregious errors have been corrected through a series of silent updates. The company continues to take some heat for its decision to jettison public transit data from the Maps app, though a number of alternative apps -- now including a revamped and greatly-improved Google Maps iOS native app -- has mitigated much of what users were initially unhappy with. For driving use in most areas, Apple Maps and Google Maps now appear to be roughly equivalent, as Google Maps is not without errors itself.

As of this writing, the prank street names are still present in Apple Maps, though the data is likely to be updated shortly now that it has been brought to Apple's attention through the tweets and subsequent press reports.