For a world of Googlers, Israel was but a misshapen pentagon sandwiched between an equally empty Jordan and a bluish-colored patch known as the Mediterranean Sea — until three weeks ago, that is.
Last month, Google Maps began filling its formerly blank map of Israel with railroads, parking facilities, small streets and gas stations. While roads on the English version currently remain nameless, the Hebrew version (http://maps.google.com/?hl=iw) features intricately named streets, parks and cultural centers. On both versions — and on Google Earth — detailed satellite imagery of the region has also been available for some time.
In terms of Google Map detail, Israel trails behind much of the rest of the modern world — maps have been available in America, Europe and parts of Asia for the past few years. Many regions of the Middle East, Africa and South America still remain largely blank.
Why the technological lag on specific Israel data? One Internet watcher says security was the initial reason.
“The initial Google Maps decision [to not fill in details on the Israel maps] was a result of concerns raised some time back that the information could be used for terrorist activities,” media expert Andre Oboler told the Jewish Week.
“Today however there are a number of other sites offering Web-based maps of Israel, mostly in Hebrew,” Oboler continued. “From a security perspective this means the information is already available online. From the perspective of the average overseas visitor to Israel, most of whom are used to using Google Maps at home, the lack of data availability around Israel is a serious inconvenience.”
Asked if security considerations were slowing Google Maps’ effort, a spokeswoman, Caroline Stanghon, did not answer directly. In an e-mail, she wrote that the company’s data comes from public sources and provides no information that could not be found elsewhere.
“It’s our practice with Google Maps to update the product incrementally, as new data and functionality becomes available. That’s why you see varying levels of detail and local information depending on what country you look at,” wrote Stanghon, who represents Google Europe, Middle East and Africa. “With this area we can now offer searchable maps for Israel with labels in English and Hebrew to enable speakers of those languages to find places and information they’re interested in.”
Stanghon said the Israeli team is hoping to make such improvements in the near future and intends to provide a Google Maps – Mobile service for Israel as soon as possible.
Last October, both Haaretz and The Guardian reported that militant Palestinian groups had been using Google Earth’s satellite data to help them launch rockets into the western Negev Desert, including the town of Sderot.
But Google isn’t convinced that its data will continue to benefit terrorists as they pinpoint Israeli targets.
“We believe that the benefits of access to Google Maps and Google Earth for such valuable purposes far outweigh any negatives from potential abuse,” Stanghon wrote.