An island of non-existent geodata a virtual place where each of us has really been

(ORDO NEWS) — Six hundred and a few kilometers south of the city of Accra (the capital of Ghana) in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea, two conditional lines intersect – the equator and the international reference meridian.

This is “Zero Island”, a point with coordinates 0° north latitude and 0° degrees east longitude. There is nothing there, only an ocean almost five kilometers deep and a weather buoy codenamed “Soul”.

But this is only in reality, the virtual space – informational – at this point contains millions of objects, there is active economic activity, and every Internet user has been there at least once.

Have you ever seen a map app, widget or frame on a website that is centered by default on a point in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa? Try to stretch your memory – this almost certainly happened.

But even if you didn’t manage to personally observe this, you visited the “Zero Island” and, most likely, more than once. Perhaps not entirely (with a complete set of personal data), but some part of their “digital identity”.

For example, by uploading photographs to the Web that do not have shooting coordinates in the metadata. If the portal supports searching by the geolocation of an image, there is a high probability that such files will “appear” on the map in the Gulf of Guinea. Because database creators too often fail to handle missing data correctly and simply replace NULL with zero.

It was first introduced to geographic information systems specialists by Tableau analyst Steve Pellegrin in 2008.

Since then, “Zero Island” has gone through several stages of popularization – from an inside joke of employees of one company, to an element of slang for IT specialists associated with geocoding, and then entered the culture. With this, the importance of the virtual point is growing every year, so it’s time to take a look atNull Island scientifically.

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ATLAS weather buoy in front of the Indian research vessel ORV Sagar Kanya. The same buoy with its own name Soul is located in the Gulf of Guinea at the intersection of the equator with the international reference meridian

Levente Juhász of Florida International University ( FIU ) and Peter Mooney of the Irish National University at Maynooth ( NUIM ) were the first full-fledged papers on this topic.

The researchers analyzed the colossal amount of open sources that mention Null Island, a point with coordinates of 0° north latitude and 0° east longitude, or other “stubs” of missing geodata (both in other scientific papers and professional literature, and directly in geographic information systems).

In addition, Juhas and Mooney first evaluated the contents of the “Zero Island”, showing what data is in these coordinates. They have not yet published their work in a peer-reviewed journal, but have already posted a preprint on the arXiv portal .

In order not to return to this issue in the future, let’s make it clear right away – where not otherwise indicated, we mean coordinates according to the world system of geodetic parameters of the Earth in 1984 ( WGS 84 ).

It is the de facto standard for almost any modern application of geodata. In fact, your Null Island can be in any coordinate system, just this one is the most common. When zero values ​​of latitude and longitude fall on land, such a place is called “Zero Lake”.

How is Zero Island replenished?

Any geographic information system ( GIS ) always works with at least two types of data – coordinates in a given reference system and related information.

In order for the navigator to build a route at the request of the user, the program needs to know exactly where the desired address is located on the virtual ellipsoid, which is a simplified representation of our planet.

And, of course, to correlate the current coordinates of the user with objects on the map in order to visualize the path and issue recommendations on the direction of movement.

Similar data transformations are necessary for every application, applet or online service that operates with geodata. Even if it’s a simple mapping resource, let alone navigation software, social media, and classifieds sites.

In the course of their work, these software products operate with databases, where coordinates and other information are indicated in one line. But sometimes the field with latitude and longitude is empty – for some reason, the service did not receive them.

Such a cell has a NULL parameter , which should ideally tell the script “there is no data or it is not available”. However, it is not without reason that the correct handling of “zero” (not to be confused with “zero”) is a constant headache for programmers and analysts.

If we simplify the situation as much as possible, then the problem is that the NULL label is not a number (integer or floating point), text, link (pointer) or any other most commonly used data type.

It is closest to boolean values, but there are only two of them – “true” ( TRUE ) or “false” (FALSE ), modifications are needed to work correctly with the third one.

In the ideal case, the code working with the database should take into account such nuances and carry the tools for correctly responding to missing values. But anyone who is even slightly familiar with IT knows perfectly well that honestly executed programs have never been in the majority.

They often use “crutches and bicycles”, such as converting NULL to the data type that corresponds to the requested cell. And when it comes to coordinates, it’s 0° north latitude and 0° east longitude.

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“Zero Island” has its own airline, which offers not to fly anywhere. Interestingly, the authors of this network joke assigned the Tu-204 to the Air Null fleet

The above, that is, unintentional data processing errors, is perhaps the most common reason for something to end up on Zero Island. Such incidents arise due to carelessness (maybe incompetence) of programmers or lack of experience in working with geodata.

Because of this, it is not uncommon for WGS 84 latitude and longitude values ​​to be interpreted as parameters in the projection coordinate system (they become meters north and east of the datum).

Sometimes a project is developed by geodata scientists, but they lack experience with programming languages ​​(which leads to incorrect type conversions). Problems with testing services, preparing and processing input information – all this also helps to replenish Null Island with content.

However, there are other reasons: sometimes something ends up in the Gulf of Guinea on purpose! For example, the coordinates (0°, 0°) are set as default values ​​in case of missing data or malfunction of satellite navigation equipment.

Sometimes the data is sent to the “Zero Island” for fun, or to mask the true location. Finally (and this is the original purpose of Null Island in the Tableau software ) it served as a kind of container for information that does not have precise geodata associated with it.

What can be found on the “Zero Island”

The simplest are photos ( Flickr ), running routes and workout tags ( Strava ), as well as accommodation for rent ( AirBnB ) and restaurants with tourist attractions ( Yelp ). Not far behind are Twitter and Snapchat , social networks with the function of linking content to geographic coordinates.

All these services, despite the colossal staff of programmers, huge audience and rich functionality, one way or another contain errors in their code, leading to the display of incorrect geospatial marks. But there are more interesting cases.

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Various online services place a huge amount of content on the “Zero Island”

For example, a number of Helium infrastructure points are also marked in the Zero Island. This is a blockchain project that awards virtual coins to holders of routers that provide coverage for the Internet of Things. In fact, another cryptocurrency, the mining of which is carried out by maintaining the efficiency of the router.

What is most amusing, since the correct geolocation of the registered access point is the basis for the functioning of the network, users have high confidence in the coordinates of infrastructure nodes.

Therefore, when they saw several Chinese-owned routers right in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea, some particularly impressionable individuals decided that the Celestial Empire had organized a secret military base in the Atlantic (and the Helium pointsplaced by negligent employees).

The logic is fantastic, yes, but do not feed conspiracy theorists with bread – let them discover a worldwide conspiracy.

By analyzing open sources and databases, you can discover that there is almost anything on Zero Island. Any virtual object or its “projection” into the information space, which has geospatial coordinates, easily ends up in the Gulf of Guinea. From flights to works of art, from coronavirus patients to real estate. And this gives rise to serious concerns.

How dangerous is this

By and large, Null Island can be considered a litmus test of possible geolocation errors. Just imagine any problem that the wrong coordinates of something can cause – and here is the obvious danger of the “Zero Island”. Naturally, not specifically this conditional place on the map, but the chains of events, actions and decisions associated with it (or their absence).

In his earlier work, Mooney addressed the problem of the colossal number of Covid-19 cases in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea.

Of course, in reality they were not there. It’s just that Johns Hopkins University ( JHU ), creating its famous interactive coronavirus map ( CSSE Covid-19 Dashboard ), placed all the data on the “Zero Island” without a confirmed geolocation.

A few months later, the practice was considered incorrect and the problem was eliminated – information on which the location was late was simply entered later.

The trouble is that such nominally “garbage” data has to be discarded. Because it is not possible to analyze them qualitatively in most cases. However, they cannot be completely deleted either: the LHU example shows that data with lost coordinates can contain a huge amount of useful information.

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On the left is a clear example of incorrect translation of coordinates from WGS 84 to the projection, instead of 29°59′36″N 090°15′29″W, the New Orleans airport was placed 29.5936 meters north and 90.1529 meters east of Zero Island ; on the right – cyber attacks emanating from the Gulf of Guinea on the map of Kaspersky Lab

The most obvious inconvenience of Null Island should not be underestimated – the display of some object in the Gulf of Guinea instead of the real location.

Sometimes this only leads to funny glitches in the interfaces, like the visualization of the flight on the displays in the cabin of an airliner, when instead of New Orleans, the flight departs from the “Zero Island”. And at another time – to quite obvious fake news, as in the case of the “Chinese base off the coast of Africa.”

Things were more serious in 2012 in the US state of Wisconsin. After the introduction of new digital systems for registering the population and counting votes, it turned out that part of the local residents are registered instead of their hometownin the Atlantic.

It’s just that the US Census Bureau did not have accurate data on their location and marked the data as missing. If the mistake had not been corrected in time, several thousand law-abiding Wisconsinians would have lost the right to vote in what is perhaps the most “hot” election in recent American history.

As far as Naked Science knows , so far the virtual relocation of any object or piece of data to the Gulf of Guinea has not caused catastrophic events. The most critical geographic information systems have several levels of data validation.

But bad code is becoming more common, and questionable management decisions are being made even in areas where poor design costs hundreds of lives ( the Boeing 737 Max is a clear example of this). So the existence of the “Zero Island” can still come back to haunt humanity more than once, if you do not take it seriously.

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Each coordinate system has its own “Zero Island” or “Zero Lake”. This map marks the reference points of all coordinate systems that are supported by geographic information systems ESRI (a leading software developer in the GIS industry)

Instead of a conclusion

In describing the Null Island issue , Juhas and Mooney do not refer to the phenomenon itself as a threat to anything in particular (although, of course, certain dangers are associated with it, as was shown in the previous chapter).

Of particular interest to researchers is the dual status of the Zero Island. On the one hand, it is a place that does not exist in reality and has no physical equivalent.

On the other hand, it plays a colossal role in various types of human activity and is essentially indispensable in the modern world. Because of this, serious disputes even flare up whether to put it on the cards at all.

Mankind knows examples of fictional and intangible objects that have become real. For example, the settlement of Agloe in the state of New York.

It was invented in the 1930s by the founder of the General Drafting publishing house , along with his assistant, to track illegal copying of the company’s cards.

And in the 1950s, a store and a couple of houses appeared on this site, which forced the Delaware County authorities to officially recognize the place (now the settlement has disappeared).

After “Harry Potter” gained worldwide fame, London’s King’s Cross station received the attraction “Platform 9¾”. The human desire to give different places additional meanings is truly limitless.

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The fictional settlement of Agloe in New York State, which once became real

Following this point of view, it is worth rejoicing that the “Zero Island” in the most common coordinate system is located in the middle of the open ocean. Whether it be on land, and even in some at least slightly inhabited area, someone has long opened an amusement park there, or at least a souvenir kiosk.

But so far, travel to the sacred point with the coordinates of 0° north latitude and 0° degrees east longitude is rare. Although unusual cruises have already taken place, and more than once: in 2019, the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser visited Zero Island, and in 2001, the US Coast Guard patrol ship USCGC Sherman .

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