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The island in the Atlantic created by the wrong data

Loading player The ideal point where the equator meets the Greenwich meridian is off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. It is an important place for cartography because it also corresponds to the coordinate point (0,0), the zero degree of latitude and longitude. Here, among the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, is Null Island.

Null Island is an island that does not exist, a geographical myth born due to the particular coordinates in which it could be located. Although there is only the sea, in fact, at the point (0,0) many human activities seem to concentrate, because it has always been used as a geolocation of all those incorrect or partially compiled data. The term null («without value, null»), moreover, is often used to indicate the lack of information in digital archives or in Excel tables.

Null Island exists only virtually, and only potentially, when technology gets wild and a certain event or user is brought back to this stretch of ocean. It also happens with Strava, a well-known fitness application, which in the map where it shows the distribution of its users often indicates a peak of activity right here, on Null Island, at coordinates (0,0). According to the US Library of Congress website, “typos, confused data or even glitches” in geolocation systems are the causes of the island's appearance in online maps.

The island's ability to exist only virtually was the subject of a scientific study (pdf) written by Levente Juhasz (researcher of Geomatics at Florida International University) and Peter Mooney (of Maynooth University), which CityLab recently spoke about. Bloomberg's section dedicated to town planning and cities. Null Island, according to the authors, would be an example of “liminal space”, a type of place “transitory in nature and which has the sole function of connecting other spaces”: in this case, it is a “placeholder for incorrect data in database and digital maps “.

The name Null Island was coined by Steve Pellegrin, data analyst at Tableau, a software company for data visualization, with the intention of “describing the fool with the data.” It was 2008 and the name immediately aroused a lot of interest: that same year a site dedicated to the fictional “Republic of Null Island” was born, which helped to spread its story.

Pellegrin was inspired by an American cartoon that aired in the late 1950s, entitled Colonel Bleep, in which the eponymous character built his own headquarters at the intersection of the equator and the Greenwich meridian, in a place called ” Zero Zero Island ». Born as a joking reference in the geospatial sector, the fame of Null Island also increased thanks to Google, which in 2012 included it on Google Maps as an easter egg, a sort of hidden surprise for those who have enough patience and zeal to find it.

The pandemic also helped make the island famous. When Johns Hopkins University built the online portal with which it monitored the Covid-19 pandemic, it used what is considered the Geographical Center of the United States, located near the town of Lebanon, Kansas, as the standard coordinates for some data. The choice provoked protests from the inhabitants of the area, which prompted the University researchers to change their approach, associating this incomplete data with the coordinates that are most often used in these cases: null (0,0).

This is why, while not existing, Null Island has recorded a large number of Covid-19 cases. For the same reason, although there is obviously no airport, the island often ends up in the maps that are shown on the screens on board airliners, indicated as the destination or departure point of the flight. Finally, Null Island is implicated in many cyber attacks by hackers who use it as a false starting point for their signals.

Thought I was leaving from New Orleans but looks like I caught a flight from Null Island to LAX instead.

– Nate Silver (@ NateSilver538) December 28, 2018

The repeated popping up of this stretch of ocean in online maps has also inspired some conspiracy theories. The same study cited takes its title from a post published on Reddit in 2021, in which a user said he noticed something strange on the site of Helium, a cryptocurrency. Exploring the map of its main users, he had discovered a suspected peak of activity in the heart of the Gulf of Guinea, announcing that he had “discovered a military base in the middle of the ocean”.

Null Island can be considered a virtual and digital version of the so-called “paper towns”, fictitious geographic locations that early twentieth century road map makers inserted into their maps, using them as bait to discover competing companies copying other people's maps. The best-known case of paper town is Agloe, New York, created in 1930 by General Drafting, in a case of a fake so realistic that it prompted someone to open a shop in the area (the “Agloe General Store”), transforming for a few years the invention in reality.

Today there is not much left of Agloe, apart from an advertising sign for the shop itself. On Null Island, however, nothing similar happened, for obvious reasons: the only real thing that is really there is a buoy that is used for marine weather observations.