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Google maps out North Korea with crowd-sourced data

A map of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, before the addition of crowd-sourced data (left) and after the addition of crowd-sourced data (right.)Google

While Google Maps feels like a solid mapping solution, it has some blank spots —  particularly when it comes to regions such as North Korea. But that's all changing thanks to a group of "citizen cartographers" and a tool which allows Google to incorporate crowd-sourced map data into its product.

As Jayanth Mysore, a senior product manager working on the Google Map Maker project, explains in a post on the official Google Maps blog, the Map Maker tool has been around since 2008 and allowed users to "update the maps of the areas they know, and improve their level of detail and accuracy." Crowdsourced data like this is how Google "will build the modern map," Mysore adds, reiterating that without these details, map data is currently "very limited" in some parts of the world.

Efforts to map out North Korea have been made over the last few years, but on Monday, Google was finally ready to officially update the region on Google Maps. "We know this map is not perfect," Mysore acknowledges. "We encourage people from around the world to continue helping us improve the quality of these maps for everyone with Google Map Maker." He adds that, from now on, any further "approved" updates to the North Korean maps will also appear on Google Maps.

The Wall Street Journal's Evan Ramstad points out that the update of North Korea on Google Maps comes about three weeks after Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt visited the area (though a Google spokesperson tells NBC News that the visit was unrelated to the timing of the Google Maps update). During his time in the country, "Schmidt encouraged officials he met in North Korea to make the Internet available to its citizens and end its attempts to restrict information," Ramstad writes. The Verge's Sam Byford reminds that Internet access in North Korea remains quite restricted nonetheless, and that odds are that the "vast majority of North Korean citizens" won't be able to access Google's freshly updated maps.

The crowd-sourced cartography includes mass transit, monuments and parks, as well as North Korea's massive gulags, which are signified on Google Maps with a slightly different shading.  As the Atlantic notes, "Naturally, the Hwasong Gulag, like any place on Google, already has some jokesters reviewing its accommodations." 

Mysore dances around these detail in his blog post, and instead focuses on who will be able to take advantage of the information. "While many people around the globe are fascinated with North Korea," he writes, "these maps are especially important for the citizens of South Korea who have ancestral connections or still have family living there."

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