How Google’s Bad Data Wiped a Neighborhood off the Map
Inside the big, twisted industry of neighborhood data collection
Annette Lott sat through the meeting with studied patience, waiting for the moment city officials would open the floor and she could ask them about Google Maps.
It was late spring in Buffalo, New York, in 2015 — a season that was unusually hot that year, and heated. The wood-paneled meeting room at Gethsemane Grape Street Baptist Church hummed with anxious homeowners from Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where a burgeoning, billion-dollar medical complex threatened to displace them.
Poor folks had called the Fruit Belt home for more than 150 years — first German immigrants, then African-Americans. Lott’s parents bought their pale turquoise two-story house in 1955, moving north from Bluefield, West Virginia, to help build up a community that would become the heart of Buffalo’s black working class.
Now that community was under threat — or so it seemed to Lott. The 66-year-old had Googled directions to her neighborhood and found that the app had changed the name of her community from the “Fruit Belt” to something called “Medical Park.”
Lott learned that the issue had been festering for years, and she wanted answers. The 2,300 residents in the Fruit Belt didn’t refer to the community as “Medical Park,” but Google Maps had done so since the late 2000s. Community members argued the designation was a calculated tweak in favor of gentrification, a digital rechristening that would be used to sell houses, market Airbnbs, and wrest the neighborhood’s future from the people who had made a home there for generations.
Lott didn’t know it at the time, but the misnomer also revealed a great deal about the invisible process major tech firms use to put neighborhoods on their maps — and how decisions based off arcane data sets can affect communities thousands of miles away.
Who erased the Fruit Belt? Lott demanded of officials. What the hell is Medical Park? And how did it get on this map?