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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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December 5, 2006 11:00 AM

Did Google Maps lead CNET editor astray in Oregon?

Posted by Brier Dudley

That's the suggestion of this story about missing editor James Kim.

The message is you can only put so much faith in online map services. The free services can still be pretty crude, especially when you get outside of metro areas where the services have the most customers.

What I'd like to know is whether police asked Google about the Kims' last map searches. Police checked to see when the family last made cellphone calls and used credit cards. Why couldn't they also learn from Google that the family used Google Maps to plot their ill-fated drive through the mountains? They could have checked with the handful of major map services pretty quickly.

Perhaps the online map providers ought to think about response plans for missing persons, developing a way to expedite requests similar to the way they have protocols for responding to subpoenas. How hard would it be to change their terms of service, or ask users if they want to opt-in to a provision that would let the companies provide search histories if there's a personal emergency?

Update: The latest wire story clarifies that the couple used a plain old paper map. The accuracy of online maps is a still an interesting topic, but accuracy and completeness of information is not an issue unique to online services. Another question coming up is whether the map the Kims used had a warning about winter conditions. From the latest AP story at 10:23 a.m. Wednesday:

"Kati Kim told officers they were traveling south from Portland on Interstate 5 and missed the turnoff to a state highway, Oregon 42, that leads through the Coast Range to Gold Beach, where they planned to stay at a resort.

Officers said the couple used a map to choose the road they were on. ``They got the map out _ a regular highway map _ that showed the route,'' Anderson said.

However, it wasn't clear whose map the couple used. The 2005-2007 state highway map distributed by the Oregon Department of Transportation has a warning in red print, inside a red box: ``This route closed in winter.'' A Rand-McNally map did not have a similar warning."

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