Null Island: Where Geocoding Errors Go to Live

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Null Island is a fictional island located at the confluence of the Equator (zero degrees Latitude) and the Prime Meridian (zero degrees longitude):

Who invented Null Island?

The concept of designating a one square kilometer area that falls in an open ocean area near the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa was made popular by the creators of Natural Earth, which offers public domain GIS data bundles free for downloading.  

No one knows for sure who the originator of using the coordinates 0,0 for geocoding errors. References to the term Null Island predate the adoption by the developers of Natural Earth.

What is the purpose of Null Island?

Null Island was designated for troubleshooting purposes as a way to flag geocoding failures. Since Null Island is a remote location found over open waters off the coast of Africa, this was an ideal place to “map” errant location data.


Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!
Email:  

Fantasy maps about null island

A tongue-in-cheek website celebrated Null Island (website no longer active), proclaiming it “like no place on Earth.”

Although the site invited curious travelers to come visit the island, if you were inclined to make the trip to this spot 1,600 kilometers off the coast of Africa, all you might find is a weather observation buoy which is part of the Prediction and Research Moored Array (PIRATA) in the Atlantic.

Null Island at one point enjoyed an active Twitter presence: “Null Island is an ephemeral geography, a foggy ship of state sailing thru autumn mists, surrounded by sirens and map cherubs. Null geocodes, welcome home.”

What is Null Island modeled after?

Incidentally, the outline for Null Island was taken from the fantasy game, Myst Island:

A black and white simple map of "Null Island"
Map of Null Island, 2013, CC BY-NC 4.0

Other “null island” locations

Null Island isn’t the only location that geocoding errors are designated.  Kenneth Field did a little digging on alternate Null Islands and collected 5,716 locations of “all Null Islands, Null Lakes and even a Null Black Hole that represents the edge of the event horizon where no-one can hear your coordinates scream.”  

Referring to them collectively as Nill Points, the online map maps out the comparative 0,0 locations pulled from different projection and coordinate systems.

nill-points

When “null island” mapping creates problems

A cautionary tale about creating custom Null Islands made the news when developers for the Los Angele Police Department’s online crime mapping application, designated a default location around the corner from City Hall.  

This artificially boosted crime rates for that area when 1,380 crimes (4% of the total crimes for that city) with undecipherable addresses were geocoded to the 200 block of West 1st Street.  The problematic mapping went undetected until the Los Angeles Times raised a red flag about the mapping.

This article was originally written on February 16, 2016 and has since been updated.

See Also

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.