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Some Aspects of the Reliability of Information on the
Web
Narayanan Kulathuramaiyer
(Faculty of Computer Science and Information Technology, University of Malaysia Sarawak
Kota Samarahan, Malaysia
nara@fit.unimas.my)
Hermann Maurer
(Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media. Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
hmaurer@iicm.edu)
Rizwan Mehmood
(Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media. Graz University of Technology
Graz, Austria
rmehmood@iicm.tu-graz.ac.at)
Abstract: When we look up information in the WWW we hope to find information that is
correct, fitting in quantity for our purposes and written at a level that we can understand.
Unfortunately, very often one of the above criteria will not be met. A young person looking for
information on some aspect of physics may well be frustrated when finding a complex formula
whose understanding requires higher mathematics. In other cases, information may be much
too voluminous or too short. This seems to indicate that what we need is presentation of
material at various levels of detail and complexity. But most important of all, and this is what
we are going to discuss in this paper is: how do we know that what we read is actually true? We
will analyse this problem in the introductory section. We will show that it is impossible to
expect “too much”. We will argue that some improvements can be made, particularly if the
domain is restricted. We will then examine certain types of geographical information. Detailed
research shows that some quantitative measurements like the area of a country or the highest
mountains of a country, even if different sources disagree, can be verified by explaining why
the discrepancies occur and by trusting numbers if they are identical in very different databases.
Keywords: Reliability of information, verification of information, checking facts, statistical
techniques, heuristic approaches
Categories: H.1, H.3. H.4, L.1, L.4, L.6
1 Introduction
The main aim of this paper is to consider how true (or reliable) information is that we
find using some search engine, some special services, Wikipedia, or other databases.
First of all it is necessary to understand that in many cases an objective truth does
not exist. After all, many things like historical events or actions of persons can be
interpreted in one way or another. Has Lenin’s work on communism helped mankind
or caused catastrophic events? Has the discovery of nuclear energy made the world a
Journal of Universal Computer Science, vol. 20, no. 9 (2014), 1284-1303
submitted: 27/6/14, accepted: 29/8/14, appeared: 1/9/14 © J.UCS
better or a more dangerous place? Is the internet turning us into dummies [Maurer et
al. 2014] or is it helping us to achieve new levels of knowledge?
Clearly this list can be expanded arbitrarily: in many cases there is no objective
truth but there are just different views of seeing the same event, person, phenomenon
etc. The second author has already tried to explain many years ago in [Maurer 2004]
that if we want to understand something well we have to look at it from different
angles. While this fact is well accepted for physical objects (how can we know what a
coin looks like when we don’t look at both sides?) it is unfortunately less clear to
most persons that it is also necessary to look at abstract things like ideas from
different points of view to fully comprehend them. Thus, in many cases whenever we
find some piece of information it will only represent a single point of view or an
opinion. The situation is worse, since the opinion may be from someone not
knowledgeable in the area at issue, or presents only a partial view either intentionally
or not, or even a lie or a distorted view of whatever is being described.
Hence we believe that it is fair to say: If we want to understand any moderately
complex issue we have to examine more than one source.
In the past, a number of top universities like [Cornell 2014] and [Utexas 2014]
have started to list some criteria to allow to judge the reliability of a Web page. It is
interesting to note that in all cases the first of the criteria is that the source should be
known, telling us much about the expected quality or potential tainting of facts. Better
still, we should be able to contact whoever is behind a statement and to engage the
author(s) in a discussion. After all the information is on the Web that provides easy
ways to discuss and communicate. Hence, should we not discourage anonymous
postings completely? Well, the situation may not be that easy. After all, there is a
reason why some organisations still allow the use of a box where one can drop
suggestions or complaints anonymously. Thus we feel that anonymous postings are
ok in order to protect the reputation or safety of persons but should be banned
completely from serious information sites. This statement has been made against
major information providers such as Wikipedia by some of us repeatedly. Note in
passing that anonymity makes it easier to be sloppy, since no one has to take
responsibility for whatever is being spread.
Thus, complex issues need to be presented by knowledgeable persons from
different angles. However, are there not many issues that can be settled with a definite
no or yes answer or a figure, hence should we not be able to get correct and
trustworthy information in such cases? Unfortunately, even for answers to questions
whose answer is a yes, a no, or a quantitative measurement we found that WWW
servers turn out to be unreliable in the sense of giving differing answers. Again, there
can be a variety of reasons for why the answer may be either deliberately (in
particular to gain an advantage for a product, just to mention one “application”) or by
some coincidence to be wrong. It may be eye-opening to mention some real cases: On
checking with the most widely used search engine for the “boiling point of Radium”
at the time of writing we found a range of answers (in degrees Kelvin): 1413, 1809,
1973, and 2010. Of course one may argue that the “boiling point of Radium” is not
such an essential quantity for most of us. However, when checking the edibility of a
special wild mushroom we found three entries describing it as “delicate edible
fungus” but also two entries stating it as “deadly poisonous”. Since that mushroom
has a long tradition as a delicacy in Europe we really wondered about the truth in such
1285Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
remarks and did some serious research. It turns out that in all sources that were
written before 2005 this mushroom was considered good for eating. After this,
statements became more negative. The reason is this: after a meal involving the
mushrooms two persons died. It has been suspected that this was due to the
mushrooms. Hence they are now labelled as “deadly poisonous”. However, when
thousands of other people had eaten that mushroom without any ill effects before,
should one not at most state: “It seems that in rare cases some potentially life
threatening allergic reaction is possible” (as is done for peanuts, milk-products, etc.)
To put it more mildly: truth keeps changing. At some stage the world was
considered flat and the sun circling the world; someone was considered a witch for
curious reason and had to be burned at a stake; swans were considered as prime
example for “white” for ages [Taleb 2007]; Pluto was once considered a planet, atoms
indivisible, etc., etc. In considering the notion of truth which can change dynamically
with times and circumstances, there is a need to watch with caution the manipulative
projection of truth as a means to gain symbolic power. Algorithmic approaches are
now capable of emphasizing subjective relationships that can automatically be
determined based on usage patterns. Baker & Potts (2013) have described situations
where degrading auto-complete suggestions were listed whenever the name of
particular user names were typed in a search engine. These situations are common to
all search tools that offer the auto-complete suggestion service. Linking a user name
to derogatory terms such as conman and fraud [Baker & Potts, 2013] and other terms
that result from mere rumors that becomes easily spread on the web [Niggemeier,
2012] can thus become a serious concern. There have even been cases where
companies such as Google have been sued for defamatory auto-suggestions.
Such a service can be further exploited for performing a character assassination of
individuals. Google has been known to remove auto-suggestions, but it does not
vigilantly watch out for emerging associations. The web has thus produced a new
form of meaning creation [Baker & Potts, 2013]. The traces of character-strings left
by users in performing searches, are in themselves meaning-creating; sequences of
letters in a trace can become leads to the selected search directions for other users. By
trying to provide a useful service, this approach enables search engines to influence
directly the search process of users.
[Baker & Potts, 2013] also point out that negative stereotyping of vulnerable
groups is an unavoidable consequence of such common actions that arises from
collective consciousness of a large enough number of users. In efforts to predict
things that a user may find interesting or is likely to search for, search engines are
presenting suggestions that may include product-oriented links (see Fig. 1), cultural
biases or even unexpected connections. Curious users may select unexpected links,
mainly as an exploration of its validity or its source and therefore inadvertently
reinforcing their importance. At the same time it is also highly likely that users
become distracted and drift away from the original search intent. Search engine are
thus indirectly re-shaping the reality for many users. The original small group of users
who establish a correlation between terms are thus able to shape the search experience
of millions of users.
1286 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
Figure 1: Results of Auto-Complete suggestions
[Baker & Potts, 2013] also demonstrate the stereotypical framing of questions
asked by users which reflect biased opinions on social groups relating to factors such
as race, gender, religion. Even if only a small number of users asked an initial
question on some social groups, interesting connections are attractive enough to catch
on and become a buzz on the Web.
Information providers play an important role in shaping the reality for millions of
users. The billions of daily searches tend to have a severe implication on the lives of
people. Many new users start to fully trust he rapid answers that the Web is able to
provide. Auto-suggestions as described above becomes a powerful medium that
intervenes strategically in the intention-specification stage of searching. In this
process this service guides the articulation of intentions leading to fast and easy
predicted (and orchestrated) ‘relevant answers’.
By providing a standard shallow answer that could even be directed by business
motives this can kill the spirit of inquiry and leave users in a worse situation than
before the search was performed. Distorting reality by restricting and manipulating
user perception [Couldry, 2003] and in a way indirectly altering the recording of
history [Witten et al., 2007] is irresponsible and can be extremely dangerous [Weber,
2006]. The internet revolution has thus failed miserably in its promise of “bringing
more truth to more people, more depth of information, more global perspective and
more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observer” as described in [Keen, 2007, pg.
16].
The question of whose responsibility it is to protect the interest of vulnerable
groups or to protect users from the spread of dangerous sentiments or beliefs is yet to
be resolved. Issues of reliability of information and notions and truth, the
accountability for providing them and the resulting consequences have to be studied
and carefully addressed.
Though no solution exists at this moment, why can’t the power of massive
collaboration systems be used to address this in a meaningful way? We believe that
indeed collaboration and involving “the crowd” should be able to play an important
1287Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
role here. A discussion on this idea is presented in [Kulathuramaiyer and Maurer,
2014]
Acquiring reliable knowledge and inquisitive searching for truth are pre-requisite
core research skills for learning to understand the world or specific issues.
Information providing sources should explore ways of engaging communities in
scholarly pursuits that helps to nurture these traits. Responsible information sources
should be distinguished and recognized for providing alternative measures of
reliability or by providing exploratory directions. In any case the source of
information has to be duly considered, scrutinized and made known to users. This has
to be done for all forms of information, including facts considered as ‘taken for
granted’.
Being particularly motivated about the perception of truth is a characteristic that
cannot be compromised, particularly when it comes to scholarly activities. Such
motivation which closely relates to inquisitiveness and passion for knowledge, is now
being replaced by an acceptance of stereotypical ideas and the focusing on the
trivialities as propagated by social media through repeated posts and reposts. As users
are being left in a distracted state of not even able to able acquire the intended
information directly, we do have a daunting task ahead.
Another related area which relates to the notion of truth is seen in rating systems.
In these systems collective human judgment is used as a basis for ranking of sites,
services and information clips or media units. These rating services that are capable
of providing truth ratings are being subject to malicious activities, multiple identity
attacks and the orchestrated ratings by buying in users [Molavi Kakhki, et al., 2013].
As progress into these research areas continue, we have to take steps in engaging the
users and motivating them to consider more seriously the accuracy of perceived truth
notions.
Ways to prevent users from consuming information that constitute partial truths
of non-diligently controlled sources needs to be explored. The notion of truth needs to
be re-emphasized and ‘discovery of truth’ needs to once again become a core activity.
Information providing sites should take into consideration different needs of
users, rather to propagate popular directions only. As an illustration, we note that even
for those searching for information on tallest mountains the desired outcome may be
either:
 An approximate answer is all that this needed
 A single reliable answer is sufficient but it has to be within a context
 A comparative analysis of all possible facets of answers with an indication of
sources is required for research purpose
 An overview of discourses within a trusted community to help validate and
verify the best answer, as best as possible.
On the search for more clearly answerable questions we considered the following:
What is the largest cave? What is the biggest river? How high is the highest mountain
on moon? Should there not be clear answers to such “quantitative” questions? No, in
each case!
After all, what does “largest” in connection with “cave” mean: the longest from
entrance to where it ends (even if this is accepted: is a single straight cave 10 km in
length considered longer than one that branches into 6 caves with each being over 5
1288 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
km long?), the highest (in what sense? How far a stone could drop vertically or rather
the difference of the elevation of one point and another point?) Or do we mean the
cave with the largest volume, etc. The “largest river” … do we mean length (and what
if parts of the river have different names), or do we mean the water flow (Maximum
flow? Average flow?) The question about the highest mountain on the moon is
particularly funny: Since we measure height usually form the level of oceans we are
in trouble on the moon where there are no water oceans. So do we measure the height
relative to the lowest point “nearby” (is “nearby” 2, 5 or 150 km?), or do we convert
the moon into an abstract sphere (by “filling lower parts with material from higher
parts”) and measure from the surface of that sphere?
The important point to note is that we are often asking questions that are illdefined and are based on measurements as if it is possible to describe important facts
by just one figure: how can we quantify the most beautiful woman, or the most
intelligent human, or the best athlete (are you as lost as we are when we have to
compare a top golfer with a top mountaineer?).
As a consequence, if we want to talk about reliability of a WWW page or WWW
sites we have to be very modest. As a key step in this direction, this paper checks the
reliability of geographic information of basic quantitative information. Our findings
reveal that these quantitative measures do not exist independently of historical
developments, evolving geographical boundaries and current state of affairs and the
dominant forces of change. These associated developments tend to become ignored or
overlooked, in a number of cases either inadvertently or deliberately. We will present
in what follows a project whose aim is to set up a server for geographic information
that is reliable to some extent. More specifically, we collect information (or links to
information) from a number of reliable sources starting with sources 1: [Factbook
2014], 2: [DBpedia 2014], 3: [GeoNames 2014] and a number of special sites like
[UNESCO 2014]. We then compare the information obtained and check it against
other sources like 4: [Infoplease 2014], 5: [Britannica 2014], 6: [WolframAlpha
2014], and others.
We can only do this for selected types of information but even so we ran into
unexpected difficulties. If we find an agreement between all or almost all sources we
assume that the information is correct and we display it. Otherwise we list the
different results while, trying to guess why the discrepancies occur, but are dependent
on the community to complete our job in many cases.
In Section 2 we explain our main approach a bit more carefully, then present in
Sections 3-5 three different topics that we checked. Section 6 is a short conclusion.
2 Trying to test reliability of information in a special case
We started a project to set up a server “Geography of the world”.[Geography 2014].
We initially imported the information on all countries listed in [Factbook 2014]
covered by the topics “Introduction”, “Geography”, “People and Society”,
“Government”, “Economy” , “Energy”, “Communications” and “Transportation”,
but omitted more contentious and rather time dependent parts like “Military” and
“Transnational issues”. However, we introduced additional categories “Culture”,
“Pictures”, “Special items” and “Please provide help.” Under “Culture” we imported
for each country data (or links) to all UNESCO heritage sites from the server
1289Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
[UNESCO 2014], and similarly information on Nobel Prize laureates from
[Nobelprize 2014]. Awardees of the Wolf prize from the [Wolf Foundation 2014],
of Fields fellows from [Fields 2014] and Field medallists from [Areppim 2014] and
others from reliable list will follow. We hope to also add further information to other
areas in the future, partially by appealing to the community.
The entry “Pictures” is supposed to give a pictorial overview of each country by
providing a selection of an average of 100 pictures per country: some of them are
taken from [Factbook 2014] when available, with many others coming from
elsewhere.
The entry “Special items” is reserved to report on potentially interesting and
unusual facts about each country, to present maps, important links, etc.
The entry “Please provide help” is a plea to the community to improve and add
information. Mind you, all information obtained will be screened by an editorial team
whose composition will be publicized.
However, most emphasis is placed by us on checking the data under “Geography”
for all countries or expanding the data to some extent. The first major three steps are
described in the next three sections: We decided to check the information on square
kilometres for each country (Section 3) and were in for some surprises. We added
major cities to each country (Section 4) and major mountains (Section 5), provided
that mountains above 1000 meters do occur in that country. In each case more than
one source was used to extract the information, and other sources were used to verify
them as has been alluded to in Section 1.
If all this sounds simple it is not. Remember, we are concentrating on information
concerning countries, so we need a list all countries for consideration. [Factbook
2014] lists 263 items under “countries”. Yet a first look shows that many of them are
not countries: “Antarctica” does not qualify, nor do the “Ashmore and Cartier islands”
(a group of uninhabited small islands and reefs belonging to Australia, located North
of the continent and South of Timor), or “Jersey”, one of the British channel islands,
etc. etc. Another problem is in the naming of countries. While Italia (official name)
might be easily distinguished from its German version Italien or its English version
Italy, some cases become very complicated due to the different transcription from
other languages and alphabets: Azerbaijan and Aserbaidschan do at least sound
similar, yet that this country was at some stage called Albania (!) can be quite
confusing (since Albania now, for many years, denotes a small country on the SW
Balkan). Some transcriptions of Russian or Arabic names are hardly recognizable, and
countries may have changed their name, like Burma to Myanmar (a problem still
more severe when it comes to cities). We find in [Factbook 2014] North Korea and
South Korea, although their official names are “Democratic Republic of Korea” and
“Republic of Korea”, respectively, (the attribute “democratically” is misused for
“communistic” as it is in connection with a number of names of countries). Thus, we
need a more solid list of country names. So why not use the list of 193 of UN
countries [UN 2014]? Unfortunately, this is not satisfactory either. Although Taiwan
(officially the “Republic of China on Taiwan”) has all the trimmings of a country like
passports, visas, government, flag, national anthem etc., it is not a UN country due to
the opposition of mainland China (the “one china policy”). On the other hand, Sudan
is a UN country but has not existed as a single country for some time, since it has
been divided into North and South Sudan with continuing border disputes. Many
1290 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
countries are recognized as such at some stage, but not uniformly enough to be
accepted by the UN. The republic of Cyprus, a UN country, has de jure control of the
whole island, yet 41% of it is claimed and occupied by Turkey as Turkish Republic of
Cyprus, recognized as state only by Turkey. There are many similar situations.
Despite the problems mentioned with the UN classification we have decided to
use this one as the best, yet not an ideal alternative. In our project “country” therefore
means country by UN definition; we call all other 71 entries in [Factbook 2014]
“territories”. Note that the entry “Special items” allows us to include also special
cases as just mentioned.
Let us now turn to consider the reliability of area specifications (in square
kilometres) of all countries.
3 Area of countries
Before looking at details let us point out that even the definition of area of a country is
done in a rather arbitrary way: what is not counted is not the actual area that one
obtains by counting every square meter that can be viewed, but what is counted is the
area of the projection of the surface of the country on a plane. Putting it differently,
because of slopes or mountains, the viewable area may be considerably larger than the
area of projection. To be concrete, consider an area that shows on a map as 40 times
40 square meters (i.e. 1.600 square meters in projection) that is on a slope rising 30
meters high, then the actual area for e.g. a meadow on this part of land is (by
Pythagoras theorem) 2.000 square meters! Clearly, the steeper the incline, the more
the projection will differ from the viewable area of the object: With high and almost
vertical cliffs the difference can clearly be dramatic. Of course it also critical whether
the area of inland lakes or even parts of the ocean claims are included. And different
servers use different criteria! Let us add another curiosity: Countries may have very
large cave systems whose area is never taken into account when talking about the area
of a country. Extreme cases may be the Carlsbad Caverns in new Mexico which are
not only comparable in size to the gigantic Mulu caves system of Borneo, but some of
its area, hundreds of meters below the ground is used commercially, e.g. for a
veritable super market… with an elevator directly back to the surface!
We have discussed this issue at some length to reiterate that we are all the time
using terminology without giving much thought to what terms really mean and that
statements of areas that are exact to the last digit do not make sense. It may be
surprising: but there is (as has been explained) no internationally agreed way to
measure the size of a country in square kilometres. Therefore we consider the figures
for the area of a country correct, if they differ by at most 1/10 of one percent.
Above sounds reasonable (does it?). However, we have to be more careful with
our definition. We use sources, call them s(1), s(2),…, s(6). We choose in the tables
to follow the “average approach”: we find the average of the 6 numbers, call it av, i.e.
av= (s(1)+s(2)+…+s(6))/6 ; we then take 1/10 of one percent of av, let us call it y, i.e
y = av/1000 and calculate for each source s(i) (i=1, 2, …, 6) the value z(i) = abs (s(i)
–av)/y. We define the Difference as the maximum of the 6 values s(i), rounded to an
integer. When the Difference is not more than 1 we consider that the six
measurements agree.
1291Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
It might be useful to given an example. Suppose we find for a country the
following square kilometre measurements: 100.000, 100.300, 100.300, 99.700,
100.000, and 99.700. Then av= 100.000, hence y= 100 and hence Difference= max (0,
3, 3, 3, 0, 3) = 3. Putting it differently, if the Difference is 10 or less i.e. discrepancies
do not exceed 1% we do not need to worry too much. Still, what is the reason that so
many UN country measurements differ at all?
Using Difference=1 as upper threshold we find that all sources 1-6 agree for all
countries except the 82 of the 193 UN countries, a number whose size that may come
as surprise. If we consider Difference=10 as threshold we still find 41 countries
whose area in square kilometres differs according to the sources by more than 1%.
For a list of all UN countries see [UN 2014], we list below for brevity only those in
Europe ones with a Difference>1.
Country Factbook Dbpedia Geoname Infoplease Britannica Wolfram
Difference
Croatia 56594 56594 56542 56542 56954 56594 6
Cyprus 9251 9251 9250 3571 5896 9251 194
Finland 338145 338242 337030 338145 390903 338145 127
France 643801 674843 547030 547030 543965 551500 154
Ireland 70273 84421 70280 70280 70273 70273 162
Liechtenstein 160 160 160 161 160 160 5
Macedonia 25713 - 25333 25333 25713 25713 6
Malta 316 316 316 321 315 316 14
Montenegro 13812 12999 14026 14026 13812 13812 20
Netherlands 41543 41541 41526 41526 41850 41543 6
Norway 323802 385183 324220 324220 385186 323802 118
Serbia 77474 88360 88361 77474 77498 77474 89
United
Kingdom 243610 243610 244820 244820 243073 243610 4
Now let us consider some of the above cases with a Difference of 10 or more. We
have managed to find out why the differences occur in some cases, but do hope for
further results from experts we are consulting with and from the community. The
numbers in brackets show the difference.
In Europe we find Cyprus (194), Finland (127), France (154), Ireland (162),
Malta (14), Montenegro (20), Norway (118) and Serbia (89). We explain why we get
discrepancies in square kilometers for a few of above cases. On our server we will
clarify of course many more cases than the few samples we present in this paper.
Cyprus 9251 9251 9250 3571 5896 9251 194
Cyprus really consists of four parts: The Southern part, the Northern (Turkish)
part, the demilitarized zone in-between, and two small areas Akrotiri and Dhekelia
that are part of the “British Overseas Territory on Cyprus”. The total area of the island
1292 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
is around 9250 km² as listed in sources 1, 2 ,3 and 6 and others like in [Countrycode
2014] and [Worldbank 2014]. Source 4 lists the area of around 3570 km² which is
reasonably close to the area of Northern (Turkish) Cyprus which other sources list
with a bit less: 3.350 km². Source 5 gives the area of Southern (Greek) Cyprus at
around 5900. The last two figures add up to exactly 9250. Two minor problems
remain: where do the extra 220 km² come from in Source 4, and where is the area of
Akrotiri and Dhekelia (with some 250 km²) plus the area of the demilitarized zone
taken into account? It seems clear that those comparatively small areas are bundled
into the other figures in different ways in the ten sources that we consulted is not
obvious. One of the many cases where the community may provide help!
Finland 338145 338242 337030 338145 390903 338145 127
Finland is listed with about 338.150 km² in Sources 1, 2, 4 and 6 and is close to
the 338.420 km² as the most reliable reference source in German [Brockhaus 2014]
and [Countrycode 2014] are quoting. The figures include the area of lakes (roughly
34.500 km²) which seems reasonable. [Worldbank 2014] gives only around 304.000,
i.e. is not counting the lakes. The scattering of islands (like Aland-island 40 km off
the Swedish coast that belong to Finland) and lakes is likely to explain the difference
of 1.200 km² with source 3. However, the large figure in entry 5 is obtained by adding
in some 52.000 km² of ocean also claimed by Finland! Note that this poses a new
problem: should the parts of the ocean claimed by a country added to its area? It
seems that most sources do not, but Britannica seems to do it in some cases!
France 643801 674843 547030 547030 543965 551500 154
For France, source 5 (Britannica) gives the smallest area. This agrees exactly with
the area in [Brockhaus 2014]: It follows the French Land register data that excludes
lakes, ponds and glaciers larger than 1 km² and the estuaries of rivers. This is very
much in contrast to how the figures are arrived at for Finland. Including bodies of
water the French National Geographic Institute arrives at the figure in source 6 above.
Those figures do include the area of the island of Corsica but do not include overseas
departments and oversea territories. If one counts them in, a figure higher than
640.000 is obtained. None of the figures include the 320.000 km² of Antarctica where
sovereignty has been suspended since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The
main overseas regions (listed by their rough size in brackets) are French Guiana
(83.0000), Réunion (2.500), Guadeloupe (1.600), Martinique (1.100), Mayotte (370),
Saint Pierre and Miquelon (240). The overseas territories are New Caledonia
(19.000), French Southern and Antarctic Lands (7.600, the largest Kerguelen Island
7.200), French Polynesia (over 100 island with a total of 3.500), Wallis and Futuna
(140). With a few very small islands (like St. Martin and St. Barth) still missing and
various places having different political status it becomes clear why there are
discrepancies in the figures. For completeness let us mention that the figure in
[Countrycode 2014] agrees with Source 1, in [Worldbank 2014] with Source 3.
The situations concerning other European countries with large Difference are
easy to explain. In case of Ireland the two essentially different figures come from
whether the whole island or only the Republic of Ireland (without the British North) is
1293Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
counted. The disagreement of over 60.000 km² in some figures for Norway just comes
from whether Spitzbergen and nearby islands are counted as part of Norway or not.
The figures in Serbia differ by 10.800 km² depending on whether one counts Kosovo
as part of Serbia or as separate country. A particular curious case (that is not even
listed above) is Denmark. All 6 Sources (see [UN 2014] assign some 43.000 km² to it,
but ignore the over 2 million square kilometers of Greenland that is an “autonomous
country of the Kingdom of Denmark”: It does belong to Denmark in a strong sense
yet is not mentioned as part of Denmark nor accepted as a UN country! An interesting
side-remark: in [Factbook 2014] Greenland is listed as a territory of North America,
something most Europeans would certainly not agree on!
Having looked at European countries in some detail it has become clear that
differences in areas of countries are due to three reasons: political aspects (like is
Kosovo part of Serbia or not), are remote regions (often with slightly different status
considered or not: Spitzbergen for Norway, Falkland for UK, oversea territories for
France, Greenland for Denmark, etc.) and finally, are inland waters and glaciers or
even parts of the Ocean (like in Finland or the waterways at the tip of South America
or the deep bays in Vavau, the northernmost island group of Tonga) counted or not.
Consequently, when looking up even something as simple as the area of a country or
territory the figures you should not use them without further investigation. It is for
this reason that we have developed a tool that allows to take a map and determine the
area inside a curve you have drawn, allowing to check figures yourself. While we
have used a first prototype of the tool for clarifying some instances we will return to
the value of such a tool when made available to the public in a future paper.
We now look briefly at some other parts of the world starting with Africa, and
again only looking at some cases with big discrepancies.
Comoros 2235 2235 2170 2170 1862 2235 39
Comoros is geographical an archipelago and set of reefs that originally was a
colony of France. The largest part (shown by the figure of source 5) became
independent in 1975 but with much political unrest afterwards. One island, Mayotte,
remained with France and actually became an overseas department on 31 March 2011
and an “Outermost region of the European Union” on 1 January 2014. Add its 373
km² to the figure of source 5 and you get exactly the figures of Sources 1, 2 and 6
which do not reflect the political reality. The figures of Sources 3 and 4 probably
come from adding to 1862 km² the area of small islets like the Banc du Geyser, a reef
claimed by Comoros, France and Madagascar, of Glorioso Islands and others with
political unclear status. [Countrycode 2014] agrees with Source 1, [Worldbank 2014]
with 5.
Chad 1000000 1283994 1284000 1284000 1284000 1284000 38
Niger 1000000 1267000 1267000 1267000 1267000 1267000 36
In both cases, [Factbook 2014] seems to consider the official boundaries of those
countries between themselves and Lybia somewhat artificially drawn in literally
lifeless Sahara, too ill-defined so it just lists a rough estimate. The figures of all other
1294 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
Sources including [Brockhaus 2014], [Countrycode 2014] and [Worldbook 2014]
agree!
Gambia, The 11295 10689 11300 11300 11632 11295 34
Except for Source 2 there is agreement that Gambia has about 11.300 km², a
figure also supported by [Brockhaus 2014], [ BBC 2014] and [Countrycode 2014].
That Source 2 lists 10689 (like the English Wikipedia) despite the fact that the
German Wikipedia and the French Wikipedia also list what the others say again
shows that not only general reports but also quantitative facts vary between versions
of Wikipedia! That the usually reliable [Worldbank 2014] also reports a figure
significantly below 11.000 explains the lower figures: They ignore the area of inland
water ([Worldbank 2014] always does), but is a particularly tricky affair in case of
Gambia, since most of the inland water is the long and wide mouth of the river. Hence
there is really no clear distinction between the fresh water river and the deep ocean
bay!
For the purpose of this paper let us finish this section by discussion three
countries of Asia with very large differences:
Georgia 69700 0 69700 69700 69700 153900 778
Bhutan 38394 38394 47000 47000 38394 38394 139
Oman 309500 309498 212460 212460 309500 309500 117
Pakistan 796095 796095 803940 803940 881889 796095 85
The case Georgia is easy to explain: The size is definitely 69.700. The figure
153.900 was given by Wolfram as the size of the USA state Georgia! By correctly
specifying not just Georgia but Country Georgia Wolfram also yields 69.700.
Bhutan has been found in 8 additional sources also with 38.394 km². Using
[Natural Earth 2014], [Daftlogic 2014] and [Freemaptools 2014] (one of which will
be incorporated into our project) we also found roughly 39.000 km². Only in the
French Wikipedia the mysterious figure 47.000 appears. The explanation may be that
there are some 6.500 km² that are contentious between China and Bhutan: counting
those to Bhutan would make the difference.
Oman is listed by 4 of the 6 sources with an area of 309.500. This agrees with
other geography books we have checked. We have used area measurement tools
mentioned above and have obtained also around 310.000 km². Hence the significantly
lower figures in Source 3 and 4 can just be considered as wrong: there is a bit of
trouble with Yemen in the South but certainly no area has been seized by Yemen at
the time of writing.
For Pakistan the dominating figure (Sources 1, 2 and 6) is 796.095 km², yet two
sources are about 7.000 km² higher, and Source 5 even an astounding 85.000 km².
The reason for this is how much of “Jamnu and Kashmir” belongs to Pakistan, how
much to India. Additionally, the boundary in the North to China is not clear at all, but
there is almost continuous fighting at altitudes over 4.000 m, actually more between
India and China than Pakistan and China!
1295Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
Figure 2: Pakistan (Map taken from [Natural Earth 2014], the dark part is the
contentious area of Kashmir)
Let us just briefly mention some points concerning the territories which are not in
[UN 2014]:
Jan Mayen 377 373 - - - 62045 1964
Svalbard 62045 61022 - - - 62045 6
Jan Mayen is a small (about 375 km²) island that belongs to Norway. It is situated
North of Iceland, East of Greenland and Southwest of Spitzbergen. For the latter
reason it is sometimes mentioned together with Spitzbergen (whose Norwegian name
is Svalbard), despite the fact that Spitzbergen is more loosely connected to Norway
than Jan Mayen is. See the discussion of Spitzbergen and size of Norway under
European countries.
Greenland 2166086 2165512 2166086 341701 2166086 2166000 163
The area of Greenland is indeed what all Sources above except one indicate, and
is an autonomous region of Denmark as explained earlier. The much larger figure of
over 3 million km² can only be obtained if part of Northern Canada (Ellesmeere
Island) is included, that is indeed not far West of Greenland. Note that Europa
considers Greenland definitely part of Europe, but (according to [Factbook 2014]) it is
part of North America. It is also worth noting that [Worldbank 2014] gives only an
area of 410.450 km², i.e. discounts all areas covered by deep ice.
Let us finish with a curiosity:
British Indian Ocean
Territory 54400 54400 60 220 - - 995
1296 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
This territory today only comprises some small islands and reefs. The area
indicated includes all the ocean surrounding a total of less than 100 km² of land
including Diego Garcia, now a US naval base.
We will not discuss further countries in this paper, but our server will of course
have many more comments, explanations and pleas for help!
4 Some cities of countries ranked by population size
In this section we use three as primary sources for information and checking:
Wolfram, Geonames and Infoplease, but will also again involve manual checks
against e.g. [Brockhaus 2014] or other language Wikipedias.
In ranking cities in a country we run into two major problems:
First, the names of cities may be quite different. “Wroclaw” and “Breslau” are the
same city in Poland and both names are still in international use. Both “Wien” and
“Vienna” as names for the capital of Austria are acceptable. We have (new) Mumbai
and (former) Bombay, the old name having almost disappeared, Louangpraban und
Lunang Prabang as second largest city of the state officially called “Sathalanalat
Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao of the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos”, etc.
Second, population counts often reflect the number of people at different
moments in time which can possibly lead to a change of ranking.
Third, and often most serious, sometimes a name stands for a part of the
community and the whole community. A typical case is Auckland in New Zealand.
Up to 2010, the “City of Auckland” with some 400.000 inhabitants was the biggest
city of New Zealand, yet the Metropolitan area Auckland (to which people usually
referred to) was well over one million at that time. A decision in 2010 combined a
number of areas including the “City of Auckland” into “Auckland Council” with now
over 1,4 million people. And nowadays this is what is usually meant when talking
about Auckland.
The following shows a few samples of countries of cities arranged by size and
problems encountered.
Pakistan
Ranking Wolfram Geonames InfoPlease Wikipedia
1 Karachi Karachi Karachi Karachi
2 Lahore Lahore Lahore Lahore
3 Faisalabad Faisalābād Faisalabad Faisalabad
4 Rawalpindi Rawalpindi Rawalpindi Rawalpindi
5 Multan Multān - Multan
6 Hyderabad Hyderabad - Gujranwala
7 Gujranwala Gujranwala - Hyderabad
8 Peshawar Peshawar - Peshawar
1297Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
In Pakistan the rankings agree except for rank 6 and 7, sometimes 6 given to
Hyderabad, sometimes to Gujaranwala. According to most recent records from
[Brockhaus 2014]. Gujaranwala wins with a small margin, so both cities can be seen
as more or less the same size (1.4 million).
Saudi Arabia
Ranking Wolfram Geonames InfoPlease Wikipedia
1 Riyadh Riyadh Riyadh Riyadh
2 Jiddah Jeddah Makkah Jeddah
3 Makkah Mecca Jeddah Mecca
4 al-Madinah Medina - Medina
5 ad-Dammam Sultanah - Al-Ahsa
6 Taif Dammam - Ta'if
7 Tabuk Taif - Dammam
8 Buraydah Tabuk - Khamis Mushait
Jiddah (Jeddah) is considerably larger than Makkah, so we consider the ranking
in Infoplease as plain wrong. The mentioning of a comparatively small village of
Sultanah in Georname in rank 5 is very surprising. Dammam is a city of some
900.000, Taif a bit more than that. Al-Ahsa is an old city now quite small (but was at
rank 10 in the world 1000 years ago!), but listed here since the region around it is
close to one million and has an international airport with its name. It is clear to the
authors that only specialist familiar with the region can do a proper ranking.
Canada
Ranking Wolfram Geonames InfoPlease Wikipedia
1 Toronto Toronto Toronto Toronto
2 Montreal Montréal Montreal Montreal
3 Calgary Vancouver Vancouver Calgary
4 Ottawa Calgary Calgary Ottawa
5 Edmonton Ottawa Edmonton Edmonton
6 Missisauga Edmonton Quebec Mississauga
7 Winnipeg Mississauga Hamilton Winnipeg
8 Vancouver NorthYork Winnipeg Vancouver
Ranks 1 and 2 are undisputed: the core of both cities is close to (Montreal) or
above (Toronto) 2 million, the metropolitan area in both cases more than twice as
much. The rest becomes murky, since core cities and their metropolitan areas are very
different. Ranking by core cities we have from rank 3 onward: Calgary, Otttawa,
1298 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver; by metropolitan population however: Vancouver,
Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec (a real curiosity, since the city is only ¼ of the
metropolitan population) and Hamilton. That Missisauga shows up twice, a more or
less artificial union of suburbs of Toronto, is only due to the summed up population of
a large area but should really not appear: Even its metropolitan area does not allow it
to rank it under the first 8.
Malaysia
Ranking Wolfram Geonames InfoPlease Wikipedia
1 Kuala
Lumpur Kota Bharu Kuala Lumpur Kuala Lumpur
2 Klang Kuala Lumpur Kelang Johor Bahru
3 Subang Jaya Klang Johor Bharu Ipoh
4 Johor Bahru Kampung Baru
Subang Shah Alam
5 Ipoh Johor Bahru Petaling Jaya
6 Ampang Jaya Subang Jaya Kuching
7 Kuching Ipoh Kota Kinabalu
8 Petaling Jaya Kuching Kuala Terengganu
The correct list of towns and cities according to the population within the local
government areas are specified in the document on statistics for local authority areas,
by the department of statistics [DOSM 2014] and is reflected correctly in Source 4.
Source 1 referred to another document by the statistics department that does not
distinguish between cities and municipality areas: This explain the reasons for the
discrepancy. The list by Geonames is a list compiled from users without considering
the documents from the statistics department.
5 Some mountains of countries ranked by height
In this section we are considering only countries with mountains higher than 1.000
meters. In trying to rank them the major difficulty is that borders often go on top
mountains, so the country they “belong to” is not clear. Then there is also a petty
difficulty: countries want to have a high mountain, so a mountain 3993 m will often
turn into a just above 4000 m for PR reasons.
Like with all quantities if they are “too exact” they are misleading. After all, we
measure the altitude of mountains as “above sea level”, yet the sea level is not the
same all over the world, so there is some curious definition of “mean sea level” that is
usually used. Further, if we believe some climatologists, the level of oceans is going
to rise. Does this mean we will have to adjust the height of all mountains accordingly?
1299Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
Austria
Ranking Wolfram Elevation(m) Geonames Elevation(m)
1 Grossglockner 3798 Großglockner 3798
2 Wildspitze 3772 Wildspitze 3774
3 Weisskugel 3739 Palla Bianca 3738
4 Grossvenediger 3674 Großvenediger 3662
5 Similaun 3606 Ramolkogel 3550
The mountains ranked 1 and 2 are undisputed. Both have secondary peaks
(Kleinglockner, Southern Wildspitze) with both 3770 m but are usually no considered
separate mountains. Hence Weisskugel (whose Italian name is Palla Bianca and can
be counted to Austria or Italy, since the peak is at the border) and Großvenediger are
rank 3 and 4. Rank 5 is wrong in both lists, since Hinterer Brochkogel (3628) and
Hintere Schwärze (3624) are a bit higher than Similaun, the lowest Austrian peak
above 3600m. Both Wiesbachhorn (3564) and Rainerhorn (3560) are however still
higher than Ramolkogel, so his rank is “far off”, even if we are talking only of a
range of 50 meters.
Ranking Wolfram Elevation(m) Geonames Elevation(m)
Country : Nepal
1 Mount Everest 8848 Mount Everest 8848
2 Kangchenjunga 8586 Kānchenjunga 8586
3 Kangchenjunga West 8505 Makālu 8463
4 Lhotse 8501 Dhaulāgiri 8167
5 Makalu 8462 Manāslu 8163
Country : Pakistan
1 K2 8612 K2 8611
2 Nanga Parbat 8125 Nanga Parbat 8125
3 Gasherbrum 8068 Gasherbrum Shan 8080
4 Broad Peak 8047 Broad Feng 8051
5 Gasherbrum II 8035
Gasherbrum II
Feng 8034
Country : India
1 Kangchenjunga 8586 Nanda Devi 7816
2 Kangchenjunga West 8505 Kāmet 7756
3 Kangchenjunga South 8494 Saser Kangri 7672
4 Kangchenjunga
Central
8482
Kabru 7412
5 Distaghil Sar 7885 Badrīnāth 7138
1300 Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...
The problems with many of the mountains above is because of borders on or near
the peak the mountains can be claimed by more than one country, and some listed as
mountains can also be seen as secondary peaks just separated by a saddle or such
from the higher cousin.
Concerning Nepal and the list according to Wolfram, Kangchenjunga West can
be considered a side peak of Kangchenjunga, and even more so Lhotse (side peak of
Mount Everest). Hence listing Makalu at rank 3 makes sense. Dhaulāgiri and Manāslu
(located fully in Nepal) then come next, if one does not consider Cho Oyu (8.201)
whose peak is at the border between Nepal and China. It may well be that Geonames
does not list it, since till 1984 its height was considered to be 8153, just below
Dhaulāgiri and Manāslu. More recent measurements have yielded 8201.
Concerning Pakistan, the lists agree and further checks have confirmed their
correctness.
India is complicated, since Kangchenjunga and its side peaks are shared with
Nepal. Distaghill Sar is often considered the 7 th highest mountain of Pakistan!
Kangchenjunga (on the border of Pakistan) can certainly be also be counted to India,
and then would be ranked 1, of course. Of the 5 listed by Geonames Kabru is
contentious, since it is also claimed by Nepal. Overall, the boundaries in the
Himalayas are not well defined and often are defined by peaks, so mountains are often
claimed to belong to more than one country.
6 Conclusion
In this paper we have tried to show that even when using multiple Web sources and
simple quantitative questions they are often not easy to resolve without the help of
specialists. Hence information obtained on servers and search engines on the WWW
is much less reliable and trustworthy than is usually assumed, confirming earlier
arguments in e.g. [Rieh 2002], [Liu et al 2005] and [Parker at el 2006].
To provide a really trustworthy service in our project “Geography of the world”
we will indeed have to involve specialists in Geography and persons with good local
knowledge beyond the research we can do ourselves..
Let us conclude by mentioning that some of the measurements facilities described
will be available through or project, but we will also point to powerful facilities like
Google Earth Pro and similar efforts. Hence we hope that our project will provide a
valuable tool for all interested, including teachers and students. It will also contain a
number of interactive facilities that will allow to experiment as will be explained in
detail in a forth coming paper.
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1303Kulathuramaiyer N., Maurer H., Mehmood R.: Some Aspects ...

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