Worldwide Transit databases + North Korea
By Dorian Lemarchand
This is a story of my researching journey over the last year. In my spare time, I will often peruse websites like urbanrail.net, or zoom in and out of Google Earth or Google Maps enough times to make my head spin. Many people with a similar interest to mine do this, and I will start from the end: I discovered my favorite transportation website, in a language I do not speak, operating under a principle that I never knew existed, with very asymmetric views and information compared to what is known about in the Anglosphere, or even la Francophonie.
As someone with essentially dual native languages of French and English, I have a different perspective than many people, and actually a complaint. The way the internet is designed is counterproductive to specialized research, and contributes to poor sourcing and poor communication of ideas. When I type the word “hamburger” into the search engine, why do you think I get the English Wikipedia page for it and not the French or German one, despite being spelled the exact same way? There are several reasons, one of which is the language preferences on Google, but the ones that are frustrating are geo-tagging of results and a system that will never return results in a language besides the one I used in my query. Now, for words that are spelled the same in different languages, I can use Google’s language options. But I will never get a result in Japanese or Russian from searching in Greek: the characters are completely different. This might seem self-explanatory, the search engine is merely checking the incidence of the search terms I put into it, but I ask why the search engine doesn’t translate my search query into other languages, and conduct searches in multiple languages. I always have the option of translating a web page that isn’t in my native language, and what I care about is the content and not the language itself.
This is relevant because urban and transportation planning is a field where the vast majority of planning is done in a native language, for one’s own country, much to the chagrin of academics in other fields who all choose to use one language. Rather than learn from one another, it is much more common for different countries or regions to develop their own independent planning habits. Who has the most advanced tunneling techniques? It might be Spain or Russia. Who knows? Each element has a general planning theory behind it that is put into practice in very different ways across the world, and only in comparing the different places can we learn about what is good and what is not. Public transportation and urban planning are fields where these language silos are incredibly built up.
On the occasion, I decided to research information about the trams, trolleybuses, and metro of Pyongyang, this problem was incredibly pronounced. Results in Korean are suppressed and replaced by a flurry of websites in English, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese which are completely oblivious of each other’s existence. The English search results display false maps, but are not filtered out and replaced by the correct version, simply because the source is Russian. This is bad for the dissemination of information. Through the painful process of searching for results using Google Translate in several languages, and scrolling through the results, I managed to find the sources I listed above (and more). What is amazing is how much potential is missed just because the internet is poorly designed. However, it’s not all bad…
One of the sources that grew on me is a website called transphoto.org, which any Eastern European transport enthusiast may know. It is basically a global database of vehicles, systems, and train car numbers for tramways, trolleybuses, and metro systems. This curiosity resulted in incredibly valuable information about North Korean public transportation systems; the website is actually cited by researchers. I can speak volumes about how this demonstrates the viability of the website. Basically, it is an overgrown photo-sharing website with tagging features that morphed into a vehicle database. It is even cited in banal cases like the fact that villagers in Stakhanov, Ukraine do not recognize the renaming of their town. The unique features of transphoto.org, the high quality of the website design, the ability for anyone to contribute to it, and the fact that the website is hidden from search engines in English is a huge missed opportunity.
About the Author:
Dorian Lemarchand is currently a freshman at Arizona State University intent on graduating with an Urban Planning Bachelor’s degree. He is a California native but with a dual culture, born in France.
Dorian’s interests include public transportation operations, spatial planning/maps, and Chinese culture, having taken a year of Chinese.