Where did Pokemon Go get its maps from?

No, it's not quite relevant, but I've been waiting my whole career to use this photo. Image: Getty.

For gamers, Pokémon Go is remarkable thanks to its massive popularity after only a week's release, and its innovative combination of a retro game beloved of 90s kids (Pokémon) with the latest in Augmented Reality (AR).

For us, it's interesting because of the maps. 

While the game has only been officially released in the US and Australia, users have played it all over the world – from my road in Harringay, north London, to the front line of the war against Isis in Mosul, where a former US marine volunteering with Christian militia managed to catch a Squirtle. The game has inserted Pokémon all over the world map, plus "Pokéspots" and "Gyms" where you can lure extra creatures or make them fight each other.

Nintendo seems to have taken the bulk of its map information for the game from Ingress, a previous, much less popular game from Niantic, the company which worked with Nintendo on the game. An Atlantic piece notes that "portals" from this game seem to match the Pokéspots in Pokémon Go. It also notes, though, that the game doesn't credit any street map producer, such as Google or OpenStreetMaps – unusual for a map-based game. 

A player locates a Goldeen. Image: Getty.

However, John Hanke, the CEO and founder of Niantic, was one of the founders of Keyhole, which created Google Earth (and may give us a clue as to the maps' source). He told Mashable that the Pokémon Go team mined Google geotagged photos for public art which could be used as Pokéspots. Others were submitted by Ingress players and then approved by game moderators. Some of the most popular portals from Ingress were then chosen as "gyms" for the new game. 

The benefit of this method is that these are places people (well, Ingress players at least) do visit, and implies they should be easily accessible. This doesn't mean it's foolproof: several people have already reported that their homes were marked as gyms on the game, meaning random gamers turned up outside their doors or lurk about outside. Given you can "own" a gym on the game, some opened with the slightly worrying line: "this is my gym." 

Pokémon themselves are scattered fairly randomly in the game, though water Pokémon appear near or on water. Hanke told Mashable that another, secret set of geographical data was used to match Pokémon to their locations:  "That gets into more [geographic information system]-type of data... and we utilise that to map Pokémon species to appropriate habitats." 

Again, this does lay the game open to goofs. Today, there were reports that a poison gas "Koffing" Pokémon appears when you visit the Holocaust museum in Washington DC.

One final mapping fact: in 2014 Google ran an April Fools Day game in which you could locate Pokémon on its maps feature. The game went down so well that Hanke reportedly wondered whether it could take off as a real game, with the hunt for Pokémon  transposed onto the real world. Nearly eight million downloads later, looks like he was right .



Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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