According to Google, the Heart of America is in Independence, Kansas
Ever ask Google for directions to America? Then you know that the search giant considers a small Kansas town on the border of Oklahoma to be the heart of the United States.
According to Google, the middle of the United States of America is located just outside of a city called Independence, Kansas. Specifically, it's a place a few miles north of the state's border with Oklahoma, in an old town and/or airport called Atlantic City, sandwiched between a couple of small bodies of water.
A few days back, staring down the barrel of a six-hour drive home, I fumbled to change an address in the 'Directions' field on my iPhone's Google Maps. I accidentally deleted all of the address text I'd previously input, except for 'United States.' When I hit 'Route,' it took me straight to Kansas. (Estimated travel time? One day.)
Because evidently, that's what Google marks as the precise location of the United States. Its beating heart, if you will. Get directions to America, and you're going to Kansas. See for yourself.
And here's what Independence, which just so happens to epitomize American-small townery, actually looks like.
It's right by the place where the woman who wrote the Little House on the Prairie lived.
So the question is, why should some random Midwestern town get to hog the honor of being stamped with the big green 'B' that Google uses to represent 'The United States'?
Is this place, Independence, KS, simply a geographically convenient location, mathematically equidistant from both international border lines and each coast?
Or might its status as America's spokestown be mostly arbitrary, a spot plucked out by Google Mappers in the middlish-looking part of the U.S., and hey, what's more Middle America than Kansas? How does Google figure out where to drop the place-marker for such locations like 'America,' 'Europe,' or 'Asia' anyways?
"Basically, the placement of the pin marker varies and can seem a bit arbitrary," Deanna Yick, a Google spokesperson, explained to me. "For some locations our algorithm places it at the geographical center of a region, but for others the pin marker may appear as the center of a downtown area, a city hall, or the capital city for a state or country."
That's as specific as she got, though she added that "We've built our map from a wide range of sources, ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to commercial data providers, and have used both user contributions and satellite, aerial, and Street View imagery to help complete the map."
So, that kind of explains how it is that the epicenter of 'Europe' sits in the middle of the Bering Sea, between Poland and Scandinavia.
How a city called Panjiazhuang is the dead middle of China. And 'Asia' lands you in the middle of China, not far off.
Maybe even why Africa's place-marker sits between two national parks in Tanzania, far from anything that could be considered the geographical center of the country.
Obviously, there's nothing definitive or even particularly significant about how one tech company chooses to label nation states or continents on its mapping software. Even if that company is Google, the medium through which an increasingly impressive percentage of humankind obtains the information they use to construct their perception of the world. Those tiny, insignificant details like where the B falls on a map amounts to little more than another piece of online errata, an overlooked curiosity in a vast data-delivery landscape. But that landscape is where we pretty much spend our lives these days, so it's probably worth asking why it looks the way it does from time to time.