You've Probably Been to Null Island

By Bryan Menegus on at

A few hundred miles off the coast of Ghana is Null Island—the point of zero longitude and zero latitude. It’s not a real island in the physical sense, but data, photos, and whole people have been there, if only for a little while. How they got there comes down to shoddy programming.

As Tom Scott explains, zero is a very different concept from null. Zero is none, as in, “I had an ounce of weed and smoked it. Now I have zero weed.” Null on the other hand, is computer-speak for the absence of data. As in, “I have no information on the presence or absence of any weed, officer.” It’s an important distinction, but one which can be overlooked in hastily-written software that mistakes I don’t know for zero. These errors manifest themselves by tagging the location of a photo as being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, or banishing Wisconsin voters to shark-infested waters.

Null Island isn’t a major problem in our daily lives, but—like game glitches and text-to-speech errors, it’s one of the many ways robots make hilarious and bizarre mistakes with our meagre human input. Just be glad you’re not one of the many people whose last name is “null.”