Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Is this a joke?

I am still rubbing my eyes in disbelief - UPDATED

So what are the odds? The week I write a cover story for the New Statesman, arguing that President Obama has turned into "Barack W Bush" and is emulating his predecessor's policies on human rights, civil liberties, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, the bloody Norwegians go and give him a Nobel Peace Prize. You couldn't make it up.

Over the past couple of years, the cult of Obama has elevated him to a godlike, saint-like, superhuman position in the global political landscape. He is a celebrity, he is an icon, he is a political phenomenon. And just when you thought his international sheen was rubbing off, with his failure to win the 2016 Olympics for his adopted city of Chicago, he goes and wins the world's most prestigious civil liberties award. Obamaniacs, rejoice!

So why has he got the prize? Here is the flaw in the Norwegians' groupthink, as reported by the BBC:

Asked why the prize had been awarded to Mr Obama less than a year after he took office, Nobel committee head Thorbjørn Jagland said: "It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve".

"It is a clear signal that we want to advocate the same as he has done," he said.

So the Nobel guys are giving him an award for peace before he has actually achieved peace -- specifically, they say, in the field of global nuclear disarmament and the Obama resolution at the UN last month -- which, of course, they have a bad track record of doing. Remember when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1994? Perhaps the news hasn't reached Oslo yet but, 15 years on, the Holy Land remains mired in bloodshed, hatred and conflict, with no Palestinian state in sight.

And then, of course, there's Henry Kissinger. His receipt of the prize in 1973, in the wake of his war crimes against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, prompted Tom Lehrer to remark: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize."

I'm not sure what the satirists will say this time round, but I eagerly await Jon Stewart's take on The Daily Show on More 4 next week . . .

UPDATE I (10 December): So Obama has accepted his prize this afternoon, in Oslo. Since I last blogged on Barack and the Nobel [above], the US president has decided to heed the advice of his generals and send 30,000 extra troops to fight and die in the valleys and mountains of the Hindu Kush. The Times headline says it all: "Barack Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize with stern defence of war". How absurd. And depressing. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner had to start his speech by acknowledging the controversy over the choice of a wartime president for the prize. When Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize in 1973, Tom Lehrer remarked: "It was at that moment that satire died...There was nothing more to say after that." Touché.

UPDATE II (10 December): Simon Reid-Henry has blogged from Oslo for the NS here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.