invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has not just been a headache for
diplomats: it has also been the latest in a series of problems for mapmakers. Should
Crimea be shown as Ukrainian? Russian? Disputed?
US government chose not to change its official maps of the region, because,
the US State Department press spokesperson said, “we reject the Russian attempt
to annex Crimea”. National
Geographic, on the other hand, shaded Crimea grey, its sign of “an area of
response may have shown the situation’s complexity the best: at the end of
April, the international mapmaker simply produced three different versions. To
visitors accessing the site from Ukraine,
Google Maps left Crimea as it looked before Russia’s invasion – as a part of
Ukraine. But it changed the map for those accessing the Russian version
of the site, showing Crimea as separate from Ukraine with a thick line. International visitors, on the other hand,
saw a version with a dotted line, the sign of a disputed border.
Now, in an
apparent nod to the situation’s increasing intractability, a dotted line has
appeared for the Ukrainians – but it is far fainter and less noticeable than the
one on the international version.
always been a complex process, requiring cartographers to weigh political
situations, among others, against the needs of their audience.
generally assume that, well, science is just objective, and what we do in
cartography is represent the world ‘out there’. But it’s never as clear cut,”
said Christine Leuenberger, a Cornell University professor who researches
politics and cartography. “Maps are always selective. You always have to omit
as much as you include. So they’re always political. It’s impossible to
construct an apolitical map.”
not the only sensitive detail. In 2012, Iran’s government
threatened to sue Google over its map’s lack of label for the Gulf, which
Iranians call the Persian Gulf and Arab countries call the Arabian Gulf. Two
years previous, Iran had announced that airlines using in-flight maps with the
Arabian Gulf label would not be allowed into Iran’s airspace.
Or take the
case of the West Bank. The United Nations – which many mapmakers turn to for
direction in how to delineate borders and territories – uses GPS technology to
mark exactly where the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank
lies. But for some, Leuenberger said, even that isn’t accurate enough.
“Palestinian stakeholders say, ‘hey – where you depicted the barrier does not
portray the geopolitical reality on the ground, because the barrier is not just
a wall and a fence, but part of a segregation zone’,” she said. “So you cannot
map the barrier as separate from the checkpoints and no-go areas that are near
the barrier. You have to map the whole thing together.”
Given the difficulty, most cartographers have guidelines for determining
how to deal with potential complications. US-based mapmaker Rand McNally, for
example, changes national borders only when the US State Department recognises
a change, although it will shade areas under dispute.
cartographers with a more international audience, like Google, have to be
particularly sensitive. Representing a territory in a certain way might not
just irritate customers: it might mean the map doesn’t comply with a region’s regulations
and laws – making it illegal, or at least unsellable.
mapmaking platform HERE often has to grapple with this issue, as their GPS maps
are in 80% of the world’s cars that have satellite-navigation installed. “In
general, we follow the UN,” said Christof Hellmis, vice president of HERE’s Map
Platform office. “But if the map doesn't follow local regulations, then of
course we support our customers in making the maps locally compliant.”
for a car with HERE’s GPS technology to be shipped to China, for example, the
maps need to comply with Chinese regulations. “If you ship a map to the rest of
the world, Taiwan is not a part of the Republic of China,” Hellmis said. But on
cars sent to China, Taiwan is mapped as part of China.
company ever, to the best of his knowledge, refused to make such a change, for
ethical reasons or otherwise? ���I’m not aware of such a case, to be honest,”
Even as massive
mapmakers grapple with the problems of how to present the world in ways that serve
both educational , commercial and political needs, they are running up against
new competitors: individuals. Today anyone with web-based software such as Scribblemaps can make their own visions
of the world and share them with others. Crowd-sourced cartography is getting
hot, too: in late May the company Telenav, which supplies maps to carmakers, said it would switch
to OpenStreetMap, a collaborative project to create a free editable world
map, from its previous
suppliers, which had included Nokia and TomTom. Meanwhile, users are even
invited to make edits to Google Maps, although updates are reviewed and
must be approved before they appear online.
Maps do not
just represent our perceptions of the world; they also create them. Approaches
like Google Maps, in which Ukrainians see one reality, Russians another, may be
commercially wise. But in failing to present one unified representation of the
world, they run the risk of reinforcing their customers’ differing realities. If
crowd-sourcing is the future of cartography, resulting representations of the world
may be more inclusive, unified – and, of course, even more complicated.