Monday, September 12, 2011

Is a Country Really a Country If It's Not on Google Maps?

On July 9th, after decades of violent conflict, South Sudan gained its independence and became an autonomous nation-state. It has since been formally recognized by the United Nations and the entire international community.

So why is it still not recognized on the world maps of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and National Geographic? And perhaps more importantly, what role do these online cartographers now play in actually establishing default political borders in disputed regions?

Not only has this Google-mapping raised some eyebrows in the case of South Sudan, but in Libya as well. As RWW reports, during the recent popular uprising and overthrow of Moammar Ghaddafi, Google Maps restored the name of "Martyr's Square" in Tripoli - renamed "Green Square" by Gaddafi's regime - almost immediately after rebel forces retook Libya's capital from the dictator.

Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to attach any level of significance to these developments - and not too much should be read into the fact that Google and its mapping cohorts seem to update politicized names and borders almost immediately in some cases while dragging their feet for months in others. Then again, with millions of users around the globe using these mapping services as primary tools, one could argue that they do, in fact, play a significant role in shaping public perception.

Out of curiousity, I went to examine the Google Map demarcating the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Contrast that with these maps presented today in the New York Times by David Markovsky as possible negotiated borders in a peace settlement, AND contrast those with maps like this one which you still see today in the Arab world depicting the West Bank as remaining a part of Jordan, pre-1967, and the stark differences remind us of just how powerful maps can be in developing default geographic assumptions.

To complicate matters further, Google Maps performs many of its "updates" by using something called Google Map Maker. It's basically a Wikipedia-style system where, rather than the company itself maintaining their maps, ordinary users submit the updates - and this is especially prevalent overseas in small-market places like South Sudan. The increased reliance on this often-unreliable system is what's referred to as "The Deputization of the Crowd" (a play on the famous "Wisdom of the Crowd" phrase). In the meantime, since apparently nobody has yet submitted an updated map of South Sudan, the new nation remains in digital limbo - formally recognized in real-space, just not in cyberspace. Activists have resorted to an online petition to persuade Google to finally recognize South Sudan for what it is - an independent nation with soverign borders.

So where does all this leave us? Maps are important in shaping public perception, and mapmakers especially so. It's too far-fetched to suggest that Google Maps has any sort of meaningful impact on the resolution of political disputes, however, we also shouldn't completely underestimate the powerful influence that the mapmakers wield either.


At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Really? said...



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