How do *we* determine the names for things?

Illuminating and fascinating reading on Google’s naming policy for disputed places. Commendable that their decision making process, and the process for devising that process, have been so transparently communicated. There are things here for any mapping organization to learn from. And interesting to see how far Google’s process has paralleled OpenStreetMap, and where it ultimately diverges .. in the basis for authority.

I’ve had an interest in the nature of borders and conflicts in mapping ever since maps started to take over my life ;). Traditional cartography hadn’t done a very good job of representing the multiple, fluid realities of the world, especially in the age of nation states. The reality of borders isn’t represented very well by a thick black line. For instance, the national boundaries within the EU are tending towards something like US state borders; in fact, crossing into California, through the agricultural checkpoints, is more restrictive than driving from Germany to Austria. Better are the maps indicating the shifting line of control of WW2, so fascinating to me in my childhood atlas. The thick black line gives the illusion of stasis and control, but ultimately it’s all temporary.

Like most ultimately liberating technologies, maps were primarily designed as military technology, to claim territory, demonstrate authority, control reality. The promise of digital democratic mapping up-ends the military origins. Digital maps have the potential to express multiple and opposing points of view.

OpenStreetMap had the start of its first edit war in the fall. It won’t be the last. At issue was the territory of North Cyprus, in conflict since a nearly universally regarded illegal (excepting Turkey) invasion by Turkish forces over 30 years ago. A English expatriate living in North Cyprus was labelling places with Turkish names. A Greek Cypriot, whose father fled from North Cyprus, had been switching to the Greek names. And back and forth. Traditionally places had both Greek and Turkish names, and Greek and Turkish people, and people used whatever localisation they choose. With the political/military conflict, and a global platform for communication, the conflict has spread to open databases. The Wikipedia article on Cyprus is often in conflict, and now OSM.

I attempted to intervene and broker a solution between the fighting editors. Perhaps I had been spending too much time at the UN, and fancied myself a digital diplomat. With much patience, we came to agree that both Greek and Turkish names will be represented, in A/B fashion. But in the end, we could not reach consensus on who was A and who was B. So disappointedly, dialogue in this case failed.

The discussion within OSM for a solution has been wide ranging .. everything from totally laissez faire, i.e. letting the editors fight it out until one gets tired, policies for disabling certain user accounts (ineffective), whitelists, blacklists, to locking down certain areas from any editing at all. As with most “decisions” in OSM, the solution has been a combination of the simplest thing that works and whatever someone takes the initiative to actually code. We have a rule but no code changes (though disputes has led some impetus to implementing changesets and reverts). We have called our rule the On the Ground Rule, which resembles greatly Google’s Primary Local Usage. The difference of course is in where the ultimate authority for applying this rule lies.

Preceeding this difference, I think I can detect something of the frustration I’ve experienced in attempting to free data from the United Nations as Google has. “We considered attempting to extricate Google entirely from the problem of deciding placenames by simply deferring to the determinations of an existing, authoritative, multilateral or multistakeholder institution.” But the UN keeps a strict policy that their maps are not official political representations, and takes no authoritative stance on boundaries or names. Frustrating, since essentially the UN is hamstrung by the traditional, single reality view of cartography.

So, Google has imbued itself with the authority for these decisions. And they have the funds to employ a Director of Global Public Policy to think these thing fully through. Of course, of any authority, they are presently most open and transparent. Google is spreading its remit way beyond organizing the world’s information, to organizing the world. They are investing in green energy technologies, sponsoring humanitarian information software development, advising governments and intelligence agencies on how to operate. And perhaps the primary colored, happy, relatively open and efficient world of Google is a better alternative to the current world order! They’ve done such a good job with the web, give them our world.

Google has become a target for such sarcasm on many fronts .. because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The interweb would rebalance power and authority, and this potential is what inspires me for democratic digital mapping. In this vein, Google is an systematic aberration, amassing power by doing what it should — being good. But does power inevitably corrupt? That’s the fear, and the remorse that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way.

Where does OpenStreetMap derive its authority? The discussion of
the tagging process
touched on this very issue. Jokingly, OpenStreetMap was described as an anarchic collective, but I don’t think that’s far off. There is some ultimate authority — the Foundation runs the servers — but only in the most hands off caretaker position. Beyond some extremes, it’s a continual negotiation and consensus building process, never definitively settling, open to newcomers and new perspectives. The authority of OpenStreetMap is its Openness.

This difference in authority has real implications for real maps. Here is Google and OpenStreetMap compared for Cyprus.


Google has decided to dodge the issue completely by not providing any data for Cyprus. There is definitely data commercially available, since Microsoft maps do show boundaries, roads, and names. OpenStreetMap shows the still somewhat messy circumstances.

OSM has better potential solutions. Our database is already internationalized. All that’s waiting is i18n and localisation of the maps themselves. In an interesting twist, this is one of OSM’s proposed Google Summer of Code projects. Another twist is that the student proposer is from India, and the problem of localising Indic scripts is a complicated one — how a series of characters is rendered differs based on their order, so rulesets/state machines need to be embedded in fonts. Yahoo India has made some impressive progress here, rendering Indian placenames in the local script of each Indian state. The Indian state itself provides the forum for sorting out placenames — state divisions are organized, and reorganized, along real and sometimes semi-imagined linguistic lines. But of any place I’ve ever visited, India demonstrates the greatest variety of people living in relative harmony .. so if there’s any place that will work out the solution for the promise of multiple points of view in digital democracy, I reckon it’s India.

4 thoughts on “How do *we* determine the names for things?”

  1. On the issue of Cyprus, and any similar dual-named areas, why not give the end-user the options A or B. These disputed areas would require the end-user to select a button, A = Greek or B = Turkish and then their map would be populated with the appropriate placenames. How’s about that for a possible solution?

  2. That’s exactly what will happen — the user will get to choose their localisation. It’s potentially part of the Summer of Code project.

  3. Not surprised that Yahoo is taking the lead in this. They are heavily involved with Unicode standards development and the l10n/i18n community. Google has started to increase their presence in that arena too. I do really like how on Yahoo Maps the choice changes from “Vernacular” to the specific language if that is the only one displayed.

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