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.

A War of Geography

The current stand off between Iran and the UK over navy personnel boils down to extreme measures justified by bad geography. There is confusion over what the border is and where everyone was. And no, it’s by no means a defense of what’s happened, or even a criticism of the UK govt (who must be aware that their military exercises are pretty dang close to Iran anyway, and want it that way) .. I just find the ambiguous nature of imaginary lines fascinating.

There are scores of territorial disputes across the globe, yet most every common map illustrates borders as thick heavy lines. From porous internal EU borders (driving from Germany to Austria is like crossing a US state border), to heavily military-level fortified peacetime US-Mexico border, to the wide borderlands between Haiti and Dominican Republic .. what visual representations can really be faithful to the true situation on the ground?

In my ideal world, the ships of the two opposing sides dock next to each other, break out laptops, share wifi if necessary (“our WEP key is DEATHTOBRITAIN”), and OpenStreetMap until they were satisfied .. turn a naval war into an edit war .. not that OpenStreetMap isn’t occasionally just as conflicted as the Middle East.


The UK released the last GPS coordinates of the captured ship as “29 degrees 50.36 minutes north, 048 degrees 43.08 minutes east”, or 29.843333, 48.718889. The BBC has gone into more depth on the disputed positions and geographies. Yes it’s highly dubious that the Iranians changed their reported GPS coordinates to defend their position .. we’re not exactly in an urban canyon here with a bad signal.


On gmaps, you can see a bit of what the core of the dispute could be about. The delta of the Shatt al-Arab is quite naturally full of sediment, which does shift over time. The closest that Iraq and Iran have to a treaty over their precise borders in this area is a 1975 agreement that the boundary along the Shatt al-Arab extends along the median line of land exposed in extreme low tides, which the mud banks in what is commonly labeled open waters. The UK has called these some areas maritime waters in their communications, though technically they wouldn’t be under this definition. The thing about deltas and mud banks is that they shift, so they 1975 agreement includes provisions to resurvey this mud every 10 years, which actually hasn’t happened.

Craig Murray, a controversial former UK embassador, has been arguing that the situation is extremely unclear because Iraq and Iran have never formally agreed on the border in the delta. Craig Murray has negotiated territorial disputes before, and in two fascinating posts and comments discussions (if you ignore the annoyingly political Blair is a liar type stuff), he gets quite geeky on the geography and diplomacy. Territorial waters are generally agreed to extend 12 nautical miles from permanently dry land, unless that overlaps with the same from another country, then they must come to some agreement. The border in this case generally should follow some median line, and insure that both countries have navigable waters in the area. The coastlines in the area are quite convoluted, and navigation is tricky with all the mud banks. To come up with that median line, both parties must agree on a set of reference points to define the median line, and some of those points could be land only above sea level periodically, so those are assigned fractional weights in the calculation.

The International Boundaries Research Unit has published an excellent summary of the Iraq Iran Maritime Boundary, with clear detail on the geographic and political questions. AP also released a summary of the border murkiness. In summary, the boundary would be pretty clear if we lived in a rational world, though we clearly do not.

This isn’t the first time the Iran-Iraq border has led to conflict. Heck, when have borders not led to conflict .. absolutely harks back to maps as a military technology. Anyway, in 2004, a similar incident occurred directly on the Shatt al-Arab. In part, the dispute sparked the Iraq-Iran War in the 80s. And it’s been going on since a peace treaty signed in 1639 between the Persian and the Ottoman Empires. Wikipedia has a good account.

Mapping True Nature of Political Borders?

Mapping True Nature of Political Borders?

Most any map of the political division of the planet use heavy thick lines to designate borders. This gives the impression that borders are absolute entities with true unarguable reality. It’s really more complicated, and I wonder if any geographers or political scientists have ever attempted mapping political borders with political reality?

Most obvious are territorial disputes (and Wikipedia does a great job here of categorizing these disputes): from Kashmir to Gibraltar to Western Sahara to South Ossetia. Some borders are very loose to the movement of people and stuff, like the European Union member states, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Others are extremely tight, like the fortified and scrutinized US/Mexico border. (Though San Diego and Tijuana have lately been cooperating cross border in interesting ways).

Technically, borders exist within airports; prior to immigration is international territory. Territorial waters are often in dispute, and have been arbitrarily extended to encompass oil reserves and fishing grounds. I wonder, if sea levels rise under climate change, will states argue that there territorial waters are defined by their prior coast lines plus 12 nautical miles, or will this territory shrink as well?

Anyone standing on a border can see the deep imprint different state policies have on the landscape. But we know these borders are porous, and often assymetrical. Economic refugees one way, pollution the other. Ultimately pollution knows no borders and we must be aware of their arbitrary construction.