Google Maps: Foreign affairs and social skirmishes

Google Earth and Google Maps are probably the most popular, free, online cartography reference tools for the public. Popularity is not the same as authority though[1]:

The lines that Google draws on maps have no government’s imprimatur.

Foreign affairs

Google should not be involved in geopolitical disputes. If Google Maps show borders or place names that are different from official or long-established usage, they can confuse, offend or worse, even if done unintentionally[2]:

On Nov. 3, 2010, a Nicaraguan official justified his country’s incursion into neighboring Costa Rica’s territory by claiming that, contrary to the customary borderline, he wasn’t trespassing. For proof, he [cited] Google Maps.

Google Map art

Map markers away! Fighting the cartographic unknown

Google DOES try to offer meaningful, accurate maps. These are some methods used to represent uncertain or transitional borders:

  1. multiple claim lines e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights
  2. multiple place names e.g. two names separated by a slash, such as ‘Londonderry/Derry’
  3. clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues
  4. multiple names for the same bodies of water, depending on shoreline, naming conventions and geographical perspective

Google refers to this as its policy of Primary Local Usage. It is maintained by the Google Public Policy group.

Google Earth clients by language

Google Earth is now available in 42 languages. The English language Google Earth client displays the primary, common name(s) given to a body of water by the sovereign nations that border it.

Consider the body of water between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean peninsula. In Korea, the “East Sea” is the preferred name. According to the Primary Local Usage policy,

The Japanese client of Google Earth shows “Sea of Japan” in Japanese 日本海 while the Korean version shows “East Sea” in Korean 동해… both labels [are available] in the click-box political annotation.

Map content varies by ccTLD

Google displays only the preferred name in the relevant language for the 32+ region domains of Google Maps. These region domains have the URL structure For example, U.S.A. is, Canada is and India is

To illustrate, let’s extend the example above, to the body of water between the People’s Republic of China and the Korean peninsula. Chinese speaking users are most familiar with the label “Yellow Sea” in Mandarin 黄海 (Huáng Hǎi). Korean speaking users are most familiar with the label “West Sea” in Hangul 서해 (Sŏ Hae). Similar conventions apply for the “Persian Gulf” and “Arabian Gulf”, depending on shoreline.

Sensitive place names and borders

For guidance in depicting politically, historically or culturally sensitive place names and borders, Google uses data providers that most accurately describe borders in treaties and authoritative standards bodies like the United Nations, ISO and the FIPS. Yet contention remains inevitable.

What should be done when local user expectations don’t match international conventions? Or when local laws prohibit acknowledging regional conflicts? An example of the latter is the Indian state of Arunanchal Pradesh. The Chinese region domain of Google Maps is required by local law to show Arunanchal Pradesh in China, but the Indian, U.S. and other Google Maps domains show it as part of India.

Mapping complexity is not constrained to any particular geographic region. A Google Maps user in the U.K. requested

a version that uses spellings of Welsh place names that respect modern orthographic conventions (rather than Anglo-Norman exonyms) in Wales and adjoining parts of Shropshire and Herefordshire.

The problems are more fine-grained than state level. This user complained that

Google has never even made an attempt to show the 106 enclaves of India in Bangladesh or the 92 Bangladesh enclaves in India. Maps of these are hard to find, but they exist.

accompanied by a proposal that

Google try to draw military armistice borders in Nagorno Karabach (and the enclaves within it), as well as borders of the Han River Neutral Zones between the UN Armistice Commission and North and South Korea.

Of course, SOME people will NEVER be happy

A Google Lat Long post about improving data quality of borders described the efforts made to

  • more accurately capture physical topography in the mountainous border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,
  • maintain demarcation reflecting changing status of disputed territory between Ethiopia and Somalia, and
  • give more detail about a disputed island near the borders of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

Yet these efforts to meet cartographic challenges motivated by geopolitical considerations were met with one user’s complaint that there was too much detail (emphasis mine):

map legends could have simply explained that sources were at odds with one another. Better that than creation of border graphics that look like Rand McNally World Atlas mediocrity.

Social skirmishes

FourSquare, a location-based social application, received a lot of press attention this week, as it will be using Open Street Map instead of Google Maps as a data source. Google Maps started charging a usage-based fee for high-volume commercial use of its Maps API, which was a reason for FourSquare’s decision.

foursquare North Pole achievement

The Last Degree badge: North Pole

I’m not concerned about this. In fact, it seems prudent to me, quite sensible. That’s because geographic accuracy is unnecessary for determining who the new mayor of the local Starbucks is, nor even whether you really did deserve that rather cool North Pole badge. Crowd-sourced, free, open access efforts like Open Street Map are a good fit for Four Square. Well, that’s not quite correct….

FourSquare tried to use Open Street Map exclusively, but found that it was too difficult. FourSquare contracted with MapBox[3], a specialty provider that is familiar with processing Open Street Map data for commercial applications. More accurately, MapBox is a suite of open source mapping tools made by Development Seed.

Hazards of crowd-sourced reference tools

FourSquare describes Open Street Map as “a crowd-sourced global atlas… It’s like Wikipedia for geography”. Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced reference tool. Moral relativism and lack of objectivity is a constant struggle for Wikipedia. I don’t see any reason Open Street Map will be different. I’ve seen some evidence of such already.

Open Street Map should be used in contexts where these shortcomings have minimal impact. I truly do believe that there will be many uses for Open Street Map. It may even outlive Wikipedia, if used appropriately.

Can we get back to that war now? What happened?

As it turns out, the border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was not merely the result of a simple error by Google[1].

Rather, and this is the dangerous part, Google Maps’ imprecision reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war.

Google Maps and Earth go to great lengths to be fair. Yet Google is a corporation, and should not need a Google foreign policy [2].

[1] The First Google Maps War, NYT Borderlines Opinionator by Frank Jacobs, 28 February 2012.
[2] Google Maps Caught in Border Dispute, Wall Street Journal Tech Europe blog by Ben Rooney, 5 November 2010.
[3] FourSquare is actually using a new version of MapBox, named MapBox Streets.


All comments welcomed! Less enthusiastic about spam though.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: