< Making Maps, the Google Way


Friday, July 23, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In February of this year, a top government official from Cambodia wrote a letter to Google complaining about one of the company’s maps. The letter claimed that Google’s depiction of a stretch of border between Cambodia and Thailand was, quote, “devoid of truth and reality, and professionally irresponsible.” Cambodia requested that Google, quote, “withdraw the already disseminated, very wrong and not [LAUGHS] internationally recognized map and replace it.” As editor John Gravois points out in the July/August issue of The Washington Monthly, 21st century mapmaking can be politically phony and culturally fraught. His piece is titled The Agnostic Cartographer. John, welcome to the show.

JOHN GRAVOIS: Thanks very much.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast of India and what Google did to it one day last August.

JOHN GRAVOIS: Well, Arunachal Pradesh has been a source of a pretty nasty dispute between China and India since 1914, when the British rulers of India negotiated a treaty with Tibet which was, at the time, de facto independent. So China now, which runs Tibet, doesn't acknowledge that agreement that established Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian state.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what did Google do to it?

JOHN GRAVOIS: So last August, a weekday, everything’s quiet on the Internet.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] And then suddenly Google Maps changes all of the place names in Arunachal Pradesh into Chinese.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, how did this happen?

JOHN GRAVOIS: It’s a mystery. A lot of angry Indian bloggers suspected immediately that Google and China were conspiring together. Others suspected that Chinese hackers broke in and changed the names in the database. But a blogger by the name of Stefan Geens, who runs a wonderful site that keeps track of border disputes in the age of Google Earth, came up with another theory. He pointed out that Google maintains a separate map site for China and a separate map site for India. According to Chinese law, all maps have to represent what the Indians call Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet. Stefan Geens, this blogger, posited that the names on the Chinese map must have somehow switched over into the names on the global map that we all look at.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's go back to the golden era of mapmaking during the European colonial era of the 1800s. What was the philosophy then, so to speak, behind cartography?

JOHN GRAVOIS: The whole mapmaking enterprise supported the expansion of European powers out into unfamiliar territory. Mapmaking was also something that came under this sort of industrial era progressive-minded idea that everything can be measured, the world can be indexed, we can narrow down to a clear account of pretty much everything. The colonial era came crashing to an end, and with that, mapmaking changed. A geographer I spoke to named Michael Goodchild, he described this historical process where modernist state-run data collection efforts went by the wayside gradually. Satellites started to take their place.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about satellites. Obviously, you can get a much more accurate picture of the world but, as you note, there’s a lot that we can't get from satellites. That’s where Google comes in with its Map Maker tool, which any person can use. How does it work?

JOHN GRAVOIS: Google has set up a pretty straightforward, user-friendly platform called Google Map Maker that allows people in hitherto unmapped parts of the world to just enter in information about the place where they live. There’s also a thing called the Community Layer of Google Earth, which is just like a bulletin board that’s tagged to a map. And in Israel, a Palestinian user of Google Earth was going around and tagging different towns as what he said were the sites of former Palestinian villages destroyed in the 1948 creation of Israel, and he tagged a town called Kiryat Yam as one of those villages. The people in Kiryat Yam were very upset by this. They said, in fact, our town was founded on barren sand dunes, and you've basically slandered us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another Google-fueled cartographic controversy is over what to call that body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula.

JOHN GRAVOIS: For years and years and years and years, that body of water’s been known as the Persian Gulf. But in the 1960s there was a movement in Arab countries to call it the Arabian Gulf. This arose with Arab nationalism and was promoted by Saddam Hussein, among many, many other people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And obviously, Persia is a reference to Iran, which is not an Arabic nation, and Iran took this very personally.

JOHN GRAVOIS: That’s putting it lightly.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] It’s been a big dispute for decades now. In 2004, National Geographic issued a new edition of its main atlas and included the name Arabian Gulf as an alternate name in parentheses and small print. The Iranians staged huge email campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, street protests. In Iran itself, all National Geographic products were banned, boycotted. And at the time, one of the largest Google bombs to date was created in response to it as well, where if you searched for the term “Arabian Gulf” on Google, the top result was a website that looked like an error message that said, “I'm sorry, the gulf you’re looking for doesn't exist.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] Please try Persian Gulf.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, Google took the National Geographic route essentially, didn't it, by listing both names?

JOHN GRAVOIS: Yes. On Google Earth, if you go to the Gulf, you'll see in equal-sized text Persian Gulf near Iran, and Arabian Gulf near Qatar and Bahrain and the UAE and Saudi Arabia. So Google isn't taking the National Geographic route, in one respect, which is that it’s not background down.


JOHN GRAVOIS: And one of the largest online petitions on the Internet today is a petition that demands the “immediate and unconditional deletion” of Arabian Gulf from Google Earth. And what’s interesting about the petition is that it attacks Google for not adhering to the standards of cartography that might have been espoused by 19th century mapmakers. The Iranian petition accuses Google of not obeying international standards. Google’s response was really interesting. A couple of months after the petition went live, they posted a kind of statement about how they decide what to name things, and the statement made no mention of history, made no mention of international standards. They just said, we name bodies of water according to the names that countries adjoining that body of water use. There’s no science, except for the science of just finding out what people say.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think about Google’s repudiation of history and tradition?

JOHN GRAVOIS: Well, it follows a pretty standard kind of philosophy of the Internet era, which is, you know, the more information, the better; the more democratic the production of information, the better. But Google gets itself into trouble. Google is now producing the world’s most important map. That used to be something nation-states did. And what’s happening in all these geographic disputes is that Google’s getting confused with a nation-state, and not just any one, a really important one –

[BROOKE LAUGHS] - a powerful one. In all of these conflicts, you see parties to these disputes accuse Google of being geopolitical conspirators. The whole time, Google is kind of shrugging and saying, we're showing as many claims as possible trying to be neutral.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is what people are calling neogeography, where we can layer our maps with all kinds of information. Doesn't that raise the question what is it we want our maps to be now, if no longer a single authoritative view or the world?

JOHN GRAVOIS: It’s almost like we shouldn't use the word “map” any more. It’s a completely different thing. It’s a completely re-scalable document that can hold authoritative information but it can also have other layers of information that are just sort of repositories of a bunch of different opinions, or even conversations. That’s neat, and it may play a really huge, valuable social role in the future. But the process of adjusting to that new norm is going to be really, really hairy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: John, thank you very much.

JOHN GRAVOIS: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Gravois is an editor at The Washington Monthly.