Time and again, we’ve seen the sensitivity of countries to online maps that depict a country’s boundaries or claims contrary to their own beliefs. This is an age-old problem dating back to the very first maps, but the global access to a single online map, and the weight that specific online mapping sites carry, lead to a heightened sense of injustice. Just a week ago, Iran said that it would sue Google over dropping the name 'Persian Gulf' in Google Maps. The fact that the name no longer appears in the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula is an issue to Iran, because that’s the name they’ve used while other Arab states call it the Arabian Gulf. Leaving it blank skirts the conflict, but also serves to illustrate the impossible neutrality of some mapping issues.
With a company that's famous for its informal 'don't be evil' motto, going against a country labeled as a member of the 'axis of evil', it may feel easy to choose sides. There are a broad number of other instances where mistakes on Google Maps have caused real problems, even leading to the invasion of Costa Rica by Nicaragua in 2010. Borders and names are open to interpretation, with rich history leading to ongoing, and often endless, disputes between countries. Around the world there are many famous examples of ongoing disputes, which leaves mapping companies in the middle. Wherever a power struggle exists, if the stance you take is contrary to any side's beliefs, you're doing evil in their eyes.
In other recent news, the digital mapping company TomTom posted an opinion about alternatives to open source maps. In their newsletter post, the company points to problems of accuracy and reliability of open source maps, as well as vulnerability to open attack, where malicious contributors can alter the truth. The continued creation of the all-volunteer OpenStreetMap effort has proven to be a worthy competitor to digital mapping companies, with often unique and highly detailed urban coverage that can surpass the efforts of commercial international companies. TomTom clearly has a stake in defending their relevance, particularly when there have been a number of high-profile online businesses that have picked OpenStreetMap over commercial options.
While the 'open to evil' argument has some relevance, there are a dedicated cadre of local experts that become the arbiters of truth, and that defend misleading entries by others. The breadth and scope of these contributors often makes these maps the most up to date with rapid recording of change. The ability to rapid entry is the root of the malicious vulnerability though, because in the face of an overwhelming amount of incoming data, it is easy to understand that a rigorous standard might bend to such an onslaught.
With today's living maps, and with so many online competing map sites, it's hard to pinpoint one point of truth. The authority question has long plagued the volunteer mapping community, and the commercial interest of some companies forces a neutrality that makes them shy of choosing sides. In contrast, traditional mapping companies and government entitities move at a glacial pace with map updates that make them difficult to use if we're expecting an up-to-date reflection of our surroundings.
Combatting the arbitrary nature of some contributors, and the bias of others, is actually an easier task than it has ever been, due to the amount of data that we continually are amassing about our world. Satellite and aerial imagery provides a visual point of truth, but it can't provide input on map labeling. The growing number of citizen sensor contributions are a helpful input for an evolving understanding of ground truths.
Maps are a means of control, and where there is control there is the potential for evil. The scary notions of this control are heightened when we think of manipulations of where we're told to navigate, and considering what motives are at stake when the computer algorithm picks our route. A commercially motivated map provider already points out businesses along our route, and the routes could potentially be chosen based on exposure to top paying advertisers. When accepting map services for free, this trade-off will likely become better delineated as providers of these services seek to recoup their considerable investments in mapmaking.
Similarly, the best mapped areas in a volunteered map may reflect a level of citizen activism and interests open to similar controls. For instance, there's an active pedestrian group seeking to return people to sidewalks and paths that claims a bias toward cars in most maps. Because maps are abstractions, there's always something that gets left out, and what to leave out is often a subjective exercise that's a matter of personal or institutional bias.
Mapping is an activity that is never done, and that will always be open to competing interpretations, and age-old disputes. With all the data and mapping inputs, perhaps we're moving toward a flexible personalized map, where we each decide our comfort level along the lines of accuracy, currency, bias, and authority.
|Tue Jun 18|
Canada - CoastGIS 2013 Conference: Monitoring and Adapting to Change on the Coast
|Tue Jun 18|
Germany - Munich Satellite Navigation Summit
|Sun Jun 23|
Italy - INSPIRE 2013: The Green Renaissance
|Sun Jun 23|
Italy - International Workshop at the Crossroad of Earth Information, Technology and Social Sciences
|Tue Jun 25|
Austria - RIEGL LIDAR 2013 International User Conference
|Wed Jun 26|
Portugal - 10th International Conference on Image Analysis and Recognition