Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Where Would You Like to Place the Crimea on Your World Map?

December 19th, 2019 by admin

Apple and its Maps product popped onto my radar last month. First, as part of the a response to a probe by the House Judiciary Committee into whether or not Apple had engaged In anti-competitive practices, the company revealed that it has spent several billions of dollars creating and improving Apple Maps. Wow, the price of hubris has gone up.

Maybe inflation has run rampant since I last looked, but it is difficult for me to imagine Apple Maps being able to efficiently and effectively spend billions of dollars to create, maintain, update and improve its map database. It is my opinion that if the company did spend that much money on the effort, then it, presumably, made numerous licensees and contractors very happy and unreasonably profitable. However, from a cartographic perspective, I admire a company that realized their original map database was in need of improvement and systematically set out on a course intended to improve it.

Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, after investing all those billions of dollars on procedures, research and technological innovations to improve the “ground truth” of Apple Maps, the Company revealed that it was willing to ignore its expensive, industrious endeavors and accept the Russian Government’s opinion that the Crimea was legally part of Russia and not part of the Ukraine. This was, apparently, news to the Ukrainians, as well as to the editors at Apple Maps who changed their maps to accommodate the demands of the Russian government.

Similarly, Google Maps has, also, capitulated to Russia on the depiction of the Crimea on its map product. Of course, this is nothing new as both Apple and Google seem to have tied themselves in knots while finding ways to accommodate China’s claim to Taiwan and its wishes regarding its representation on maps, as well as in their product marketing materials.

One of the solutions, used by both Apple and Google, to resolve the border representation issue is profoundly troubling. In this essay I call the problem “multiple representations.”

On the Apple map of the area served up to my iPad the Crimea is demarcated as an internal border in the Ukraine, although there is no international border shown between its eastern border and Russia. The border representation that you and I see on an Apple map showing the political border of the Crimea apparently is not what someone in Russia sees viewing the same mapped area on the map views served by Apple. Apple Maps reportedly displays the Crimea as part of Russia only on the maps that are served to people viewing the product in Russia. Indeed, Apple has corroborated this claim.

Similarly, according to the BBC Google, too, portrays the Crimea as part of Russia on its maps shown to viewers in Russia. In Google Maps shown to the rest of the world, the Crimea appears represented as a disputed border. However, it has chosen to show the location of the disputed border between the northern edge of the Crimea and the Ukraine, rather than between the eastern edge of the Crimea (the Ukraine) and Russia. Choosing to locate the border in this location seems to “imply” that Google Maps acknowledges Russian hegemony over the land area involved, even though the company does not use its established symbol for a “de facto” border on the mapped area.

I suspect more countries around the world may attempt to capitalize the value of their purchasing power by enacting laws with punitive penalties that require world geography to be represented on maps viewed by their citizens (and possibly all others) as the country prefers it to be interpreted. Multiple representations of common political borders seem to be in our future; it seems that the cartographic equivalent of “fake news” is “fake maps.”

If decisions about the representation of geographical content are not handled carefully, conscientiously and respectfully, Apple Maps and Google Maps may be heading down a path the leads to the end of meaningful reference map publishing. What is an appropriate response to legislated cartographic representations that are clearly fabrications, even though desired by a specific government? Will Apple and Google eventually value market penetration over the representation of geographical and political reality? How will future map users measure “spatial integrity?” Ouch, my head hurts already.

I am concerned that Apple and Google are giving an entirely new meaning to the usage of the term “Reference Atlas.” And make no mistake; both Apple Maps and Google Maps are the new reference atlases for most of the people in the world. If you knew little about world geography (most people in the modern world) and were referring to Google Maps or Apple Maps for purposes of reference, how would you know if you could trust that what you saw on a map was a “faithful” or perhaps “reasonable” representation of the conditions on the ground? How would you know if what you were seeing was “fake cartography?” And if you could determine that it was a false representation, what could you do about it that would affect a change?

One issue to focus on here is that border manipulation on maps is not new, although the nature of the current distribution method makes this strategy a more concerning move than it was in the print world. Political borders are an excellent example of the “squishy” side of cartography. Borders between countries most often are not visible on the ground, so the general compilation goal is to gather authoritative data from the sources that have it in order to understand how to represent borders as correctly as possible. Normally, governments are thought to be authoritative. They define their borders and provide this information to cartographers in the form of the country’s official maps or as cartographic data distributed by its official mapping agency.

Of course, it is often the case that neighboring countries (or even neighboring states in the United States) define the same border and differ in terms of the representation of its location – and they too are considered “authoritative” sources for map data.

The fact that the “authoritative” border data from one official sources often does not match that provided by a neighboring country means that those who compile these data into world reference map formats need to “interpret” border data to reflect a “balanced” editorial opinion – or what might be described as a “harmonized” world-reference view of the data. It is for that reason that numerous types of borders (demarcated, disputed (de facto), legal (de jure), indefinite, undefined, etc.) are usually shown by unique symbology on the maps provided by those who try to publish “reference atlases”. Or, at least we once used terms such as those above to define borders in map products.

So, it seems that the border information on world reference maps should actually come from the countries involved. Well, in theory maybe, sort of, or maybe, but in practice – often not directly. No, that is not waffling. Many of the internal and external country boundaries in today’s digital world databases originated in digital cartographic databases that date back to the last century. In fact, many of these historical, linearly-related precursors to today’s geospatial world reference databases were produced by or for military agencies of the United States government and donated to the public domain by them. How about that?

Further, the dirty truth here is that the border information on these databases was compiled and, then, captured by digitizing paper maps at the best scales that were provided to them by specific countries, or on the best maps that could be found when countries were not cooperative or allies. Oh, and some of the maps were so old that they had not been revised in decades – or worse.

The really bad news is that, in many cases, when the quality of the available reference material was contradictory (a common border was shown in a different location on the maps to the two countries sharing the border) the tie-breaker (actual border position) was frequently “captured” from a small scale Rand McNally, National Geographic or Bartholomew print atlas of the associated area. (Two brief explanatory issues here: first, map companies cannot successfully sue the government for copying most categories of their map data; second, copying map data is not necessarily copyright infringement. (Copying a protected digital map database is another issue, usually related to licensing.))

The ramblings above are a short way of telling you that the most of the borders on the world reference maps published by Apple, Google and other modern map makers are probably relatively inaccurate at the scales they are published at, based on the suspected compilation trails for these data. And in any event, since, most often, you cannot see political borders on the ground, how can you know if their depictions on maps (digital or otherwise) are good or bad representations? And how do you measure the importance, or lack of it in these errors? I suspect that Apple and Google probably have little understanding of the detailed provenance of the majority of the border information have depicted on their maps. These two companies are effectively street mappers who decided that with all the data they have that they might as well provide world reference maps and become atlas publishers. After all, what could go wrong?

When I was Chief Cartographer at Rand McNally & Company (last century – the dark ages so to speak) in our reference atlas publishing business we spent an inordinate amount of time on issues of world political geography and how to represent borders fairly and informatively. We had an editorial committee that approved major map changes and worked with representatives of governments around the world to source their data and to better understands their concerns and claims. Even with these efforts, we often got into hot water with one border blunder after another and so will Apple and Google as long as they continue providing us the fine, but necessarily flawed maps that they produce. After all, maps (online or offline) are not reality. Rather, they are selective generalizations of geography using representational mediums not well suited to the task of presenting complex spatial relationships.

Creating multiple representations of the world’s borders to suit claims by various countries creates an inherently complex and potentially no-win situation for the companies involved. I urge all digital map publishers to consider that serving multiple representations of the same geography could eventually harm the company’s reputation as an authoritative reference publisher. While some border representations may be debatable, although required to remain in a market, making these decisions is a slippery slope that will not end well if not appropriately examined using what might be termed a reliable, reusable and complex decision-making framework for spatial data usage.

Potential Actions

1. If companies involved in publishing digital map databases do not currently have advisory editorial boards in place, I would urge them to consider establishing an “independent” one and to thoughtfully consider the recommendations that are made. This does not mean that every recommendation of the board is followed, but “listening” to the recommendations should provide a better understanding of the “tentacles” attached to all spatial databases and geographic information publishing.

2. For quite some time I have wondered why Apple Maps and Google Maps do not make better use of spatial queries to improve the ability of the map products to communicate spatial information. How difficult would it be to make world borders queryable when there are issues of jurisdiction? For example, the Crimea could be shown using whatever symbology is required by law, but interrogating the border would invoke an information block that explained that nature of the controversy and the claims that impact the symbolized area. Sometime in the future, both Apple and Google will need to become GIS-based publishers, but I suspect that move will be slow in coming.

3. Finally, it seems humorous to me that neither Google Maps nor Apple Maps appear to offer a graphical legend that explains the meaning of lines, marks, signs and colors used on their map representations. This could be a case of my not being able to find an official, graphical legend for either Apple Maps or Google Maps, but plenty of searching failed to reveal where they might be found. (If you know, an official, authoritative legend for these map databases, please let me know.) Google, at least, provides a written (non-graphical) description of the borders on its maps. However, in the case of both companies the interpretation of symbols and graphic items on these maps seems left to the imagination. Perhaps, we are headed towards more imagination-based map publishing, but, clearly, that would not be reference map publishing – and without great caution, it could become known as propaganda, a direction that reference map publishing should seek to avoid. And so it goes.

Happy Holiday Season

Dr. Mike

You can find my other passion at Dobson PhotoArts

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Posted in Apple, Apple Maps, Authority and mapping, Data Sources, Geospatial, Google, Google maps, map compilation, map updating, Map Use, multiple representations of spatial data

One Response

  1. Scott Goldman

    As usual this is an interesting take on mapping; I can always count on you to illuminate a cartographic issue more clearly than anyone else I know or have read. This topic prompts a higher-level question in my mind, however, about the veracity of current maps in the first place. In a world of GPS satellite constellations, atomic-clock-timed cell sites and the digitization of everything from medical files to shopping lists, how is it that we are still largely dependent on borders and boundaries planned with pencil and paper hundreds of years ago?

    Is there some organization, perhaps part of the UN, that is responsible for defining borders? If so, shouldn’t they be doing so in a digitized format down to the cartographic second (or physical meter) that is in a shared space in the cloud allowing access by anyone. (It could be protected by blockchain access control to eliminate tampering). If not, shouldn’t there be such an organization?

    Living in a world so fraught with geopolitical disputes makes a centralized facility to collect, sort, maintain and publish these data essential. Given the appropriate agreements – a big ask, I know – it could even be the central authority to which all countries agree to defer to once their original borders are settled. This begs the political debate, no doubt, about what would happen in a situation like the China island buildup in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, without some central authority working on a digital measurement and open-source sharing basis, these disputes will continue ad infinitum.

    I’m curious – your thoughts about this?

    Hi, Scott:

    Good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment.

    The main problem with representing borders is that they are based on legal constructs whose enforcement relies on good will, political persuasion or military and economic force. Over most of their extent, political borders are not visible, nor can they usually be sensed by exotic imaging devices. As such we must rely on some “authoritative” source to indicate the borders location on the surface on the earth. The border locations are most often the result of field surveying based on monuments, markers and legal or quasi-legal documents/treaties It is usually the case the the borders between two countries have been surveyed only by the two countries with claims to the area of interest. When these two parties disagree, it is usually economic and military power that defines the “operational” location of the border, as is the case in the Crimea.

    While the United Nations has many committees and working groups involved in publishing and advising on geographic information (names, borders, other spatial data) their recommendations on borders lack “authority” since they are not directly involved in the original data gathering that is used to indicate the location of the border on the ground. For example, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 affirms the integrity of Ukraine’s borders (including the Crimea) but this was a non-binding resolutions approved only by 100 member countries. As you know, the UN is a highly political organization and their views on border location are advisory and often ignored by one or both of the parties involved in a border dispute.

    Countries are usually unwilling to defer their authority on border disputes to a third party, as, in many cases, the concept of a common good is of lesser interest to many governments than the good of their citizens. I do not expect to see any powerful countries ceding border decisions to any third party, at least not in the immediate future. I wish I could be more optimistic on this topic, but it will continue to be a difficult problem for cartographers and countries for the foreseeable future.


    Dr. Mike