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Map of CrimeaListening to the March 28th episode of WNYC’s On the Media (OTM) led me to reflect upon my earlier post about the crowd sourced mapping system OpenStreetMap (OSM). Two interrelated segments on OTM discussed the political aspects of mapmaking, the risks of crowdsourcing geospatial information, and what maps mean to us in the digital age.

Mapping is always political. Mapping is never objective.

In the first segment “A Crisis of Cartographic Proportions,” Michael Blanding discusses the recent representation of Crimea on online maps, and the political nature of mapmaking generally. According to Blanding, even the most trusted sites wavered when determining how to identify Crimea during the current crisis.  Wikipedia assigned Crimea to Russia and then reverted back to Ukraine, until finally it settled upon assigning it a color label identifying it as a “disputed territory.” Rand McNally stated that it would take direction from the U.S. State Department in determining how it would identify Crimea. The Russian government is actively lobbying Google to adjust its mapping of Crimea, which continues to include the region as part of Ukraine. National Geographic has received criticism for asserting it would not alter Crimea’s country assignment, claiming the decision reflected its apolitical position.  But is this apolitical? In each instance, mapmakers have had to make a subjective decision. Even choosing to identify or not identify an area as disputed has political implications.

The problem of how to map disputed regions, or “grey areas” or “areas of special status,” has been an issue throughout the history of cartography, but now, when we automatically turn to online maps when seeking to better understand global events, the issue is perhaps more immediately visible. We have become hyperaware of the shortcomings of systems we had come to count on for providing certainty and unquestionable information.

What purpose do we expect our maps to serve?

In the second segment, “The World According to Google Maps,” John Gravois speaks about the state of Google maps and how we think about maps more generally. Google’s Map Maker tool and the Community layer of Google Earth are the crowd-sourced elements of Google Maps. Gravois tells the story of a Palestinian who, using Community layer, tagged all of the Palestinian villages destroyed during the creation of the state of Isreal, an act that was seen as slanderous by some Israelis. In another instance cited in the segment, Google Maps decided to identify the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as both the Arabian Gulf and the Persian Gulf, which caused an outcry from many in Iran. Google’s position has been that its naming decisions regarding bodies of water are guided by the naming preferred by people directly adjacent to the body. Google appears to work under the assumption that the more information the better. It follows not the standards of science, but the standards revealed by what people say. In doing so, Google declares its position of neutrality based upon its allowance for its users to inform map content.

But if maps contain as much information as possible, then what are maps today? Mapmaking was originally an idea of indexing and measuring everything in accordance with rules and structure. It is more apparent today that maps hold opinion as well as information and no longer can claim to provide a single authoritative view of the world. More frequently, maps serve a social function. The use of geographical techniques and tools for personal and community activities, or neogeography, is increasingly applied to specialized topics, such as the best coffee shops close to subway stations, rat populations, crime hotspots, among many others.

After listening to the OTM episode, I returned to OSM to see how it was addressing the crisis in Crimea, if at all. OSM has declared a moratorium on making adjustments to administrative borders and name tags in the region. A statement on the website declares that “every edit altering name tags or administrative borders will be treated as provoking an edit war and reverted, users who do that repeatedly will be banned,” and encourages OSM users to continue to map “non-political” things such as buildings and land uses. But, in a situation such as that in Crimea, is there anything that can truly be considered non-political?

Gathering, categorizing, and disseminating information, are the crux of a librarians job, and we are increasingly able to bring our community of users into the process in order to better serve them. However, as we strive to be inclusive and democratic, questions andrisks arise. How do we handle sensitive information? When engaging in crowd sourcing, because it can sometimes prove inflammatory as opposing viewpoints are aired, do we filter and police community input?

The benefits of crowdsourcing are evident. Ultimately, the debates ignited by the inherent tensions are allowing us to see a more diverse range of viewpoints. These viewpoints may provoke anger at times, but we need to continue to work to encourage the dialogue.