How geopolitical conflict shapes the mass-produced online map

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Cartographers have always grappled with the question of how to depict spaces of conflict where place names or boundaries are disputed. We examine how these conflicts are represented in mass-produced online maps with a worldwide audience, focusing on both commercial maps produced by tech giants such as Google, and crowdsourced efforts such as OpenStreetMap. Producers of these maps occasionally publish policies on conflict resolution, emphasizing the mapping of ground truth and conformance to internationally recognized specifications. In practice, the makers of these maps violate their own appeals to neutrality and ground truth by (1) producing customized versions of the map tailored to local laws or expectations; and, (2) introducing ambiguity through the selective addition or omission of information in sensitive locations. We provide examples of these customization and ambiguity practices in commercial and crowdsourced maps. We demonstrate how commercial maps can appear in any number of versions to satisfy disputing parties, and crowdsourced maps can undergo “rogue customizations” for varying time periods as irredentist or separatist contributors seek for avenues to express their causes to a worldwide audience. We reflect on the long-term viability of customization and ambiguity as cartographic practices, commenting on ways that they shape — and are shaped by — the conflict on the ground and power of involved actors. Behind the seamless navigation of the Web 2.0 world map lies a patchwork of contributor motives and worldviews that complicates an understanding of ground truth and warrants interpretation through the lens of critical cartography.


This article was originally published Open Access in First Monday. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.


First Monday

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License