When politics meet maps there is no right

Old atlases are fun

Collins Longman Atlas 1962 - CoverCollins Longman Atlas 1962 - Inside Cover

Old school atlases are fascinating, they reflect the ways we learned geography and how we were taught political geography. They are probably the reason that I hated geography at school and dropped it at the first opportunity only to rediscover a love for the digital version much later in life. When I was a kid a lot of the world was coloured pink, for my non Brit readers this was the colour that our school atlases used to denote the British Commonwealth, our territories or dependencies, aka The Empire. Those were the days. Or not!   Collins Longman Atlas 1962 - World Political Map 1Collins Longman Atlas 1962 - World Political Map 2


Note the layout of the maps which puts Europe, Asia and Australasia on the left hand page and the Americas on the right hand page with Europe and west Africa poking in again on the extreme right. There is a definite sense of perspective to this atlas and it is a very British perspective. My thanks to my friend Steve Miller for the loan of his 1962 Collins Longman atlas which I believe he ‘borrowed’ from his old school (that’s an ink stain not some previously unidentified Pacific islands to the west of Peru and Chile). If we step back just a few years to 1957-8 and look at the Pears Cyclopedia, the annual single volume encyclopedia and atlas which was a favourite birthday and Christmas present for kids back in the day, we can see a different world map. My thanks to my friend Hayden Kendler for the loan of his 1957 Cyclopedia. Pears Cyclopedia 1957 - World Political MapThere is more pink, have a look at Africa in particular. Here are the 1957 and 1962 maps illustrating the loss of Empire as South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) gained independence, note also the different identification of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by 1962. Pears Cyclopedia 1957 - Africa Political Map Pears 1957Collins Longman Atlas 1962 - Africa Political Map

Collins Longman 1962

In the 1962 map you can just see Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Swaziland as two tiny British colonies surrounded by the independent Republic of South Africa (both gained independence in 1966 and 1968 respectively. So what’s the point of this, you may ask? Political geography changes, borders are not fixed they move around due to wars, independence movements, annexations, agreements. Countries change names. Generally there was a consensus about political geography (outside of periods of dispute) and world atlases reflected that consensus at the time that they were published. Inevitably atlases became out of date quite quickly, Pears published an edition almost every year and Collins Longman published 14 editions of their atlas between 1939 and 1962. When you picked up an atlas it didn’t have an accuracy disclaimer warning you that it might be out of date within a few months.

Interactive maps can reflect political change in near real time

So things have changed big time in the last decade. With the advent of digital map data served into interactive web and mobile applications, changes in political geography can be reflected in close to real time. A good ‘thing’? Maybe not. The time lag between printed map editions allowed a consensus to form on changes to political geography, not always but often this worked quite well. In the digital era a name can be changed in seconds and a border redrawn in minutes and users will see these changes immediately. But when there are unresolved disputes regarding political geography what does the digital mapmaker do? Waiting for consensus denies the existence of a dispute, preserving the old status may suggest some support for one side in a dispute as would adopting the newly asserted names and boundaries. This is a particular challenge for the major map providers, Google and OpenStreetMap, whatever approach they choose they will inevitably upset some people because of the implied sense of authority associated with maps. Maps used to have a sense of ‘officialness’ because they were produced by governments and reflected their view of the world, their country or region, today they are produced by commercial organisations and in the case of OSM by over a million volunteers around the world (Google also sources some data through volunteers). Map readers often do not understand that a map represents a mapmaker’s view of the world at a point in time and not some universally agreed UN approved political status. Let’s look at some examples of the conundrums that a mapmaker faces in representing political geography.

English or Spanish road names in Guyana

This post was prompted by a Guardian article on Guyana protesting against Spanish street names in Google Maps. Anglophone Guyana was protesting at the use of Spanish street names in a disputed border region claimed by Venezuela.You can have a look at different web maps of the road north from Georgetown, Guyana in this great tool from GeoFabrik In OpenStreetMap the road is shown as Main Road while in Google it is Av. 100 Bolivar and Carre Costera del Essequibo. Change the map to Bing or Here and it has no name at all (probably a less than satisfactory compromise). The edit history on OpenStreetMap shows that the Main Road was last edited about 5 months ago by a user “emilyjohnsonpt” but that doesn’t mean that the name was edited then. Further digging might tell more about when the name Main Road was first applied, perhaps one of my OSM friends could help out here. As you pan around the map heading northwards towards Venezuela you will find very few named roads on either OSM or Google, in OSM all of the roads that are named have English names, in Google there is a mixture of languages. Guyana was a British colony until 1966, it’s official language is English but part of its territory has been disputed by Venezuela since 1824

Since Independence in 1824, Venezuela has claimed the area of land to the west of the Essequibo RiverSimón Bolívar wrote to the British government warning against the Berbice and Demerara settlers settling on land which the Venezuelans, as assumed heirs of Spanish claims on the area dating to the sixteenth century, claimed was theirs. In 1899 an international tribunal ruled the land belonged to Great Britain. The border disputes persist and no final settlement has been reached Wikipedia

It would appear that if a mapmaker was to adopt the policy of recognising the status quo until a dispute has been formally resolved then the use of the English road names would be the way to go. I doubt that Google is taking a position on this unresolved dispute by introducing Spanish names into their map, my guess would be that an individual with edit rights (either a volunteer or a staff member) is pursuing their own agenda. Google tend not to comment on these disputes but don’t be surprised if at some time in the future the names of the roads in the MapCompare above switch back to English (they were definitely Spanish when I wrote this post)


The dispute over the independence of Crimea from Ukraine is still ongoing, the way that it is reflected in maps varies by mapmaker and also varies depending upon who is looking at the map. The Guardian published an article in April 2015 on how mapmakers were representing the reality on the ground in Crimea. Apparently if you view Google maps from within Ukraine, Crimea is shown as a part of Ukraine, if you view it from within Russia it is shown as an independent country with a border separating Crimea from Ukraine and if you view it from anywhere else the border is shown but as a disputed border. OSM came up with a different compromise through its Data Working Group

Edits to the administrative boundary for the region. In the short-term Crimea shall remain in both the Ukraine and Russia administrative relations, and be indicated as disputed. We recognize that being in two administrative relations is not a good long-term solution, although the region is likely to be indicated as disputed for some time. Edits changing place names between languages The DWG views these as the most serious portion of the dispute. The “on the ground” rule remains the method of determining the appropriate value for the name tag. The name tag should only changed in response to a change of most of the signage, a change in what the inhabitants of the place call it, or to fix a place name that was previously incorrect. These changes must not be made on the basis of government declarations or similar statements, but only direct observations of the on the ground situation.

A pragmatic approach that avoids taking sides in a political dispute which is probably more of an issue for OpenStreetMappers given that there will always be mappers on both sides of a dispute. Steve Coast pointed out in Ukrainian Maps (and the lies they tell) that different map representations of the border area give quite different views of the physical geography. You can have a look at the different representations in OSM, Google, Bing and satellite imagery using the Geofabric tool below

If you want to dig into loads more map images of Ukraine the Wikimedia Commons Atlas of the World is a great place to lose yourself for an hour or two.


I couldn’t resist having a look at the way Jerusalem is mapped on OSM to see how different mapmakers represented this bitterly disputed city. There are inevitably different views on whether the city lies within Israel or Palestine and what it is called. OSM has a big advantage over most mapmakers in disputes, it can recognise (at the data level) that there are multiple points of view and the data model supports this through tagging. So the municipal boundary has names in several languages including hebrew and arabic and someone has also created a tag using ‘official_name’ and an arabic script of Jerusalem in an endeavour to assert some official authority on the use of arabic and presumably the claimed status of the city. OSM takes a slightly more nuanced view of the ‘official_name’ tag saying that it

has been created for country names but we need a clarification for other cases between “name”, “int_name”, “loc_name” and “official_name”

The city node represents the point (pseudo-centroid) of the city that will be mapped as one zooms out to a broader view of the area and it is the anchor point for the city name label that will appear in a renderer. For a while there was an edit war with mappers repeatedly changing the naming of the city. The name tag can no longer be edited, the Data Working Group summarised the dispute

Jerusalem Name Dispute Case There was a dispute/edit war over the contents of the “name:” tag for the city of Jerusalem (https://www.openstreetmap.org/browse/node/29090735). While involved parties were happy with the various name:language tags, they could not agree on suitable content for the main “name” tag (Hebrew, Arabic). Resolution Data Working Group decided that the node shall not have a name tag at all until involved parties can agree on something. Specialist maps can still render the language-specific name:language tags if desired, and it is not unusual even for large cities not to be named on the main OSM map (due to name collisions etc) so the downside of not having a name on the main map is acceptable. DWG hopes that involved parties will come to a resolution. Until that time, please refrain from re-adding a name tag to this node (or creating a new city node for Jerusalem). Data Working Group has added a “note” tag explaining the situation and will remove that once an amicable resolution has been reached. In addition, the name tag of the place=suburb node for East Jerusalem (https://www.openstreetmap.org/browse/node/299937491) has been converted to name:ar so that neither Jerusalem nor East Jerusalem now have a name tag.

Remember also that there are many maps created from OSM data, the mapmakers can decide what to render and how to display data, so, for example, they have the choice to write styling rules that use hebrew, arabic or english name tags. This separation between the map data and the map that is rendered can provide ample scope for different interpretations.

This won’t end soon

There are hundreds of territorial disputes around the world, the longest lasted for 600 years! However mapmakers represent political geography they will not satisfy everyone even if they offer different maps to the opposing sides of a dispute. The answer may be to improve the communication and education about what a political map represents and what it does not which won’t be easy. In the meantime map geeks will have fun seeing how mapmakers and readers struggle with the long list of disputes but one thing is for sure – when politics meet maps there is no right.