Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Google causes war?

As Mark Monmonier* points out in his charming How to Lie with Maps, maps have often been used by governments to further their political goals in the international arena. Now, however, it seems governments no longer need to rely on their own maps to support dodgy political claims.

Last month, Nicaraguan troops "invaded" Costa Rica, blaming the "error" on a mistake in Google maps, which misplaced a section of the border by about 1.5 miles. Of course, this is highly unlikely to cause an actual war (note how the newspaper article is filed under "Notas Secundarias" :-). Still, Google is embarrassed, especially since it appears Microsoft's Bing mapped the border correctly. Google offers some defense of its error here, blaming the U.S. Department of State.

More detail about the 19th-century border dispute that lies at the source of the "misunderstanding" is offered by Stefan Geens on Ogle Earth. As Geens points out, Nicaragua's government was already trying to assert its claim to the small area under dispute when it appears to have noticed that, fortuitously, Google maps awarded them the area. This was deemed sufficient justification to go ahead and occupy it.

It is unclear whether the Nicaraguans actually believed that the appeal to Google maps would convince anyone of the legality of their actions. Nevertheless, these events make clear not only how important maps are, but also how much governments have to come rely on private organizations who have no legal responsibility under national or international law to supply correct information. It's surprising that hackers haven't jumped on this earlier — imagine the uproar if Google maps suddenly started showing Texas as an independent country, for example :-)

* Mark Monmonier is speaking at William & Mary at 4pm this Friday, Nov. 12. His talk's title will be “Fear and Loathing in Geopolitics: Cartographies of Pretension and Persuasion.” He may well have more to say on this same issue.

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