With Crimean Borders In Dispute, Google Maps Has It Both Ways

In most of the world, the region is included in Russia with a dotted line. Viewed in Russia, the line is solid. Guest host Tess Vigeland speaks with John Gravois about the issues with mapping borders.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

As we mentioned earlier, many Americans have trouble with the geography of Ukraine and Crimea. But even the professionals are having a hard time with this one. Google Maps, the highest profile map maker in the world today, took nearly a month to decide what to do with the changing border in Crimea. On Thursday the company finally updated its maps to reflect a new reality, or should I say several new realities?

I asked John Gravois of Pacific Standard magazine to explain what users can expect to see.

JOHN GRAVOIS: Well, it depends on where you are, or what version of Google Maps you're looking at.

VIGELAND: What do you mean?

GRAVOIS: If you're here in the U.S. and you look at Google Maps you will see a dotted line separating Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, which is how Google represents a disputed border. If you're in Russia, though, you'll see what Vladimir Putin wants you to see. You'll see a solid line dividing Ukraine from Crimea and no line between Crimea and Russia. So the map in Russia shows Crimea as part of Russia, the map here shows it as a disputed territory.

VIGELAND: And what about in Ukraine?

GRAVOIS: In Ukraine I think it shows it as still part of Ukraine.

VIGELAND: So Google basically recognizes where the map request is coming from and then specifies which map it's going to return based on that?

GRAVOIS: You know, when people say what does Google Maps say about a geographical conflict, it's really important to say which Google Maps are you talking about because Google maintains different versions of their mapping platform in different countries. The last time I counted there were over 30. That's partly because those mapping platforms are run out of servers that are located in countries that have their own laws about how the world needs to be represented politically.

In China, there's a territory that India and China both claim. In China, that territory called Arunachal Pradesh looks like part of China because Chinese law says it is. And Google has servers in China that have to obey Chinese law.

VIGELAND: What does Google say about this?

GRAVOIS: Google says a lot of things about their approach to map making that are frustrating and challenging for people who are used to a sort of traditional notion of maps as a single authoritative view of the world, you know.

VIGELAND: Right.

GRAVOIS: Historically, the most powerful map maker in the world was often the most powerful country in the world. It was the British Empire. And the map maker would come in and kind of settle disputes by saying, the name of that lake is X, what you people on the eastern shore of the lake call it. And so sorry, you people on the western shore of the lake.

Google doesn't have to settle those disputes because they can just represent way more information than a traditional paper map. Google can take something like the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf. The Arab countries on one side of that gulf like to call it the Arabian Gulf. Iran has, for thousands of years, called it the Persian Gulf. And historically, most map makers have called it the Persian Gulf. But Google represents both names. And in the process infuriates Iranians.

VIGELAND: Well, it might be hard to believe but I know there are still some other map makers around. I mean, Rand McNally springs to mind. What are those others doing?

GRAVOIS: It's been interesting. There's a big spread of the way that people have responded to this. National Geographic has done sort of a version of what Google's done and they did it quicker. They decided that they were going to show Crimea as a special case, as a sort of disputed territory. So they note the border but they shade Crimea differently from the rest of Russia or Ukraine.

Rand McNally though, they say they take their cues from the State Department. And, you know, the U.S. government still says that this is a land grab.

VIGELAND: That's John Gravois of the magazine Pacific Standard. Thanks, John.

GRAVOIS: My pleasure.

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VIGELAND: This is NPR News.

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