Russia’s March invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has not just been a headache for diplomats: it has also been the latest in a series of problems for mapmakers. Should Crimea be shown as Ukrainian? Russian? Disputed?
The US government chose not to change its official maps of the region, because, the US State Department press spokesperson said, “we reject the Russian attempt to annex Crimea”. National Geographic, on the other hand, shaded Crimea grey, its sign of “an area of special status”.
Google’s response may have shown the situation’s complexity the best: at the end of April, the international mapmaker simply produced three different versions. To visitors accessing the site from Ukraine, #Google_Maps left Crimea as it looked before Russia’s invasion – as a part of Ukraine. But it changed the map for those accessing the Russian version of the site, showing Crimea as separate from Ukraine with a thick line. International visitors, on the other hand, saw a version with a dotted line, the sign of a disputed border.
How Crimea is represented: for visitors from Ukraine; on the Russian version; on the international version. (Google Maps)
(...) “People generally assume that, well, science is just objective, and what we do in cartography is represent the world ‘out there’. But it’s never as clear cut,” said Christine Leuenberger, a Cornell University professor who researches politics and cartography. “Maps are always selective. You always have to omit as much as you include. So they’re always political. It’s impossible to construct an apolitical map.”
(...) Nokia’s mapmaking platform HERE often has to grapple with this issue, as their GPS maps are in 80% of the world’s cars that have satellite-navigation installed. “In general, we follow the UN,” said Christof Hellmis, vice president of HERE’s Map Platform office. “But if the map doesn’t follow local regulations, then of course we support our customers in making the maps locally compliant.”
In order for a car with HERE’s GPS technology to be shipped to China, for example, the maps need to comply with Chinese regulations. “If you ship a map to the rest of the world, Taiwan is not a part of the Republic of China,” Hellmis said. But on cars sent to China, Taiwan is mapped as part of China.