How geopolitical conflict shapes the mass-produced online map
First Monday

How geopolitical conflict shapes the mass-produced online map by Sterling D. Quinn and Doran A. Tucker

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.


Policies or statements of online map makers regarding disputes
Customization as a response to dispute
Ambiguity as a response to dispute




The past decade has seen the development of fast interactive digital maps that cover the world at a broad range of scales, from the continental level to the city block. Recognizing maps’ potential to enrich Internet search and discovery, online search giants such as Google and Microsoft dominate the production and dissemination of mass-produced, global-scale digital maps. These companies heavily invest in constructing up-to-date base maps that support thematic map overlays or ‘mashups’. The rapidly-growing OpenStreetMap project (OSM) provides base maps and spatial data in a similar fashion, but is built with crowdsourced data in a manner similar to Wikipedia and is shared under an open license.

Online base maps appear in Web sites and mobile apps supporting day-to-day activities such as route planning, location searches, and even gaming. They allow exploration and scrutiny of the world to a level not possible with traditional paper maps that were locked into a single scale and extent. The most popular digital base maps — such as Google Maps — are so ubiquitous that users to view the content as authoritative, yet in practice these maps do not represent the position of any international authoritative body regarding geopolitically sensitive topics such as place names or boundaries (Jacobs, 2012).

The global nature and audience of these digital maps presents challenges when depicting contested spaces and place names. Throughout the world, forces of separatism and irredentism manipulate the boundaries of existing states and sometimes create new states. Processes such as migration, ethnic cleansing, imperialism, or revolution lead to changes in local place names, or toponyms [1]. Unclear histories, ambiguous treaties, and a hunger for natural resources such as minerals, fisheries, and fossil fuels can thrust the most isolated outposts into the middle of international diplomatic chess matches, or worse, armed conflict. In these situations, a map can lend legitimacy to a cause and become “weaponized” when backed by military force [2]. Such maps reshape, rather than simply depict, the geopolitical landscape.

Makers of online maps have learned the hard way that drawing lines on maps can create enemies. The key role played by commercial search providers in online digital mapping has occasionally thrust companies, such as Google, into the middle of sensitive territorial disputes in places such as Iran (BBC News, 2012), Nicaragua (Jacobs, 2012), and the South China Sea (South China Morning Post, 2015). This is not a desirable position for any corporation aiming to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but it may be an inevitable consequence of dealing in maps and location services on the global scale. Speaking of a recent public flare-up over a sensitive place label in Google Maps, Dewey (2016) remarked that, “In their attempts to dispassionately document the physical world online, tech companies often end up shaping our understanding of it, too.”

Crowdsourced maps such as OSM and the somewhat similar Wikimapia project face similar challenges, albeit exacerbated ones, because the map makers are often physically or ideologically in the middle of the disputes. In some ways, crowdsourced maps offer an avenue to express alternative points of view, yet they encounter practical and logistical limitations to displaying all variations at once. A result is the appearance of inflammatory online dialogues and “edit wars” that threaten to contaminate the community ethos of such projects [3].

How do online map producers deal with these challenges? At least a few have released public statements explaining how they attempt to navigate sensitive geopolitical conditions, and those organizations that haven’t shared public documents are certainly grappling with the issue in private. For example, statements by Google and OSM officials have sometimes given preference to representing geographic features in a way that represents “ground truth”, in other words, physical and social topography as it would be observed by a visitor on the ground. Additionally, a cartographic policy by Microsoft appealed to global arbiters, like the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, when describing how borders are depicted. In practice, however, online map makers often deviate from their stated policies in the following ways:

  • Drawing ‘customized’ boundaries and names that satisfy just one party in the dispute, sometimes resulting in multiple versions of a map. In commercial maps, this is often done in response to legal requirements or state demands. In crowdsourced maps, it is done for practical reasons as well as self-serving motives.

  • Avoiding conflict by introducing ambiguity in a map. This occurs either through omission of content, such as refusing to show a place name or boundary, or through addition of content, such as showing multiple boundaries or names for the same place.

The purposes of this paper are to call attention to these customization and ambiguity practices, and discuss how they might affect the ways that people use and interpret online maps. Because digital base maps tend to pan and zoom in a smooth, relatively seamless fashion, and offer consistent symbols across large swaths of geography, it is tempting to view a given map as the output of a value-neutral mechanical process. We argue that all maps are political and that the mass-produced online geopolitical map should rather be viewed critically as a patchwork or mosaic reflecting the political values and priorities of its makers. In the case of commercial maps, those values and priorities stem from business goals tailored to the local Web domain in which the map is running. In the case of crowdsourced maps, they are the sum total of the values and priorities of the most recent contributors to the map. Map users should maintain an awareness that influences feeding into the cartography may change from place to place without any warning or indicative symbols.



Policies or statements of online map makers regarding disputes

Some online map makers have shared policies or statements explaining how they decide which disputed places and boundaries to show on their maps. The crafting of such guidelines may be attractive to map publishers because it gives them an established procedure that can be followed when new disputes are raised, as well as a justification they can reference when angry map users demand answers as to cartographic choices. That being said, we found numerous cases in which map makers’ practices for addressing disputes contradicted stated policies due to the complexity of the situation or its potentially negative effect on the map maker’s ability to operate.

We collected publicly available policies or statements describing how Internet map makers handle disputes. We did this through online searching, browsing, and submission of requests via electronic contact mechanisms. In the section below, we discuss information retrieved from Google, Microsoft, and OSM. We could not obtain such a statement from Apple, and the Wikimapia official guidelines offer no information about how the user community should handle disputed places [4]. We also looked at the Esri ArcGIS Online Web maps popular in GIS applications, but the Esri metadata for these services places responsibility for the boundaries and places on the upstream source data vendors [5].

Google Maps and Google Earth

Google public policy team leaders have published at least two key blog posts revealing how the company decides to display disputed boundaries and places. The first, written in 2008 by the company’s director of public policy Andrew McLaughlin, dealt specifically with the naming of bodies of water in Google Earth. Context from the comments on this post suggest that some Iranians had taken issue with Google’s addition of the alternate term “Arabian Gulf” next to the traditional name of the Persian Gulf.

McLaughlin states that Google’s policy is to reflect “primary local usage,” favoring the most common terms used on a daily basis in the countries actually bordering the body of water (McLaughlin, 2008). He also explains why certain alternatives were rejected. Deferring to decisions by international bodies such the United Nations Cartographic Section or the International Hydrographic Organization was dismissed as an option because these organizations were not guaranteed to fully represent the countries involved, nor were they even certain to render a decision. The opinions of the U.S. National Geographic Society or the U.K. Royal Geographic Society were also deemed nonrepresentative of some parts of the world. Finally, the opinions of academics were considered potentially biased, with the selection process itself holding the potential for controversy.

A second blog post in 2009 by the director of Google’s public policy team, Bob Boorstin, outlines a more flexible approach in which ground truth constitutes just one of several factors. Boorstin describes a decision-making process based on a “hierarchy of values” including: (1) Google’s mission; (2) authoritative references; and, (3) local expectations (Boorstin, 2009). Boorstin describes “Google’s mission” as organizing the world’s information and making it accessible, thus encompassing the ground truth approach described by McLaughlin while opening the door to showing multiple claim lines and multiple names on a geographic feature. In an apparent contradiction or evolution of McLaughlin’s 2008 post, Boorstin describes how Google references standards bodies such as the United Nations, International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS), making sure that names commonly used by these groups are included. Finally, Boorstin describes a customization practice wherein Google Maps shows different place names based on the Web domain of the region from which the map is viewed. Sometimes this is in response to requirements of local laws, but business considerations can also play into the decision:

“Carefully considering Google’s mission, guidance from authoritative references, local laws and local market expectations, we strive to provide tools that help our users explore and learn about their world, and to the extent allowed by local law, includes all points of view where there are conflicting claims.” (Boorstin, 2009)

These two posts from Google reveal a policy that started as a basic appeal to ground truth, but evolved into a wider and more flexible set of approaches that could be employed depending on the nuances of the case and how they would affect Google’s business practices, such as the ability to legally or profitably operate within a country.

Microsoft Bing Maps

Microsoft, maker of Bing Maps, maintained a “Cartographic Policy Statement” on its Web site [6]. This policy was freely visible in 2016, but removed for reasons unknown to us by early 2017. It included this declaration:

In dealing with disputed areas, our cartographers strive for detailed and neutral depictions and to try present differing points of view where appropriate. In areas of cartographic uncertainty:

  • Microsoft follows the decisions of the International Court of Justice on geographic disputes.

  • In the absence of a legal agreement or judgment, we weigh the practices and opinions of United Nations bodies, the International Organization for Standardization, regional political organizations, and independent academic and research organizations to determine if a significant international consensus exists.

  • When there is no legal judgment or significant international consensus regarding a particular geographic sovereignty or border dispute between two nations, Microsoft will depict the area as disputed. (Microsoft Corporation, 2016)

This policy relies heavily on the conclusions of international arbiters, and portrays Microsoft as a neutral dispenser of facts as determined by those institutions. Although the statement is diplomatic in fashion and designed to distance Microsoft from the center of conflicts, Microsoft does customize its Bing Maps product in the same fashion as Google to suit the opinions or legal requirements of local audiences. This often involves removing any indication that certain territories are disputed, contrary to the policy above. Citing an incident in which Windows 95 was temporarily barred from sale in India due to map issues, Microsoft head of geopolitical product strategy Tom Edwards explained:

“You cannot sell a product in India that doesn’t show all of Kashmir as Indian territory. It’s a business requirement of selling maps in India. People say it’s slanted toward the Indian point of view, but that’s what the government requires in order to distribute that type of content in their market.” (Microsoft Corporation, 2000)

OpenStreetMap (OSM)

OSM has encountered the same set of geopolitical disputes that commercial maps have addressed. Compounding the challenge is the fact that sometimes the very editors of OSM are emotionally invested in the disputes, and the open nature of the product allows anyone to edit the data at any time.

OSM community protocol is largely established through an open wiki system, wherein contributors list historical disagreements, their resolutions, and tips for mapping disputed places. Backing this system is a network of talk pages and forums; contributors are encouraged to discuss and resolve differences peacefully before making unilateral edits to the map.

Just as the open map can change over time, so can a wiki; therefore in 2013, the non-profit governing body of the project, the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) released a fixed policy document titled Information for officials and diplomats of countries and entities with disputed territories. This document asserts that OSM is fundamentally a database and that people are welcome and encouraged to make their own maps from the data to suit their tastes. However, base data will not be deleted from the project to suit a particular legal jurisdiction. Mechanisms are built into the project wherein contributors can supply variant names used by different language groups. The “main example map” on operates through an “on the ground principle, recording what is currently used in a particular area, giving pre-eminence to data collected in-situ” (OpenStreetMap Foundation, 2013). In this appeal to ground truth, OSM’s policy is similar to Google’s 2008 policy as stated by McLaughlin.

A “Data Working Group” (DWG) of volunteers from the OSMF actively monitors the most heavily disputed regions of OSM and has the power to revert edits that violate the OSMF policy. The group also actively blocks contributors who ignore its warnings [7], although it does not place software restrictions or locks on editing any particular feature. Although the above policy has provided the DWG with an easily referenced set of ground rules, we will discuss some difficult cases that have resulted in maps incongruent with the stated OSMF policy. Furthermore, both the OSM map and database are vulnerable to rogue temporary customizations that can persist in the project until being caught by the user community or the DWG.



Customization as a response to dispute

Just as drawing lines on a map can make enemies, it can also build friendships and alliances. A customized map is an a map version constructed for the purpose of satisfying a single party in a dispute, which depicts boundaries and places according to the sole desires of that party. Often it is widely known that the map does not represent current conditions on the ground. Both commercial and crowdsourced map producers employ customization on a regular basis as a way of meeting legal demands or responding to expectations of a local user base.

Customization in commercial maps

The commercial services Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Bing Maps each have engaged in the practice of showing different sets of boundaries and place names based on the language version selected for the map or the web domain from which the map is accessed. Soeller, et al. (2016) built a tool to detect such customizations in Google Maps and Bing Maps as they are implemented, finding seven customized regions spread across four different continents. These include the South China Sea, areas along the Indo-Pakistani border, the Argentinian claim of a portion of Antarctica, the area of Western Sahara, and the Crimean peninsula. The latter was also the subject of a customization applied by Yandex maps in 2014, which showed Russian and Belarussian users that Crimea was part of Russia, and showed Ukranian and Turkish users that Crimea was part of Ukraine (Moscow Times, 2014). Google Maps displayed a dashed “disputed” boundary around the area of South Ossetia to viewers of the Russian and Ukrainian-localized versions of the map, while omitting this boundary altogether for all other users (Soeller, et al., 2016). Apple Maps showed the Liancourt Rocks with the name Dokdo in its Korean language map and Takeshima in its Japanese language map (Korea Times, 2012).

Figure 1 shows the Chinese localization of Google Maps with the state-approved “10-dashed line” encompassing the island of Taiwan and most of the South China Sea as Chinese territory. These customizations are relatively easy to find, but have received more attention in popular media than in critical scholarship.


Map customization in practice
Figure 1: Map customization in practice: The Chinese localization of Google Maps shows the “10-dashed line” around the South China Sea and island of Taiwan.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


Encouraged customizations in crowdsourced maps

Customizations also occur in crowdsourced maps, albeit in slightly different ways. OSM encourages users to make maps suited to their own preferences using the OSM database as a starting point. OSM community members have implemented this approach on the OpenStreetMap India site [8]. Visitors to the page see items from the OpenStreetMap database, with the exception that the boundary of India is modified and symbolized to conform to the Indian government’s recognized boundary. This requires that someone engineer a spatial data file showing the desired boundary. Technical skills and computing resources are also required in order to build and serve the customized map images, or “tiles” shown in the interactive Web map [9].

Wikimapia ( is arguably the ultimate customized map, as it offers no official policy for dealing with disputed features other than appealing to the civility of contributors. However, Wikimapia utilizes a hierarchy of privileged editors who can ban contributors and restrict editing on particular features. The representation of a feature on the map thus depends on the feelings of the most recent editor, as well as the administrative power wielded by that editor. Bittner (2017b) has shown differences in editor demographics between Wikimapia and OSM, with Wikimapia attracting a relatively high amount of interest in the Russian and Arabic language communities. Thus, the Wikimapia renditions of eastern hemisphere locations may differ in nature from those generally recognized in western Europe or the United States where OSM has thrived. Differences in prevailing boundaries and place names between Wikimapia and OSM at the national or regional level are a fruitful topic for further research.

Rogue customizations in crowdsourced maps

Crowdsourced maps are vulnerable to what we term “rogue customizations”, wherein contributors introduce names or boundaries conforming to their own desires but violating the project’s “on the ground” principle. In OSM, such edits are tempting to mappers advocating a political cause, although most changes are quickly reverted by alert contributors, paid mappers working for companies that rely on OSM data integrity, or members of the OSM Data Working Group.

Other modifications attract less immediate attention and may persist in the database for a number of days or weeks before being reverted. On 11 July 2016, a contributor began a series of changes renaming the United Kingdom-administered Falkland Islands to the Argentinian-preferred name of “Islas Malvinas.” This region saw violent conflict in 1982 when Argentinian troops occupied the islands for several months until ousted by British forces. Sovereignty over the islands remains a sensitive topic between the two countries. The July 2016 rogue OSM changes were made to the principal “name” tag controlling the rendering of the map on, which is supposed to reflect the name used in local signage (a Spanish language variant tag of “Islas Malvinas” had existed since the creation of the feature in the OSM database). The change was reverted seven days later, but had lasted long enough to be pulled into the periodic update of the OSM small-scale map tiles, resulting in the map in Figure 2 that we observed on 19 July 2016 [10].


Islas Malvinas name in the main map at on 19 July 2016
Figure 2: Islas Malvinas name in the main map at on 19 July 2016, a “rogue customization” (circle added by authors of this paper).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


The contributor interactions captured from the OSM historical metadata are instructive in understanding this dispute. The contributor originally making the change attached a comment to the edits: “Islas Malvinas are Argentinians,” a translation of the slogan popular in Argentina “Las Malvinas son Argentinas”. Another OSM contributor posted a reply in Spanish sympathetic to the Argentine claim but firm on OSM policy, stating that “The Malvinas *should be* Argentine. Unfortunately they aren’t, and OpenStreetMap maps reality” [11]. This incident reveals two mappers with similar feelings on a geopolitical issue who express differing views on whether the map should appear customized or adhere to the project’s ground truth policy.

Other politically motivated customizations in OSM include changing the languages of island names in the South China Sea, redrawing the boundaries of the Ukraine, and modifying the boundary of Morocco to affect the prominence of Western Sahara. Because such edits are sometimes fleeting, a key resource for learning about politically motivated customizations is the user ban archives of the DWG.

The DWG can lock OSM contributor accounts for varying periods of time depending on the nature of the offense and whether it is a repeat occurrence. A description of each ‘ban’ and its duration is publicly visible online. The locations of the edits that provoked the ban are often easily found through the OSM history page for each contributor. The map in Figure 3 depicts the locations of what we judged to be politically motivated edits that resulted in bans between 12 October 2009 and 20 March 2017.


Locations where politically motivated edits led to contributor bans in OpenStreetMap
Figure 3: Locations where politically motivated edits led to contributor bans in OpenStreetMap.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


Areas where active OpenStreetMap communities intersect regions of ongoing irredentism and separatism saw the most edits leading to bans, particularly in southern and eastern Europe. The area provoking the most bans was Crimea, partially corroborated by Dammann’s [12] observation of a spike in mapping activity by Russian-speaking OSM editors in this region during the Russian annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. The fluid political situation on the ground at that time emboldened some mappers and complicated the interpretation of OSM policies.

In Wikimapia as well, politically charged additions that violate the project’s guidelines of not being “being grossly uncivilised or disrespectful to other users” constitute rogue customizations, if not outright vandalism. Examining another Falklands example, around the year 2007 a Wikimapia edit war occurred when the Spanish name of the administrative city was repeatedly changed from Stanley to an embellished version of the Argentine-preferred Puerto Argentino: “Puerto Argentino.Habitadas Por Los Pirats [sic] Y Borrachos De La Realeza” [13], meaning in English: “Puerto Argentino, inhabited by the pirates and drunkards of the royalty”.

Even commercial maps are not immune from rogue customizations if they allow users to submit changes. This is the case with the Google Map Maker feature, which allows people to edit geographic features for suggested inclusion in Google Maps. Evidence that politically-charged edits have the potential to make it past Google’s moderators is offered by Geens (2012), who documented edits to Syrian highway names honoring opposition heroes and events in country’s current civil war. A similar changeset in OSM dedicated “to the martyrs of the Syrian revolution” appeared around the same time and was eventually reverted by a DWG member over six months later [14].



Ambiguity as a response to dispute

Mass-produced online maps also respond to conflict through ambiguity. In contrast with the customization approach, which produces different maps for different audiences, the ambiguity approach tries to create one map that appeals to all. This is accomplished either by omitting labels or features considered too controversial, or by adding alternate variations of a label or feature in an attempt to appease all parties in a dispute.

Ambiguity in commercial maps

Geographic features are often associated with multiple names, either from the presence of different cultures, local disputes over name origins, historical change in social or political attitudes, and many other reasons. Official gazetteers sometimes record many names for a single feature, and cartographers have traditionally grappled with how to handle these alternate toponyms (Monmonier, 2006).

Showing more than one name is a regular practice when there is little hope of arriving at a consensus and the names preferred by both sides are well known. For example, the city located at 55 degrees north latitude and 7.31 degrees west longitude is labeled as both Londonderry and Derry in Google Maps, Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, and Wikimapia, with the alternate names separated by a space, slash, or font size (in the case of Bing). Interestingly, the Spanish language Bing Maps shows only the name Londonderry, indicating that the dual name may be just a customization for English-speaking users. Another example of ambiguity through addition is the Google Maps practice of labeling the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in both Chinese and Japanese [15]. In Apple Maps, searching for either Diaoyu or Senkaku will take users to the same islands [16].

The mere presence of an alternate name or a disputed boundary is sometimes construed as lending legitimacy to threatening influences; thus the use of alternate names can stir tensions as well as assuage them. This can lead map makers to introduce ambiguity by totally omitting a name or boundary. At the time of this writing, Google Maps shows no border line between Argentina and Chile in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field where the two countries have struggled to demarcate a satisfactory boundary. Also, for a period of time, Google refused to show any name in its Google Maps product for the body of water known to Iranians as the Persian Gulf, and known to others in the region as the Arabian Gulf. In 2012, Iran threatened to file a complaint against Google for this practice of omission (BBC News, 2012). This name had been the subject of dispute in Google Earth in years past, and eventually both products adopted the practice showing both names. In this case, ambiguity by omission led to ambiguity by addition.

Depicting the search result of a country name also poses a dilemma for online map producers. Do the benefits of highlighting the result with a boundary outweigh the risk of angering or alienating the map user? Searching for a country name such as Mexico or Tunisia in (the United States version of) Bing Maps usually yields a border drawn around the result, except for a handful of countries such as India where the map simply centers on the result, emphasizing it with a point-based placemark. Google Maps behaves similarly. In 2014 Quartz published a list of “the 32 countries Google Maps won’t draw borders around” identifying countries whose boundaries are ambiguous in search results [17]. Of course Google draws gray boundary lines around these countries in its political maps, yet those maps are often locally customized. The search result boundaries appear to be coming from a different layer visible in all locales, and thus only the least controversial boundaries are shown.

In outlining Google Maps policy, Boorstin (2009) justifies the display of multiple names and claim lines as a way to “represent the ‘ground truth’ as accurately and neutrally as we can.” In this way, the practice of ambiguity is said to support Google’s mission of organizing and sharing the world’s information. Microsoft’s now removed 2016 statement left less room for ambiguity, placing more emphasis on the decisions of third-party arbitrators; yet, we have demonstrated that Microsoft also regularly resorts to ambiguity measures in Bing Maps.

Ambiguity in crowdsourced maps

Deliberate omission in crowdsourced maps is challenging to implement because of the many eyes on the project wanting to fill in missing data. Nevertheless, thorny questions about how to apply the Hebrew and Arabic names of Jerusalem in OSM led the DWG to remove the city’s “name” tag altogether in mid-2011 (Bittner, 2017b). For a time, the DWG actively monitored the empty tag; however, the project history shows that an OSM contributor quietly re-added the name in Hebrew in 2014 and it has remained that way with the exception of two (quickly reverted) attempts to show the Arabic name [18].

How has ambiguity by addition played out in crowdsourced maps? Both OSM and Wikimapia see frequent instances of alternate names added and removed, as the community wrestles over whether one particular toponym should take prominence. In the case of the “Londonderry/Derry” label in OSM, a stability through ambiguity has been achieved wherein any attempt to remove one of the names has resulted in a quick revert of the edits [19]. Figure 4 displays changes to this name over time, marked by several edit wars where failed attempts were made to establish the name as solely Londonderry.


Changes to the name of Londonderry/Derry in OpenStreetMap over time, including periods of edit wars
Figure 4: Changes to the name of Londonderry/Derry in OpenStreetMap over time, including periods of edit wars.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


Battles over sovereignty of the Crimea in 2014 (waged on both the ground and the electronic map) caused the DWG to depart from standard OSM practice and include the peninsula within both the Ukraine and Russia boundary polygons (“relations”, in OSM jargon) [20]. This surrounded Crimea with the solid border used for independent states, locking its status in ambiguity (Figure 5).


Crimean peninsula surrounded by boundaries in the main map at
Figure 5: Crimean peninsula surrounded by boundaries in the main map at
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


OSM’s 2013 policy about disputed territories mentions the project’s language-specific alternative naming option and leaves open the possibility that alternative boundary representations could be built into the product. At the same time, it heavily emphasizes the “on the ground” principle for features used in the main map on Wikimapia policy does not address multiple representations of features or omitting sensitive data.




We now offer some discussion of the effects and sustainability of customization and ambiguity practices, while commenting on their relationship to online map maker’s stated policies.

Effects and longevity of map customization

Although customization practices allow commercial map makers to continue their business unmolested, the pattern may be unsustainable in the long term for both diplomatic and technical reasons. The customized map often portrays a situation that is known to not reflect full ground truth. Soeller, et al. (2016) argue that customization in commercial maps, which they call “personalization,” is problematic in several ways:

First, since users are unaware of the personalization, it may exacerbate nationalistic disputes by reinforcing divergent views of geopolitical realities. Second, it is troubling that private corporations have become the primary arbiters of geographic information to the public, yet we have no idea when or why these companies choose to alter or personalize maps.

Viewed this way, the commercial customized map constitutes a “cartographic calculation of territory” (Crampton, 2011), through which influential corporations participate, admittedly or not, in legitimizing a state’s cartographic anxiety and reinforcing its shape in the public imaginary (Krishna, 1994; Kabachnik, 2012). Gravois (2010) opines that Google Maps, by trying to evade the fact that every map is a political statement, may only be adding fuel to existing disputes by depicting customized territories.

One might counter that customized maps are a way to pacify all parties without resorting to violence or heated diplomatic proceedings; however, it may only be a matter of time before parties in the most bitter disputes become discontented with the idea that their rivals are seeing customized maps, and demand that all maps produced by a particular corporation adhere to a single standard. A South Korean official seems to be approaching this point when lambasting Apple Maps’ customized use of the Japanese name for the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima), demanding that the island group “should be marked as the Korean name of Dokdo wherever it is searched for” (Korea Times, 2012).

In 2016 a draft “Geospatial Information Regulation Bill” for the country of India was submitted for public comment. This bill would have imposed a potential fine or jail time for anyone collecting, keeping, or disseminating geographic information of India without a license from a government-run “Security Vetting Authority” (PRS Legislative Research, 2016). The bill also proposed fines and/or jail time for persons showing any boundary of India other than the government’s official depiction. Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, its appearance is perhaps a harbinger of trouble for customized maps. The bill mentioned that its scope of enforcement would include Indian citizens living outside India, and that employees of mapping companies would be responsible to the law and could be convicted and punished. The broad scope of this bill seems to allow a scenario where a citizen of India working overseas for a U.S. mapping firm could be held liable for producing maps for non-Indian Web domains that do not show Indian-government-approved boundaries. Although the likelihood of such aggressive enforcement of the bill is unclear, it would constitute a case where locally customized boundary maps were not enough to satisfy a government. Such a law might be used as leverage to pressure international mapping companies to favor the Indian government’s boundaries in more of their maps, or face threats to their ability to operate within India or employ Indian citizens.

The technical challenges faced by institutions as they implement the numerous data versions and map tiles demanded by customization may also make the practice unsustainable, or at least fraught with peril. In 2009, Indian users of Google Maps noticed that a batch of Chinese place name labels appeared in the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. Google attributed this to a data processing error and reverted the changes. Geens (2009) speculates that customized labels for China were mistakenly implemented in the Indian map. After studying the technical aspects of Google’s customization practices, Soeller, et al. (2016) suggest that Google Maps is using its nondescript (and aptly alphabetized) Ascension Island localization as a test bed for rolling out new customized maps in an effort to avoid this kind of problem.

Because of the infeasibility of creating a customized map for everyone, we warn that commercially customized maps represent a cartography driven by the powerful. Harley’s (1989) observation that “to those who have strength in the world shall be added strength in the map,” made long before the days of mass-produced online maps, is now more applicable than ever. Some territories wishing to push back against incursion by wealthy and influential states may not be financially influential enough to find voice through commercial online maps; rather, they may find that the boundaries and names on such maps fall consistently against their favor.

Although widespread customizations have appeared in crowdsourced maps, these modifications are more temporary in nature than those found in commercial maps. Anyone can customize the crowdsourced map, and it’s important to recognize that databases such as OSM and Wikimapia can contain some data not representing conditions on the ground; however, the longevity and influence of rogue customizations is neither known nor guaranteed. Other map makers and administrators (e.g., the DWG) hold the power to decide what is mapped and what is not.

The customized map is a vehicle for displaying territorial aspirations. Customizations implemented through crowdsourced platforms can be viewed as a form (however temporary) of counter mapping, protest mapping, or even oppressive mapping; however, groups aspiring for regime change or forms of social justice who wish to use crowdsourced maps like OSM as a strategy might find themselves disappointed when ground truth policies lead to eventual reverts of their edits. The fight against the rogue-customized crowdsourced map may be led by companies who rely on OSM to support their business practices, who are developing quality assurance tools to check incoming data for geometric anomalies or deviance from semantic standards in near real time (Bhangar, 2016). The OSM Changeset Analyzer tool used by Mapbox Inc. is an example [21].

As an alternative to edits made directly in the base map, the thematic map overlays and mashups such as the Nakba layer of former Palestinian villages in Google Earth discussed by Quiquivix (2014) offer a more enduring avenue for alternative cartographies. These projects are decoupled from the mass produced online base maps and may not be subjected to the same set of policies and regulations.

Effects and longevity of map ambiguity

One could argue that ambiguity eludes ground truth just as much as customization. The omission of names or features on a map does not make those names or features disappear on the ground, nor does it expunge the conflict. Likewise, the use of multiple names or features on a map doesn’t reflect reality at the most local scales where people commonly prefer a single name or boundary. Yet, there is something about the ambiguity strategies that accurately portrays the complicated reality surrounding geopolitical disputes: we may never in our lifetimes arrive at a single name acceptable to all parties, or we may never see a clearly demarcated border between two territories. These realities may be anguishing to represent as a cartographer and bothersome to encounter as a map reader (especially one inclined to a single side of an argument), but they may prove more true-to-life than customized maps that willfully deny evidence of a conflict.

For this reason, ambiguity by addition may lead to a more long-term cartographic armistice than any other strategy discussed here, although crowdsourced maps are still susceptible to the rogue removal of information, and some will always be unhappy with the presence of alternate names or boundaries. Bittner [22] shows an OSM screen capture wherein the region around Jerusalem is labeled “Israel and Palestine”. The boundary seems to have been created for data maintenance purposes [23], but when the name appeared unintentionally in the main map some OSM contributors were unhappy with the introduced ambiguity. One angry contributor commented: “If someone want [sic] to change the name of area to Israel and Palestine ... he can write it in the West Bank!!!”, while another simply stated: “There is no such entity” and deleted the feature. It was later restored and the tags adjusted to remain outside the purview of the main OSM renderer [24].

In contrast, ambiguity by omission appears difficult to sustain in crowdsourced maps, as one or more parties in the dispute may insist that their preferred name or boundary appear on the map, even if that must occur in tandem with another name. Google observed this in the above mentioned case of the Persian/Arabian Gulf name. The omission of names from maps may likewise be considered offensive. Petitions for Google to label Palestine on its maps gained momentum in 2016 when a software bug led to the removal of the labels of the West Bank and Gaza from Google Maps. Internet rumors spread that Google had deleted Palestine, when in fact this label had never existed (Cresci, 2016). The #PalestineIsHere hashtag subsequently rose in popularity in social media.

With crowdsourced maps, active editing controls or contributor bans are the only way to maintain ambiguity by omission. In the case of the name of Jerusalem appearing in OSM again in 2014, the issue either left the attention of the DWG or was not deemed high enough priority to continue enforcing. The disputed name is back in the hands of contributors who have repeatedly reverted attempts to add the Arabic variation to the main map.

Relationship of customization and ambiguity with map makers’ policies

The practices of customization and ambiguity run contrary to the appeals to ground truth and third party arbitrators that we found in policies from Microsoft, OpenStreetMap, and (early approaches by) Google. Google’s 2009 statement about a hierarchy of values seems to leave room for both these practices, but leaves the map reader without a clear understanding of which values guided the creation of the map at any given place or scale.

Ultimately, the concepts of ground truth and “primary local usage” are scale-dependent and can prove difficult to reconcile with policy. Consider the situation where a state or federal geographic names board changes a place name deemed racist or sexist, but the local population continues using the old name in daily conversation (Monmonier, 2006). Furthermore, there may be cases where governments, societies, or cartographers do not want to legitimize the authority of a certain group or action by mapping it. This has certainly influenced the variety of customization and ambiguity approaches taken in the Crimea in the past few years, but it also applies to territories where militias such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) maintain de facto control on the ground.




When it comes to fashioning political maps, online producers prioritize their own missions above commitments to arrive at ground truth. Some have been willing to admit this more than others, but evidence abounds. In commercial projects such as Google Maps and Bing Maps, the desire to operate within particular countries causes a departure from depicting actual lines of control. With OSM, the desire to preserve peace within the community and maintain an open ethos, along with the difficulty of managing a broad and elastic contributor base, have led to customized maps (both rogue and encouraged) that do not always reflect current landscapes of sovereignty. OSM is a snapshot of a mostly cohesive, but sometimes-restive user community. Alternative cartographies show through the cracks and fissures, if only for a day or two at a time, before being supplanted by the project’s policies. As we move across the map, we have no idea where those fault lines are at any given time.

What, then, do we see when we view the mass-produced online political map? To understand this, it is helpful to think of the seamless satellite and aerial images now seen so often as an optional layer in online mapping programs, such as Google’s Satellite layer. Wood (1992) insists that these images are a deception; at no time does the earth exist entirely without snow or clouds, illuminated in all quarters by sunlight. Instead, the images in these seamless layers are fit together in patchwork fashion by calculated acquisition, filtering, mosaicking, projection, and other processing. Mass-produced online maps are built the same way, the boundaries and names constituting a carefully selected mosaic of political decisions that vary across geographic extents.

In the case of commercial online maps, cartographic decisions are made under a unified banner, but the influences behind them are not fully known. In crowdsourced maps, these decisions are made by many parties working in an openly chronicled fashion, making them easy to detect but difficult to control. Further research could investigate changes in map customization practices over time, mechanisms of state and market pressure affecting map customization, the dynamics of edit wars in crowdsourced maps, power relationships between crowdsourced map contributors based on culture or language, and the influence of online maps on human understanding of geopolitical conflict.

Mass produced online maps have brought geographic inquiry and exploration into the hands of millions with a depth and level of convenience unthinkable several decades ago. Although such cartographies are dominated by just a few very popular producers, neither commercial nor crowdsourced online maps should be construed as representing any centralized neutral authority. Consumers of online maps must remain cognizant that maps are neither objective depictions of the world nor uninfluenced by their creators. Indeed, these maps offer ideal case studies for teaching and studying critical cartography principles, such as the ways maps reflect elements of the culture that produces them (Harley, 1989), and how a map maker’s economic, political, and social contexts affect the selection and symbolization of mapped objects. Such principles apply regardless of whether the map is produced by an individual, an online community, or a corporation. End of article


About the authors

Sterling D. Quinn is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Central Washington University. His interests include open source software, online maps, critical cartography, and Latin America.
E-mail: sterling [dot] quinn [at] cwu [dot] edu

Doran A. Tucker is a senior undergraduate student double-majoring in geography and international politics at The Pennsylvania State University.
E-mail: dat210 [at] psu [dot] edu



We thank Floyd Bull for work with processing and analyzing the text of OSM contributor bans, as well as Christian Bittner for sharing insights on OSM editor conflicts in Israel and Palestine. Students and faculty from the Central Washington University and Penn State University Departments of Geography offered feedback that improved the analysis.



1. Monmonier, 2006, pp. 106–120.

2. Bryan and Wood, 2015, pp. 93–95.




6. This document was formerly available at, but the page has been removed.



9. For a description of how the customized India map was made, see the blog entry of OSM user PlaneMad at

10. A history of changes to the OSM relation representing the islands is visible at

11. These comments are visible in the changeset metadata at

12. Dammann, 2016, pp. 63–65.










22. Bittner, 2017a, figure 1b.





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Editorial history

Received 1 June 2017; accepted 12 October 2017.

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

How geopolitical conflict shapes the mass-produced online map
by Sterling D. Quinn and Doran A. Tucker.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 11 - 6 November 2017

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