The politics of making maps

Cartographer Sébastien Caquard on how technology is both democratizing and controlling the border-making process.
By: /
November 12, 2014
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Borders remain quite abstract until they are defined, measured and recorded. The process of mapping makes borders real, and cartographers like Concordia University professor Sébastien Caquard understand the politics of creating borders intimately. Twenty years ago, he says, we were mainly users of maps, and now we are also map-makers. How is this changing our world? Technology has both created new sources of border conflict, but is also empowering communities to create their boundaries.

Caquard’s research interests span the gamut on the subject, from the mapping of cinema, indigenous territories and life stories, but he discussed the politics of map making with OpenCanada for this week’s Border Check series — exploring the development of crisis mapping, the risks and advantages of digital mapping for indigenous communities and digital projects that make mapping an exciting field of study (some of his ideas here have also been published in academic journals).

Is there a tendency to assume that maps, and the borders and boundaries they create, are natural or depoliticized?

I do think that there is such a tendency to see maps and the borders they depict (as well as most of the phenomenon they show) as being natural. Although critical cartographers have vehemently criticized this naturalization of the cartographic image since the 1980s demonstrating that any map is a political, social and cultural construction, we keep on believing almost blindly in the truthfulness of the information mapped.

There are several reasons for that. First, the map is an image and we tend to associate images to elements of truth (we believe in what we see). Second the map is a scientific image. It comes loaded with scientific connotations such as geographic coordinates, and levels of accuracy and it is deeply associated to the history of scientific measurement tools (from the compass to the GPS), which reinforces its truthfulness. Third, for most of our usages of a map, we don’t need to challenge its scientific base. For instance, a user of Google Maps interested in getting as quickly as possible from A to B is more interested in the traffic situation in real time provided by Google than in the growing geopolitical role played by Google Maps around the world and in how this contributes to the reshaping of the world.

There are now a series of examples worldwide in which borders that have appeared on Google Maps have created diplomatic and sometimes military tensions between countries and between communities. In 2010, Nicaraguan militaries crossed the border with Costa Rica and entered Costa Rica territory based on the fact that the border was misplaced on Google Maps since it was placed according to an old treaty between the two countries. This Google Maps’ mistake “reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war, ” according to The New York Times.

Another famous example is the different ways the border between Ukraine and Russia in Crimea is marked depending from where you access Google Maps. If you access it from western countries, the border is marked as contested, while if you access it from Russia, Crimea appears as being under the full control of Russia.

These examples and many others demonstrate the extent of the power of Google Maps to define borders and boundaries. In 10 years, Google Maps did not only become the de facto referential map for our daily activities, but it also became the referential map of the world slowly replacing national agencies and international organizations, without having any legal, political and democratic mandate. In other words, the world borders are now partially defined by a global private company, which operates, based on business plans.

I believe that the better Google Maps will help us navigate the world for our daily activities, the more we might believe that anything it represents (including borders and boundaries) will be perceived as natural and depoliticized.

What should we then appreciate about who did the mapping and what the purpose was?

I think this is a very important point. Understanding a map is not just about understanding the information mapped but also understanding who did it and what for. By asking consistently these two questions, while interacting with maps we could become more cartographic literate.

There is a movement in contemporary cartography (called post-representation cartography) that argues that maps should not be dissociated from either their context of production or utilization. Authors in this movement argue that we can only really understand a map by understanding its context of production and its particular usage. A map of risk of homeless in a given city produced by social scientists to identify sectors at high risks of homelessness could have a completely different meaning than the very same map used by a politician to denunciate the inertia of the current administration. Both maps may look exactly the same but should be considered as two very different maps since they are embedded in two very different interpretative processes.

Focusing on mapping as a process instead of on just the map is not trivial and can have some very practical consequences. For instance, in the context of Indigenous cartography, geographer Bjorn Sletto argues that if we shift the attention away from maps as a visual document (with specific scientific and technological codes) to mapping as a social process in which memory and oral history can play a central role, than the process of telling spatial stories (which is controlled by Indigenous communities) becomes more important than the way these stories will be formalized cartographically on the map. The process becomes the main part of the mapping activity and can better be controlled by Indigenous groups and can, according to Sletto, serve “to claim ownership on both the physical and the symbolic landscape.”

In which ways can mapping be both empowering and a tool of control?

The question of mapping and power is definitely an important one, since mapping can indeed be both empowering and a tool of control. As synthesized by Barney Nietschmann in the context of Indigenous cartography, “more indigenous territory has been claimed by maps as by guns. This assertion has its corollary: more indigenous territory can be defended and reclaimed by maps than by guns.”

Basically mapping can be either empowering or a tool of control, depending on which side of the map you are; depending if you are the mapper or the mapped.

While historically, maps have been used by nation-states primarily to assert their territorial rights and reinforce their power over Indigenous and other communities, there are now multiple examples in which indigenous groups in different parts of the world have embraced mapping as a way of reclaiming their sovereignty over the lands, negotiating aboriginal rights, and regaining dignity during conflicts with governments and institutions. There has been a recent recognition of the social, cultural, historical and even legal importance of indigenous forms of spatial expressions such as performances, oral histories and dances, combined with a few attempts to give them some cartographic shapes. There has been an appropriation of mapping practices by Indigenous groups (often in collaboration with NGO or academics) in order to reuse these tools to defend and reclaim their territory. This is part of the counter-mapping movement.

Can you explain the counter-mapping movement further?

Counter-mapping is a movement that emerged in the 1990 with the growing recognition of the potential of maps as a powerful tool for communities and local organizations to regain control over their territories and resources.

The term was coined in 1995 by Nancy Peluso to describe the process developed by local communities and activists in Indonesia to sketch maps of the forested territories they rely on for their survival and that hey have been using traditionally, and to counter the official planning effort from the state that was using maps to support intensive timber exploitation on these territories. These locally sketched maps where designed by the community to “counter” the ongoing colonial use of maps by the nation state to assert territorial rights over Indigenous lands and resources.

In the case of indigenous mapping projects, you mention the empowering aspects of such an undertaking, but is there a downside?

In North America, Indigenous groups have used digital cartographic technologies for community mapping since the 1990s. These practices often associated with participatory mapping have been used in many communities, while at the same time being extensively criticized.

In order to fit on these high-tech visual maps, Indigenous perspectives on places have to “support” several transformations. They have to lose their spiritual dimension to fit the Euclidean grid. They have to lose their aural structure to become visual. They have to be dehumanized to be coded in computing language.

Basically the main argument against the use of online mapping technologies is that it reinforces the subordination of indigenous spatial world-views to western technologies and perspectives through those different transformations.

Another argument developed by Bjorn Sletto while he was studying the participatory mapping process in an indigenous community in Trinidad and in Venezuela is that this type of community activity is shifting the power relationships within the communities. While historically the elders and the hunters where the references within the communities, with participatory mapping — furthermore when it implies the use of technologies — the youth and the technologically savvy members of the communities play a much more important role in the process as well as the members who get along well with the outsiders who often work collaboratively with the community. The entire structure of the community can then be modified by this type of project.

On the other hand, there are several instances in which certain indigenous groups are taking advantage of geospatial technologies to push forward their political agendas. In Canada, for instance, Inuit communities are working in close collaborations with research institutions such as the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Center at Carleton University, to develop a series of collaborative online atlases using open-source technologies to take ownership of their projects and to share elements of their ancestral knowledge.

In what might be viewed as progress over previous participatory mapping practices, many of these projects explore the possibilities of combining indigenous and scientific spatial knowledge to develop hybridized forms of spatial representation that recognize and respect the uniqueness and importance of indigenous spatial expressions.

As discussed by different authors, these hybrid cartographic forms of expressions do not reverse colonial social relations, but rather rework them, helping to develop a new space of mutual understanding, provided that the balance between western science and indigenous knowledge is respected. The transformation of indigenous knowledge and spatial expressions into cartographic artifacts remains a complex issue.

It is not clear yet if Indigenous communities have gained more than they have lost through the process of mapping elements of their knowledge and of their unique relationships to territories. What is clearer is that online mapping applications are now broadly used by Indigenous communities across North America, and that this usage is promoted by company like Google.

One of the challenges that will be faced by these communities will be to make sure that these mapping applications can really serve their needs and be adapted to the uniqueness of their spatial knowledge instead of forcing them to adapt this knowledge to the tools available.

How has the study of mapping changed over the past 10, 20 years?

The role of maps has changed dramatically since the beginning of the 21st century. Twenty years ago, maps were mainly produced with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and were used to represent and analyze the spatial distribution of given phenomena. Now maps are fully zoomable, egocentred (centred on our personal location) and the data they represent evolve more and more often in real time.

The map now looks at us as much as we look at it. We are extensively mapped, voluntarily or not. While moving with our GPS enabled smart phones our geographic coordinates are systematically recorded which allow companies to track our movements (for instance Google uses this information about the speed at which our cellphones move to assess the fluidity of the traffic in real time). The personal data that we share with social media are also used to follow our movements and to identify our habits.

Twenty years ago, we were mainly users of maps, now we are both map users and geospatial data providers. Not only are our movements and behaviours tracked, but more and more individuals contribute some of their time to the production and maintenance of geographic databases. This is for instance clear in the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project. This project is often considered the most successful collective map ever produced. It relies on dedicated contributors to compile a publicly accessible referential map for the entire world at a very fine scale. The success of this citizen-driven endeavour has also attracted private interests and transformed its original amateur approach into professional and commercialized practices reworking its collaborative and egalitarian aspects.

Twenty years ago, crisis mapping (the collaborative mapping in real time of zones affected by natural or human disasters) was marginal; It is a now a major domain in cartography. In several major crises such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, online mapping applications have played a key role in helping international and local groups to deliver aid to affected populations. With the web 2.0 and the development of applications such as Google Maps, OpenStreetMap and online mapping platforms such as Ushahidi, it is now possible to set up a crisis map right after a disaster —or even before an anticipated extreme event — and to use it to enable individual to express their needs in order to help directing humanitarian activities. Crisis mapping is now a growing domain of research.

There is also a growing interest in using maps to make sense of the large volume of data that are produced on the daily basis. Maps have been used to make sense of it and to identify patterns, and structures in what has been called the “Big Data era.” The map has become a “navigational platform” to navigate through this ocean of data. Online mapping companies have been using extensively this potential to help users navigate through this data.

Finally it is important to mention that the study of maps has also changed with the growing interest maps have stimulated in different disciplines ranging from the arts and the social sciences to medicine and epidemiology. Maps are used to study the geographic pattern of epidemic diseases such as the outbreak of Ebola, and to localize our brain activities. Maps have also been used and diverted by artists in different ways. For instance, Christian Nold has been developing ways of assessing and mapping emotions, while Jerusalem-based artist Ariane Littman has been cutting paper maps of Palestine and Israel into bits and pieces, before sewing and bandaging them during performances in public spaces in Israel and all over the world as part of a healing process.

Maps have been going under amazing changes during the last two decades. They not only serve to navigate the real world, but they are now extensively used to help us navigate the digital world. Maps serve to better identify our movement and behaviour for business purposes, but are also consistently redesigned and altered by artists engaged in challenging and resisting their functional dimensions. They can serve to improve emergency responses in crisis situations as well to contribute personal and collective healing processes. They can be highly technological or be made of a few lines and points on a piece of paper. They can take multiple forms and have an unlimited number of functions. Mapping has been changing dramatically during the last decades opening an unlimited range of practical, technological, methodological and conceptual questions.

This is a very exciting time to be a cartographer.

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