THE DIGITIZATION of maps in recent years has radically altered how we interact with our world. Such formal atlases as The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World continue to provide high-quality, trusted reference charts for geographers and political scientists. But for millions of tourists, armchair geographers, and students, Google Earth, NASA’s World Wind, Skyline Globe and Microsoft’s Bing Maps provide an unrivaled global lens. Coupled with advances in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and satellite topographic imagery, digital map platforms serve in a wide range of applications. Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger (Clark University) highlighted the use of GIS ‘virtual earths’ in an October 2008 Geography Compass article. They are unequivocal in their analysis of virtual earth possibilities: ‘Since the release of Google Earth in 2005, virtual globes have become one of the hottest topics within the professional geographic community…Virtual globes provide a lot of new avenues for spatial education both for teachers and students’ (pp. 1995-1996). Similarly, another Geography Compass article, authored by Benjamin T Tuttle (University of Denver), Sharolyn Anderson (University of Denver), and Russell Huff (University of Colorado), reviewed virtual globes from a holistic perspective, suggesting a range of ‘technical advances, data availability, and end-user expectations’.
Limitations to this new technology, however, do exist. Satellite imagery models, such as those used by Google, are often little more than haphazard photographic puzzles, pieced together complete with clouds, lens- and heat-based distortions, and other cartographic obstacles. Even when using official data (e.g. that provided by the United States Department of State), they are intended as educational and investigative tools, not as legal arbitrators in international dispute resolution.
These limitations were underscored last week when, according to the BBC, a Nicaraguan army officer led fifty troops across a low-lying island known to them as Harbour Head in order to tear down a Costa Rican flag. Citing Google Maps, the officer argued that the Costa Rican flag was illegally flying in Nicaraguan territory. Costa Rica responded that it had been invaded and demanded the withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops. Acknowledging the error, Google admitted that they (and their data source, the United States Department of State) had drawn the border according to contemporary Nicaraguan national maps, ignoring (or, at the very least, unaware of) an 1888 resolution and 1897 map survey both favouring Costa Rica: ‘The right bank of the San Juan river is Costa Rican territory but the river itself is Nicaraguan’. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) is currently mediating the dispute towards a peaceful resolution, future military officers should think twice before relying on internet maps.
Rahul Rakshit and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, ‘Application of Virtual Globes in Education‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 6 (2008): pp. 1995-2010.
Benjamin T Tuttle, Sharolyn Anderson and Russell Huff, ‘Virtual Globes: An Overview of Their History, Uses, and Future Challenges‘, Geography Compass 2 no. 5 (Jul., 2008): pp. 1478-1505.
‘Google Goofs‘, The Economist ‘Daily Chart’, 17 November 2010.
‘Troop pull-out urged in Nicaragua-Costa Rica border row‘, BBC News, 14 November 2010.