Empty Maps and Virgin Territory

Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.
Herman Moll, New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, 1729. Wikimedia Commons.

The Guardian continues to track the issue of Palestine’s absence from Google Maps. In a long essay that is definitely worth your time, Petter Hellström links the issue with the long history of colonial maps that omitted the indigenous populations that settlers would soon displace.

Because Palestine, after all, has been removed. It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate. Yet in our digital age, a search on Google Maps for Israel produces a map without Palestine. It displays Israeli urban centres down to a few thousand inhabitants, and even marks Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank. At the same time it shows no Palestinian place-names or urban centres, not even major ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus. The dotted, inconsistent borders of the occupied territories leave the impression that they are not claimed or administered by anyone. […]

Historians of cartography have long studied the practices and consequences of cartographic omission. In a landmark study, “New England cartography and the Native Americans”, published posthumously in 1994, the British historian of cartography J. B. Harley analysed seventeenth-century maps to follow the progressive replacement of the Native Americans with European settlers. In Harley’s analysis, the maps were something more than historical records of that process. Because they made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population, they were also instruments of colonial legitimisation.

Many colonial mapmakers preferred to leave the areas of predominantly indigenous presence blank, rather than to reproduce an indigenous geography; one example is Herman Moll’s 1729 map of New England and the adjacent colonies, seen above. The traces of indigenous presence, past and present, were gradually removed from the maps as the colonists pushed west. The apparent emptiness helped to justify the settlers’ sense that they had discovered a virgin territory, promised to them by Providence. The pattern was the same in all areas of colonial activity, including Australia and Africa.


Previously: Google, Palestine, and the Unbiased Map.

Anthony Denaro’s Map of All of NYC’s Transit


Never mind research that suggests that a single map adding bus lines to an already complicated subway map is cognitively overwhelming. Anthony Denaro has created a map of the New York City transit system that shows bus as well as subway routes—basically, a map of every means of transportation accessible by Unlimited MetroCard. Complex? You bet. Difficult to produce? Unquestionably: Anthony takes us through all the design choices he had to make. Difficult to use? Impossible for me to say (I haven’t even visited New York), but as Anthony points out, this map isn’t for tourists; it’s for frequent users. And no doubt it’ll be yet another engagement in the ongoing New York Subway Map War. [CityLab]

The Mapping Tech Behind Pokémon Go

Bloomberg Businessweek looks at Niantic, the company that developed Pokémon Go, and its CEO, John Hanke, both of whom have a long history in mapping technology (Hanke was the founder and CEO of Keyhole, which became the foundation for Google Earth; Niantic started as a Google startup and focused on location-based apps—including, among other things, the game Ingress—before being spun off).

Hanke says Niantic’s focus has always been its underlying technology, not any one game, and the success of Pokémon Go has already attracted partners interested in using his mapping software for projects of their own. “Maybe you want to build a real-world vampire game where you control a clan of vampires and battle with other clans of vampires,” he says. “You could invest in re-creating our core technology and all of our data, which would require a fairly large team of very sophisticated Ph.D.s, or use our platform.”

[Benjamin Hennig]

Previously: Pokémon Go.

Canada Maps the Arctic Seafloor

CBC News reports on the Canadian Coast Guard’s project to map the continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean, now in its third and final year. This is part of Canada’s attempt to stake a claim to the continental shelf (and seas above it) beyond the 200-mile nautical limit, which other Arctic countries (hello, Russia) are also trying to do.

Previously: Arctic Maritime Jurisdiction Map.

A Japanese Cartography Update

cartographic-japanIn the Los Angeles Review of Books, Miriam Kingsberg reviews Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps (University of Chicago Press, March 2016), a collection of essays on the history of Japanese mapmaking edited by Kären Wigen, Sugimoto Fumiko and Cary Karacas (see previous entry). “Cartographic Japan constitutes a significant addition to the academic literature on the history of Japanese mapping. Much like the works it describes, the volume may also be treasured as a piece of art and collector’s item in its own right.” Amazon, iBooks. [WMS]

Meanwhile, a seventeenth-century map of a legendary Japanese fortress has been discovered in a museum’s collection of paintings, the Asahi Shimbun reports. [WMS]

An Exhibition of Antique Iowa Maps

Iowa and the Midwest: An Exhibition of Antique Maps, an exhibition of maps of Iowa from four private collections, runs from 12 August to 23 October at Simpson College’s Willis Gallery. (Simpson College is situated in Indianola, Iowa, just south of Des Moines.) “The maps, which date from 1715 to 1902, chart the region’s Euro-American development from unexplored colonial territories to what is now America’s Heartland.” [WMS]

OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads

“The OpenStreetMap Community is at a crossroads, with some important choices on where it might choose to head next,” wrote Michal Migurski last month. Identifying three types of map contributors—robot mappers using third party data, crisis mappers responding to a disaster like the Haiti earthquake, and so-called “local craft mappers” (i.e., the original OSM userbase that edits the map at the community level, using GPS tracks and local knowledge), Michal ruffled many feathers by saying that “[t]he first two represent an exciting future for OSM, while the third could doom it to irrelevance.” That’s largely because, in his view, the craft mappers’ passivity and complacency, and their entrenched position in the OSM hierarchy, are impeding the efforts of the other two groups.

Continue reading “OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads”

Mapping the Four Corners

mapping-the-four-cornersOut this month from University of Oklahoma PressMapping the Four Corners: Narrating the Hayden Survey of 1875 by Robert S. McPherson and Susan Rhoades Neel. From the publisher: “By skillfully weaving the surveyors’ diary entries, field notes, and correspondence with newspaper accounts, historians Robert S. McPherson and Susan Rhoades Neel bring the Hayden Survey to life. Mapping the Four Corners provides an entertaining, engaging narrative of the team’s experiences, contextualized with a thoughtful introduction and conclusion.” Buy at Amazon. [WMS]

See also: Map Books of 2016.

Continental Drift, GPS and Europe

In response to the news that Australia has to correct its GPS coordinates to account for continental drift, the Ordnance Survey blog examines whether Great Britain will have to do the same. “The situation for us (and most of Europe) is not so bad. Europe’s GPS compatible datum, ETRS89, is fixed to the European tectonic plate at the time 1 January 1989 and moves by around 2.5 cm each year. In theory, GPS-derived coordinates are now about 70 cm away from where they should be in the ETRS89 system.”

Louisiana Flooding: NASA Animation of Accumulated Rainfall


NASA Earth Observatory: “Days of intense rainfall in August 2016 led to widespread flooding in southern Louisiana, as rivers swelled high above their banks and many crested at record-high levels. […] The animation above shows satellite-based measurements of the rainfall as it accumulated over the southern United States. Specifically, it shows rainfall totals every three hours over the span of 72 hours from August 12-14, 2016. These rainfall totals are regional, remotely sensed estimates, and local amounts can be significantly higher when measured from the ground.”

In Defence of the Mercator Projection

In a June 2015 piece for Al Jazeera America, history Ph.D. candidate Nick Danforth offered a contrarian opinion piece in defence of the Mercator projection. The usual (i.e. Peters) critique of the Mercator is that it emphasizes northern countries at the expense of equatorial countries. Danforth questions the premise behind that critique:

I first sided with the Mercator against its critics when, on one of the rare occasions I thought about Greenland, I realized just how rarely I thought about Greenland. Despite seeing it hanging there like a giant icy sword of Damocles atop every wall map, we just don’t seem to care about it. Antarctica, too, is massively inflated on the Mercator, to the point that it’s as big around as the entire earth. But few would argue that mapmakers intended to depict it as a superpower. Meanwhile, if maps lead us to ignore Africa, they should also lead us to treat cartographically bloated Canada as one of the most important countries in the world. We don’t.

He goes on to argue that if the Mercator projection was a reflection of European power, Africa would have been emphasized, not minimized.

Of all the problems with criticizing the way our maps depict Africa, the most ironic is that it ignores the continent’s history of colonialism. Consider the motives of a colonial-era British cartographer—perhaps the kind of guy who made this bold, colorful propaganda map […] showing off the queen’s dominions.

His incentive, if anything, would have been to make Africa appear as large as possible, since Britain then ruled a large share of it. With India along the same latitude, expanding the size of the earth’s equatorial region would have been a perfect way to color more of the map imperial pink.

Danforth studies Turkish history. His map blog is Mid Afternoon Map. [WMS]

Previously: How the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

Further reading: Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection by Mark Monmonier (my review).

Google, Palestine, and the Unbiased Map

As the Disputed Territories site, which catalogues how Google manages various contested borders, points out, “Google’s maps of disputed territories differ depending on who’s looking at them.” As we’ve seen recently with regard to Crimea, that doesn’t always keep Google out of trouble. An online petition asking Google to label Palestine on Google Maps has garnered more than 300,000 signatures since March. The petitioners accuse Google of removing Palestine at Israel’s insistence; but, as the Guardian reports, “the truth is, it was never labelled by Google in the first place.” (The West Bank and Gaza Strip had their labels removed by a bug; Google’s restoring them.)

In a follow-up piece for the Guardian, Leigh Alexander writes:

The swiftness of the backlash, though, is not just about the wish for justice on behalf of an occupied people, but about the belief—now punctured—that our technology is neutral, that it presents an unbiased, infallible version of the world. […]

While it might seem imperialistic for Google to decide how the US should see the rest of the world, perhaps it would be equally troubling to see the company wade into global verdicts on the righteousness of every international occupation. That it allows its sketch of the geopolitical climate to reflect the perspective of who is viewing it, rather than impose the prevailing popular opinion in the west, may not be neutral or unbiased, but it is probably the most fair.

Previously: Slate on the New Look of Google MapsThe Universal Map.

Mapping the Rio Olympics


Fiasco Design’s Rio 2016 Interactive Map (screencap above) is a cheeky game-style enviroment that mixes Olympic venues with local controversies.

This Esri Story Map looks at the Olympic venues in detail. [Glenn Letham]

What3words, a company that assigns a three-word mapcode to every location in the world—useful in places like favelas that have no formal addresses—has partnered with an official Olympics app, Rio Go (iOS, Android) to provide locations for Rio visitors. More: Reuters, the Telegraph.


Not a map in the strict sense, AirTravelGenius’s metro map of Olympic cities (above) is clever in how it manages cities that have hosted the Games more than once.

A Globe of Percival Lowell’s Mars


Hand-made globes are increasingly a thing, apparently. As Atlas Obscura reports this week, Michael Plichta’s company, Planetenkugel-Manufaktur, is producing a hand-crafted globe of Mars with a twist: it’s based on Percival Lowell’s maps, which (erroneously) showed the Martian surface covered in canals. It’s delightfully retro and I love it. Here’s a video:

Nowhere on the website is a price mentioned, which tells me that I won’t be able to afford one, damn it.