Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The virtual map is not the territory

Back in 1967 Benoit Mandelbrot "The Father of Fractals" published a paper entitled "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension" in which he argued that the measured length of a stretch of coastline depends on the scale of measurement.

Ccomputers, maps and the physical world (reality?) have been in an interesting dance ever since. (GW)

The First Google Maps War

By Frank Jacobs
New York Times
February 29, 2012

Borderlines explores the global map, one line at a time.

Did Google Maps almost cause a war in 2010? On Nov. 3 of that year, Edén Pastora, the Nicaraguan official tasked with dredging the Rio San Juan, justified his country’s incursion into neighboring Costa Rica’s territory by claiming that, contrary to the customary borderline, he wasn’t trespassing at all. For proof, he said, just look at Google Maps [1].

The digital atlas had indeed placed the eastern end of the border between the countries to the south of the generally accepted line, providing Nicaragua with a territorial gain of a few square miles. Costa Rica protested, to both Nicaragua and Google Maps. The latter relented: acceding to the demand of Carlos Roversi, Costa Rica’s deputy foreign minister, it adjusted the online border [2]. But the former persisted, maintaining 50 soldiers on the Isla Portillos [3], along the southern bank of the San Juan’s main channel. The Costa Ricans retaliated by dispatching about 70 police officers [4] into the area.

News headlines flashed around the world, announcing the arrival of a new type of border conflict: the Google Maps War.

Over the past decade, Google Earth and Google Maps have become the online cartographic resources of reference. But popularity does not bestow authority. The lines that Google draws on maps have no government’s imprimatur. Yet by virtue of its ubiquity, Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms [5]. So where Google’s maps show borders or place names that deviate from official usage or stray into international disputes, they may cause confusion, offense or worse.

Imperfectly rendered borders on Google Maps have caused embarrassment elsewhere, for example on the Dutch-German border [6]. Hence Google’s mission statement, “to represent the ‘ground truth’ as accurately and neutrally” as it can, allowing users to come to their own geopolitical conclusions. “That can mean providing multiple claim lines (e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights), multiple names (e.g. two names separated by a slash: ‘Londonderry/Derry’), or clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues” [7].

Yet no matter how seriously Google takes this task, the job of border demarcation is a lot murkier and more ambivalent than those neat lines on the map suggest. Take that First Google Maps War, for instance. Few commentators at the time took the effort to note that in his interview with the Costa Rican paper La Nacion, Mr. Pastora — a.k.a. Commander Zero [8] — referred not only to Google, but to the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858, the border arbitration by President Grover Cleveland in 1888 and the subsequent clarification thereof by E.P. Alexander in 1897 [9].

In other words, the border dispute between Nicas and Ticos [10] was not merely the result of a simple Google glitch [11]. Rather, and this is the dangerous part of the whole enterprise, Google Maps’ imprecision reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war.

Joe Burgess/The New York Times

The Google Maps affair is only the latest expression of an old fraternal fracas between two parts of what was, for about 20 years in the 19th century, the unified Province of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. After independence from Spain was thrust upon the region in 1821, both Nicaragua and Costa Rica were part of the Federal Republic of Central America [12]. Back then, Nicaragua was much larger than it is today, stretching north into Honduras and south to the Nicoya peninsula in the west and the Matino River in the east.

In 1824, civil war in Nicaragua and the increasing local influence of Costa Rican coffee planters combined to convince the residents of the border towns of Nicoya and Santa Cruz to vote for secession from Nicaragua and annexation by Costa Rica. They were joined two years later by the inhabitants of Guacanaste (now the Costa Rican city of Liberia). All in all, Nicaragua lost about 11,000 square miles [13] to Costa Rica before gaining its full independence in 1841.

In the following decades, no less than seven treaties were drawn up to resolve the resultant border tensions — but none were ratified by both countries. Only in 1858 did the Nicaraguans, represented by Máximo Jerez, and the Costa Ricans, represented by José María Cañas, reach agreement on the border, along present-day lines: skirting the southern edge of Lake Nicaragua, then the San Juan for the last third of the stretch — following it north from where it forks from the Rio Colorado [14].

The backdrop of that treaty was the enticing prospect of a canal connecting the Atlantic to Pacific across Nicaragua — a fata morgana shimmering just beyond the reach of the local dignitaries ever since Hernando Cortes wrote to Spain’s King Charles V in 1524: “He who controls the passage between both oceans may consider himself the master of the world.” The Nicaragua Canal would benefit from the connection between Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan, draining into the Caribbean. Ships would have sailed up 110 miles of river, crossed 65 miles of lake and then would only need to pass through a 12-mile canal piercing the narrow Rivas isthmus between the lake and the ocean.

Even without that canal, the river-plus-lake route proved alluring enough for the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the Accessory Transit Company to transport countless hopefuls to California’s gold fields along this way in the 1850s, using a stagecoach to cross the isthmus.

But political instability got the better of the company, and by extension of the Nicaragua Canal. Symptomatic was the filibuster [15] William Walker’s takeover of Nicaragua — and of the Accessory Transit Company — in 1855. Even though Walker was chased off by Costa Rican firepower (bankrolled by Vanderbilt), the company’s route would never run again.

Despite the 1858 Cañas-Jerez Treaty, tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on its validity eventually led to arbitration by President Cleveland, who in 1888 re-legitimized and clarified the treaty: the border between both countries is to run from the mouth of the San Juan at San Juan del Norte to a point three miles downstream from the so-called Castillo Viejo. Although the border is on the right bank of the river, Costa Rica has the right to navigate it for commercial purposes. The border follows the main canal of the river, here called San Juan de Nicaragua, which meanders to form a huge Costa Rican bulge into Nicaraguan territory; the barrier islands to the northwest of the Punta Castilla and the Laguna Los Portillos (also called Harbor Head) to its south are Nicaraguan.

Related More From Borderlines

Read previous contributions to this series.

That is how E.P. Alexander clarified the matter a decade later, and his sketch corresponds exactly to the internationally accepted “Nica-Tico” border. But that map masks muddier waters: it is a compromise between the border claims of both sides [16]. Nothing is as contestable as proclaiming the shifting delta of a slow-moving river to be an international border.

That’s why, a few years ago, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, accused Costa Rica of surreptitiously stealing Nicaraguan land as the river moved steadily north, justifying Mr. Pastora’s dredging a silted-up waterway as “restoring” the original channel, and the original border.

That border corresponds remarkably closely to the one erroneously indicated by Google. That’s good enough for some. Consider this statement by Nicaragua’s embassy in London [17], made prior to Google’s auto-correction: “The Government of Nicaragua has formally requested to Google not to accept the petition of Costa Rica to modify the border demarcation presented on Google Maps service.” The path, it said, “presented by Google corresponds to the various treaties that define the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border.”

Google Maps and Costa Rica may protest all they want: the mere fact that it once existed means that the faulty border will live on, at least on Nicaraguan maps. With the matter unresolved, and the status of the military buildup in the region unclear, that leaves open the very real possibility of a Second Google Maps War.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

[1] “Vea la foto satelital de Google y ahí se ve la frontera,” Mr. Pastora is quoted in an interview with the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion: “See Google’s satellite photo, and there you see the border.”

[2] The (re-)adjustment reflected the border as recognized until then by both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. But the maps on the Web site of the official Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales now reflect the “Google Maps border.”

[3] And not, as is generally (but mistakenly) reported, the much larger Isla Caleros, directly to the south.

[4] Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949 — a clever way to prevent military coups. A small police force, the Fuerza Pública (“Public Force”), is tasked with law enforcement, counter-narcotics and border patrols.

[5] Some Korean readers of the previous post in this series objected to the use of the term “Sea of Japan,” preferring “East Sea.” Google Earth uses both terms — and also uses both “Persian Gulf” and “Arabian Gulf.”

[6] See Strange Maps No. 504: Bordering on the Bizarre: Google Maps Fail in Dollart Bay.

[7] For more on Google’s quality control for the borders in Google Earth and Google Maps, read this statement by Charlie Hales, Geo Policy Analyst at Google, on the Lat Long Blog.

[8] A nickname acquired when Mr. Pastora and other Sandinista rebels stormed Managua’s Palacio Nacional in August 1978, a spectacular success for the insurgency against then-dictator Anastasio Somoza. Mr. Pastora later turned against the FSLN, Daniel Ortega’s mainstream Sandinistas, becoming an idiosyncratic Contra. In civilian life, he started a shark fishing business in San Juan del Norte, just north of the disputed border with Costa Rica. In 2008, he reconciled with Mr. Ortega and accepted a post in his government. He is now wanted in Costa Rica for ecological destruction (caused by the dredging that occurred during the Nicaraguan invasion).

[9] Before he was a surveyor sent out by president Cleveland, Edward Porter Alexander (1835-1910) was a Confederate officer in the Civil War. He was famous for commanding the artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg and for pioneering the use of signal flags in combat.

[10] The respective nicknames for Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans.

[11] That glitch itself is based on the source of Google’s data for this particular stretch of border: the United States State Department. Which is weird. The United States itself, via the Cleveland Arbitration and the Alexander Clarification, affirmed the correct border. Why would the State Department provide false data that fits perfectly with Nicaraguan irredentism? Cui bono?

[12] The Federal Republic of Central America (1821-1841) was never more than a loose federation of five (later six) states: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Los Altos (eventually integrated into Guatemala), but its flag, based on the Argentine blue-white-blue triband, still forms the motif for the national flags of all former members.

[13] Conveniently equal to that conventional unit of size — Belgium.

[14] The area between the Colorado and San Juan rivers and the Caribbean Sea is the so-called Isla Calero, at almost 60 sq. mi Costa Rica’s largest.

[15] A term these days reserved for a parliamentary stalling tactic (“No Senator, I will not yield!” said Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), but once applied to fomenters of revolution in foreign countries.

[16] As shown on Alexander’s sketch, attached to the award he drew up in 1897.

[17] To the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Europe blog.


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