MapWatch: Tracking Political Cartography

Elizabeth Borneman


The Internet isn’t always right; this will come as no surprise to anyone who has done any research lately. One way the Internet isn’t always correct is when it comes to showing maps and borders of nations around the world. Maps can be easily manipulated by individuals, organizations, and governments in order to give them more impact or power.

Google and Bing maps can show different borders depending on what country a user is visiting their websites from. Nations of the world that have disputed borders will create maps that work in their favor, depicting their borders as they want them to be perceived.

Researchers from Northeastern University have created a database called MapWatch which shows how maps and borders change based on geography. The MapWatch system recorded the most changes to maps occurring between India and China, Crimea and Russia, and in the South China Sea. For instance, Google or Bing maps will show that Crimea is part of Russia when looked at from Russia. The same map looked at from the Ukraine, however, will show Crimea as part of Ukraine.

Disputed borders are usually shown as dashed lines on online maps, except when other factors intervene. Online cartographers can be influenced by governments or other organizations to depict maps as they want them to be seen. The MapWatch program is hoping to showcase these changes so that people can see how their perception of the world might be skewed.

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MapWatch creates tiles that show where and when a change has been made to a map. These tiles were analyzed for patterns based on geography to build a database that shows where changes are being made, and eventually draw conclusions as to why they were made. The researchers behind MapWatch hope to highlight how politics and money can influence online cartography.

A border dispute between Georgia and Russia on Google Maps.  Source: Soeller et al., 2016.
A border dispute between Georgia and Russia on Google Maps. Source: Soeller et al., 2016.


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.