Thursday, 25 August 2011

A recent episode of On The Media, NPR's great radio focus on media, transparency and politics has prompted me towards a tangent on borders and identity today.

Sudan Votes is a project that seeks to promote independent, balanced and accurate coverage of Sudanese and South Sudanese affairs, all the more scrutinised (or should be) since South Sudan's independence in July. A recent article looked into the predicament of the Ngok Dinka, a largely agro-pastoral ethnic group from the Nile basin.
Now that South Sudan is independent, the Ngok Dinka are in legal limbo. While their stated loyalty has always been with the south, the geographical region they inhabit along with migratory groups officially belongs to the north.
Naturally these kind of disputes are racked with complication fueled by geography, lifestyle, community bonds, legality and - of course - colonial legacy.

A newer player in this ever-changing field of modern cartography and the shifting identities within is the web mapping service, the best known being Google Maps of course (open source alternatives for both services and tools available - my preferred are OpenStreetMap and Open Layers respectively).

But how are these services changing the world? The datasets used by organisations like Wikipedia and OSM sometimes clash with information available via Google's mapping service leading to serious disputes and differences of opinion - both in the state and public realms. Here's Ogle Earth's take on it in an amazing article on the redrawing of the Sudan/South Sudan borders:
Google’s map data carries no authority in any legal sense, not any more than Microsoft’s, Yahoo’s or National Geographic’s, but that is not surprising. What sets it apart from the others, however, is that over the past half decade, the ubiquitous use of Google Earth as a universal digital atlas has bequeathed it a popular authority, and a sense that Google’s choice regarding a border (or place name) constitutes a weighty endorsement in the court of global opinion. This has led to remarkable situations where states themselves have petitioned Google about perceived bias or errors in its maps.
There's a lot of valuable and necessary work being done by people like the writer of Ogle Earth, Stefan Geens, in documenting the evolution of online maps, and awakening a realisation that, just as it was with ancient cartographers, mapping deeply affects culture and society.

Another ubiquitous name (much to the credit of its team - as a non-profit's communications manager, I'm in awe of their exposure) in any discussion of online mapping tools is Ushahidi. Taking place in Nairobi today is their .ke evaluation launch ahead of further open dev and hackathon sessions. Join them in person or, of course, online. Talks are afoot for my own excursion to Nairobi for a journalist training project sometime next year. I've never been, but I guess I'll need a map of some kind.

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