As two South Asian countries celebrate their independence days in August, I decided to focus on ‘political maps’ in this *Monthly Maps* post. This means that some of the exciting maps and map news we came across in August, which did not directly speak of politics, will become part of the September post.

We begin with a fascinating map of the Bangladesh-India border along the Indian district of Cooch Behar depicting various ‘enclaves’ (parcel of Bangladeshi territory within Indian territory, and vice versa) along the border lands. This pre-1971 map (hence referring to Bangladesh as East Pakistan) posted by Frank Jacobs on the Strange Maps blog is a great example of the deeply geopolitical nature of the lines and the names that annotate and constitute maps, and also of the territorial mess often created by such politics.


bangladesh-india border - cooch behar - enclaves


Maps have also played a key political role as a tool for government to uniquely identify and classify not only national borders but also various forms of landed properties and their relationship with the government. This 1855 “vice” map of the Chinatown in San Francisco was created by the municipal government to locate places of gambling, prostitution and opium “resorts”, as part of the anti-Chinese movement and propaganda in California. Interestingly, the map fails to capture the vertical dimension of urban spaces and only identifies the usage pattern of the ground floor spaces.

david rumsey - san francisco - chinatown

Military requirements have been perhaps the most crucial driver for development of modern cartographic techniques and instruments. Jeremy Crampton recently shared a ‘jaw-dropping “OSS Theater Map”‘ produced by the Office of Strategic Affairs (predecessor of Central Intelligence Agency of USA) during the World War II. Crampton explains that the ‘unusual projection’ utilised by this map is targeted at solving a classic cartographic problem of finding a projection to represent earth’s surface as a square grid (just like how modern web-map tiles work) while not distorting the actual spherical shape form of the surface.


Further, maps are a crucial method of representing contradictory territorial claims in case of political conflicts. But not all political actions involve claiming territory permanently. Discussing the map of ongoing conflict in Syria, BBC writes: “Mapping territorial possession is made more difficult by the tactics employed by the various rebel groups. They operate as highly mobile guerrilla forces, and when threatened by government troops will not defend territory but rather tactically withdraw with the aim of preventing losses.”

bbc - syria - mapping the conflict

On the other hand, maps can become tactical tools for political expressions of other kinds too. John Beieler’s map of protests from across the world since 1979 (using data from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone) tells a story of politics during last three decades that is not centered around government’s depiction of events and territories and buildings. Bieler created this fabulous map using CartoDB — his detailed notes are available here, and the code is available on GitHub.

john beieler - gdelt - protest map

Similarly, Peace Research Institute, Oslo and the Igarape Institute have produced a spatial data visualisation tool to show international flows of arms and ammunition trade during the period of 1992 to 2011. The visualised data is collated from more than 71,000 individual import and export records from 37 different sources.

mapping arms data

It is rather obvious that maps are especially useful to illustrate, and often to foreground, the spatial nature of politics and political acts. This gets crucial when analysing social conditions that are fundamentally about space and its occupation, such as racial seggregation. The following map by Dustin Cable shows “One Dot Per Person for the Entire United States”, where the dots are all colour-coded according to racial and ethnic identity of the person. The data comes from 2010 Census and the code is available on GitHub.

dustin cable - racial dot map

Alongwith mapping of spatial organisation of people (like in the above map), lines (like national boundaries), and things (like buildings), maps can also be used to show how different discussions are taking place across space, or how different places are getting discussed. Martin Elmer of MapHugger has created this deeply insightful map where each country is shown using the most-used word from its Wikipedia entry.

martin elmer - laconic history map

Taking an almost similar strategy, the fabulous cartographers at Floating Sheep have produced a map of hateful (geo-tagged) tweets from USA, identifying incidents of hate speech on Twitter related to homophobia, racism and disabilities.

floating sheep - geography of hate

Sometimes even the very act of mapping can be politically subversive, and hence illegal. While there have been incidents of governments not allowing making of physical maps (especially of national border areas), the map below was produced by deploying illegal methods to map the virtual territory of the Internet. The annonymous cartographer hacked into 4,20,000 computers to build the Carna Botnet of as many nodes, pinged each one of them, and traced the resulting paths to produce this, perhaps the most accurate, map of the server geography of Internet. The paper containing detailed description of the method is available here.

carna botnet - internet map

As maps can be produced through politics, can be produced to represent a politics, and the act of map production can itself be political, one must also remember the everyday politics of the business of map production. This is increasingly more critical as government worldwide are investing highly in establishing National Spatial Data Infrastructures on one hand, and infrastructures to accumulate data (geographic or otherwise) through legal and illegal means, on the other. In this context, Brian Timoney has given a much-awaited call to make government spatial data collection and usage processes more transparent and more accessible and usable for public purposes:


In one respect throwing money at a vendor to create a white-label version of their cloud-based platform and calling it the national SDI is the easiest option. Because the hard part isn’t standing up a portal, it’s ensuring that the agencies that “own” the various datasets in a common authoritative repository make a credible long-term commitment to keeping key data up-to-date in a complete, transparent manner.

Fresh, accurate, an open government data has never been in higher demand. Let’s make that the singular focus and de-emphasize the “infrastructure” bit which seems a little too much like a mere continuation of two decades of benefits falling mostly to vendors rather than end-users.

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