(Not) Mapping South Sudan: A Lesson Learned?



On July 9th Africa’s largest country, Sudan, split into two new states, Sudan and South Sudan. After fighting for the majority of the country’s history, the mostly Islamic North and the multicultural/Christian South finally agreed to divide—thanks to 99% of the Sudan voters agreeing to separation. Now, as they say, comes the hard part for both countries: constitution re/writing, government creation/rearranging, division of resources like water and oil, launching new currencies, the handling of citizenship rights, and, of course, establishing new borders. And while I’ll leave the commentary and analysis of these super-crucial issues to more experienced and knowledgeable voices, I would like to propose that there is now one more box to check when creating a new state: get on Google Maps.

As of this writing, South Sudan is not shown on Google Maps. If you query “South Sudan” over at Bing’s map service, embarrassingly the little orange push-pin lands somewhere in Niger, three countries away—and Sudan is still as huge and singular as it ever was, cartographically speaking. Over the course of July, some have pointed this out. And recently, South Sudan has made its way onto Google Earth, maybe meaning that Google and Microsoft public mapping services aren’t too far behind in showing Africa’s 54th state. Either way, many are wondering the reason for the hold-up.

The easiest answer to the lack of South Sudan on these maps is that Microsoft and Google are waiting for the final word, in a sense. The situation between Sudan and South Sudan is ever-changing and no official border has yet been established. A Google spokeswoman said in a recent post: “We are following the situation in South Sudan and…we aren’t able to specify when the update to these borders will be made, as the changes are often dependent on a variety of factors such as provider data availability and our system update schedule.” Fair enough. Data is needed. But here’s why it’s a good thing these two behemoths are waiting it out:

- In August 2009, during a system update, Google India’s mapping service accidently showed parts and of India’s Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese controlled—a region recognized by the world as India’s—even labeling cities in the incorrect language. Google later apologized.

- February 2010, Google fudges the border between Cambodia and Thailand on a portion of land that has been hotly contested for decades, militarily since 2007. Cambodia calls Google “professionally irresponsible.” Months later, Google fixes things.

November 2010, Nicaraguan forces conducting a military exercise along it’s border effectively invaded Costa Rica and took down that country’s flag and replaced it with its own. Why? Because the Nicaraguan army officer was using Google Maps and the area in question was shown to belong to Nicaragua instead of Costa Rica. Costa Rica, lacking an army, wanted Google to announce the error and fix the map; Nicaragua wanted Google to do nothing. Google blamed the U.S. State Department and their data. (Also, Bing had the borders correct).

So these companies should by now understand that how they map the world has a political impact—waiting for the correct info is a great sign given these pervious disputes. Especially as the accessibility to these services approaches the universal.

But, still, it’s hard to hear Google and Microsoft claim, once again, that it is all about the data. What’s happening in the north of South Sudan and the south of Sudan is not data. It’s divorce and independence; it’s a new home and a new take on the Sudanese citizen, whoever s/he may be versus who they may become. Country boundaries are always in flux, always disagreed upon—but also play a role in that nation’s sense of self, of community, of history. Like a flag, the shape of a state is recognized and meaningful, inspires pride and/or hate, and will be blindly defended. So, again, it’s good to see Google and Microsoft be patient with this latest change to the world map.   

What is interesting, and maybe not-so-great is the need “we” (speaking of the general, Western, Internet-using audience) have for these private, data-mongering Internet companies to recognize these newly-minted countries. The UN has, the World Bank has—why not Bing Maps? Leaving aside the implications of a public waiting to be told what’s geopolitically legit by a company like Google, it could be that this latest South Sudan mapping absence is showing two things: Internet mapping services are being more and more referenced and depended upon to reflect the actual world (which they may never be able to do) and map servicers like Google and Microsoft are beginning to learn that while the lines they’re drawing are literally invisible, the implications of these lines is all too real. Hopefully a lesson learned.

This blog was cross-posted by our partner site, World Policy Journal's Blog.

International Conflict, internet, South Sudan, Sudan