Off the Map: Land Grabs

Have you ever been in a crowded shopping center parking lot looking for a spot for your car, and after you finally find one, you put your turn signal on and begin to turn into the spot, then someone speeds in from another lane and pulls into it right in front of you? It’s frustrating — your claim was crystal clear and it was completely ignored.

Or what about at home, when your neighbors decide to build a new fence without checking with you. You come home from work to find that they’ve taken a few square meters of your own yard. Regardless if it was a mistake or intentional, it’s no less aggravating.

Now imagine a similar scenario but on a much larger scale, perhaps the size of an island, or an entire region. While the increase of scale usually brings with it an increase in complexity, the core issues are often as simple as the examples described above: one person perceives a space as his or hers, claims it, maybe even occupies it and then someone else comes along and usurps that claim, either by accidental intervention or (more commonly) by intentional force.

The act of violating the sovereignty of a nation-state’s claim is considered one of the most serious in our current geopolitical landscape, just short of the worst act — actual conflict. We know that this is nothing new to human history and in fact the act of incursion on another culture’s territory may be the most defining characteristic of human history. From the Assyrian invasion of Egypt to the Persian pursuit of Greece, from the Japanese invasion of Korea to the Ottoman incursion of Eastern Europe, and so on, human civilization has been particularly focused on territorial acquisition and control.

You might wonder what bearing this has on our practice of content design and adaptation for international markets. Given previous topics in this column pertaining to geographic content, cartography and the frequent need for locale and internet domain tailoring, the repositioning or change in status to even a small piece of geography can mean the difference between a product’s success and failure in a marketplace. Having the ability to respond to such changes in a timely manner can also play a huge role in the local perception of a company’s ability to not only respond quickly to changes but, in a way, tests the company’s willingness to allow local preference to take precedence.

If we turn our attention to the recent Russian acquisition of Crimea from Ukraine, we’ll see that it serves as a good example of this dynamic. To set the context, the Crimean peninsula is located in the northern part of the Black Sea, just south of Ukraine and to the west of Russia’s presence in the Caucasus region. Crimea has historically been dominated by people of Russian ethnicity so perhaps it was surprising when former Soviet Premier Krushchev reassigned Crimea from Russia’s Soviet republic to Ukraine’s control. This could have been a logistical convenience as Russia’s substantial Black Sea naval fleet was based in Crimea.

Moving forward to 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and was broken up into many constituent countries, a referendum on sovereignty was held in Crimea that strongly favored the creation of a Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic. However, several countries signed a security agreement in 1994, including Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine following the USSR’s dissolution. In other words, they all agreed that Crimea should remain part of Ukraine. In 1997, Ukraine and Russia established an agreement that allowed the Russian naval forces to remain while the peninsula remained part of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea has remained constant for decades, and the international recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty over the peninsula didn’t necessarily remain so, at least from Russia’s perspective.

By late 2013, Ukraine’s central government was showing signs of weakness and an inability to manage an increasingly unstable economic situation. The 2004 Orange Revolution had sparked a new brand of optimism across the country, but within a decade it had eroded to cynicism and mistrust — not only of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych but of neighboring Russia being driven by Vladimir Putin’s agenda. This all culminated in early 2014 as the Euromaidan revolution, in which Ukrainians called for Yanukovych’s resignation. Eventually he fled the country and an interim government was formed and quickly recognized by the United States and the European Union. 

However, Russia saw the government change as a blatant coup d’état and refused to recognize the leadership change. And under that perspective, Russia launched what some consider to be a “quiet” invasion of Ukraine, at least in the form of perpetrating local unrest and rebellion against the new Ukrainian government (which Russia continues to deny). One action was quite blatant and clear: pro-Russian forces quickly took control of the Crimean peninsula and by the end of February, Crimea was effectively autonomous. By March 17, the Crimean parliament declared their independence from Ukraine and Putin gladly accepted Crimea back into Russia’s sovereignty, claiming that Russia had a moral obligation to protect the Russian majority, and also cited Crimea’s strategic importance with the substantial Russian military forces based there.

Following the referendum, and while conflict was still transpiring on the ground in Ukraine, content providers were faced with a key decision: what do we do now with Crimea? It’s the classic problem of how content creators and distributors respond to change, and what’s fascinating is that now in the realm of primarily digital content distribution, the decision-making process has reversed. Before the advent of widespread computing power and smartphones, back when people still received much of their information from the printed page (newspapers and books), the key problem was always latency. Can we get this geopolitical or cultural change verified, written up, represented and so on by the print deadline? If not, then the publication runs the risk of being outdated and perceived as potentially irrelevant. I know many cases where map publishers, for example, didn’t show a boundary change, name change or other geographic shift for a few years just because it occurred in their off-cycle for publishing. It was an unfortunate reality of the print world, but always with the expectation that the change would appear in the next version.

Conversely, the primary problem today isn’t latency but rather being precipitous. With a digital canvas we can change content so quickly and easily that now we’re faced with the decision of how fast will a change be made, even while the cause of the change is still happening on the ground, rather than being months or years delayed.

In the case of Crimea, many users were surprised when Google decided to change their online Google Maps product to reflect the region’s acquisition by Russia (Figure 1), just three weeks after the vote took place. As you can see from the maps for the global audience, the boundary between Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula remained dashed (Figure 2) to indicate a disputed boundary whereas on the .RU domain for Russia, the map showed Crimea as being wholly part of Russia with an international boundary. Some commentators felt that Google’s action lends credence to Russia’s incursion and could even have been perceived as a tacit endorsement. But does a localization or culturalization change for a single market or domain need to be perceived as some kind of collusion or negative action, even if it might deviate from a more widely held position on the global scene?

There will be times when the answer may be yes, as some topics are extremely sensitive regardless of the local context and thus must be handled with great care. However, for the majority of changes occurring on a daily basis, we should embrace the fact that we can change information so readily for the ultimate benefit of end-users. Probably one of the best examples of this at the moment is Wikipedia, where changes occur perpetually and nearly instantly so that the resource is always current — though not without controversy, since it is a crowd-sourced site and subject to wildly diverse editorial opinions.

So perhaps that was a bit of a long-winded history behind the Crimean situation, and granted it’s history in action; as of this writing, it’s still unresolved and Ukraine is still trying to contain Russian incursions in their eastern regions. Thankfully, we have resources that when used responsibly, help us better understand the situation from different perspectives and in a very timely manner.