Google Maps Out Syria’s Future

When listing relevant tags for a post discussing the current revolution in Syria, the first thing that comes to mind would most definitely NOT be “cartography”. We’re talking about a countrywide revolution here; nothing can be more static, mundane, or irrelevant than a map, right?


Or at least the Syrian protestors think so. According to an article published last week by the Washington Post, apparently rebellious groups are not just using sheer manpower or weapons to take down the governing Syrian regime. Instead, they are invoking tactics that people normally use after a revolution has succeeded in changing the government: anti-Assad regime techies have been using Map Maker, which is described as a “Google crowdsourcing program,” to alter the names of important landmarks, bridges, roads, and highways in favor of rebel leaders who have contributed to the revolution’s cause. In celebrating the revolution’s heroes, the anti-government activists are destroying any and all remnants of President Assad’s ruling over Syria and are instead replacing these names with their own symbolic icons and events.

Stefan Geens, who is the author of OgleEarth, a blog that monitors GoogleMaps, noted that Syria’s mapping revolution is the first of its kind: no other activist groups have ever used online mapping programs to revise history before.

Not everyone is in favor of this, however. Last Monday, Bashar al-Jafaari, Syria’s representative at the United Nations, blamed Google for this sudden outbreak in name-changing, criticizing the corporation for taking action in the first place: “This is a flagrant violation of United Nations General Assembly, the resolution of the Arab League pertaining to the standardization of the geographic nomenclature.”

Geens points out, however, that Google is not actually playing a part in this. He notes in his own blog how the changing of names is a process in which third-party users, the activists, are in near-total control, as shown in the image below.

Pictured is one instance of activists trying to change the name of a street from 8 azar to 15 azar. Image courtesy of Ogle Earth.

Pictured is one instance of activists trying to change the name of a street from 8 azar to 15 azar. Image courtesy of Ogle Earth.


While I most definitely empathize with the rebel’s cause and am quite elated that these activists have the courage to symbolically tear down the government as well, I can also see al-Jafaari’s point, too. Google claims that it is using crowdsourcing to approve these geographical revisions, thus absolving them of responsibility from the action itself. Yet it is inherent within the architecture of the program that this name-changing revolution is possible: Google is literally handing the power to the people rather than the Syrian government.

This can lead to some frustrations, for obvious reasons. How much power can Google have in shaping the dynamics of this revolution? Gone are the days where Google is merely our friendly, “go-to” search engine; as time goes on, we are becoming increasingly aware of the real extent of its power. Google has manifested itself in every realm of our lives: it tracks our searches and personalizes advertisements, therefore building a profile of who we are; it analyzes our webpage statistics; it has (or at least attempted to) monitor our social networks; its satellites take pictures of our homes without our consent; and now, it’s even overturning governments.

Personally, the more I learn about Google, the more intimidated I become. With all of these capabilities--and presumably I have only touched on a few of its superpowers--it is over-reaching its power as just a website. Google is a global power, and whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay.

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4 Responses to Google Maps Out Syria’s Future

  1. skubo says:

    I sometimes write to the Reuter about the tradegy happen inyour country.

    I am writing on the situation in Syria again to you. Firstly I would like to express that I am deeply impressed by the action which is initiated and continued by the UN Body such as The Human Right Council, The General Assembly and The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. I hope that the special visit from 6the March to 9th March will be successful to lead some step toward the corridor for reaching the human aid and activity. As I read some an article which regards that the Russia express the suspicion about rader shield in the EU area to intervention the Syria issue as well as the access of the ICRC to Baba Amro is blocked again while the Assad Government said that it would have allowed on Friday.

    As I observe the change of the political initiatives and tactics taken by the different parties over the bloodshed in Syria, I would like to convey my feeling that I will not forget that the initiative of the meeting taken by Mrs. Clinton and the effort been continued by the UN Community after the veto by Russia and China on this matter. I am expecting the situation will change by the visit of the UN mission, the League’s Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby, this week and the new draft now written by The US representative.

    I feel the disappointment of the comment made by the Foregin Minister Saud Al Faisal.

    Be Safe !!

    Living in Tokyo

  2. Nate says:

    Great post- I think it raises some interesting questions about how many crowdsourced projects can unintentionally take on a political role. This case seems a lot like Wikipedia edit wars, except in one respect: unlike a lot of the issues that create controversy on Wikipedia, there's supposedly a definitive answer to this question. I'm guessing that there's probably some government registry in Syria which lists the street's official name as "8 March Avenue," and for practical purposes, using the street's government-sanctioned name is probably best (I can only guess what would happen if people in the US decided to start changing street names en masse). However, I think that this is what makes Google's silent refusal to change the names back so interesting- by not deferring to the verifiable "official" explanation they're in a sense rejecting the legitimacy of the source. It's a powerful political statement: much like the protesters, Google is saying that the Syrian people are the authority here, not their government.

  3. Anna says:

    Very interesting post, Raquel. In the image you shared, the last comment states that the change made to the map was not only incorrect but "illegal." I was curious what Google's policy about map changing is, so I looked it up. Google reserves the right to a very strict reviewing process. In some cases, Google may even require approval before the change appears on Google maps - "no matter how experienced the mapper is." Given that Google generally defers to the sovereign countries' laws, I wonder whether these changes will be amended over the coming weeks.

  4. Julia Averbuck says:

    There are three, almost entirely separate, interesting things going on here. First, that the Syrians would even think of this as a way of resistance. It's fascinating that they turned to cartography to assert their power. Google was reintroduced the map into the modern mindset but I've admittedly never thought of "rewriting" the map as a form of revolution. To me it bears a weird resemblance to the Soviet regime's rewriting of history and renaming cities. The second thing is the problem with crowdsourcing. As shown in this case, a small minority of people can be persistent enough in a cause to alter the results of crowdsourcing. If Google legitimately wanted to know what that street or lake or bridge is called, they would have to crowdsource a random pool of Syrian citizens as opposed to this self-selected pool. By allowing for self-selection, Google is ruining crowdsourcing. And the third thing that's fascinating is the importance that Google maps have come to play in our lives. There was recently a case where the mayor's office in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil sued Google for the misrepresentation of the city. Instead of highlighting the neighborhoods in Rio, Google maps named every single slum, even the ones with a population inferior to 100 inhabitants. By doing so, it highlighted the poverty of the city as opposed to its actual geographic distribution and the mayor's office sued! That it went so far shows that Google Maps, and therefore Google, have taken a serious role in how we perceive cartography and therefore understand spaces. In that way, yes, Google is a little scary...

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