NPF: HERE BE DRAGONS

Posted in Uncategorized on February 6th, 2014 by Ed

OK, so this isn't entirely devoid of politics. It's just a little, though, in keeping with the spirit of NPF.

You know that I have a strong interest in maps and geography, and a lot of what I actually get paid to do involves GIS. So it was with great pleasure that I read this interview on Wired's MapLab with the head of the US Geographic Information Unit. It sounds boring, right? And then you see the guy and you think, my god, this is going to be the most boring thing ever.

Not pictured: Excitement

Not pictured: Excitement

Power through your skepticism and read it. He has some rather neat stories to tell about the role of mapping in U.S. foreign policy. When nations disagree about a border or the name of a geographic feature, how does the State Department avoid hurting anyone's feelings?

One case I worked on that was kind of fun involves a tiny island off the coast of Morocco. It’s very close to shore and very, very small. But about 11 years ago Morocco sent a few troops there and Spain swooped in with helicopters and expelled them and it became a big deal.

[Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell was asked to mediate the conflict. [In Powell's plan] everyone was going to leave the island, with no prejudice as to who it belonged to. They drew up an agreement but the problem was the name. The Spanish wouldn’t use the Moroccan name and the Moroccans wouldn’t use the Spanish name.

I was at a dinner party that Saturday night and I got a call from the Secretary’s staff saying that instead of a name they wanted to use the coordinates for that island. So I showed them how to get on a database and do that. I could hear the Secretary in the background saying, “Ask him how accurate those coordinates are.” They’re not totally accurate, but there’s no island nearby with which it could possibly be confused. So the documents he drew up for the mediations referred to “the island and such and such coordinates” and those documents had to be signed by the prime minister of Spain and the king of Morocco by midnight that same day.

The prime minister of Spain signed, no problem. But they had to send a high speed car looking for the king of Morocco. This was in the days before cellphones were prevalent. So they caught up to him and he basically had to pull over at some house and say, “Excuse me, I’m your king, could I use your phone?” He called up Powell and asked him to read the document, which he immediately agreed to. So that was a big deal, and my small part in it was to provide those coordinates. It’s a great example of how geographic names matter.

Clever. So the old saying is true and it's impossible to offend either a Spaniard or a Moroccan with coordinates.