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?
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” 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.

15 thoughts on “NPF: HERE BE DRAGONS”

  • I remember the dispute. The island in question is less than a mile long and inhabited solely by goats. But Spain owns a couple of medium-sized towns on the Moroccan mainland (Ceuta and Melilla), relics of its imperialist past. Morocco wants them back, Spain prefers to keep them, so relations are bad and it flared up over this flyspeck of an island.

    It's sometimes used as an example of why, for all its many flaws, the USA has a unique role in world diplomacy. America had no imaginable strategic interest here, and Powell is said to have wondered out loud why the hell the Spaniards and Moroccans had to drag him into it. But the fact is the USA was the only entity trusted to mediate by both sides.

  • PS Mind you, that was before the Iraq war. I think Morocco and all other Muslim countries are not as well disposed to the USA these days.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Very interesting NPF!

    And here, looking at that photo, I thought this post would 'border' on being boring…

    I'll be here all week folks!
    Be sure to order the great prime rib.
    Oh, and don't forget to tip your bar and wait staff generously!

  • Puts me in mind of the "We want a good war" slogan, "Fifty Four Forty or Fight."

    Always remember to get a gift receipt at Barnes and Noble. Even if the purchase is for yourself.

  • Hey ho neighbor…fellow GIS/Remote Sensing nerd here (I work for a nameless agency using GIS/RS for bird habitat conservation). I'm intrigued…how are you using GIS in your work?

  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel, "Jingo" also includes a diplomatic settlement involving an island. I wonder if the real life incident inspired the motif? Also, I really like the idea of Powell actually getting to do something admirable as SoS.

  • I once asked a Spanish friend of mine why Spain never seemed to make a big deal of getting Gibraltar back. It's still a British colony. He explained that it involved these very Moroccan possessions of Spain. If Spain started demanding Gibraltar, then Morocco would start demanding the Spanish colonies.

  • What's really cool is if you know someone with ArcGIS you can take the global map that ships with it and view it using different projection systems. The results are pretty cool.

    @pixel: GIS is used in poli-sci to track demographics and most obviously electorates. Those maps that show populous pockets in blue of Omaha amidst the sea of red that went to Baz, is GIS. There's myriad uses. Which is why spatial is the big daddy of all "big data". For your population studies you could plug-in how putting a coal fired generator would affect habitats downwind. GIS isn't concerned about where it is, so much as it's concerned about how it relates to everything around it.

  • @Xynzee Yep…I've been working with ArcGIS since v7.2 of ArcINFO running on a Sun SPARC workstation. I miss that 'ol Command Line at times. My main gig is pixel and object-based classifications of Landsat and SPOT imagery using ERDAS and eCognition, as well as developing spatial models for our priority bird species, incorporating about every kind of ancillary dataset you can imagine. Incredibly powerful tool!

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