In honor of GIS Day, a.k.a. Geographic Information Systems Day, and, to some extent, the UAE’s 45th National Day, our Digital Humanities mini-tutorial of the week at the NYUAD Center of Digital Scholarship was on map rectification or geo-referencing using old Soviet maps and current satellite images. The process involved creating shape files of the satellite images, putting them into a program, and matching coordinates or features together. Further explanations are provided by our professor, David Wrisley.
Complicated technical details aside, on a philosophical level, GIS Day was an interesting exercise in transparency and definitions of reality. Often, particularly growing up in America, maps seem incontrovertible in terms of their veracity: bodies of water are defined; borders are established. While these may just be lines drawn on a map when you’re wandering through the woods, the borders seem very clear and delineated when a sign along the highway welcomes you to a new state at a specific point. However, as proven by America’s relentless debates on borders and immigration, as well as Africa’s and the Middle East’s colonization, borders are often far from distinct, incontrovertible separations of states and nations.
In regards to the Soviet maps specifically, the choice of map accuracy is illuminating and peculiar. As outlined in the article, Hyper Detailed Soviet Maps of Washington, Soviet precision was remarkable as pertained to government buildings and vital infrastructure, but haphazard when charting residential areas. Before this exercise, I had never assumed that maps would be “filled in” with such carelessness. I imagined maps either as fully researched entities or transparent charts that would say, circle an area lacking detail and simply note “residential area,” instead of providing approximated or fictionalized houses. In our own project, you could see distinct differences in the water borders. Any number of things could have caused this difference: changes in the tide, long-term environmental changes, inaccuracies in the Soviet map, etc. Thus, unfortunately, further information, from the site itself or other maps, is required to determine the actual root of the discrepancy.
Consequently, the project was simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. The subjective decisions taken in the map-making process allows greater analysis in terms of the mapmakers’ motivation. However, this step also necessitates prior knowledge of the area due to the opaque nature of maps. In the Soviet Union, where access to maps of Washington, DC. was likely limited, there’s little possibility for the readers of the map to know of its discrepancies with reality. Map scaling and “bucketing” of certain information only exacerbates these problems of precision as it draws away from the specific data and into a simpler representation. Of course, whether the specific data is necessary will vary based on the map’s goals and subjects; however, while university teaches these ideas, it’d be nice to see more dissemination of these ideas of GIS and subjectivity in high schools. Such a change in the general curriculum would ensure greater awareness and critical thinking skills among the general populace, of whom some cannot afford higher education, and likely foster greater interest in the oft-overlooked field of geography in American classrooms.