“Who cares where national borders lie? Who cares whose laws you’re governed by? Who cares what name you call a town?”
Neil Hannon, the Divine comedy (listen and be moved here)
Don’t name it
Gary Gale and I first worked together on a project about names. At the time I was a project manager attempting to harmonise (European language for “making things work together”) the names data of Europe. These are the names we call towns, cities, countries, mountains, rivers… you name it. Or rather you DON’T name it, but the official sources do. Every country had an official way of capturing and making these available (or not), each of them different, and my role was to make them all consistently available.
Gary at the time (2009) was working at Yahoo, and I think our hopeless encounter may have sparked the creative leap he then made that ultimately resulted in my awarding him the SplashMaps Geomob best speaker award 9 years later!
Enrage the dogs of War
Names are contentious. What you call something and what I call something can be very different dependent upon context. Most neighbours in the world have some disputes, some are acknowledged and ignored (the French “Le Manche” vs the “English Channel”) and some enrage the dogs of war (Morocco’s non-recognition of Western Sahara, or the Argentinian claim over the Malvinas/ Falkland Isles). In the middle of this spectrum is a vast array of disputed enclaves and other hangovers from colonial invasions and unthinking strokes of an official cartographer’s pen.
One-sided perspective on names
So, Gary’s talk concerned “Who’s on First”; a gazetteer (or list of places) that’s crowd sourced. Perhaps after having engaged with the official sources from around the world (Europe in my case) he’d worked out the futility of adopting a single or one-sided perspective on location names. Instead this gazetteer has opted for giving the crowd the choice! The system has permanent records that cannot be deleted for each place. It allows multiple descriptions, names, hierarchy’s and even polygons to represent that place. Multiple perspectives and entries can be accommodated to give a rounded view. And it’s all available on open Creative Commons licenses for developers to use in commonly used formats (JSON).
Commercial and Political Pressures
But why is this important? Surely these sorts of data sets exist? Sure they do. But when most often used they have all come from a single edited source. Often the source (perhaps a large search company) has limited interest or bandwidth to deal with local affairs impacting a global data set. They’ll have simplified ways for testing and updating data which cannot deal with multiple perspectives and they will (despite best efforts) have succumbed to commercial and political pressures to favour one view over another in their relentless strive for growth.
So, and perhaps for very topically timed reasons, Gary won when the collective of Geovation and UK Mapping Festival audiences voted on the best presentation of the day.
Who does this matter to?
For those in Derry/ Londonderry and across Northern Ireland and Ireland perhaps it matters most right now. Where the echoes of violence are within living memory and the disruption of Brexit strikes close to home. Where decisions on their borders will soon be settled in negotiation between a Westminster government and unelected European bureaucrats. At a time where the results of negotiations will end up in a base-line database against which all cross-border transactions will take place. Wouldn’t you rather that data set can reference back to all perspectives?
This time it won’t be the official cartographer’s pen that pokes the hornet’s nest. Perhaps now it’s time for data to go beyond democratic and become diplomatic.
After all, as Neil Hannon concludes in his eulogy to the Northern Ireland troubles, Who cares what name you call a town, Who cares when you’re 6 feet beneath the ground?”