NZSM Online

Get TurboNote+ desktop sticky notes

Interclue makes your browsing smarter, faster, more informative

SciTech Daily Review

Webcentre Ltd: Web solutions, Smart software, Quality graphics


World-Moving Changes

Changes in world politics have meant a busy time for world map-makers.

by Philippa Novak

Some of the biggest changes on the world map have occurred since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. For cartographers, the pace of political events has meant a race against time to keep people up-to-date with what is happening. For cartographers in this country, half the effort can be making sure that New Zealand appears on the map.

It was just such a problem which inspired Barry Bradley from the Department of Survey and Land Information (DOSLI). While working in the US, he noticed that New Zealand was completely missing from many television news maps and other world maps in books and magazines. This gave him an idea.

"I felt there was a need for a political wall map centred on the Pacific that could be continuously updated, one that keep pace with political events outside of this country," he says.

Politicians may have been thinking along the same lines, as Parliament's Cabinet office asked for an update to their maps in early 1990. Hanging in the Cabinet room was a wall map of the world, a large map of the Pacific area and two maps of New Zealand, all printed in the early 1980s.

"I felt that the world and Pacific maps were giving the wrong sort of information to our MPs," says Bradley. "The projection used in both maps was a rectangular (Mercator) one, a type of representation originally used for navigation and charting, but one that gives a distorted impression of the world -- particularly in the higher latitudes where area is grossly enlarged. There was also the problem of the maps having a physical rather than political orientation."

Assuming that politicians would be more interested in the political situation, rather than the physical Earth, Bradley felt that critical up-to-date information was being denied the nation's politicians.

"Maybe being a cartographer I am sensitive to the story a map tells, but I am often amazed at how accepting people are about living with out-of-date and, unbeknown to them, inaccurate maps".

Replacing the New Zealand and Pacific editions posed no problem for a department which is continually updating maps within its sphere of interest.

"DOSLI publishes its own Pacific wall map which is based on a special projection devised by one of our geodesists back in the early 1970s".

Because this projection is devised particularly for the Pacific Basin and rim, it minimises scale distortion and retains a better representation of the world globe. The map was originally produced for a New Zealand atlas published in 1976. Being part of the original atlas compilation team meant Bradley had a good working knowledge of how this map was put together.

"In those days we had to plot the projection graticule, country outlines and all other details by hand, so if you decided to use a different projection you had to do a fair amount of complicated mathematics and replotting," he recalls.

What started out as a map for an atlas, developed into a designer map big enough to cover a fair spread of Cabinet office wall.

However, a replacement map which accurately depicted the current world political situation was another story. DOSLI did not have a suitable large-format world wall map and overseas agencies had no map suitable for an Oceania audience. The department developed the projection techniques and decided to produce their own version.

NZ at World Centre

To begin with, Bradley had in mind a world map which had New Zealand as its central focus. This could be done by rotating the globe to view the Pacific Basin and utilising a projection which minimises area distortion. The projection to be used, the Robinson, had been devised in 1963, but had recently gained new attention when the National Geographic adopted it for their own world maps.

"We had our Research and Development people working on the projection and we also acquired a world data set from the Canadian Cartographic Society. By marrying those two we were able to turn the globe any way we liked. So of course we put New Zealand in the centre!" says Bradley.

Although the database was an excellent one, it was missing a large number of small islands and archipelagoes, leaving out vital information in the Pacific hemisphere. Islands close inshore to the continents were also not complete. This was because the original world outline was digitised for a smaller scale of representation.

"For the Pacific/Oceanic concept which New Zealand is part of, islands are important. So when depicting them on small scale maps, we tend to exaggerate their size. These `fly-spots', as we call them, could be displayed up to 50 times the area of the actual island. If we showed them according to their real area, there would be nothing to see."

The Naming of Parts

"The other aspect that had to be given careful consideration for a world map was a policy on country and place name spelling," says Bradley.

At this point DOSLI cartographers went through a fair bit of agony trying to decide on which approach to use. They had a couple of options. They could use the donor principle where the country of origin donates their name transliterated or transcribed into the Roman alphabet, or they could use the more usual naming technique where the common English version is used.

"The donor principle appealed to us, as it reflects reality. For example, if you alight from an aircraft in Austria the airport could announce `Wein'. You won't find the word Vienna. But there is a problem if you disembark in Damascus, Syria. Although the Romanised name would be spelt Dimascq, it would probably be written in the Arabic alphabet, which may be unintelligible to many people.

Considerable cross checking was carried out. Bradley and his team turned to publications from the United Nations Terminology Bulletin and the French mapping organisation, Institut Geographique National. They also had direct contact with embassies and governments and many other "official" sources.

"We found ourselves getting into really deep water about the technicalities of language. We are cartographers, not linguists. We had to ask ourselves questions such as how do you represent words in different languages or alphabets and what type of signs do you use to indicate different sounds? We went into overdrive at this point and contacted almost every embassy or government where we felt there was a problem in establishing the donor name. Life became very complicated for the cartographers."

The preferred title for Saudi Arabia is "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia", even though "Saudi Arabia" is the short name listed in the UN Terminology Bulletin. Switzerland, for example, has three local languages, but eventually the Swiss-German name of "Schweiz" was chosen in consultation with the Embassy of Switzerland.

"There were one or two surprises regarding name translations. We had used the name `Uman' for Oman, which is a direct translation from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet. However, we were soon contacted by government officials from Oman informing us that we were to use the country name as written in English -- The Sultanate of Oman. Probably the colonial influence, I think.

"We settled finally for a prime spelling system using the local spelling, but common usage English was added underneath in parenthesis where name recognition could be difficult."

A Changing Map

Bradley says that while the naming enquiry was going on, Germany was re-uniting itself and other countries were becoming independent. For cartographers, the political change, which was mainly occurring in Europe, meant top gear work on keeping up to date with changes.

"We used the media as a signal. From their reports we followed the path of the initial political disputes, and then the birth of the break-away states.

"Of course the media does not describe what is happening to boundaries in exact cartographic terms, so we went back to basics. We had to search for previous definitions of state or regional internal boundaries which often dictated the shape of the new nations. These had to be checked against world maps published regularly by the United Nations and other authoritative publications."

The team also consulted larger scale topographic maps, studied international aeronautical charts and checked late edition atlases.

"If we are realistic, we will agree that poring over all this resource material won't always solve boundary problems, because often maps are not detailed enough or the boundary has not been resolved. However, minor boundary discrepancies are not so much of a problem when you are mapping at relatively small scales. It's the boundaries that encompass large territories of disputed land which cause the headache. An example is the Jammu Kashmir region on the India/Pakistan border where the boundary could be drawn in several places, depending on which side of the fence you sit on.

"Cartographers have a responsibility not to introduce any political bias, but most adopt the internationally agreed situation. Of course this is the ideal scenario -- not always the case in reality."

"Our third edition Nations of the World map came at a very appropriate time. It reflected the tremendous political change that was going on in the world at that time -- in the USSR in particular."

Now edition four has just been published. This latest world map includes the five new territories of Jugoslavija and the countries that evolved from the breaking apart of Ceskoslovensko. Further changes in the world scene make it likely that edition five won't be that far away.

Philippa Novak is an Information Officer with DOSLI.