Maps: Historical Inaccuracies That Shaped Perception

Whether due to honest mistakes, purposeful deceptions, or the inertia of progression, inaccurate maps have consequences.

In previous posts, we have detailed how maps and geospatial data shape the very fabric of reality around us, and we’ve also chronicled the advances in accuracy through the ages. But what happens when maps, or their users, are slow to catch up with the times? Early mapping was far from accurate, and parts, we now know, were based on superstition. In other cases, they were based on deception.

“The Phantom Atlas,” by Edward Brooke-Hitching includes examples of purposeful mapping falsehoods.

In 1539, the Mexican island of Bermeja first appeared on Spanish maps. It continued to appear well into the 20th century. Starting in the 1980s, the Mexican government hoped to find it and secure oil rights on the island. Searches for the island persisted until 2009 when it was concluded the island did not exist.

Bermeja as depicted on a Spanish map via the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Infamous deceivers like Benjamin Morrell, who ‘discovered’ islands like “New South Greenland” and “Morrell’s Land,” where only open water exists, took advantage of the public’s credulity. In 1822, Gregor MacGregor convinced 270 British colonists to sell their possessions and buy land from him in the newly-established South American country of ‘Poyais’. The problem was, MacGregor’s ‘Poyais’ land was nothing more than swampland; most of his settlers never made it back to Britain.

The trust people have in maps is significantly increased when children are the consumers. When a child sees a map of the world for the first time, it is presented as an absolute fact. In the case of older sea maps scattered with krakens and giants, children may grow up believing monsters roam the earth and seas. In the case of the standardization of the Mercator projection map, children grow up with distorted ideas about hemispheric proportions and global dynamics.

When Gerardus Mercator released his 1569 map, “A New and Enlarged Description of the Earth with Corrections for Use in Navigation,” he was not intending to introduce a standard visualization of the Earth. The map’s purpose was to allow straight lines to be drawn between ports and used as a practical tool by sailors, navigators, and travelers.

New and Enlarged Description of the Earth with Corrections for Use in Navigation Map via International Cartographic Association.

In the 19th and 20th century, as the number of mariners grew, so did the prevalence of Mercator projection maps. Anyone who has visited a Western classroom in the last half-century is familiar with this projection. The trouble is, its inaccuracies bolster attitudes of ethnocentrism, the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture, and even unconsciously racist worldviews. The Mercator projection maps tend to emphasize European and Northern societies; in a typical version, the countries above the equator take up close to ⅔ of the page space, diminishing the importance of Southern continents and nations (whose populations are largely people of color). Jane Elliot has famously spoken about the distortion of the Mercator Projection  and stated “This is not just ridiculous, it’s deliberate”. Greenland’s size in relation to South America is a good example here. In the age of colonialism, this presentation of European nations helped underscore their ideas of superiority over other nations.

Mercator Projection, via brilliantmaps.com.

As proof that the long term use of Mercator projection maps may have less to do with accuracy and more with biased attitudes: when the Soviets undertook their ambitious world mapping endeavor, they used the Pulkovo 1942 projection.

In recent years, educators and mapping companies have worked to rectify this situation. Companies like ODT Maps are working to correct the distortion caused by longtime use of Mercator maps by distributing maps like the one developed by Arno Peters in 1974 map, which aims to be fair to all people.

As ODT Maps founder Bob Abramms says in a lecture, “for a map to show the truth, it must make a visual lie of something else”. A globe sliced apart and laid flat, for example, is not easily decipherable to a layperson. The Mercator projection shows accurate lines of passage but distorts continent proportions. Today, digital geospatial technology allows users to parse data in three dimensions, meaning fewer of these trade-offs, but it’s import to keep historical misleading cartography in mind and ensure any distortions are clearly communicated and not presented as fact.

The Evolution of Cartography

It may sound hyperbolic, but history proves that when maps change, so does humanity’s perception of itself.

Just as Cold War-era maps by the Soviet Union reflect certain ideas about that society’s worldview, so do maps left by ancient civilizations. A clay tablet from around 600 BCE called the “Babylonian Map of the World,” is thought to be among the first-ever known maps. It features Babylon in the center of the known world surrounded by water and eight triangular regions. This arrangement is thought to be a symbolic, rather than literal, representation of the world. Older maps from Greece are organized similarly.

(The Babylonian Map of the World. Known as the first map ever created. Image courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia.)

Around 150 BCE, Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy created his atlas, “Geographia.” This work is a cartographic milestone, as, while working to establish a grid that would more accurately chart birth locations for horoscopes, Ptolmey created a global coordinate system that laid groundwork for our modern system of longitude and latitude.

Ptolmey’s work had massive influence on medieval Islamic scholars. In 1154, one of those scholars, Muhammad al-Idrisi, created the most accurate map for its time. The Tabula Rogeriana. Al-Idrisi’s achievement combined Ptolmey’s system with knowledge of the Far East, Africa, and the Indian Ocean gathered by explorers and merchants.

Information from explorers and merchants continued to play a crucial part in map-making, as the 15th century saw an explosion of exploration. One of the most significant innovations from this period is Gerard Mercator’s 1569 World Map, which used a cylindrical map projection to effectively ‘flatten’ the globe for nautical travel.

(Gerard Mercator’s 1569 World Map. Image courtesy of ClassicSailor.)

Tools like telescopes, compasses, and sextants allowed for increased accuracy. These tools of surveying were put to good use on land, too. In 1912, Alfred Wegener used surveying tools to add proof to the theory of continental drift, which was eventually accepted half a century later.

The invention of the printing press pushed maps into the hands of more people than ever before. Following the Industrial Revolution, as middle classes rose and more people found more free time in their days, a spike in travelling as a hobby occurred. Map makers found demand shifting from ornate, often symbolic maps, to ones of a more utilitarian nature for use by common travelers.

World War I introduced aerial photography, which progressed through the following century into today’s world of satellite imagery, remote sensing, and LiDAR.

One of the biggest revolutions in the field was the ability to pick and choose what data to include on a given image. The first Geographic Information System (GIS) was created in Canada in 1962 by Roger Tomlinson and the Canada Land Inventory (CLI). This allowed for separation of information and attribute data, meaning more specialized visualizations. In 1973, first editions of large digitized maps made their entrance into the cartographic landscape.

(Image courtesy of ArcGIS.)

Throughout the centuries of progress, one thing remains true: maps are an abstraction of reality with some elements depicted more prominently than others. Today, as it was in the past, the cartographer’s job is to make sure it is done the most effective way possible.

Relief shading, which adds depth and dimension to maps, is just as important today as it was in the 17th century. Today, cartographers might use ESRI Toolsets instead of an ink pen, but the idea is the same. Modern cartographers make choices that help viewers of their maps understand climate change, shipping routes, special-interest hiking trails, and even make maps more accessible to individuals with color-blindness.

At East View Geospatial, our cartographic team is as busy as it has ever been, utilizing the latest and greatest mapping tools. Most recently, the team identified a gap in country map coverage for the country of Tanzania at 50K scale. Utilizing data from the Tanzania government and Maxar, as well as toolsets from ESRI, the cartographic team created 16 new map sheets, completing Tanzania’s map coverage for the first time in history. This entire project was executed remotely, without any EVG personnel having boots on the ground in Tanzania. The entire project would not have been possible without innovation in the cartographic space over the past centuries. To see how this project was executed, EVG created a brief StoryMap that breaks down the process. As a company, we are constantly pushing the boundaries to find new ways of sourcing data and executing the cartographic production process to bring the most authoritative maps to market.

The Rich History of Soviet Mapping

A Soviet map of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union set out to map the entire world. The full story of how they did this remains untold, but the legacy of the maps they produced is clear; they are potentially the pinnacle of pre-satellite-era cartography, rich in both aesthetics and diverse data.

Scholars and researchers have used the maps to gain perspective of the USSR worldview. Some argue that the combination of topography with human infrastructure represents an attempt to synthesize the two and express a post-revolutionary worldview. From a more practical standpoint, the map’s content points to potential objectives; from invading (or defending) to understanding.

The maps feature topographic and geographic features, but the amount of auxiliary information they contain is astonishing. Widths of streets, sizes of buildings, and even construction materials and conditions of roadways are recorded in cities around the world. In mountainous regions like Afghanistan, maps include notes on times of year when snow clears from mountain passes. In other areas, maps note where to find edible vegetation and drinkable water. Some even feature the inclusion of military and research facilities that do not appear on official maps from the surveyed country.

In 2005, East View, which has assembled the world’s largest single collection of these maps, translated and published a Russian military manual that provides instructions for how the maps are to be used in planning and executing operations. Tables in the manual provide even more detailed information, like how far certain sounds travel in a given area, even accounting for what kind of material the sound was made on: everything from an idling tank to footsteps to a snapped tree branch.

A Soviet Union military map showing the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

A Soviet map of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Some of the Soviets’ quest for granular detail in their maps must have come from their military strengths. While the United States Air Force maintained air superiority, Russian forces relied on tank and ground forces. While the Americans were able to formulate a strategy from the sky, the Soviets needed maps that allowed them to plan for more precise ground operations. Typically, 1:50,000 is an ideal scale for such activity.

The Soviet military’s mapping of worldwide urban centers was unparalleled until the arrival of Google Maps. Thousands of cities are mapped at scale 1:10,000 and 1:25,000 – and comprehensively so, not just potential military targets. The detailed mapping of cities like Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco and Seattle are perhaps expected by an adversary. But Pueblo, CO, Madison, WI and Shreveport, LA – points to an obsession within cataloging and measuring American postwar industry and business strength.

The maps were made using a combination of existing official sources (similarities to maps produced by the Ordnance Survey and by US Geological Survey are too numerous to be coincidental), on-the-ground surveyors, reconnaissance aerial photography, and, presumably, spies. Teams were sent out to some of the furthest corners of the earth in pursuit of cartographic knowledge, and some died in their pursuit. Russian cartographer Alexy Postnikov, who, when on assignment to survey a remote area of Yakutiya in the 1960s, found an inscription left by an ill-fated cartographer from 1948. It was left 200 km away from the nearest populated area and stated that he and an injured aide were alone without supplies and fending off bear attacks.

A 1980 Soviet map of San Diego naval facilities (left) compared with a US Geological Survey map of the same area, from 1978 (revised from 1967).

Regardless of the maps’ purpose, it is clear the Soviet government regarded them as precious. Access to them was highly restricted. A strict system of checking out the maps existed, and ex-military members describe feeling that, even if it had been partially or totally destroyed, whatever pieces remained needed to be returned.

When the Soviet Union fell and laws changed, officials and others with access to them started marketing the maps bit by bit to a scattered constellation of buyers, which is how the world knows about them today.

“What remains most impressive about the Soviet maps was their uptake and utilization by industries far and wide – both commercial and consumer”, notes Jonathan Thompson, Director of Sales & Marketing for East View Geospatial. “From telecom and utility to aviation and insurance companies, as well as recreationists and historians alike, these maps have been and continue to be highly regarded and used for countless applications. In fact, for some regions of the world, they still represent the highest quality published topographic information.”

More information about the maps is available in The Red Atlas, a book by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent, which gives an in-depth history of their creation and use. We also recommend reading “Inside The Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers” by Wired. East View had the opportunity to contribute their knowledge of Soviet mapping in both The Red Atlas and the Wired article.

For those wanting to dive into the depths of these maps, East View Geospatial’s MapVault service provides access to our vast collection of Soviet mapping as a web mapping service. Each map is available individually in a variety of print and digital formats at shop.geospatial.com.

As cartography continues its march into the future with computer and satellite-aided tools, the painstaking efforts of those Soviet topographers, surveyors, and others will continue to provide an example of outstanding tradecraft whose relevance and value continue to find new applications.

Geospatial Terms Made Easy: What Is Raster and Vector Data?

Data drives all cartography- without it, maps couldn’t be made. There are countless types of data- each delivering their own unique value and insights. However, all types of mapping data fall into one of two categories: Vector Data or Raster Data. We spoke with Geospatial Analyst, Kelli Hercules, about why raster and vector data are important, how they differ, and their respective benefits when it comes to displaying specific data.   

“Vector data is made up of points, lines, and polygons; all of which are used to represent real-world features in maps. All geometry types store information in x/y coordinates. 

For EVG’s use of vector data: 

  • Point data usually represents small features, such as small buildings, pylons, landmark significant features.  
  • Line data represents features, such as: transportation (roads, cart tracks, trails), rivers, cables, pipelines.  
  • Polygon data represents features, such as: land cover, area hydrography, large buildings, city/county/state/country boundaries.  
Six images showing the difference between raster and vector data using point, lines, polygons, and graphs

(Image courtesy of firenorth.org.au)

Raster data is made of pixels that are compiled into rows and columns. Primarily you will see raster data used in digital aerial photographs, satellite imagery, or even digital pictures. However, raster data can be organized into two separate categories, discrete data & continuous data.  

  • Discrete rasters are easy to distinguish as the data is organized into themes. Where one value might represent land cover, another may represent a river. 
  • Continuous rasters represent values that are above/below sea level. Digital elevation models are a good example of continuous raster data.” 

How does this apply to your work at EVG? 

“Both raster and vector data are important for our day to day tasks here at East View Geospatial. When we source data in-house, the data would be procured as a vector (points, lines, and polygons). This data is amassed in four different areas/themes: Hydrography, Transportation, Culture, and Land Cover. These two data types can also be utilized simultaneously. Raster data is necessary for feature data collection, in which the data being collected is vector data. Whether we procure our data or use data from other sources, vector and raster data are at the core of what we do here at East View Geospatial.”

Raster data and vector data are the base of all things geospatial. At the most granular level, all datasets will either be a raster dataset or vector dataset. With the cartographic process becoming almost 100% digital, it is crucial for cartographers to fully understand the differences and nuances of both types of data.  

Kelli Hercules, Geospatial Analyst

The Geospatial Convergence: How Geospatial Information Helps The Media Industry Illustrate What Can’t Naturally Be Seen

A futuristic cityscape created with Esri CityEngine GIS technology

(Image courtesy of Esri)

If the end goal of media is to transmit big ideas and meaningful stories to readers and viewers, then geospatial data is indispensable. Whether the media is fact-based or complete fantasy, geospatial information and technology provide insights, context, and color to the data presented in a story.

In much the same way that data-rich GIS visualizations are valuable in courtrooms, their ability to relay complex info to laypeople is impactful in the media realm.

From weather patterns to following a population over time, tracking supply chains to following a viral outbreak, the news media makes use of GIS data to help break down big ideas for their viewers. Maps can give context that might lack in an old-fashioned spreadsheet infographic.

For example, election results on a spreadsheet-like table or chart might convey the winners and losers of a contest, but added context of past and present economic, social, and other data in the same voting district is where media consumers can begin to make sense of new information.

The integration has become so commonplace that the New York Times even holds “data bootcamps” to ensure its writing and editing staff have a proper handle on the technology.

A frequently-cited example of geospatial data’s importance in journalism is then-Miami Herald journalist Steve Doig’s work on the damage left behind by 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

A newspaper article with a map of wind damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992

(Image courtesy of Risk Management Services)

He placed layers of data over one another: wind speed and damage assessment. This spacial analysis led him to determine that developers had been allowed to put up haphazard construction, leaving properties vulnerable to hurricanes. This insight not only put blame on the relaxed regulations in place, but it also allowed for future preparation for storms in the area.

Other corners of the media industry use GIS data to simulate multi-layered destruction, in an effort to bring fictional stories as close to real-life as possible. Geospatial information helps embellish imagined worlds on TV and movie screens in a similar fashion to how it does in video games.

For the havoc created by extraterrestrial visitors to Earth in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, Esri’s CityEngine was used to create lifelike renderings of real cities like Singapore to be annihilated. Nine months of work went into roughly forty seconds of footage, but that work can now be built upon (even if it was wiped out in a simulation run for the movie).

A slider adding details to a digital cityscape using Esri CityEngine GIS technology

(Image courtesy of geoinformatics.com)

For the future-ruins of Las Vegas in BladeRunner 2049, the movie’s visual effects team, Framestore, turned to CityEngine. They based the foundations of their version of Las Vegas on government maps, then continued to embellish it with other data. The effect is a startlingly real-seeming expanse of waste and degraded architecture that feels close enough to the real city to be jarring. That might explain why Framestore was awarded an Academy Award for their work on BladeRunner 2049.

In short, geospatial data continues to play an important role within television, journalism and movies to illustrate data, draw insights and create real-life landscapes. Given the constant innovation within this field, it will be fascinating to observe how GIS and cartography will be integrated within the Media industry as technology evolves.

Key Takeaways:

  • GIS data helps the media industry pass on stories and information to consumers in more easy-to-digest formats than charts, spreadsheets, and paragraphs.
  • In journalism, the ability to layer data points out previously hidden societal dynamics, and the ability to render findings into map form helps readers and viewers digest the information quicker.
  • Movies have begun using technology like Ersi’s CityEngine to create lifelike renderings of cities (both real and imagined) with reality-based detailing, thus heightening audience immersion.