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Mapping Contested Spaces

With developments in technology and access, generation of geospatial content is shifting from professional and governmental actors to informal, non-professionals using the mapping systems and satellite imagery available on the internet. The content that these actors produce is labeled as Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), which has facilitated the expansion of mapping into previously difficult or inaccessible areas. Because of the collaborative nature of VGI data creation, it highlights the political aspects of cartography, tracing spatial disputes between multiple stakeholders who all have access to mapping tools and their own bias about how spaces should be labeled and codified.

“Technologies such as OpenStreetMap have facilitated faster growth of less structured mapping, expanding mapping to areas major companies were not interested in or are physically inaccessible,” said Fábio Duarte, a Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Senseable City Lab and a Lecturer at DUSP. “We are seeing real efforts to document contested and ambiguous spaces, making them visible to the world.”

In a new article for Geoforum, Wonyoung So and Duarte explore the process and history of collaborative mapping strategies used to map one of the least mapped countries in the world, North Korea. They move beyond the data on the maps to discover who is mapping North Korea, how are they doing so in such an isolated context, and what are their motivations to draw these maps?

“I assumed that there would be almost no OpenStreetMap (OSM) data in North Korea, yet I discovered that some North Korean regions was even better mapped than South Korea.”, said So. “When I looked closer, I was intrigued. Even though residents of North Korea generally do not have access to the internet, some places that only locals would know, such as small restaurants and shops, are on the maps. I asked myself, who are the individuals with local knowledge, access to the internet, and a desire to map North Korea? And if I could discover who these individuals were, I wanted to learn how and why are they mapping North Korea?”

So is a graduate student in the DUSP at MIT, a member of MIT Visualization Group at MIT CSAIL, and an urban data visualization specialist at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. His data visualization of the research that informed this article won a Kantar Information is Beautiful 2019 Award. So’s work has also been recognized by the MIT Museum, IEEE, Fast Co. Design, The Atlantic, CNN, The Guardian, Seoul Museum of Art and Wired.

Learn more about the results of their data analysis and interviews in their article, here.