When sources disagree: borders and place names in Google Earth and Maps

Collecting and sharing the most accurate information about place names and borders is a tough task that every map maker faces. The first sources are the nations themselves, but when neighboring countries claim overlapping territories and conflicting place names, even showing the dispute on a map may be prohibited by local law. We continue to work hard on these issues, and thought it would be worth sharing our general approach on this blog.

We want to be transparent about the principles we follow in designing our mapping products, particularly as they apply to disputed regions. Last year, for example, we explained how we determine the names for bodies of water in Google Earth. For each difficult case, we gather a cross-functional group of Googlers including software engineers, product managers, GIS specialists, policy analysts, and geopolitical researchers. This process benefits from the local knowledge and experience of Googlers around the world.

We follow a hierarchy of values to inform our depictions of geopolitically sensitive regions:

Google's mission: In all cases we work to represent the "ground truth" as accurately and neutrally as we can, in consistency with Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes. That can mean providing multiple claim lines (e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights), multiple names (e.g. two names separated by a slash: "Londonderry / Derry"), or clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues (e.g. the annotation for "Arunachal Pradesh," currently in Google Earth only; see blog post about disputed seas).

Authoritative references: While no single authority has all the answers, when deciding how to depict sensitive place names and borders we use guidance from data providers that most accurately describe borders in treaties and other authoritative standards bodies like the United Nations, ISO and the FIPS. We look for the references that are the most universally recognized for each individual case. For example, in the case of "Myanmar (Burma)" ISO and FIPS each use a different name, so we include both to provide a more complete reference for our users.

Local expectations: We work to localize the user experience while striving to keep all points of view easily discoverable in our products. Google Maps has launched on 32 region domains (e.g. maps.google.ca for Canada) and Google Earth is now available in 41 languages. Each domain and language user population is most familiar with a slightly different set of place names. For example, for the "Yellow Sea" or "West Sea," Chinese speaking users are conversant with the label Huáng Hǎi or 黄海 (Mandarin), while Korean users are used to the label Sŏ Hae or 서해 (Hangul). Carefully considering Google's mission, guidance from authoritative references, local laws and local market expectations, we strive to provide tools that help our users explore and learn about their world, and to the extent allowed by local law, includes all points of view where there are conflicting claims.

Sometimes these factors compete with one another. For example, is localizing a place name inconsistent with Google's mission? What happens when an authoritative references does not seem to represent the truth on the ground? What about when local user expectations don't match international convention, or when local laws prohibit acknowledging regional conflicts? These are questions we continue to think through in our efforts to provide comprehensive, authoritative, free, and, most importantly, useful products for our users.