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Google: Naming Water Is Complicated

Google Earth rides tide of debate over water names

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Territorial claims and historical precedent makes applying a name to a body of water in Google Earth a challenging deluge.

We don’t think about water very much, unless it’s pouring again as it did through much of the late winter and early spring. Google thinks about water frequently, due to the success and adoption of its Google Earth program.

The software takes the user on a flight to points around the world. Since water covers a big percentage of our home planet, people will encounter bodies of water of all sizes while traveling around the Google Earth interface.

Andrew McLaughlin wrote on the always-interesting Google Public Policy blog how naming a humble little sea may drown one in controversy. Geopolitics, it seems, has an active and emotional human component.

Navigating these turbulent seas means using a mechanism to name a body of water as fairly as possible. Said McLaughlin:

As the publishers of a geographic reference tool, we believe that Google should not choose sides in international geopolitical disputes. For this reason, we’ve chosen to implement a uniform policy of Primary Local Usage.

Under this policy, the English Google Earth client displays the primary, common, local name(s) given to a body of water by the sovereign nations that border it. If all bordering countries agree on the name, then the common single name is displayed (e.g. “Caribbean Sea” in English, “Mar Caribe” in Spanish, etc.). But if different countries dispute the proper name for a body of water, our policy is to display both names, with each label placed closer to the country or countries that use it.

Additionally, Google Earth carries extra information about bodies of water where relevant. Clicking a text box reveals the bonus details available.

The search advertising company considered other ways of determining names for bodies of water, but found them lacking. Google rejected the UN’s Cartographic Section as not detailed enough, while deeming the use of academics as sources as “fraught with likely bias.”

Of course, anyone who feels Google is all wet when it comes to naming water may create a layer for Google Earth with the names they consider appropriate, and use it themselves.

Google: Naming Water Is Complicated
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