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Google Maps Dragged Into Border Dispute

A line of pixels drawn by Google Maps between the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica is being used as an excuse in an old territorial dispute.

Late last week, Google acknowledged the problem, indicating that mapping information from the U.S. Department of state used to draw the border in Google Maps was incorrect. Charlie Hale, a geo-policy analyst, wrote in a Google blog that "we determined that there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers. The U.S. Department of State has provided a corrected version and we are now working to update our maps."

The dispute concerns the borderline traced along the San Juan River for the most part. The river is considered to be Nicaraguan territory, except for the south bank, which is Costa Rican, according to a history by blogger Stephan Geens. The dispute flared up after Nicaraguan troops occupied disputed lands along the river.

In March, Carlos Roverssi, Costa Rica's deputy foreign minister, told La Nación that Costa Rica had sent a note to Google to correct the map, which differs from the official documents, he said.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega told the Tico Times this month that the river has been drying up and shifting northward and that Costa Rica has been grabbing territory as a consequence. Nicaragua has a dredging operation in place to restore the flow of the river to its original course.

The Organization of American States is now engaged in the matter. However, José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the OAS, will only serve "to promote dialogue," according to an OAS announcement.

Microsoft's Bing Maps offers another tracing of the border, but Geens contends that it too, like that of Google Maps, is wrong.

"A cursory glance shows that Bing's border does not accurately follow the course of Río San Juan. For a good 10km stretch, Bing actually gives Nicaragua both banks of the river, but at the same time grants several coastal islands to Costa Rica. This is because the dataset is not detailed enough to withstand a close-up."

Microsoft essentially agreed with that view, in a released statement.

"Our data in this area is accurate, but lacks detail at lower zoom levels, creating a scale error," a Microsoft spokesperson said via e-mail. "At higher zoom levels it's clear that the river is the boundary. We look to acquire more detailed data in the future." The spokesperson explained that when it comes to determining geopolitical borders in Bing Maps, Microsoft refers to "the practices and opinions of the international community and independent academic and research organizations to determine if a significant international consensus exists."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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