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Russia's annexation of Crimea won't affect maps, cartographers say

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls his country's annexation of Crimea a done deal. Just don't look for the contested peninsula to appear as Russian turf on mainstream maps soon.

“I don't expect anyone except the cartographers who are working for Russia to go out and change maps,” said Eric Anderson, executive director at the international Cartography and Geographic Information Society, which will meet Downtown in October. “There isn't a nice, clean, simple answer.”

Anderson and other cartographers said many map makers will resist honoring Russia's claim this month to Crimea, part of Ukraine since 1991. Google Maps lists the region as Ukrainian in concert with the Obama administration. The National Geographic Society in Washington identifies it as an area in dispute.

Such high-profile organizations often need for a boundary change to meet specific standards, such as legal recognition by a prescribed number of countries, before they adjust lines on a map, said freelance cartographer Daniel Huffman.

Neither National Geographic nor Google made anyone available for an interview.

Huffman, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his field lacks a universally recognized authority to set standards but looks to respected groups such as National Geographic for guidance.

“People don't understand the inordinate amount of power that cartographers wield in creating reality in the minds of people. Really, what we put on the map is much of what you understand about the world,” said Huffman, the operations director at the Wisconsin-based North American Cartographic Information Society.

NACIS will host its annual meeting Oct. 8-11 in Pittsburgh, just after the South Carolina-based Cartography and Geographic Information Society holds its conference in the city. The gatherings are expected to bring several hundred people and could highlight the dispute in Crimea, where a majority of voters cast ballots on March 16 to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

The referendum occurred as thousands of Russian troops occupied the area. President Obama and other Western leaders sharply condemned Russia for the annexation and refused to honor the vote.

At International Mapping, a cartography firm in Ellicott City, Md., chief cartographer Alex Tait said it's impossible to present a map “that's just facts.”

“There are no maps that are completely without a point of view. Every map has some bias inherent in depicting something that's not an actual image of reality,” he said. “You don't let it prevent you from making maps. You just try to keep it in mind.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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