Revolution #12: New Year, New Boundaries

As we start the New Year, we will take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about the ever changing state of political boundaries.

I work on the GeoBoundaries team, where I come across all kinds of fun facts about the world we live in. I get to decide (or defer to source data) which areas belong to which countries in what level of administrative division. I also have to monitor all parts of the globe for changes to already existing boundaries.

Sometimes border changes bring mass hardship (re: the dissolution of Yugoslavia), and sometimes they can be done in a peaceful manner.

On January 1st, Belgium and the Netherlands finally made a border swap that had been negotiated over the past 3 years. The area on both sides of the river Meuse, running between the countries, had been a tense point of political divide. It is seen as an “area of lawlessness” because neither country can decide who has jurisdiction. After the discovery of a headless body in 2015, the two countries decided to swap some land to clear up the jurisdiction issues.

New borders shown by the Washington Post

Under the new terms, the Netherlands gained ~40 acres of land while Belgium gained only ~8 acres. Because there isn’t a central database (yet) that automatically updates spatial data relating to country boundaries, all future calculations and analyses of Belgium and the Netherlands will be slightly wrong, until the boundaries data is corrected.

This screenshot of Google Maps was taken 1/11/18, 10 days after the border swap, still showing the old borders.

This is one of the most mind numbing aspects of studying geographic boundaries. As much as you try, data will never describe territorial divisions perfectly accurate. Even in the United States, divisions change. Just this week, a federal court ruled North Carolina’s congressional districts as unconstitutional, citing gerrymandering. Once North Carolina redraws its districts, we have to update our data showing the change.

The bottom line: territorial and political divisions are not permanent and really really hard to pinpoint. While sometimes petty, the area belonging to a country can have huge implications, affecting economic ties, crime levels, and political administration. As providers of quality data, we have to delineate data by the correct boundaries. It’s our fun job to figure out what that actually entails.

About the author: Leigh Seitz