Revolution #6: Boundaries and Why They Matter

Today’s revolution focuses on an upcoming project at GeoQuery, the GeoBoundaries team, and dives into why administrative divisions aren’t boring and actually matter!

Every place in the world has some sort of administrative hierarchy. I live in the 23236 zip code, which is located in Chesterfield County, in the state of Virginia, within the United States of America. That’s my locational hierarchy, down to the third level of administrative division. Administrative divisions originally referenced how a country is governed. The national level of government is typically referred to as ADM0, as it is the extent of the entire country. In the U.S., we have state governments, which are known as the first order of administrative division, or ADM1. Next, we have county/city governments, or second order of administrative division, broken down to ADM2. Every country has some hierarchy like this, whether it’s determined by government ruling, statistical purposes, urban planning, or simply based on how communities formed where people live. These divisions can all be summed up in one term: boundaries.

The jargon gets funky when talking about boundaries: boundaries are the same as divisions, but administrative is not the same as statistical. Provinces can mean the same division as regions, but regions can also be a higher division than provinces. Not every country has states, like the United States, but some countries have regions (ADM1) broken into states (ADM2). Confused yet?

While these divisions are not present in mind every day, they are really important for academics, governments, and organizations alike to know and understand. In a democratic society, can you imagine how hard it would to map every individual’s voting preferences in the lead up to an election? Mapping political preferences on a county or state level creates better visualizations of large data. This problem is not isolated to political mapping, though.

In international development studies, it’s really daunting to map poverty levels of an entire country based on household surveys taken on the micro level. It’s easier to quantify how much aid goes to a specific location on a district level than an individual level- cue the need for researchers to have access to this data. National statistics offices typically house these boundaries, but for some reason don’t always like to share them! Now don’t get me wrong, some countries (like South Africa), are really good at sharing boundary data! Some government derived geoportals house geographic information datasets for anyone to download and use in their own research. Great, right? That makes our job so much easier! But then there are some countries (like North Korea) that don’t want you to have access to any of their data- even if it’s as simple as the extent of their country.

This is where GeoBoundaries comes in. A new student-led project at AidData, GeoBoundaries is creating an openly sourced and licensed spatial dataset of administrative boundary data from all over the world. We are scouring the internet for any and every openly sourced piece of information regarding how a country is split up. We believe that everyone should have free access to the boundaries of the world- for the sake of research and personal knowledge. This search has led to some interesting realizations, like that part of Belgium is actually inside the extent of the Netherlands, and that Kazakhstan leases an entire city (Baikonur) to Russia for its space program.

More to come on the weird ways geography is shared between countries, but looking at the world in terms of how it’s divided is a very contemplative thing to do. Who decides what neighborhoods make up what county? Why are there so many different names for ADM1s? How do communities form and create new boundaries? There are even differences between where a government decides there is a boundary line and where its citizens think it lies. The drawing of boundaries leads to some very real territorial disputes- the most famous case is between Israel and Palestine. Don’t even get me started on gerrymandering, but there are many more unresolved disputes among the world regarding who falls into what line and where. And all for what? To say that I’m a part of this country, and you’re not?

At the end of the day, we’re all people living on one patch of the earth trying to survive- so what does it matter where we belong? The short answer is that it matters for researchers and governments, but on a more philosophical level, why does it really matter? Boundaries are really important, and there’s so much to explore with this topic. As I search to find the accuracy of how many sectors make up Brazil, I am always searching for the true meaning in how this world is split up. I don’t think I’ll find an answer, but it’s a start.

About the author: Leigh Seitz