ICC Programming

Digital Humanities

6705.2 - Collectively Mapping Syria's Borders

Thursday, July 6
4:30 PM - 4:50 PM
Location: Virginia C

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls the ongoing Syrian conflict “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” Since 2011, over 4.8 million individuals have fled across borders throughout the region and further abroad into Europe. Individual and aggregated refugee stories have been extensively mapped by Western media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Geographic. In traditional maps, including those produced by the aforementioned media outlets, borders conventionally appear as thin, solid, black lines.

In reality, borders are messy. They are dynamic and continuously evolving. Borders are not homogenous as each border has varying geopolitical implications at any given moment. Borders often tighten and relax allowing some to enter and not others forcing many to smuggle across. Cartographers typically draw borders in two dimensions: lines for the border itself and points for border crossing sites. Borders are often described, but not mapped, as areas and zones of transitional control. Last, individuals experience borders in distinctive ways. Men and women, the young and old, those alone and those in groups, often have very unique and individualized border experiences. Young men, for example, are frequently considered security risks and are less likely to cross Syria’s borders legally. Women—especially women with children—are more likely to cross even though women’s perceived safety is often heightened. As such, the solid black line does not accurately portray the complexities of borders and border experiences.

I conducted a series of interviews with Syrian refugees and humanitarian workers in the spring of 2015 and developed an alternative mapping technique to remap Syria’s borders based on my interviewees’ experiences and perspectives (http://mappingborders.github.io/). My technique, however, is just one solution for rethinking and remapping borders and so, I turned to the cartographic community to continue this exploration of border symbolization.

In October 2015, I asked North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) attendees in Minneapolis, MN to collectively remap Syria’s borders based on excerpts from my 2015 interviews. Participants were given one of six notebooks and various colored pens. Each notebook page had a blank space for drawing, a locator map, and a quote from one of my interviewees—Adiba and Mohammed. My instructions asked participants to sketch a new border symbol based on either Adiba's or Mohammed’s description of the border through his or her personal experience or perspective. I collated and digitized these 50 collected sketches. After analyzing the cartographic techniques and visual variables utilized by NACIS attendees, I created a composite representation of Syria combining participant sketches and techniques (available at http://meghankelly-cartography.github.io/finalproj.html).

The final alternative map nudges cartography forward by asking cartographers to collectively rethink borders and their symbolization. By focusing on border symbolization, participants—myself included—collectively expanded our visualization and cartographic vocabulary to better reflect the experiences of those crossing and interacting with borders. My brief analysis of the visual variables opens new questions and opportunities for further analysis. Additionally, it is my hope that this collective mosaic calls attention to the Syrian conflict and those most affected by rethinking “the line.”

Meghan Kelly

Graduate Student and Project Assistant
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Meghan Kelly is a cartographer, doctoral student, and project assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Department of Geography. She received her master's degree from the University of Kansas in 2015. Her research is influenced by critical and feminist perspectives in cartography and intersects border studies, experiential mapping, and visual storytelling.


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John Kostelnick

Associate Professor
Illinois State University

John Kostelnick is an Associate Professor of Geography and Director of GEOMAP at Illinois State University in the United States of America. His research interests include geovisualization, cartographic symbolization and design, crisis and humanitarian relief mapping, and cultural mapping.


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6705.2 - Collectively Mapping Syria's Borders

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