all eyes on North Korea

Though stringent border security and diplomatic isolation may give North Korea the reputation of a “hermit kingdom,” geospatial technology allows Westerners, from the comfort of their personal computers, to view past the smiling gymnasts of the Pyongyang Mass Games and explore the workings of the world’s most secretive society. An initiative called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth as a platform for mapping North Korea’s features- from power lines to government offices to forced labor camps. Since it launched in May 2007, the project has added features successively to their publicly-available map. The latest version, released in June 2009, contains thousands of point, line, and polygon features sorted into dozens of layer categories and hundreds of subcategories. As a mashup, the project maintains active links between locations on the map and online information resources; for example, at the mapped entrance to Labor Camp 15, users can click on a link to a Youtube video containing footage of the camp.

To supplement Google Earth’s remotely sensed images of North Korea (most of which come from SPOT), the project matches higher-resolution aerial photos and maps to the ground layer of satellite imagery. For instance, see the image embedded below containing a high-resolution photo of Camp 15 matched to the SPOT satellite graphic.

The creators of the project are receptive to user-contributed content. Because very few members of the general public have access to information on North Korea, most information comes from self-selecting experts including former members of the US military, political researchers, and North Korean expatriates. Curtis Melvin, who began the project, cross-checks all submitted information to maintain the site’s credibility and accuracy. Information is contributed to the system in a method known as “crowd sourcing.” When the project was launched, the directors posted it on relevant websites in an effort to attract attention and information from the “crowd,” or unidentified public. The submitted information becomes the property of the project itself, rather than the submitter. Many nonprofit internet information projects use this same model, as do many private businesses (which sometimes even offer financial rewards for information submissions). The key uniqueness and power of crowd sourcing is that, by encouraging any member of the informed public to contribute their knowledge, valuable information can come from sources the project organizers would never have known to consult.

The implications of a project like “North Korea Uncovered” shake our notions of power structure in the age of the Internet. Thanks to the simple technique of crowd sourcing and the knowledge of scattered members of the public, anybody with access to the Internet can view information which a totalitarian regime has dedicated itself to restricting. However, questions must be drawn to Google’s role in disseminating and controlling such information. With its history of catering to China’s demands on restricting information, can users rely on Google Earth to provide a groundwork for information sharing of a controversial nature? If a similar project called “The US Army Uncovered” were initiated by members of the public to investigate conditions at US war prisons, would Google make its system equally available to their use? It is ironic that in this age of information overload, crowd sourcing, and public data sharing via the Internet, we still rely on either private corporations or government agencies, in spite of their priorities or agendas, to provide us mediums for information exchange such as Digital Earths and search engines.

From JL, Intro GIS

2 Responses to “all eyes on North Korea”

  1. NKeconWatch says:

    Google just updated a tremendous amount of imagery from North Korea. The Yodok Camp (featured in your blog post) is now visible on Google Earth. Now I am very busy making updates.



  2. sieber says:

    thanks. my students may be interested in adding some content.