GIS and Territorial Conflicts

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Maps have played a central role in conflicts and conflict resolutions for centuries. In recent periods, the rise of digital mapmaking and GIS specifically have at times complicated conflicts or gave alternative forms of settlement for conflicts.

Using GIS to Map Territories

One aspect of mapping using digital tools and GIS is that content now can be more easily varied or serve the interests of different actors using GIS layers, giving rise to many different voices in a conflict. This can serve to even complicate territorial conflict, as many voices might have to be present in any resolution. A recent study of the use of GIS in different land use planning conflicts has shown that GIS has increased the frequency of conflict between groups and has required more complex conflict resolution approaches in resolving territorial disputes because there are now more stakeholders to consider and different perspectives.[1]

GIS and digital tools have also played a positive role in major recent conflicts. Conflict over territory could be resolved more virtually using a variety of such tools. In the Daytona Accords negotiations that helped to end conflict in the former Yugoslavia, a 3D visualization tool that combined satellite and other imagery, called PowerScene, was used by the US delegation to indicate that a corridor should be given to Gorazde, a largely Muslim town, so as to avoid future conflict in that area.[2]

The perception has been that the use of GIS might be a relatively unbiased way at looking at conflict. However, GIS likely makes it easier for multiple sides to alter reality in conflict and may make it more difficult to determine exact circumstances. Selection bias and measurement validity become important issues to measure in the creation of maps that best represent conflict. For measurement validity, this can be overcome by only providing datasets that are easily measurable or can be empirically observed. For selection bias, analytical solutions could be used in place of empirical or spatial locations of borders. In this case, the analysis can be done or assessed without certain knowledge of where borders are. If bias is found, then that data are removed irrespective of the border locations that could be represented by an analytical set. This can be done using raster representation of borders, for instance.[3]

From: Chen, J., Li, R., Dong, W., Ge, Y., Liao, H., & Cheng, Y. (2015). GIS-based borderlands modeling and understanding: A perspective. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 4(2), 661-676.
From: Chen, J., Li, R., Dong, W., Ge, Y., Liao, H., & Cheng, Y. (2015). GIS-based borderlands modeling and understanding: A perspective. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 4(2), 661-676.

While biases in data are apparent with the use of GIS, one benefit of GIS is that it can also dispel longstanding myths about conflict. In an analysis  of territorial disputes and conflicts between states from 1947-2000, it was shown that areas where there are oil deposits often do not have oil as the main reason for creating conflict. Rather, GIS and fine-scale analysis made it possible to indicate that territorial changes and conflict generally occurred in areas outside of such major resources. In effect, territorial conflict often has other underlying reasons, including historical factors.[4]

Mapping Tools for Tracking Conflict

Tools have also been developed to track conflicts across time and space. One such tool is GeoEPR, or a geocoded version of the Ethnic Power Relations. The tool provides different coding for conflicts spanning 1946 and later. The focus is on groups of people involved in conflict, rather than trying to be representational of all possible groups. This makes the wide possibilities of data represented in the tool more minimized, helping to address the sometimes confusing nature of conflict mapping, where too many actors might be included. Major changes are also recorded as data are encoded through time, where group values and map data change. From this geodatabase, it was determined that major armed conflicts are significantly affected by territorial disputes, much more so than other factors such as government disputes.[5]

Territorial conflicts and mapping have had a close relationship long before GIS emerged. However, what is different now is that we see GIS also affecting outcomes and conflict resolution. Understanding space and the fact GIS gives voice to many parties has reshaped territorial conflicts and potentially how they can be resolved.


[1] For more on issues that GIS may create in territorial conflicts, see: Dawwas, E. (2014). The evolution of GIS as a land use planning conflict resolution tool: A chronological approach. American Journal of Geographic Information Systems, 3(1), 38-44.

[2] For more on the use of spatial and digital tools for conflicts and conflict resolution, see:  Branch, J. (2017). Territorial Conflict in the Digital Age: Mapping Technologies and Negotiation. International Studies Quarterly, 61(3), 557–569.

[3] For more on ways to resolve problems in using GIS and spatial tools in territorial conflict, see:  Branch, J. (2016). Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in International Relations. International Organization, 70(4), 845–869.

[4] For more on how GIS can be used to assess the role of natural resources in conflict, see:  Schultz, K. A. (2017). Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict: A New Data Set and Applications. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(7), 1565–1590.

[5] For more on territorial conflicts and GIS using GeoEPR, see: Wucherpfennig, J., Weidmann, N. B., Girardin, L., Cederman, L.-E., & Wimmer, A. (2011). Politically Relevant Ethnic Groups across Space and Time: Introducing the GeoEPR Dataset. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 28(5), 423–437.

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