Expert voices Vol 21, No. 08 - August 2017

Geographical names: why do they matter?

Whether travelling to one of the world’s 1,017 places called San Francisco or delivering disaster relief to the feet of Sagarmatha – also known as Qomolangma, Shengmu Feng and Mount Everest – standardized geographical names can mean the difference between “lost in translation” and getting lost. As the UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (UNCSGN) turns 50 this month, we sat down with Cecille Blake of UN DESA’s Statistics Division who told us, why names of places are important for sustainable development.

Why are geographical names important in our development efforts?

“Wherever we go in the world and whatever we do – walking around town, looking up a telephone number, surfing the internet, reading a recipe book or shopping for new clothes – we encounter names of places. They surround us, providing us not only with a sense of place but also with a means of finding our way about, searching for information and organizing the world we live in. For all of us, a place name is a reference point of our language and our identity.

Names of places and features are vital keys to existing in our digital world. They are an indispensable component of many geographically organized information systems – such as Waze, and Pokemon-Go. They enable politicians and managers to integrate digital data sets into every sector of business and government.

Accurate and standardized geographical names are more than just letters on a map; they are a fundamental means of communication, helping cooperation among local, national and international organizations.

Geographical names are also used by a wide range of administrative and planning agencies such as statistics for population and census planning, and development programs. Essentially, they provide a country with technical, economic, social and cultural benefits.”

How does the work of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) contribute to promoting social, economic and sustainable development?

“Datasets of geographical names are vital to supporting humanitarian aid, protection of life and property, responses to climate change, health issues and food provision, urban planning, infrastructure development, tourism, promoting indigenous rights and reconciliation and many more.

The UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names has been successfully encouraging Member States to take charge of their own geographical names and share lists of officially approved names with the public. The Group has also provided training in management of geographical names (toponomy) and issued standardization guidelines in addition to a host of other publications of reference.

The Experts’ Group supported such development initiatives as the United Nations Second Administrative Level Boundaries project and the UN Habitat-led street naming, which helped urban slum-dwellers gain a sense of identity and empower them to improve slum infrastructure.”

What would happen if we did not have standardized geographical names?

“It may seem trivial when an airline passenger confuses Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. with Dallas in Texas or when they arrive in Sydney in Canada’s Nova Scotia instead of Sydney, Australia. However, it is not trivial when duplication or lack of clearly recorded and easily available names result in confused instructions to emergency services, who cannot reach people in time.

Without standardized names, it is challenging to respond to crises. For example, following the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, little data was available on affected communities and their locations, hampering the efficient delivery of disaster relief.

In Somalia, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has reported that the duplication, repetition and lack of standardized names for communities adversely affected resource use, security and decision-making in providing humanitarian aid.

To improve communication between peoples, countries and cultures, we need standardization of geographical names. At the national level, names standardization involves the selection of the most appropriate names in their written form, based on principles, policies and procedures established by the names authority in that country.

Worldwide, geographical names standards, such as the ones for converting a different writing system to the Latin script (Romanization), are equally important.

A national standardization programme saves time and money by increasing operational efficiency at all levels of government, industry, commerce and education.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this UNCSGN. How will this milestone be celebrated?

“The Statistics Division of UN DESA has been convening the UN Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names (UNCSGN) every five years since 1967.

The upcoming conference, which will be held in New York from 8 to 17 August, will celebrate the achievements and major milestones of the past 50 years with a special exhibition. It will also include presentations from the Expert Group’s Bureau members and Divisional Chairs on their achievements and contribution to the standardization of names.

Former and current experts, who have been instrumental in advancing the Group’s work, will be recognized and – importantly – the delegates will reflect on the future work and operations of the Group.”

For more information:

11th UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, including the agenda, technical reports and webcast

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