Magazine article Insight on the News

Charting the World

Magazine article Insight on the News

Charting the World

Article excerpt

National Geographic is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to create an on-demand national map that would become a geological and biological version of MapQuest.

Maps are guides, portents, symbols and dreams. They also are artistic and engineering feats, as cartographers at the National Geographic Society know well. Maps have been an integral part of its operations since the society was founded in 1888, a time when distances were measured largely on foot and mapmaking was done painstakingly by hand.

Cartographers now rely on computers, remote sensing (aerial and satellite imagery) and advanced software known as GIS (Geographic Information System), the latter allowing for display and analysis of data in digital form. National Geographic magazine's first totally computer-generated supplement, a map of Mexico, was done in 1994 -- long ago by technology standards. Indeed, the nature and tools of the cartographer's job have changed dramatically during the last decade.

"Scale measurement is no longer an issue, but time is," says William Stoehr, the society's president of maps. He heads a division that operates out of San Francisco and Evergreen, Colo., as well as the society's headquarters in Washington. "We're blurring the line between the user and the mapmaker. That means people can personalize maps and pull up information that is only relevant to them."

The next big challenge, Stoehr says, is providing map information on demand. "We hear about events in the world, and we want to know where they are happening. How do we create the most authoritative map that meets the needs of the consumer -- at once? If there is a story about some rare alligator in the Costa Rican rain forest, we don't have two years to create a map about the habitat." Not if the society's 7-month-old cable-television channel needs the information the next day.

Nevertheless, a map begins with base information that frequently relies on old-fashioned investigation, Stoehr points out. On-site trips still are necessary, with visits to regional mapping agencies and nonprofit environmental organizations, as well as backpacking treks to key sites. "One of our goals is to see what we can provide to enhance a visitor's experience but also what we can do to preserve the land," Stoehr says.

With today's interactive devices, consumers have access to National Geographic's online Map Machine at machine, as well as at kiosks the society is placing in dozens of retail stores around the country. The Map Machine contains all the plates of National Geographic maps and 200 layers of map information, relying on geographic data from such institutions as the Library of Congress and other federal agencies. The site also includes a map of the planet Mars. Web access is free, but reference and recreation maps printed at in-store sites cost $7.95. For this price, a consumer can walk into an L.L. Bean outlet and print a hiking map "right on the spot," Stoehr states proudly.

The project, carried out in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), hopes to make machines available all across the country within the next two to three years, says Barbara Ryan, whose title of USGS associate director for geography makes her the chief geographer for the United States. USGS also has formed a partnership with Microsoft Corp. to create an online Website, called the TerraServer, available from the USGS home page (, that enables the viewer to look at the country's topography in detail. …

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