- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

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 magazine first appeared 111 years ago, 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 development allows for display and analysis of data in digital form to help prepare magazine page maps, double-sided supplements, atlases, globes, charts and books.
National Geographic magazine's first totally computer-generated supplement, a map of Mexico, was done in 1994 long ago in technology's terms. In the past decade, the nature and scope of the cartographer's job has changed along with his tools.
"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 publication's headquarters on 17th Street NW.
"We're blurring the line between the user and the mapmaker," he explains. "That means people can personalize maps and pull up information that is only relevant to them. With computers, they can make modifications to the map.
"The big challenge ahead is being able to provide the information that people want, when and where they want to receive it. We hear about events in the world, and we want to know where they are happening. With CNN, it is instant. 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."
Especially not if the institution's 7-month-old cable-television channel needs the information for the next day.
A map begins with base information that frequently is not digital, Mr. Stoehr says. On-site visits still occur. He laid the groundwork for the creation of a so-called recreation or adventure map about Costa Rica by visiting the country to find out what information was available locally from the national mapping agency and nonprofit environmental organizations also mapping the area. Then, backpack at the ready, he visited some key sites, taking along only a standard map of Central America.
"One of our goals is to see what we can provide to enhance a visitor's experience, but also what can we do to preserve the land," he says.
The Costa Rica map, which will take two years to complete, uses the services of a partnering company in Hyderabad, India, to compile and manipulate data before the National Geographic's Colorado office does the final editorial and graphic work. Information is transmitted across the world by Internet and Federal Express.
Magazine maps take considerably less time, but both procedures, Mr. Stoehr says, involve some interchange with an outside organization. If National Geographic works with a university or federal agency, for instance, the latter might get the digital files created by the organization.
With today's interactive devices, consumers have access to National Geographic's online Map Machine (www.nationalgeographic.com/mapmachine) and to Map Machines in kiosks the society is placing in dozens of retail stores around the country.
The Web access is free. Reference and recreation maps printed at in-store kiosks give more detailed, personalized information and cost $7.95. 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 many federal agencies. The site also includes a map of the planet Mars.
That means a consumer can walk into L.L. Bean and the National Geographic Society's store on 17th Street (closed for renovation until Sept. 14) and "print a [regional] hiking map right on the spot," Mr. Stoehr states proudly.
The project, being done in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, has the goal of getting 100 percent of the country on the machines 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 Web site, called the TerraServer, available from the USGS home page (www.usgs.gov). It enables the viewer to look at the country's topography in detail.
Information gathered by USGS, the ultimate authority on U.S. names, boundaries and surface areas, is in the public domain, but much of it is out of date, Ms. Ryan concedes. The average age of its 55,000 standard topographical maps is 23 years, and some are as old as 50 years, as updating priorities are somewhat erratic. Government agencies using USGS data ideally would like information to be no older than seven days, she notes.
"While topographical markings don't change that rapidly, we are seeing transportation and housing patterns change with urban growth," Ms. Ryan says.
To this end, USGS has put forward for public comment a proposal called the National Map, which Ms. Ryan says is "a digital file that would be updated in real time." The project, which would take an estimated 10 years to complete, can be reviewed on the agency's Web site or more directly at https://nationalmap.usgs.gov.
"It's going to be a tremendous undertaking," she says, "because it would mean negotiating partnerships with all 50 states and then have states negotiate with their local governments to integrate data seamlessly across boundaries, watersheds, congressional districts, etc. Key research aspects will have to be worked out with universities as well."
Its value, Ms. Ryan says, would be creating a framework, a base map, upon which those studying water, geological and biological resource could superimpose their own data, and "that way you will start to see connections in real time that would have taken years to make." She calls it "a kind of base layer similar to MapQuest."
MapQuest, a Web program, gives people directions for any destination on the country's roadways.
"Not too many years ago, we didn't think at all beyond printed maps," says Allen Carroll, National Geographic's director of cartography, who describes his position as "the fun job of taking on hundreds and hundreds of subject areas anything from world languages to lions in Asia with each project having its own special challenges.
"Today we have whole lines of products on the Internet and on CD-ROM, but we also are thinking more and more why should people buy a map printed months ago when they can ask for a map printed instantaneously for them with information that might have been updated minutes ago and not months ago," he says.
"Everybody thinks the map of the world is completely done, and that is just not the case. Even a decent base map of the world isn't done," Mr. Carroll says, citing the example of a recent shuttle radar mapping mission paid for by the Department of Defense to take elevation measurements for almost all the land surface of the Earth. "Just this week, some of the first information became available," he reports enthusiastically.
"Sure people tend to know where cities and towns and highways are, but do they know in detail what the ocean floor is like? Where the ranges of all animals and plant species are? On top of that, the world is changing. You almost need to map it again," Mr. Carroll says.
To stay current, a group of four cartographers — there are 60 on National Geographic's staff — meets monthly to resolve questions of proper identification brought about by political changes and territorial disputes. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 required no fewer than six different printings of the magazine's world map in a one-year period.
"And that was back when changes of scale had to be made by hand," Mr. Carroll says.
Neither Mr. Stoehr nor Mr. Carroll appears worried that digital technology will replace the thrill of holding in one's hand a globe or an old-fashioned paper map.
"New media don't tend to eclipse the old," Mr. Carroll says. "They just sort of add on and reinforce one another. We would like to think the Map Machine helps us sell maps rather than take sales away."


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