- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

Brigitta Urban-Mathieux can make a map out of almost anything.

In 13 years working at the United States Geological Survey in the Department of Interior, Ms. Urban-Mathieux has mapped the rate of crime in neighborhoods near airports as well as the invasion pattern of zebra mussels in Eastern states.

"Much of the statistical information collected by the federal government can be mapped," she says.

Last year, for instance, Ms. Urban-Mathieux headed the team of cartographers mapping the spread of the West Nile virus throughout the United States. The mapmakers worked with data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ability to create such maps quickly is the result of the use of computers, tools that have developed and improved since Ms. Urban-Mathieux first joined the USGS.

Then, her job entailed what one would first think of when trying to picture a mapmaker: She etched maps by looking at photographs of places.

But computers have made even the most demanding jobs routine, and what was once done by hand is all digitized today. So rather than etching maps, the cartographer takes statistics from different federal agencies, picks the more interesting ones, and directs her computer to spread the data at given points and in different colors. Thus are born maps.

Ms. Urban-Mathieux has risen through the ranks at USGS to head the National Atlas project. Once a monstrously large, heavy, leather-bound volume, the last edition of the Atlas was issued in 1973. Now the book is going out of print, moving to cyberspace, and growing.

Going online is good for the atlas because it will become accessible to more people, says Ms. Urban-Mathieux. The book cost $100 when it was first published, and its price has gone up nearly four times since then.

To update existing maps and create new ones, the cartographer and her team work with some 20 other federal agencies that provide them with graphics and statistics. The mapmakers then figure out the best way to translate the numbers into shapes, and how to present the data in the simplest way.

The big map in question right now is one on storms, for which the mapmaker is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ms. Urban-Mathieux received the data in 35 files last week. Each file, through lines and dots, portrays all storms that developed between 1861 and 2000.

This week she is deciding which storms to spotlight on the site, and what information to disclose about them. She says the information provided by NOAA was "pretty good," but she's requested that they send facts to go with the graphics.

This way, aside from posting online a map of a storm, Ms. Urban-Mathieux and her colleagues can also teach users of the National Atlas about the difference between a cyclone, a tropical storm and a hurricane. She explains that it's all based on the wind speed.

On a typical day, the cartographer arrives to the USGS campus in Reston at 6:30 a.m. She carpools with her husband, a geologist who works a floor above her at the same agency, from their home in Centreville, Va.

She spends a couple of hours answering e-mail, a part of her job she really enjoys. The questions come from any number of people interested in maps, from a group of friends trying to determine the historical temperature of a particular river for the weekend so that they can go kayaking, to school children needing direction for their geography-related projects.

This week she has been corresponding with fellow cartographers about projects the agency just approved for next year.

She has also been spending a lot of time in meetings, as the National Atlas is considering redesigning its Web site and various departments within USGS are brainstorming together.

Ms. Urban-Mathieux admits to having always been fascinated by maps. But she didn't consider building a career around them until she took a geography course in college and fell in love with the spatial science.

"I took a really cool class in college. And that is the unromantic story," she says of how she became a cartographer.

Originally a math and science major at Fredericksburg's Mary Washington College, where she met her husband, Ms. Urban-Mathieux quickly switched to geography and eventually got a Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina.

"Geography is just so real," she says. "And it's fun; It touches so many fields."

Once out of college, she chose the USGS over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is the other main employer for cartographers. She preferred the "less secretive nature" of USGS.

"There's so much data out there that needs to be more available," says Ms. Urban-Mathieux. "Agencies just don't know how to make that data available."

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