A georeferenced image of a NOAA Bathymetric chart overlaid on a GIS shapefile of area coastlines.
As a National Geographic GIS Cartographer, people frequently inquire whether I get to travel to gather the data we use on our maps. I suppose National Geographic still evokes those romantic images of cartographers out in the field collecting information. While there are still plenty of people here at National Geographic exploring the globe, we cartographers, unfortunately, don’t travel too often, and hardly ever in search of data. But I’m not complaining (much).
We are lucky to live in a time when geographic data is more readily available than ever before. And in digital cartography, data is king. Every project we undertake requires a mountain of data, and when preparing our base maps we use a variety of sources. First, we look to our own NG Maps digital cartographic databases which we have compiled from our 100 plus years of map-making. Next, we look to access GIS files online, or if necessary, we contact the country in question to get the most relevant and up-to-date data. Most federal governments and many state and administrative entities maintain extensive digital GIS warehouses. These databases contain roads, rivers, towns, boundaries, and much more – all of the data needed to create a political reference map. Sometimes, though, this still isn’t enough data, especially for places which haven’t been mapped recently, such as Cuba.
Every map project that we have is unique, and Cuba was no exception. Due to its political structure, there is no publicly available GIS data from the government of Cuba. Therefore, we had to look at readily available hard-copy sources to construct our map. Next, we mixed traditional cartographic reference methods (multiple paper maps) with powerful GIS tools to create a relevant map of Cuba. One of the often overlooked, but most useful tools available with GIS is the ability to georeference images. Essentially, georeferencing is simply matching an image to a location using latitude and longitude. Using multiple georeferenced points to improve accuracy, we were able to digitize all of our paper sources. So now, rather than having bulky paper maps spread out in piles beside their workstations, the Edit and Production team could easily turn on and off these image layers on their computer screens to quickly reference tons of info on Cuba (the image below shows a NOAA Bathymetric map lining up to the blue coastline of Cuba). So basically, the beauty of digital cartography is being able to combine old methods with new technologies to create a unique product even when data isn’t readily available.
Having so many tools and datasets available at our fingertips makes it an exciting time to be a cartographer. Although what would be even more exciting would be a trip to Cuba!
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