Now make a map, they said

Published: July 18, 2018


By Andris Straumanis, George Mason University

This post was originally published April 10, 2018 on the Conflict Culture Research Network blog.

As our group of graduate interns from George Mason University continues to collect and verify data for the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, we now have been given a new task: Think about how best to show the information on a map.

This may not seem to be much of a challenge. How hard can it be to take the latitude and longitude of some museum, plug the data into Google Maps, and show the resulting image on a website? In many respects, the creation and display of maps has become so democratized that anyone can do it. 

In 1957, a cartographer working in California for the U.S. Geological Survey applies adhesive-backed lettering to a topographic map of Miller Peak, Arizona. (U.S. Geological Survey)

However, making an effective map, one that is clear about its purpose and audience, requires thought and time. Many of us no longer have a glove compartment stuffed with folded paper maps picked up from service stations and tourist centers encountered in our travels, but we still rely on the display of geographic information to get us from Point A to Point B. Now the maps are a tap away on our smart phones. If we aren’t traveling, we use maps to visualize some state of affairs about the past the spread of newspapers, present recent earthquakes, or future weather forecasts. It’s no wonder that so many libraries and museums around the world have separate collections devoted to maps. It’s also no wonder that the broad area of “Geo services,” according to a report prepared by Google in 2013, generates $150 billion to $270 billion in global revenue.

The map we are considering will be used by various experts and institutions to understand where cultural repositories, such as museums, are to be found. But with thousands of data points, we need to choose a way of displaying the information that will be easy to navigate and won’t tax computer systems. Some online services limit how much data can be handled at any one time. And throwing a bunch of markers onto a digital map may serve little purpose if the information cannot be readily understood.

Google Maps may seem to be a logical choice for what we are trying to accomplish, but it’s not the only option available in the growing marketplace for geographic services. In the teleconference during which we first discussed our new task, at least half a dozen alternatives were mentioned. Of course, each alternative has its advantages and disadvantages related to factors such as cost, scalability, and whether we interns will have to take a crash course in JavaScript or some other programming language.

I’m looking forward to this phase of our internships, because we now will be making meaning from the data we are gathering. If our map can help preserve cultural artifacts in an area of the world undergoing conflict or natural disaster, it will be worth the effort.