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A good map is (easy) to find

High-tech tools help cartographers keep up with a rapidly changingworld

The seventh edition of National Geographic's Atlas of the World just rolled off the presses: It's big. It's high-gloss gorgeous. And it's already out of date.

But its editors aren't losing any sleep. For this atlas is also linked to a new Web site, where boundaries can be redrawn or countries created with a few key strokes.

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Just a week after their Oct. 27 atlas launch, National Geographic cartographers and editors huddled over piles of maps to decide whether East Timor should lose its yellow tint.

"The last time we talked about this, Indonesian forces had not relinquished control," says David Miller, senior map editor. "Now the United Nations has taken over administration, and that should be reflected in our products as soon as possible."

At one time, "as soon as possible" could mean nine years - or as long as it took to issue a new atlas. (When a united Germany announced its capital in 1990, editors stopped the presses of the sixth edition and reprinted millions of pages to shift Bonn's star to Berlin.) Today, to strip East Timor of its color link to Indonesia on the Internet atlas takes only a few seconds.

"The Web site creates wonderful new avenues for us to tell our stories," says John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society (NGS). "It's liberating for us as a publisher."

In its first week, the map site had demands of up to 200 requests a second. It's giving the king of coffee-table books a vast new reach - and making maps an even more powerful tool for learning.

Maps have guided human migrations for centuries, and also shaped views of the world. When Europeans made maps, Europe was the center of the world, for example. Now, new satellite imagery and digital technology are democratizing the business of mapmaking. In the process, they're opening new and more accurate ways to see the world.

"Much of this mapping information wasn't available to the general public anywhere," says M. Ford Cochran, who produces the map site (

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"Having this information available will make it easier to be informed and encourage curiosity among those who

haven't been [curious] about the world," he adds.

A directory of Atlas updates will be available online in the next few weeks. The first update is the expansion of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado and its change in status from National Monument to National Park. Atlas owners are urged to "Print this patch, and, if you desire, cut it out and paste or tape it onto plate 39, K-11 of your Seventh Edition Atlas of the World." (Editors quip that the $125 atlas should have come with its own pot of paste.)

In the next months, editors will be adding teachers guides and educational games, as well as new data layers and higher resolution satellite imagery to make the site more interactive and useful. By the end of the year, visitors to the map site will be able to go from a world view right down to the streets of neighborhoods in the United States or Europe, editors say.

In addition, visitors can customize the new digital atlas by using various data layers to get a more complete view of a situation. For example, earthquake information is updated every 15 minutes on the map site. And researchers can call up maps showing population densities, land use, roads and rails, and plate tectonics, as well as the location of recent quakes.

"Not too many years ago, maps were pretty passive things. Maps used to be nouns, suddenly they've become active verbs," says Allen Carroll, NGS's chief cartographer.

Quick feedback in digital world

The easy access to new information also encourages quick feedback. An early e-mail from a reader in Stockholm complains that the new atlas designates Jerusalem as Israel's capital, instead of Tel Aviv, which is the capital recognized by the the United Nations and the US State Department. "This is to me pretty odd," the reader writes.

The National Geographic Society's map policy committee doesn't take long to agree to a response. It will abide by National Geographic's longstanding policy to show de facto situations on all maps.

"A political map cannot explain the past histories of nations. It cannot take sides on disputes concerning the rightness or wrongness of controlling factions over sites or regions. It cannot acknowledge the recognition or nonrecognition of one nation for another. All a map can accomplish is the actual portrayal of sovereignty as it exists now," writes project manager Juan Valdes, who drafted a response for the committee. "If you go to Israel today and ask directions to the national capital, you will be told to go to Jerusalem."

Regional sensitivities

But there are many not-so-obvious calls to be made as the committee works through its first post-atlas agenda. Some questions involve regional sensitivities, such as: Should a new map for the Korean market change the name of the Sea of Japan?

"Koreans see the [label] Sea of Japan as rewarding past Japanese imperialism. It's very important to them," notes Mr. Miller.

Discussion turns on whether there's any precedent for the alternative name, the East Sea. (Yes, NGS researchers located antique maps prior to the 18th century that used East Sea.) And would such a name change be very sensitive to the Japanese? In the end, the question is set aside for further investigation.

Another long-running issue is whether the NGS should adopt the practice of many in the scientific community of designating waters around the South Pole as "the Southern Ocean." Such a term is helpful in describing the ecosystem, but cartographers worry that it's tough to define where the Southern Ocean ends and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans begin.

"The problem is that no matter which scientist you talk to, no one agrees on the boundaries," says Mr. Valdes. "If it becomes an accepted entity, it changes every number we have, including the number of oceans." The Southern Ocean question also lands in the "to be continued" pile. (The Seventh Edition of the Oxford Atlas of the World, released this month, adopted the term "Southern Ocean.")

In fact, judgment calls are involved in almost every feature on a map, from scale and projection to choice of colors, symbols, and subjects for maps. And in the field of cartography, the decisions made in the offices of the National Geographic Society carry special weight.

"The role of the National Geographical (sic) Society reflected an institutional dominance in the USA that was not matched in some other countries," writes Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, in a recent book, "Maps and Politics" (The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Professor Black and others have criticized the NGS in the past for using map projections that exaggerate the size of the temperate latitudes, especially Greenland, Alaska, Canada, and the former Soviet Union. The Van der Grinten projection, which was used by the NGS from 1922 to 1998, became the standard in schools, the news media, and government.

"In that projection, a large USSR appeared menacing, a threat to the whole of Eurasia, and a dominant presence in the world that required containment. It was a cartographic image appropriate for the cold war," writes Black.

The Winkel Tripel projection used in the latest edition National Geographic atlas goes a long way toward correcting such distortions. First presented in 1921, it has been used in various European atlases.

New projections challenge the way people understand the world, and NGS officials insist that they want to be at the forefront of those changes.

"We've been the window to the world for people all over the world," says NGS's Fahey. When we were set up 112 years ago, we were about exploration. But as we go into the new millennium, we will be less about exploration than preservation."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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