A Jeffersonian Vision for Mapping the World

Vast amounts of useful information could be made available to decisionmakers by reconceiving what a map means in the digital age.

About 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson sat down with a young military officer named Meriwether Lewis to plan an expedition to survey the broad expanse of territory between the then-frontier post of St. Louis and the northwest Pacific coast. Although competing English, Spanish, and French interests made geopolitics a compelling argument in favor of this enterprise (the Louisiana Purchase was not a done deal until the eve of Lewis’s journey in 1803), two other justifications were also used to convince a penny-pinching Congress to fund this bold venture.

The commercial benefits of such a expedition were, for one, easy to see. Whether the Louisiana Purchase was a silk purse or a sow’s ear (some Federalists would argue the latter for years to come) was academic after 1803. To exploit the natural resources of this vast new territory, it was essential to first map it. But Jefferson’s wide-ranging intellect saw other, less commercial yet equally valuable, benefits of Lewis’s explorations. Lewis’s ambitious mandate was not so much to map this wilderness as to understand it. In addition to wanting to know everything Lewis might discover about the region’s geology, soil, vegetation, and wildlife, Jefferson also wished to grasp its human geography-the economy, culture, and politics of the native American nations Lewis would encounter.

What Jefferson, the son of a cartographer, understood so clearly–that mapping has geopolitical, commercial, and scientific value–seems lost on many of today’s politicians. As a result of technological advances, we are in a position to make the same quantum leap in knowledge about the earth as Jefferson and Lewis and Clark made about the unexplored wilderness of the great Northwest. But although the challenge we face today is similar to that confronting explorers of the American West, the stakes have changed. Today, the international threat of unsustainable development has made an accurate “map” of the world an urgent need.

Technology such as satellite-based remote sensing (RS) imagery, geographic information systems (GIS), and the Defense Department’s global positioning system (GPS) place us at the threshold of a new “geospatial” era in mapping. Our concept of a map as a two-dimensional picture is no longer adequate to our needs. The irony is that although Jefferson understood how ignorant he and all nonnative Americans were of the land west of the Mississippi, today’s leaders believe that the world is already well mapped and thus known. In reality, it is a myth that the foundation of earth science data collection today is accurate, comprehensive, accessible, and consistent. What is true is that cutting-edge research, new mapping technologies, and satellites are giving us the unprecedented means to create a global foundation for future earth science research.

The nature of the problem we face is twofold. First, much of what is known about earth’s surface today remains inaccessible. Billions of dollars have been spent on the collection of earth science data that, for national security and other reasons, remain tightly restricted. And the data that are available are so poorly organized that they are as useless as a library without a filing system. Indeed, the moon is, in many respects, better mapped than earth is today.

Second, we need to redefine what we understand to be a map. The traditional concept of the map as a two-dimensional picture has served us well. But today a map also serves as a way of organizing data about earth’s surface. Computers have opened up a whole new way of collecting, organizing, analyzing, and disseminating information about earth’s surface. To label such mapping geospatial rather than simply geographic gives this kind of earth science data a discipline-neutral cast, and that is important if mapping is to serve as a means of interagency and multidisciplinary collaboration.

This new geospatial approach to organizing data about earth’s surface is based on three linked sets of remarkable technological breakthroughs. The first is high-resolution, multispectral, “real time” RS imagery that will come of age over the next several years with the launching of more and more commercial satellites. Soon, customers will be able to order pictures of their neighborhoods over the Internet. The second is the rapid commercial expansion of GPS, which permits increasingly accurate and inexpensive positioning of collected data at specific points on earth’s surface. GPS is already being used to monitor ecosystems, route delivery vehicles, and service utility infrastructures. The third is off-the-shelf GIS and desktop mapping software that permit personal computer-based analysis of geospatial data and their incorporation into sophisticated decisionmaking processes, with applications as diverse as business marketing and urban planning. But in order to take full advantage of the RS-GPS-GIS triad of technological advances, we must rethink the way we collectively manage geospatial information today, particularly in the international arena.

The whole world on my disk

Given the abundance of geospatial data that new technologies are making accessible, it is possible to create an infinite variety of useful maps for the future. But to take full advantage of the available data, a map must have geospatial accuracy, appropriate scale, and currency.

Geospatial accuracy means that locations, elevations, and distances on a map consistently reflect those on earth. The science of geodesy tackles the complex problem of mathematically pinning down points on earth’s irregular surface. These geodetic control points permit RS images to be properly positioned in reference to earth’s surface. The positional accuracy of data collected on the road or in the field-georeferencing-is increased by the use of portable GPS receivers. Using a GIS/GPS system, georeferenced data collected by field personnel can be automatically and consistently organized by location. This is particularly important when environmental or socioeconomic changes are being measured over time. The Census Bureau, for example, plans to have every U.S. residence georeferenced for the year 2000 census. With an accurate geospatial foundation, GIS software can “layer” data over a defined area (such as a census tract, a state, or a watershed), thereby making it relatively easy to retrieve, manipulate, and display in a map or graphic form. This built-in capability for accurate georeferencing could revolutionize earth science data collection.

Geospatial scale refers to the area a map attempts to depict. A large-scale map covers a small area and vice versa. The big National Geographic world map in my office, for example, is actually of a very small scale (1:19,620,000), with 1 inch on the map covering about 310 miles on earth. Appropriate scale is essential to geospatial databases because it determines the volume of data required and the types of problems those databases might help solve. Small-scale maps are useful as a global or regional reference and are already used to model such phenomena as global climate change. But there is also an urgent need for large-scale geospatial databases (1:50,000 and better) that can be used by local decisionmakers to help solve pressing development problems from soil erosion to public health to housing.

Geospatial currency is a function of timeliness and reliability and can exist only with constant updating and verification. For example, the world map hanging in my office was no doubt painstakingly researched, but it was made in 1988 and has the Soviet Union emblazoned across that large expanse at the upper right. The map’s outdated political geography is of little concern to me because neither my life nor my job depends on it. But up-to-date geospatial information is of great concern to military officers, real estate agents, and fire fighters. Geospatial information can play a decisive role in resolving international conflicts, as was demonstrated during the 1995 Dayton peace talks when digital maps of Bosnia helped negotiators draw lines of separation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world’s decisionmakers rely on outdated paper maps, if any at all, and have no way to obtain current, reliable, and relevant geospatial data.

If most of the world’s decisionmakers rely on outdated maps, they also fail to grasp the compelling need for geospatial data collection, production, and dissemination. At the national and international level, the historic linkage between maps and geopolitics, commerce, and natural resource management (so well understood by Jefferson) seems all but forgotten. What should open the eyes of decisionmakers to the need for better mapping is the growing awareness of the importance and difficulty of sustainable development.

The international threat of unsustainable development has made an accurate “map” of the world an urgent need.

Data for sustainable development

Faced with a growing population and demand for farmland across the Appalachian Mountains, the Continental Congress in 1785 appointed a geographer to oversee a land ordinance survey, which largely established the pattern of land development in the United States for the next century. This national priority to survey and clear new land was driven in large part by the grossly inefficient use of land that was already settled, which left many large landholders, including Jefferson, cash-poor.

Today’s world leaders, particularly those from impoverished countries, face even more daunting pressures because of rising demands from rapidly growing populations, but they do not enjoy the luxury of opening up significant new fertile lands for farming. Tragically, quite the opposite is the case. Each year, millions of hectares of prime agricultural land are significantly degraded or converted to other land uses. Unlike Jefferson, today’s leaders do not need to map new lands but to collect geospatial information about lands already occupied and to ensure that such information is accessible and useful to those making critical decisions about their use. Internationally, we face the urgent task of maximizing agricultural productivity while conserving eroded soils and depleted water supplies. This cannot be done adequately without ecosystem-specific geospatial information.

Although sustainable development has become a mantra for agencies engaged in foreign assistance, and despite their endorsements and ad hoc funding for myriad GIS-related field projects, no development and lending agencies are now fully committed to developing a comprehensive geospatial data management system. Although all engage in voluminous geospatial data collection (there seems to be a development project in every village), that worldwide knowledge base is for all intents and purposes inaccessible and thus largely worthless to future sustainable development decisionmakers who will need it the most.

Because they have had more important business than “making maps,” these national and international agencies inadvertently foster a collective blind spot that prevents them from taking advantage of geospatial technologies and ensuring that their economic development policies and investments are based on the best information available. Many large and small companies in the private sector have already embraced the use of GIS-based analysis in corporate management decisions. Foreign assistance agencies should follow suit, and quickly.

A model for a worldwide geospatial master plan already exists in the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). Not exactly a household name and still far from being realized, the NSDI is a plan first outlined by the National Research Council’s Mapping Sciences Committee. Under an NSDI, all government agencies that collect geospatial data, from the local planning commission to NASA, would do so in a way that facilitates data integration and sharing. Government-funded geospatial data collection, which covers almost all departments at all levels of government, should also meet metadata standards that cover both “foundation” data (such as georeferenced RS imagery, geodetic controls, and elevations) and certain “framework” data layers (such as transportation routes, hydrology, and political boundaries). Establishing such basic geospatial data standards has been difficult until now because agencies have been free to collect data in any way they choose. This has resulted in poor and inconsistent recordkeeping, redundant data collection efforts, and many wasted tax dollars. Inherent in an NSDI is recognition by participating agencies that they need to change the way they do business, individually and collectively, if they are to create a more effective, efficient, and transparent public service.

In addition to standards-setting work, the NSDI plan addresses the capacity of agencies to collect and use geospatial data; it even suggests the creation of a “national spatial data clearinghouse.” The Federal Geographic Data Committee, chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, helps implement the NSDI by coordinating geospatial data standards among federal agencies and by promoting these standards among state and local agencies. Thus far, implementation of the NSDI at the state and local levels has been uneven, but 16 states, from Alaska to North Carolina, have already set up specific organizations dedicated to improving geographic information.

The merits of the NSDI concept of sharing geospatial data were proved after the disastrous 1993 floods in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. In response to the flooding, federal, state, and local agencies cooperated in establishing a Scientific Assessment and Strategy Team that advised officials in the many affected states on such critical issues as insurance, relocation sites, habitat restoration, and land use planning. The United States is not alone; other governments have also begun implementing their own NSDIs-not because it is trendy, but because they see it as a prudent public investment, like roads and telephone lines.

Why not the world?

Talk of a Global Spatial Data Infrastructure (GSDI) may be premature given the infancy of various NSDI efforts and the generally weak mandates of the international agencies that would work with a variety of international, national, and other organizations to guide its establishment. Nonetheless, it needs to begin in earnest. A future GSDI may be different from any current NSDI, but the underlying purpose should be the same: a rational basis for collecting, organizing, and disseminating useful geographic information, particularly that which might assist in a wide range of sustainable development decisionmaking.

The idea that comprehensive geospatial data collection and dissemination transcend national boundaries has already been embraced by U.S. federal agencies, and the newly created National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) even has an explicit global geospatial mandate. But NIMA’s mission is primarily focused on U.S. military and intelligence applications, not sustainable development. The one place within the U.S. government that is already building key components of a GSDI focused on sustainable development is the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation Systems Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where pioneering work is under way in compiling NASA-generated satellite imagery in worldwide digital terrain, land cover, and watershed maps.

Additional recent global geospatial data collection efforts include other U.S. agencies, universities, international organizations, and foreign governments. These collaborations are starting to produce impressive results. One exciting new project, co-managed by the International Irrigation Management Institute in Sri Lanka and Utah State University, is developing an electronic world atlas of water and climate data for agricultural research. Another, under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme and government research institutes in the United States, Japan, Mexico, and New Zealand, has completed a globally consistent digital topographic database at the 1:1 million scale. These, though, are still nascent efforts that require substantial long-term support and are at a scale that serves global needs better than they do local needs.

Although efforts to create an international map of the world (at the 1:1,000,000 scale) date back to 1891, the first tentative steps toward a GSDI have only just begun. Joel Morrison, chief of the Census Bureau’s Geography Division, laid out a clear GSDI proposal in 1994. In November 1994, a UN-sponsored symposium of earth scientists in Bangkok underscored the urgent global need for developing and maintaining 10 core sustainable development data sets: land use/land cover, demographics, hydrology, infrastructure, climatology, topography, economy, soils, air quality, and water quality. In 1995, 80 representatives from the private and public sectors worked together on the EARTHMAP Design Study and Implementation Plan, which proposed a strategy to advance the use of geospatial data and tools for sustainable development decisionmaking. In December 1995, a World Bank GIS task force also came out with specific recommendations for institutional use of geographic information to improve the bank’s investments and management.

Without responsible government led guidance, the potential benefits of useful geographic information can easily be frittered away.

Two explicit GSDI efforts are now gaining momentum. The first involves a group of European and North American GIS experts, who held a meeting in Bonn, Germany, in the fall of 1996 to discuss a GSDI framework that focused on geospatial data standards as a means to promote such basic economic requirements as land tenure. On the other side of the world, a complementary effort was already under way. In 1994, Japan’s Ministry of Construction hosted a roundtable conference on global mapping. The ministry now serves as the secretariat for an International Steering Committee for Global Mapping, which is composed of directors of national mapping organizations, among others. In October 1996, the committee issued its “Santa Barbara Statement,” which calls for linking global mapping with international environmental measures, and submitted it to a UN General Assembly Special Session. Both the “Atlantic” and “Pacific” groups have explicitly endorsed a GSDI as a critical step toward a sustainable future. International fora and accords, though, do not make a GSDI. Implementation does. The nuts and bolts of creating a GSDI might be jump-started by a planned NIMA-NASA shuttle mission scheduled for 1999 that will for the first time collect a comprehensive and accurate digital terrain data set for most of the inhabited world.

The United States should lead in the establishment of a GSDI for the same reasons Jefferson sent Lewis to map the wilderness. The first, geopolitics, is more compelling now than ever, with many countries desperately tackling the persistent threat of unsustainable development. It will be manifested differently in each area, but many countries will share in the common human tragedy of violence if agriculture-based economies collapse. Failure to improve natural resource management in vulnerable regions will result in heightened ethnic tensions, political instability, and forced migrations.

A GSDI by no means solves the dilemma of unsustainability, but it does offer an objective framework for environmental accounting and a common basis for subnational, bilateral, or multilateral dialogue over resource development options. If geospatial data and tools become more widely available and affordable, the democratization of decisionmaking, particularly at the local level, can be strengthened. Conversely, unfair restrictions or misuse of these same data and tools could serve repressive regimes. Participating governments in a GSDI will bring their own concerns (national security, proprietary data, and so on) and agendas (who will set the standards? how will they be enforced?) to the table.

Standards are not preordained; they are negotiated compromises. But once established, they need to be firmly and consistently applied. A GSDI, then, will not be an altruistic exercise but a geopolitical vehicle toward better earth science data collection-the foundation for improved international understanding of environmental scarcity (such as water shortages) and ultimately for economically sound collaborative work on solutions.

The second GSDI effort gaining momentum is notable on both the supply and demand fronts. Geospatial tools and data are already a multibillion-dollar industry; a sound geospatial framework will help that industry (and the many taxpaying companies that helped build it) continue to thrive. But a geospatial marketplace, particularly in developing countries, will be fully realized only if data are current, standardized, reliable, and accessible, which are reasonable GSDI objectives. People will invest in geospatial data and tools that help them solve problems. A GSDI enables this investment through the setting of technology and data standards. Effective use of geospatial data and tools will likely yield a significant economic multiplier as it dovetails with a broader Internet-based global information infrastructure. But the RS-GIS-GPS triad of technologies provides only a potential economic development opportunity.

Without responsible government-led guidance, the potential benefits of useful geographic information can easily be frittered away, benefiting only that minority of the world’s population that is well off and thus needs it least. At the same time, a GSDI is not a Big Brother mechanism for interfering in an expanding geospatial marketplace. It is a cooperative means to lay down some of the rules for geospatial data quality and transactions and to help educate new users of this type of information. A GSDI would foster the creation of a coherent sustainable development knowledge base by building the foundation for a virtual marketplace of georeferenced data collection and analysis. The indirect benefit, of course, is that if a GSDI can improve sustainable development decisionmaking, economies will grow and living standards will rise.

The third linked reason, geography, is based on the substance of a GSDI: that is, “useful” information. Lewis did not collect geographic data for its own sake but because it served a national interest. We now have a very real international interest in relevant sustainable development information. We already have the ability to measure the effects of rapid resource degradation and depletion on living conditions for tens of millions of people. We can thus no longer afford to ignore earth science and socioeconomic data that would improve sustainable development decisionmaking for future generations. A GSDI, though global in scope, would focus on making useful geographic information accessible to local communities. In the near term it could, for example, support Vice President Gore’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment initiative to enhance sharing of environmental information among schoolchildren around the world. In the October 1994 issue of Scientific American, geographer Robert Kates argues for a coherent sustainability strategy to “manage the transition to a warmer, more crowded, more connected but more diverse world.” A GSDI should be an integral part of that long-term international strategy.

Jefferson would have immediately grasped the imperative of such an ambitious global mapping mission. In his book, Undaunted Courage–Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose quotes Jefferson, whose vision could well apply today to a GSDI: “The work we are doing is, I trust, done for posterity, in such a way that they need not repeat it. . . . We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this great country; those who come after us will extend the ramifications as they become acquainted with them, and fill up the canvas we begin.”

Our canvas now is the world. A GSDI and associated geospatial data and tools could provide the palette and brushes, relevant geographic information would yield the colors, and our imaginations and hard work could paint a landscape our grandchildren would want to inherit.

Recommended Reading

  • Federal Geographic Data Committee, A Strategy for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey, April 1997.
  • National Research Council, Rediscovering Geography–New Relevance for Science and Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.
  • National Research Council Mapping Science Committee, A Data Foundation for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995
  • National Science and Technology Council, Bridge to a Sustainable Future: National Environmental Technology Strategy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, April 1995.
  • Norman J. W. Throwes, Maps and Civilization. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Remotely Sensed Data: Technology, Management, and Markets. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.
Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Wood, William B. “A Jeffersonian Vision for Mapping the World.” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 1 (Fall 1997).

Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1997