Catching up with Allen Carroll, National Geographic’s Chief Cartographer, and introducing the Global Action Atlas

By Adena Schutzberg

"Let it not be said that geographers have become so habituated to talking about the world that they are reluctant to make themselves a vital instrument for changing the world."
- Gilbert White
Allen Carroll

Allen Carroll is well-known to many in geospatial circles because, as he's the first to admit, he has a great title: Chief Cartographer at National Geographic. He explains a bit about his job and his background (he's self-taught) in this audio clip.

Listen now.

Carroll has a new project that just hit beta last month called the Global Action Atlas. The idea is, in one way, quite simple: to partner non-profit organizations that are helping the earth and its people and animals with individuals who might be interested in supporting their work. The organizations (the number of which will grow as the project moves from beta) fall into broad categories: conservation, humanitarian, cultures, exploration, climate change and energy.

The Action Map from the Action Atlas (Click for larger view.)

Carroll and the Atlas have the same driving force, the Society's mission: "Inspiring people to care about the planet." Conversations with Carroll hint that he seems always to have that phrase in the back of his mind. Colleague Frank Biasi had been tossing the idea of a "projects atlas" around for some time. Together they envisioned and then made the Atlas a reality. The NatGeo NewsWatch blog covers the details of the many players that make the Atlas possible.

Carroll describes one non-profit group listed in the Atlas, the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF)'s Indentured Daughters Program, as a great example of how one person, with only a small investment, can enable incredible change. The NYOF can, for about $100, keep a young girl from slavery in that country. Nepalese families are sometimes so desperate that they are forced to sell their girls. The NYOF, with that small amount of funding, can return a daughter home, support her education, and provide a farm animal to the family to raise and sell. The value of that animal is often the same as the amount of money received for the daughter in the first place. Carroll explains that the challenged economy worldwide may, in fact, encourage this sort of thoughtful giving. "People are rethinking that flat screen TV and thinking more about helping fellow humans. And if a trip to the grocery store is $100 and it's gone so fast... How could you not consider that $100 investment?"

Carroll hopes that as it matures, the Atlas' name and purpose will be referenced as a resource via Facebook and Twitter and other social networks. Even in the beta, once you register, you can become a "fan" of any of the listed organizations. How will the Atlas be used? "Some people may visit just to explore, while others will want to see how they can help on a specific issue or in a specific part of the world," says Carroll. The Atlas is geared to all of those uses. Carroll has been pleased to see the active role the geospatial community has played in addressing a variety of issues in recent years and hopes the Atlas can be another resource for them. He's quick to point out, however, its target audience is much broader.

When asked about the future of cartography Carroll muses that this is a great time to be in this field. "There's so much going on - from Internet maps, to augmented reality, to the great data resources." Do some of these new technologies really relate to traditional cartography? "Yes," he says, "if you look at a broad definition of cartography, one that includes communication, they do." Carroll sees the challenges in creating effective interfaces for displaying and interacting with maps and map data among the tasks for today's cartographers. And, how are we doing with those challenges? "What happens is that with each new [technology] 'thing' the first attempts [to bring maps and cartography to it] are all over the place and rough. In time they get better." The early Internet mapping apps, he agrees, typically had basic maps and challenging interfaces. But they have gotten much better, he concludes.

And what of today's new mapping platforms? Says Carroll, "We have some great platforms, such as Google Earth. Our job as cartographers is to get them to tell stories. That's very much what cartography and design are about, telling stories."

Published Friday, May 14th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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