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FCW : March 15, 2014
People used to use maps so they wouldn t get lost. But in recent years, access to the Global Posi- tioning System and the prolif- eration of mobile technology have made paper-based maps almost irrelevant. Unless you re in uncharted territory, it s hard to get lost anymore. Basic geography is as easy as inputting an address and let- ting your mobile phone to tell you how to get there. And as mapping technology advances, it allows for far more than foolproof direc- tions. Federal agencies now use geospatial data, geo-analytics and multi-layered maps for myriad purposes, including gathering intelligence, predicting disease outbreaks and sharing data pools with the public. The allure of mapping lies in its intu- itiveness. Even simple "dots on a map can be a powerful way to see trends in data," said Josh Campbell, geographic informa- tion system architect for the Humanitarian Information Unit at the State Department. "Maps are a compressed mechanism for storytelling." Last year, Campbell s of ce created a series of maps to track the mass migra- tion of Syrians displaced by the country s ongoing violence. The HIU team combined data from thousands of media and internal reports with commercial satellite imagery. Each map provided a geographical snap- shot of a place. Together, they showed trends over time and revealed the areas with the most intense con ict. "That visualization can simplify com- plex data relationships among variables," Campbell said. "It s one thing to read the information, but I think visualization is a powerful way to consume information that scales beyond reading." That is perhaps the most important aspect of maps: They make for better decision-making. The Federal Communications Com- mission used to convey policy changes through 1,000-page Microsoft Word docu- ments, said Mike Byrne, geographic infor- mation of cer at the FCC. Now the agency uses cartography to explain complicated policy subjects such as spectrum allocation. Of cials rely on a mixture of open- source and proprietary tools to do that, but the focus is on creating a product that users can easily understand, whether those users are federal decision-makers or members of the general public, Byrne said. "The platform for us is the Internet," he added. "At FCC, we take really com- plicated things and display them so that anyone can understand what the high- level landscape view looks like." 'So much easier than words' The ease with which maps can be cre- ated, shared, accessed and understood is why they are reaching the highest lev- els of decision-making in government. As the mapping technology improves, even Congress is getting into the act. Legislative committees and even indi- vidual lawmakers are hiring GIS experts to make maps that inform and educate policy-makers or enhance decision- making regarding prospective legislation. Cathy Cahill, a professor in the Depart- ment of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, started a stint as a congressional fellow with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January. Within days, Cahill had produced her rst map, detailing the locations of various types of power plants across the country using open data from the Energy Information Administration. Because Cahill knows Alaska well and because the committee includes Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), much of Cahill s work centers on her home state. One map she produced highlighted the costs remote Alaskan communities sometimes face due to the long distances petroleum must travel from re neries. "Working with the Senate, we have incredible data from a bunch of agencies and beautiful maps and databases that I can pull from," she said. However, she isn t staring into a desk- top screen of Esri s ArcGIS on her own. She s working with and training commit- tee staffers and sharing her GIS knowl- edge so that the mapping can continue after her 12-month fellowship is over --- something the legislators increasingly demand. It s not uncommon to see Murkowski or Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) using maps on their mobile devices to explain policy March 15, 2014 FCW.COM 15
March 30, 2014