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A geographic feature by any other name would just be confusing

 May 18, 2017

 Elizabeth Short
 NGA Office of Corporate Communications

The importance of geographic name standardization

West Africa experienced the worst Ebola outbreak in history a little over three years ago, resulting in approximately 11,325 deaths. Personnel from numerous U.S. government agencies were immediately deployed to assist in the area, but the maps they had access to were outdated. That’s when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was called in to assist.

From their desks in Springfield, Virginia, a group of NGA human geography linguists leapt into action, updating the Geographic Names Database with names and features in the West African area, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia. The GNDB is the official database for all standardized foreign geographic names. 

“By the end of the project we ended up adding over 20,000 names and features to the Sierra Leone country file,” said Bobby Jovanovski, lead GeoNames analyst for NGA’s Ebola Crisis Team. “We edited every single feature that was already in the system. These names had not been touched, in some instances, since the British Colonial Era, before Sierra Leone even became independent. The consequences of not updating Sierra Leone names and features could have been severe.”

The efforts put forward during the Ebola crisis helped save lives, said Jovanovski. 

“The improved accuracy, both locational and spelling, helped humanitarian teams on the ground properly map their areas of responsibility, which further ensured proper delivery of resources, equipment and manpower to stem a dreadful and deadly epidemic,” said Jovanovski.

To standardize geographic names, analysts have to find authoritative sources, primarily foreign government produced maps in different languages, said Jovanovski. Analysts have to be able to understand those languages, understand what is being written on the maps. They have to understand the context of the names and be able to Romanize those names.

“It is a lot more contentious sometimes than people think,” said Jovanovski. “We all take names for granted. I took names for granted before I started here…as I’ve gotten into it I’ve learned the different nuances and realized that a name is a lot more than just a name.”

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names was established in 1890 by President Benjamin Harrison as a way to resolve geographic name conflicts for the federal government. The BGN is responsible for standardizing the names of all geographic areas within the U.S. for official government use.

In 1947, the Foreign Names Committee, was formed under the BGN to standardize geographic names of all foreign areas for the U.S. government. NGA has provided the staff and secretariat for the FNC since the mid-1960s, to include maintaining the official geographic names database.

“In the age of search engines and multiple and sometimes dubious sources, the GeoNames program provides all federal users an authoritative and standardized name for foreign geographic features and empowers our government to communicate this critical information cohesively and unambiguously, said Leo Dillon, vice chair and Department of State member, U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

More than 40 human geography linguists in NGA’s Office of Geography are responsible for updating and maintaining the data in the GNDB, which is accessed by the entire federal government, specifically the intelligence community and Department of Defense. Each human geography linguist is required to maintain fluency in the language(s) of their specific expertise.

They need to fully understand their areas of expertise in order to accurately standardize geographic foreign place names for members of the U.S. federal government. The status of a name is dependent on many human geography traits of the country and impacts U.S. personnel working in/at that location. 

“A name will often tell a skilled human geographer a great deal,” said Marcus Allsup, senior toponymist in NGA's Office of Geography. “Names, are obviously going to tell you the language of that village, and by knowing the language of the geographic name you can tell ethnicity, religion and sect within a religion.”

The Ebola crisis was not new to the human geography linguists on the GeoNames team. Every day, the agency’s human geography linguists are answering user questions/inquiries, analyzing maps to ensure the correct standardizing of foreign place names and responding to requirements from NGA and the U.S. BGN.

A situation such as the Ebola crisis, demonstrates how mission-critical the standardization of foreign names can be.

​Learn more about NGAs involvement in the 2014 Ebola crisis by watching this video .