Map-making is no walk in the park
As noted above, small-scale charts and large-scale maps are used for different purposes. But one thing they have in common is that customers sometimes believe that making a map is a quick and effortless process.
“A lot of people think it’s an easy process,” Brian Snyder, a cartographer in the East’s large-scale mapping branch said of his work making maps. “They [large-scale maps] do take time to produce.”
Senior GEOINT Officer for Cartography Mark Wayne agrees that map/chart production can be a labor-intensive process, whether the goal is to make a large-scale map or small-scale chart.
“Small-scale charts are huge, in terms of digital size and contain a huge amount of data,” said Wayne. “Obtaining accurate and current information is challenging to make the charts usable. The smaller the scale, the longer it takes to compile, quality-assure and update.”
These small-scale charts are produced for a variety functions, depending on the customer requirement. Sometimes these same small-scale charts are created for tactical purposes, while other times they are used for operational planning and mission execution. They are widely used by U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Transportation Command and combat commands to perform their missions, Wayne noted.
The same goes for NGA’s foreign partners.
“NGA’s international partners are voracious consumers of our maps and especially rely on them as a common operational picture during coalition actions,” said Dan Holderfield, senior international officer for foundation in the Office of International Affairs. “In exchange, many of them contribute data content to enhance the maps and some actually co-produce the maps alongside NGA, thus sharing the burden,”.
Small teams, detail-oriented work
The Office of Geography runs a tight ship in its mapmaking efforts.
“One hundred percent of all NGA small-scale charts disseminated are quality-assured from co-producers or producers internally by a small branch in the production division [of the Office of Geography] containing less than 15 personnel that produce six product lines,” Wayne said.
The large-scale mapping branches at NCE and Second Street are likewise staffed by teams that have just over a dozen employees. Some of the work that team members perform to make the maps just right for customers can require attention to detail, said Matthew Bowling, a cartographic analyst in the large-scale mapping branch.
For example, Bowling and other cartographic analysts in his branch need to compare the maps they are working on with elevation data to make sure that the rivers on them are running downhill. Data collectors may not have access to elevation data, and therefore they also may not be certain which way a river runs.
Additionally, cartographers need to incorporate information from NGA’s Geographic Names Database, also known as GeoNames, on their maps — and verify the spelling of these words — while making sure the map avoids clutter, so that it is easily readable.
GeoNames contains the official standardized geographic names and spellings used by all U.S. government agencies, including the IC and DOD, national and international co-production partners, academia and private industry. This GeoNames information is also disseminated in support of global customers and public consumers.
Since large-scale maps show more detail than small-scale charts, it’s no surprise they are frequently used in combat operations. According to Snyder, large-scale maps are also frequently ideal for evacuations, humanitarian relief efforts, combat missions and crisis support.
More than 1000 maps produced each year