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Author: Kaitlin Yarnall
Date: August 1st 2015

By Kaitilin Yarnall
National Geography, August 1st 2015

Maps. They’ve been around longer than photographs. They’ve defined empires,guided explorers, told stories, and captured the imagination of many a hopeful traveler for years. While most appreciate the beauty and power of a good map, few recognize the dynamic and vital applications they have today.

Maps are embedded in the smart phones we carry, they’re installed on the dashboards of our cars and we never seem to be lost. Maps, and the powerful geospatial technologies that populate them with data are also playing a bigger role in our lives. Here’s a look at an example from a few fields ways where maps and associated technologies are driving positive change in the world.


To fully understand an ecosystem, habitat, or protected area, it’s crucial to understand its geography. In the case of marine protected areas, the geographies and boundaries are clearly defined. Fishing is illegal in these spaces. So how does geospatial technology help? A small team composed of SkyTruth with support from Google and Oceana is constantly monitoring fishing activity. Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) on fishing vessels send their geographic locations almost constantly to satellites. These locations are then mapped and compared to boundaries of known protected ocean areas. This data is being used to develop enforcement strategies and will help guide where resources are deployed geographically. 

Food Security

Access to healthy food is key to food security in rural and urban areas in the United States. Geographic areas with inadequate access to affordable fresh food are known as food deserts. How can food deserts be identified and where are they most concentrated? A pattern becomes apparent when you map the location of grocery stores and overlay that with data showing low-income population and vehicle access.

The USDA created the Food Access Research Atlas for this very purpose. As spatial patterns reveal themselves in rural, urban, and suburban settings, the pattern of food deserts becomes clear. This clear and powerful visualization of food deserts gives decision a clear picture of where additional grocery stores and farmers’ markets are needed.

Disaster Relief

Video – Emerging Explorer Patrick Meier pioneers the lifesaving new field of crisis mapping, which is helping revolutionize the effectiveness of relief efforts worldwide.

On April 25th of 2015, a 7.8 point earthquake hit Nepal. Within 48 hours, a global group of volunteer “crisis mappers” had filled in major holes in the known maps of the stricken areas. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, roads and buildings were added to open source maps that were then used to guide relief workers on the ground. This type of crisis mapping has been used for hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, and earthquakes. It has become a powerful tool for rapid responders and is a celebrated example of global crowdsourcing.

Public Health

In the case of a disease like polio, near eradication is not a solution—the virus must be completely eliminated. The disease has been nearly eliminated in most of the world but the battle continues in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan where it is endemic. The WHO, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has set a goal of complete global eradication by 2018.

Geospatial technology and maps are making this rapidly approaching goal seem attainable. Vaccination efforts used to be coordinated and documented through paper maps, which were annotated by hand. Using GIS technology and satellite imagery, digital maps of remote polio-infected areas are constantly updated and improved by teams on the ground and elsewhere. These increasingly accurate maps allow teams in the field to navigate and ensure complete vaccination of remote villages.

Some vaccination teams are also now carrying GPS trackers that monitor the movement of health workers on the ground. Their visitations are mapped and used by program managers to spatially confirm that each household in every village is visited and vaccinated.