Geography -- Technology Ventures Into Map-Making
The use of maps may be as old as humans, but technology has certainly changed map-making and location-finding. Such technology, moreover, is extending beyond professionals and reaching the hands of consumers.
If you are still trying to find yourself, the '90s offer plenty of new technological help.
A hand-held instrument smaller than a walkie-talkie uses an orbiting network of 19 satellites (eventually 24, including three spares) to tell you where you are anywhere on Earth to a distance of 100 yards or less.
With prices swiftly falling from $10,000 a few years ago to a range of $700 to $3,000 today, the Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are being snapped up by boaters.
Tens of thousands of the instruments helped lead American troops and direct smart weapons during Operation Desert Storm. In Japan, Toshiba is offering a version for cars, and GPS will likely turn up as a common automobile option here in the next decade.
GPS is one of a several recent advances that are turning geography from the stuff of musty maps to a discipline that is high-tech, swift moving and politically vital.
New computer data bases called Geographical Information Systems are revolutionizing the way agencies and businesses make land-use decisions. GIS is being used by McDonald's to site restaurants, the Forest Service to protect old growth and the oil industry to survey well sites.
And National Geographic is breaking tradition by publishing in December a CD-ROM electronic version of its fast-changing atlas. Inscribed on a laser disc, the atlas can be used on computers equipped with a CD-ROM multi-media drive.
Meanwhile, the world continues to change so fast that the society has gone from yearly to monthly updates of its world map in 1992.
"There's a growing interest in geography," said John Shupe, chief cartographer of National Geographic. "As the world gets smaller, people want to know more about it."
High-school freshman Lawson Fite of Vancouver, Clark County - who last year beat 6 million other students to win the nation's geographic knowledge contest sponsored by National Geographic - puts it even more bluntly.
"If news reports say something is going on in Yugoslavia, it helps to know where Yugoslavia is and how it's turning into mush," he said.
This week is National Geography Awareness Week and this year there are more nations on Earth, 193, than anytime in history. As a result, National Geographic recently published a new $73 world atlas just two years after its last one, with 20 new countries and 14,000 name changes in its index.
The CD-ROM electronic version of this, aimed at school children, doesn't have the wealth of detail of the printed atlas. But with a click of a computer mouse, users can take an electronic cab ride through London, listen to Swahili, hear national anthems, call up statistics or zoom in on photographs. Cost is $150.
Several other CD-ROM atlases are already on the market.
Atlases are just one way to find yourself. The Global Positioning System is a civilian spinoff from a $12 billion defense program designed to give accurate location information to U.S. forces anywhere in the world. Historically, getting lost has been one of the most common wartime flubs.
The hand-held device uses the angle between three or four satellites orbiting 11,000 miles overhead to pinpoint the user's position within an accuracy of 40 to 50 feet, expressed in longitude and latitude. Costlier versions come with insert cartridges containing electronic maps that mark the user's position on the map display with an X.
Using atomic clocks so accurate that they lose only one second every 70,000 years, the GPS satellites broadcast the time and their position. A GPS receiver on the ground measures the interval between the time of the satellite transmission and its reception on Earth, providing the precise distance from the user to the satellite. Using the distance and angle to at least three satellites in an algorithmic computation, GPS tells the user where he or she is.
This precision is superior to older electronic systems such as Loran. It works 24 hours a day, in any weather, and in any place; the user is never out of range.
To give American forces an edge, however, the Pentagon deliberately scrambles the GPS signal to civilian devices so the accuracy deteriorates to about 100 yards: too poor to let boaters find a narrow harbor entrance in dense fog.
Accordingly another agency - the Transportation Department's Coast Guard - is beginning to build shore stations that will correct the Defense Department's built-in error. This double expense is apparently justified on the theory that American vessels will get an accurate fix on our shores, but foreign enemies won't have that advantage on theirs. However, Popular Electronics argued in its June issue that potential foes could calculate and compensate for the deliberate error.
The Coast Guard system restores GPS accuracy to within 40 feet, but hasn't been installed yet on Puget Sound.
Government logic aside, GPS is finding a host of uses. A leading manufacturer, Magellan Systems Corp. of San Dimas, Calif., cited these:
-- The National Park Service is using it to locate rare desert tortoises in California's Joshua Tree National Monument.
-- Elk in Montana are being tracked through GPS collars.
-- In Japan, Toshiba's GPS for cars includes a map and route planner, letting the motorist constantly know where he is and advised routes for getting to the destination. Ford is including a Magellan GPS unit in "concept" trucks displayed in auto shows.
-- Carlsbad, Calif., keeps track of Transportation Department tow trucks with GPS, routing them more swiftly to emergencies.
-- In Guatemala, GPS is used to map ancient Mayan cities in dense jungle.
-- The Los Angeles County search-and-rescue team uses GPS in finding lost backpackers, and back-country recreationists are beginning to use GPS devices.
-- The U.S. entry in a 12,000-mile auto race from London to South Africa this year is using GPS to navigate.
The devices not only can report position, but calculate a course to a desired location and inform a skipper or pilot of any changes needed to correct for drift. For prospectors or surveyors needing a precise position, repeated checks over 10 minutes or so can reduce error to less than three feet.
Just as promising but in a different way are Geographic Information Systems finding their way on to computer networks. Based on the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, a GIS gives planners a map or three-dimensional picture of a place and allows them to see the result of changes.
A GIS is a kind of database: a software program that draws relationships between bits of geographical information. Another analogy would be to the computer spreadsheet in which the addition of a new number can change the relationship of all the other numbers.
"The idea is to display spatial data and ask it questions," explained Charlie Fitzpatrick, the K-12 education coordinator for ESRI Corp. of Redlands, Calif., which produces GIS programs for markets ranging from urban planners to school geography classes.
For example, the British Columbia ministry of forests uses GIS to show what proposed clearcuts would look like from different points on scenic roadways.
In Washington state, the Forest Service has used them to map and analyze spotted-owl habitat. It would have taken several years to accomplish the project with aerial photographs; GIS using Landsat satellite photographs cut it to 14 months and provided more data.
Agencies such as Metro and the City of Bellevue use it for planning.
Yet "GIS has hardly touched the commercial market," said Derry Eynon, editor of GIS World, based in Fort Collins, Colo. That publication began as a newsletter in 1988, became a bi-monthly magazine in 1989 and is going monthly next year. It has also given birth to a spinoff magazine called Business Geographics.
Eynon said GIS systems in the Gulf War "gave us more knowledge of the locations of things in Iraq than the Iraqis had."
Closer to home, California used the systems for political redistricting, San Diego Gas and Electric cut 500 employees after developing GIS to keep track of its pipe and pole system, and Wyoming used it to track coal extracation, making sure the state is getting its share of royalties.
ESRI's Fitzpatrick said Florida ecologists are using GIS to track the destruction of the Everglades and the loss of species.
And after Hurricane Andrew wiped out south Florida traffic signs, officials used the GIS data base to produce quick maps helping rescue workers find their way to trouble spots.
"The heart of geography is looking at where things are and why they are where they are," Fitzpatrick said. GIS allows planners to ask such questions as how many lakes 15 acres or larger are within a mile of paved roads in Minnesota, or alternate traffic patterns if a crash occurs in a particular location, or whether cases of disease are tied to a specific site.
With both computers and the software plunging in price, this kind of geographic knowledge is going to be increasingly common, he predicted.
"In five years, it is my hope that Geographic Information Systems will be as commonly used as spreadsheets," Fitzpatrick said.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.