Maps are Beautiful

I’ve been looking at a lot of maps lately, and my favorites by far are the USGS topographic quad maps. In addition to being amazing for better understanding an area they are stunningly beautiful. You can explore them yourself here: http://ngmdb.usgs.gov/maps/TopoView.

I was excited to see this article in the New York Times this morning gushing over the work that the USGS has done over the past century. As discussed in the article, in the early days of the agency it was assumed that each quad map would be produced only once or twice per century so each one was meticulously hand drawn after exhausting research in the area. However, due to the rapid pace of technological advancement over the first century of USGS’s existence each map ended up being produced only once or twice total.

In 2008, after decades of decreasing resources, the agency shifted away from hand drawn maps toward a digital system. Certainly there are advantages to the new approach the government has taken toward mapping our ever changing land.  Faster production, faster updating, and ease of availability have led the push toward the creation of U.S. Topo. However, this has come at the expense of the detail, accuracy, and beauty that were the hallmarks the agency’s early maps.

Of course, the true driver of this trend is money. The 2015 USGS budget was just 1.1 billion dollars, which may sound considerable, but amounts to less than 0.03% of the federal budget. To put this in perspective, it is just over twice what the government spent on a single type of missile last year. While certainly not as extreme as the Great Depression, the Great Recession resulted in similar economic struggle. At both times the government increased spending to provide more jobs and help ease the tough times for some. In 2008-10 that meant increased military spending to fuel the Middle East war machine. In 1933-35 it meant creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

The investment the CCC and WPA are still paying dividends 80 years after their creation. There are hundreds of CCC projects still in regular use: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/map-widget/ccc-map/. The same is true for the WPA: https://livingnewdeal.org/map/. I want my tax dollars spent building up our nation and world rather than tearing it down.

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