Monday, January 30, 2012

Adirondack Mapping: Parts But Little Known

The Adirondacks have long been a bit of a blank spot on maps. From the time Jacques Cartier first glimpsed the Adirondack Mountains from Montreal in 1535 until the mid 1700s (long after coastal and more populous areas were mapped in great detail), the remote and mountainous Adirondack region was represented only by terse descriptions such as “This Country by reason of Mountains, Swamps & drowned Lands is impassable & uninhabited,” or “Parts but little known.” But Adirondack history is full of explorers, surveyors and cartographers who underwent great risk and hardship in order to fill in these blanks.

By 1900, thanks to the work of men such as Verplanck Colvin, the basic geography of the park was well-known. The beloved 7.5 minute USGS topographic quads we are all so familiar with were the culmination of this effort, and they have undergone only slight revisions over the last hundred years or so. But an interesting thing has happened in the last 30 years with the rise of computers and their ability to overlay map layers in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Maps and the way people use them have changed radically.

People today are not satisfied with paper maps that merely portray the geographic arrangement of features; they expect maps to be full-blown search engines where they can explore the virtual landscape and then connect instantly to information about map features. Prospective visitors don’t want to just see where a hotel is, they want to click on it and get information about room availability, prices and contact information. Hikers don’t just want the location of a trail, they want to know its difficulty, its condition or how much use it gets.

With all these new expectations, the Adirondacks once again lag behind more populous areas where the work of connecting geographic features to attribute information has advanced further. So, while perhaps not quite as risky (thankfully) or romantic as it once was, there are still many people working to improve the quality and quantity of spatial data and produce ever better maps of the Adirondacks.

Thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive GPS units and free web-based GIS applications such as Google Earth, members of the general public are now active participants in both data collection and map production.

If cartography is the art of producing a map, anyone who has printed out GoogleMap directions is an amateur cartographer! For specialists such as myself, this has been a paradigm shift that has changed our jobs radically. We now must think not only of how to manage the incredible amounts of spatial data being created, but also how best to communicate that information to the public. To conclude my first post, I’d like to highlight one elegant example of how modern technology can communicate spatial information in new and exciting ways.

John Barge, GIS specialist for the Adirondack Park Agency, has made many map resources available on the APA’s GIS page. I encourage you to browse through them all, but I’d like to feature a particular resource John has produced– a downloadable .kmz file that superimposes historic bird’s eye maps of several Adirondack communities onto the virtual landscape of Google Earth. A quick video tutorial can be found here.

I look forward to future posts on Adirondack spatial matters, and to reading your comments!

PS: Thanks much to the Almanack for having me!

Illustration: Richard William Seal. “New and Accurate Map of the Present War in North America, 1757”.

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Steve Signell is the owner of Frontier Spatial, L.L.C., an Adirondack-based company offering mapping and data services. He splits his time between Schenectady and Long Lake, where he punctuates his time at the computer with stints on the fiddle and banjo.




4 Responses

  1. RossHWilliams says:

    I look forward to reading your posts! I’ve read many places where the Adirondacks were simply listed as “hunting grounds” or “deer hunting”.

    Also, thanks for the GIS resources.

  2. Josh Clague says:

    Great post, Steve. Looking forward to more…

    Thanks also to John for the cool mashup.

  3. Hamilton County SWCD says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. It amazes me how far cartography has come since I was in undergrad 12 years ago. I remember transitioning from paper maps my freshman year to ArcGIS my junior year. Check out the Hamilton County Online Mapping System at http://www.hamcomaps.net/#. This internet-based GIS offers information about tax parcels, aerial photos, water features, and much more. Enjoy!

  4. Dan Plumley says:

    Steve:

    Great to see you having a corner on the Almanack for mapping and GIS. Very appropriate. I am fascinated by the potential for direct user interface applications in conservation efforts on site in the park. Really would like to explore that potential with you; citizen science, monitoring and that sort of thing. But I do love my paper and Tyvek maps — old 7.5, 15 minute and more. I am also very interested in seeing or building data on maps of ancient Indian trails and habitation locations, archeology, etc. Looking forward to your posts.

    Dan Plumley
    Keene
    Partner, Adironack Wild