Mapmaker Finds a Different Route to Happiness

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When Allen Carroll was a kid, he would ride around his Indianapolis, Indiana, neighborhood on his bike, then go home and color his route in red on a map.

"I turned most of the north side of Indianapolis red," he jokes.

Carroll, the National Geographic Society's chief cartographer (mapmaker), says he spent time looking at maps the way most kids read books. When his family went on road trips, Carroll would be the navigator and help his parents figure out the best route.

"I grew up loving maps, and I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid," says Carroll, 55. "But it never crossed my mind that I could make a living making maps."

Carroll and his staff of 25 employees create maps of all sizes that National Geographic uses in its magazines and books and online. It takes about three months to produce a fairly detailed map; a really complicated one can take more than half a year.

Cartographers (pronounced car-TOGG-ruh-fers) are employed by all sorts of companies. Police departments use maps to figure out where the most crimes are occurring. People who run fast-food restaurants use maps to figure out where people are moving so they know the best place to open a store.

There are lots of details to consider when creating a map, Carroll says. For example, "if we were doing a map of the Chesapeake Bay, do we want to show how deep the bay is or where you can find crabs or rockfish? Birds? Parks? Highways?"

Being artistic and good with computers are two necessary characteristics of a good cartographer.

"I love my work, and all of us here love our work because it involves a really cool combination of technical and creative and artistic [skills]," Carroll says.

Before computers, cartographers did their work by hand. They would etch lines into special film and layer those sheets on top of each other to make a readable map. "We used tools a little more sophisticated than pencil and paper," Carroll says. "Now, of course, all that stuff is done on computers."

Computers also have changed the way people use maps. Instead of having to figure out driving directions, your parents can simply plug addresses into Web sites that tell them where to go.

Even though looking up directions online might be easier, Carroll suggests that kids who are interested in maps should do as he did -- help their parents find other routes.

"The greater fun or challenge is to say, 'Well, yeah, I am going from here to here, but what is the way I would rather go? What landmarks do I want to see along the way? Or how can I . . . just have more fun getting there?"

-- Amy Orndorff

© 2007 The Washington Post Company