Sunday Talk: Valdes has been mapping world for years

By By Frank DiCesare / American Press


Jose Valdes is the geographer for National Geographic and director of

editorial and research for National Geographic Maps.

As the geographer, he is responsible for guiding and assisting the

society’s map policy committee in setting border representations,

disputed territories and naming conventions for National


As director of editorial and research for National Geographic Maps, he is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and consistency

of its maps and map products.

Born in Havana in 1953, Valdes immigrated to the United States in 1961. He was hired by the National Geographic Society in

1976 and has produced many of its map products.

He has also been involved in producing

five editions of the society’s Atlas of the World, as well as many of

its globes, magazine

map supplements and graphics.

Valdes will speak at the Banners

Cultural Series at McNeese State University this Tuesday at 7 p.m. at

the F.G. Bulber Auditorium.

American Press: What are three of the most important traits a cartographer must possess in order to be successful?


You must have a great grasp of geography, world politics and a lot of

patience. As far as geography is concerned, if you

don’t know the cultural, physical and historical aspects of

geography there is no way you can really understand what you are

mapping. All of those three aspects are interconnected. In terms

of geopolitics, you need to know exactly what is going on

at this very point in time, as well as what has occurred in recent

periods to project what is going to be happening in the

not too distant future. When you’re mapping the world you have to

know all of these things so you can have a better understand

of what you’re mapping, why the lines are where they are, and why

the names are spelled in a certain way. As far as patience

is concerned, it just takes a lot of time and research to gather

all of this information, analyze it, and contact experts

in the field so your map can be as accurate and as up to date as

it possibly can be. Sometimes when you’re dealing with foreign

governments they want you to promote their own policies and ideas,

so you often have to tread lightly; you have to be diplomatic

and you have to be very patient because it takes time. The

biggest issue cartographers are now facing in mapping, especially

when mapping contentious areas, is that people want it and they

want it now. But first you need to make sure that what you’re

putting out there, from the perspective of National Geographic, is

as correct as it possibly can be.

On average, how long does it take to complete a map project for National Geographic?

It usually takes a good six to nine months to get one of the map supplements done. Sometimes the material is rather complex,

so it takes us a long time to research, analyze and compile the map. Sometimes a map is just plopped into the schedule and

we’ve got to move fast.

What have been some of the biggest cartographic challenges you’ve faced in your work over the years?

Prior to the advent of fax machines and

e-mail, it was the gathering of all the information. Back in those days

the editors

wouldn’t flinch twice if you said to them, “I’m working on a map

of the ruins of Copan, Honduras, and we’ve done all of the

research possible, but there’s just a lot of missing pieces.” The

editors would say, “Not to worry. Get on a plane, go down

there, get all of the information and come back.” The process was

called “ground truthing.” But the minute the fax machine

hit the floor, and then shortly thereafter when the web and e-mail

came on board, those trips were long gone. Now we gather

information fairly quickly because everyone is connected to the

web. We can contact scholars in the field; we can contact

universities overseas and they can provide us with the information

we need fairly quickly over the web.

How long have you waited to draw a map after a new country has been born? Can you give specific examples?

We do it instantaneously. The minute a country claims independence and

is recognized internationally, we will update the

map right on the spot. Now that we have a web presence, we will

update our site immediately. So within 24 hours of the country’s

proclamation of independence we will have an updated map of that

country online. But before we get to that point we have to

monitor how we update a new country’s map. South Sudan is a

perfect example. When South Sudan was recognized internationally

as a semi-autonomous state, we showed it as an area of special

status designated by a gray administrative fill with a distinct

administrative symbol (an open bull’s eye) for its capital, Juba.

When South Sudan became an independent nation, it was immediately

portrayed on our maps as a sovereign nation with its own color

(yellow), country type font and national capital symbol.

To what degree have you seen global warming and natural disasters affect your work over the past 20 years?

It’s been very subtle because of the

scales of our reference maps. We really don’t zoom in. But what we have

noticed is that

the shorelines of some natural lakes, like those of the Aral Sea,

have decreased considerably. We’re also noticing that in

some places in the U.S. the shorelines of some lakes and

reservoirs are beginning to diminish in size like the recent droughts

that have taken place in the Midwest. Although we haven’t done any

maps of the region, should we do so one of the first things

we will target on is exactly how do the outlines for the

shorelines of these lakes that we once mapped look like today. When

we go in we will make sure that fact is reflected, that indeed

some change is taking place there. The same thing goes for

glaciers. We do show a glacier symbol for many of the national

parks in our United States maps. So we will go in and we will

verify to make sure that at the time of printing that the outlines

of the glaciers are correct.

Maps are read by people of all ages. Do your potential readers influence how you will develop a map? If so how?

This is reflected more in the maps

found in the magazine and its iPhone and iPad editions than in the

general reference maps

that we produce. To a certain extent you will also see it in the

thematic spreads of our atlases. People, especially the younger

generation, are used to seeing things on a screen with a minimum

amount of information. They just need a quick snapshot of

whatever is being portrayed. So cartographically you won’t see

the thousands and thousands of place names that we once put

on a map, especially in the magazine maps. All that needs to be

shown are the essentials, the country outlines, their national

capital, and any superlative information such as biggest rivers,

highest mountains, lowest points and one or two place names

associated with the article and that’s it. People do not have

time. They need something that can be visually read and interpreted

very quickly and then move on.

What has been your most rewarding project to date? Why?

The 2011 Cuba map. In my 37-year career

at National Geographic, that map is the jewel in my cartographic

career. Not only

am I emotionally attached to that map, but I’m one with that map

and that map is one with me. I really put so much into it.

I would come in on weekends; I would stay late at night just to

make sure that all the little places that are not only of

importance to me but to Cubans worldwide would appear on the map. I

wanted to make sure that it was very very accurate. I

hated to let the map go. Of course after the map was printed, new

national parks sprung up and there were other new sites

that needed to be put on the map, but that’s the nature of our

business. We recently printed a revised version with the new

park outline and the additional sites.

What role does satellite imaging play in cartography today?

It all depends on who you talk to. From

National Geographic’s perspective, it’s today’s ground truthing method.

Instead of

going to the field, we now use satellite imagery to verify that

indeed the river is there, or the building is oriented that

way it’s supposed to be. For instance, whenever you’re dealing

with reservoirs in tropical or subtropical regions, you will

always have a very wet period and a very dry period. So you have

to be very cautious to what period your mapping. What we

like to do is check coverage from the wettest to the driest period

and then come up with a median shoreline so that the map

portrays a median shoreline year round.

What impact or affect do you see citizen cartography having on your profession in the years to come?

Well, I think it’s popularized the

science of cartography, if nothing else; it’s gotten people, especially

younger people,

enthusiastic about it. But one of the things I am very cautious

and leery about is that if you really don’t know what you’re

mapping, especially in politically sensitive areas, you can get

yourself into a lot of trouble. For example, a graduate student

doing his or her thesis on a contentious area “in situ” could find

themselves in a great deal of trouble if their maps were

presented to a less than welcoming customs or other government

official. That very same thesis might also not be accepted

as credible if presented in such countries. Certain countries,

especially those with very structured regimes, like to adhere

to very strict cartographic policies when it comes to naming

conventions or the ways boundaries are portrayed on their maps.

In such places you cannot rely on the obvious — say a street sign.

Political maps should reflect the boundaries and names

as closely as possible to those recognized by the governing bodies

in those geographic areas. To do otherwise would only provide

the reader with an erroneous and unrealistic picture of what is

truly happening on the ground.

Where do you see cartography going in the 21st century?

We’re already seeing it with all of the

iPhone and iPad applications. The only thing I can foresee now is a

change in the

technology. Perhaps someday we will have a wristwatch with

cartographic capabilities. You’ll be able to use it when you are

hiking or if you want to find where a restaurant is. Digital

cartography has become a part of everyone’s life, whether they

recognize it or not.