Sunday Talk: Valdes has been mapping world for years

Juan 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 Geographic.

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?

Valdes: 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.