LBx Executive Interview

>National Geographic Explore New Geotools


The National Geographic Society is at the forefront of geographically based consumer products. For 120 years, the society has been inspiring people to care about the world in which we live and about the planet we inhabit. Through various media vehicles, including its flagship journal,National Geographic, and six other magazines,films,television programs,cable channel, music, books, maps, travel and school programs, and others,the society reaches more than 325 million people a month. We were eager to speak with Jess Elder to get his perspective on the benefitts and challenges of integrating new location applications into the product development process.

LBx:  What is your responsibility at National Geographic?

ELDER: I am a Producer of Geospatial Media for National Geographic Maps. I manage online cartographic production projects and develop new products that build on the solid foundation of map-making and content development.

LBx:  What is your background?

ELDER: I have a Masters in Geography. I had a focus in urban transportation planning, which had a heavy GIS component, and I was a cartographer with the FAA.

LBx:  What do you see as the future of geospatial applications?

ELDER: From a consumer perspective, I see these technologies maturing from dynamic basemap production to geo-content that is being pushed out to consumers for interacting with visualizing the data. When this maturity cycle increases, I think there will be more focus on design and how the data are presented to the individual.

LBx: What do you mean by design?

ELDER: By design, I mean the information architecture. There will be more emphasis on making the applications more user-friendly and intuitive in design. The more interdisciplinary the map becomes, the easier it will become to use, because the interface will be driven by the users’ needs as opposed to the creation of a map.

For example, look at the Oakland community crime mapping website ( and Everyblock Chicago ( FortiusOne’s GeoCommons through their Finder! and Maker! allow for visualization and finding data in a common space. These are all intuitive location search sites based on the users’ interests – sites that will lead to the use of location in innovative ways beyond what the producers of the content may originally have conceived.

As far as open tools go, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth MapCruncher tool allows you to take an image of a map someone else has produced or that was originally produced for a non-interactive medium (i.e., print), and tile together other images that are all in the same format to create something like a geoPhotoshop experience. MapCruncher can be used by anyone from the novice producing a hiking route to professionals at National Geographic and Discovery. IBM Many Eyes is another great tool that allows for multiple data visualization methods (maps, charts, graphs, etc.) and pushes them out as widgets that can be embedded elsewhere online.

LBx:  There are so many small geo companies, and new applications popping up almost every day. How do you find the ones that are appropriate for National Geographic?

ELDER: We do a lot of research remotely, and we spend a lot of time reviewing the blog aggregators and trying a lot of things. After trying out the apps online, when online demos are available, we contact those that seem best suited to our needs. My favorite blog aggregator is Planet Geospatial ( There are so many new applications being created; just look at the iPhone which couples geo information with human applications that can create lots of different apps.

LBx:  How are these tools used in your workflow?

ELDER: We use these apps in all parts of the product planning and product development workflow. We use MapCruncher and KML creation as a prototyping toolset and move into an actual production workflow to communicate with project teams or with any contract organizations with whom we work on any particular project.

LBx:  Why is the ability to store and extract location data important to the enterprise of the future?

ELDER: For basic efficiency and extendibility. It is more and more important for an enterprise to think about expressing the information they are producing. National Geographic produces everything from print to mobile, video to major films. Capturing geodata upfront when the content is created saves time in finding that content when it comes time to think about repurposing it. Every platform has the basic mathematical platform; therefore, a common language on the original content leads to standardization of meta-data, which is what drives interoperability across multiple platforms and adds value to the entire workflow.

LBx:  What about businesses that are not geographically inclined? Why is the ability to capture, store, extract and present geodata important?

ELDER: Not all content in an organization may be geospatially relevant, but since everything is spatially oriented it seems logical that it would add value. I think this highlights the interdisciplinary of geography. There are many tools available now that automatically georeference information making it easier for non geo-oriented companies to start identifying and presenting their location data.

LBx:  What is the biggest factor in evaluating a location application?

ELDER: First, think about what you want to accomplish; many location apps provide a service where there’s no need, so be clear on what kind of information you need and want to communicate. Second, how flexible is the application, relative to what you want to do? Flexibility is both a cost question and a functionality question. Do I have to pay someone to configure and customize? With Cloudmade and OpenStreetMap, anyone can use them to do almost anything. Most importantly, the application should be easy for people or organizations on a limited budget and with scarce resources.

Every platform has the basic mathematical platform; therefore, a common language on the original content leads to standardization go metadata, which is drives interoperability across multiple platforms and adds value the entire workflow.

jess_elderLBx: What advice do you have for those evaluating location applications for the first time?

ELDER: Keep an open mind. Don’t settle on one thing right away; the technology is going to change so don’t lock yourself in. Make sure that whatever you choose is flexible and open so you can adapt to the market. Keep an eye out for things that will help with your bottom line.

LBx: We’ve talked a lot about all the advantages of the new location apps. Are there any challenges?

ELDER: There are still a few hurdles. The biggest one is institutional. Getting people to adopt new technologies is still hard to do. In this case, geospatial technologies can lead to unintended uses, so overcoming internal fear of change and of moving in a direction that is no longer controllable by IT and management is very scary for most organizations.

The second challenge is that, even though there are many new tools for non geo-users, location apps still require some familiarity with geography (although not in the traditional academic sense), and with the way geographic information should be structured in order to apply it as effectively as possible.

LBx: What kind of geo-knowledge do you think is required?

ELDER:How geo-information is defined and how it is used within an organization are important. Once you start to save that x, y information, it means something. There’s embedded intelligence in geographic information that may seem to be innocuous keywords and coordinates, but geo-information is a treasure hunt that will offer all sorts of new opportunities if you know how to mine it.

Embedding location collection and exploitation devices into ever-increasing individual computing devices will help to push location into the background, underlying normal activities and experiences, which will make it somewhat invisible. Location will become so ubiquitous that it will become part of everything. Location is not static; as long as there is change in the environment, there will be constant interaction with location information.