map data (BAIVECTOR/

Reimagining maps

An online discussion about new ways to develop and use maps resulted in several key themes, including interactivity and crowdsourcing.

“Specifically, the thing that we really homed in on as an interesting topic was the interplay between the map user, the database behind the map and the map interface, and the discussion emphasized the importance of being able to quantify that interplay,” said John Main, research chief scientist and senior scientist for analytics for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “I think that could be a nugget that really came out of this conversation.”

Main kicked off the “Reimagining Maps” incubator on July 28 on Polyplexus, a social media platform that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched last year to accelerate research and development. About 30 people participated in the evidence-based discussion that culminated in a live, two-hour “Ask Me Anything” session on Aug. 6.

The crux of the conversation was how to view maps not as 2D renderings but as a system involving user data and representation, Main said.

The concept of crowdsourcing mapping -- Waze meets Snapchat,” as one participant put it -- is an additional avenue to pursue, Main said. Another fascinating thread related to ensuring warfighters are sending trustworthy geographical information back to a network, he said.

In a roundup of the live discussion, Main noted other themes in an Aug. 7 post. They include metacartography, a “geospatial specialty that considers data, user, context, mission and delivery as a single system”; mining medical 3D imaging such as MRI and CT scans for hints about best practices in geospatial 3D; and multi-scale iconology, the use of symbols that “convey meaning at a distance and the same meaning with more detail as the viewer approaches.”

He also noted the importance of good metrics. For a story map, that would mean how intuitively it presents key variables for the narrative, he wrote, while for a mission map, the metrics would reflect how well the map communicates the original plan and how useful it remains when conditions change.

Main’s goal with the incubator was to conduct pre-solicitation market research by engaging the technology community in the conversation, learning about the state of the art and applying those insights to research solicitations in broad agency announcements and Small Business Innovation Research programs.

The incubator came about in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Main, who usually spends a good deal of his time on the road looking at new technologies and meeting with professors and researchers.

“When the COVID-19 situation hit, suddenly I couldn’t do any of that, and so one of the big tools of my job was gone,” Main said. He was familiar with Polyplexus from his work as a program manager at the DARPA.

“This is also a good example of us leveraging an investment by one of our [Defense Department] colleague agencies,” Main said. “It really is about [us] all trying to do our jobs as well [as] or better than we were doing them before all of this COVID-19 stuff hit. This just happens to be something DARPA was working on and is continues to work on.”

He based this particular research on interactive maps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps, which he called “very powerful but … not exactly what we need in the DOD. We’re looking for ways where we can harness the power of that connectivity to do the mission that we have to do.”

Because the conversation on Polyplexus was evidence-based, participants shared many links to journal articles, news stories and useful websites.

“It’s always good to get feedback from people that see the thoughts that you’re having and the research directions that you might be thinking about,” Main said. “We got a lot of information in a very short period of time. We could have gotten that information, but it would have been much less efficient, frankly, although I don’t think we would have gotten the diversity of opinion that we got doing it the other way.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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