National Geographic
Menu

Back to the Future: On National Geographic and Crisis Mapping

Published in October 1888, the first issue of National Geographic Magazine “was a modest looking scientific brochure with an austere terra-cotta cover” (NG 2003). The inaugural publication comprised a dense academic treatise on the classification of geographic forms by genesis. But that wasn’t all. The first issue also included a riveting account of “The Great White Hurricane” of March 1888, which still ranks as one of the worst winter storms ever in US history.

Wreck at Coleman's Station, New York & Harlem R. R., March 13, 1888. Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library.

I’ve just spent a riveting week myself at the 2012 National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington DC, the birthplace of the National Geographic Society. I was truly honored to be recognized as a 2012 Emerging Explorer along with such an amazing and accomplished cadre of explorers. So it was with excitement that I began reading up on the history of this unique institution whilst on my flight to Doha following the Symposium.

I’ve been tagged as the “Crisis Mapper” of the Emerging Explorers Class of 2012. So imagine my astonishment when I  began discovering that National Geographic had a long history of covering and mapping natural disasters, humanitarian crises and wars starting from the very first issue of the magazine in 1888. And when World War I broke out:

“Readers opened their August 1914 edition of the magazine to find an up-to-date map of ‘The New Balkan States and Central Europe’ that allowed them to follow the developments of the war. Large maps of the fighting fronts continued to be published throughout the conflict […]” (NG 2003).

Map of ‘The New Balkan States and Central Europe’ from the August 1914 "National Geographic Magazine." Image courtesy NGS.

National Geographic even established a News Service Bureau to provide bulletins on the geographic aspects of the war for the nation’s newspapers. As the respected war strategist Carl von Clausewitz noted half-a-century before the launch of Geographic, “geography and the character of the ground bear a close and ever present relation to warfare, . . . both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation.”

“When World War II came, the Geographic opened its vast files of photographs, more than 300,000 at that time, to the armed forces. By matching prewar aerial photographs against wartime ones, analysts detected camouflage and gathered intelligence” (NG 2003).

During the 1960s, National Geographic “did not shrink from covering the war in Vietnam.” Staff writers and photographers captured all aspects of the war from “Saigon to the Mekong Delta to villages and rice fields.” In the years and decades that followed, Geographic continued to capture unfolding crises, from occupied Palestine and Apartheid South Africa to war-torn Afghanistan and the drought-striven Sahel of Africa.

The iconic cover featuring a young Afghan refugee from June 1985. Photo courtesy NGS.

Geographic also covered the tragedy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the dramatic eruption of Mount Saint Helens. The gripping account of the latter would in fact become the most popular article in all of National Geographic history.

Today, “new technologies–remote sensing, lasers, computer graphics, x-rays and CT scans–allow National Geographic to picture the world in new ways.” This is equally true of maps. “Since the first map was published in the magazine in 1888, maps  have been an integral component of many magazine articles, books and television programs […]. Originally drafted by hand on large projections, today’s maps are created by state-of-the art computers to map everything from the Grand Canyon to the outer reaches of the universe” (NG 2003). And crises.

“Pick up a newspaper and every single day you’ll see how geography plays a dominant role in giving a third dimension to life,” wrote Gil Grosvenor, the former Editor in Chief of National Geographic (NG 2003). And as we know only too well, many of the headlines in today’s newspapers relay stories of crises the world over. National Geographic has a tremendous opportunity to shed a third dimension on emerging crises around the globe using new live mapping technologies. Indeed, to map the world is to know it, and to map the world live is to change it live before it’s too late. The next post in this series will illustrate why with an example from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for positive social change. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI). Patrick also authors the widely respected iRevolution blog and tweets at @patrickmeier.

Comments

  1. [...] National Geographic Society has a long history of crisis mapping disasters. But what happened in Haiti on January 12, 2010 would forever change the very concept of a crisis [...]