No Matter Their Scale, NGA Maps Have Huge Impact

Despite the proliferation of GPS on smartphones and other digital devices, NGA’s partners continue to have a constant demand for digital and printed maps.


When you travel, it’s a fair bet that you have used maps and mapping information to reach your destination easily, and without getting lost. Before the Global Positioning System was widely available, most people had printed maps that showed road networks and other geographic features to help them plan their driving routes.

Despite the proliferation of GPS on smartphones and other digital devices, NGA’s partners continue to have a constant demand for digital and printed maps.

As requirements arise, these military and government organizations contact the Office of Geography in Source’s Foundation GEOINT Group to have their maps produced. The topographic maps and navigational planning charts the Office of Geography creates are far more complex than the everyday maps that most people know and use on their smartphones.

“Smartphone mapping apps are great for civilians who need directions to points of interest,” said NGA’s chief of the production division in the Office of Geography. However, “NGA partners require maps, often of remote places, that help them maneuver through terrain — either by foot or in military vehicles — sometimes with only a magnetic compass for navigation,” he said.

“My customers don’t need a map for directions to a local restaurant, they need a map to understand how to maneuver platoons and tanks through remote areas to defeat the enemy, or where to land a helicopter, and that degree of mapping is more complex than what exists on your smartphone,” the chief added.

To help NGA customers stay on track during their missions, four branches in the production division take these requirements and craft them into finished maps that are reviewed for quality assurance before passing them onto Source’s GEOINT Information Group for dissemination. Making these maps can be a labor-intensive endeavor, depending on the nature of the requirement.

Many map scales, multiple missions

The Office of Geography makes both small-scale and large-scale maps, based on the customer’s required map scale, each which show different amounts and types of information.

Large-scale maps, for example, display a smaller amount of area with greater amounts of detail. Two large-scale mapping branches, one at NCE and one in St. Louis, make 1:50K maps. When a map has a 1:50K scale, this means that each inch on this map equals four-fifths of a mile on the ground. Details that you might see on a large-scale map include country roads, buildings and embankments.

Meanwhile, the small-scale mapping branch in St. Louis makes charts at the following scales: 1:250K, 1:500K, 1:1M, 1:2M and 1:5M. An inch equals approximately four miles on a chart at 1:250K scale; eight miles on a chart at 1:500K scale; 16 miles on a chart at 1:1M scale; 32 miles on a chart at 1:2M scale; and 80 miles on a chart at the 1:5M scale. Typical features that you may see on a small-scale map include navigational aids, called NAVAIDS, towns and major interstate highway networks.

Small-scale chart of the USA and Canadian border

A portion of a small-scale chart, 1:500k covering the USA and Canadian border. (NGA Source product)

Map-making is no walk in the park

As noted above, small-scale charts and large-scale maps are used for different purposes. But one thing they have in common is that customers sometimes believe that making a map is a quick and effortless process.

“A lot of people think it’s an easy process,” Brian Snyder, a cartographer in the East’s large-scale mapping branch said of his work making maps. “They [large-scale maps] do take time to produce.”

Senior GEOINT Officer for Cartography Mark Wayne agrees that map/chart production can be a labor-intensive process, whether the goal is to make a large-scale map or small-scale chart.

“Small-scale charts are huge, in terms of digital size and contain a huge amount of data,” said Wayne. “Obtaining accurate and current information is challenging to make the charts usable. The smaller the scale, the longer it takes to compile, quality-assure and update.”

These small-scale charts are produced for a variety functions, depending on the customer requirement. Sometimes these same small-scale charts are created for tactical purposes, while other times they are used for operational planning and mission execution. They are widely used by U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Transportation Command and combat commands to perform their missions, Wayne noted.

The same goes for NGA’s foreign partners.

“NGA’s international partners are voracious consumers of our maps and especially rely on them as a common operational picture during coalition actions,” said Dan Holderfield, senior international officer for foundation in the Office of International Affairs. “In exchange, many of them contribute data content to enhance the maps and some actually co-produce the maps alongside NGA, thus sharing the burden.”

Small teams, detail-oriented work

The Office of Geography runs a tight ship in its mapmaking efforts.

“One hundred percent of all NGA small-scale charts disseminated are quality-assured from co-producers or producers internally by a small branch in the production division [of the Office of Geography] containing less than 15 personnel that produce six product lines,” Wayne said.

The large-scale mapping branches at NCE and Second Street are likewise staffed by teams that have just over a dozen employees. Some of the work that team members perform to make the maps just right for customers can require attention to detail, said Matthew Bowling, a cartographic analyst in the large-scale mapping branch.

For example, Bowling and other cartographic analysts in his branch need to compare the maps they are working on with elevation data to make sure that the rivers on them are running downhill. Data collectors may not have access to elevation data, and therefore they also may not be certain which way a river runs.

Additionally, cartographers need to incorporate information from NGA’s Geographic Names Database, also known as GeoNames, on their maps — and verify the spelling of these words — while making sure the map avoids clutter, so that it is easily readable.

GeoNames contains the official standardized geographic names and spellings used by all U.S. government agencies, including the IC and DOD, national and international co-production partners, academia and private industry. This GeoNames information is also disseminated in support of global customers and public consumers.

Since large-scale maps show more detail than small-scale charts, it’s no surprise they are frequently used in combat operations. According to Snyder, large-scale maps are also frequently ideal for evacuations, humanitarian relief efforts, combat missions and crisis support.

Portion of large-scale map of Kathmandu

A portion of a large-scale map, 1:100K covering Kathmandu. (NGA Source product)

More than 1000 maps produced each year

In a single year, the large-scale mapping branches can produce hundreds, or even thousands of maps. In fiscal year 2021, the Office of Geography assesses that it produced 1,239 maps and charts. But how long Snyder, Bowling and their colleagues spend on a single map depends on how complex it is. A single map can take a couple of hours, or a couple of months, depending on what needs to be done, Snyder said.

The GEOINT Information Group not only receives maps, carefully crafted by the Office of Geography’s cartographers, but maps that the same office forwards from foreign partners and automated maps assembled from databases by the Cartographic Web Service (CWS), a repository of map information, that has never been seen by humans. The softcopy and hardcopy media branch in the Office of GEOINT Information does an additional level of quality control on all of these classes of maps, including color-correction, adjusting the colors for red/blue light readability, ordering National Stock Numbers from Defense Logistics Agency and finally applying barcodes and Quick Read codes to each map. A QR code is a barcode that stores information that can be read by a digital device, such as a smartphone.

After the softcopy and hardcopy media branch applies the finishing touches to the maps, some are uploaded to the Print on Demand library, where NGA partners at the Defense Logistics Agency print them out to complete formal orders, or military customers can download them as geo-referenced Portable Document Format files to print locally. Other maps and charts are de-collared — that is to say, their margins are removed — and converted to Compressed ARC Digitized Raster Graphics tiles for use in vehicle and aircraft scrolling digital navigation and command battle-space management systems. The CWS automated maps are assigned National Stock Numbers (NSNs), QR codes are applied and then the maps are uploaded to local crisis pages as needed.

“The Office of Geography sends us the maps, but they don’t go out until we say they’re maps,” explained Branch Chief Tom Juhnke.

With so many steps involved in producing and disseminating the maps that the Office of Geography produces and the GEOINT Information Group disseminates, it’s no surprise that a team of experts regularly leads a series of workshops — known as COLDSTART — to help demystify these processes.

COLDSTART is an accelerated week of mapmaking and map finishing using automated tools that NGA provides. The sessions are led by NGA experts who are experienced in cartography and in teaching the science, and held at Moonshot Labs, an unclassified innovation hub and collider space in downtown St. Louis, for NGA, its partners and customers to meet, create, collaborate and innovate.

Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steven Warnsing, who teaches NGA partners how to finish maps in support of their missions, sees great promise with the use of Moonshot Labs to support the growth of the cartographic tradecraft in the military geospatial community — whether the maps used are small-scale or large-scale.

“As we forge relationships to directly support the warfighter, these expertly trained engineers can simultaneously support combatant commanders, forward-deployed warfighters and NGA with foundational geospatial products in a high operational-tempo and time-sensitive environment,” said Warnsing.

Feature image: A portion of a small-scale chart, 1:500k covering the USA and Canadian border. (NGA Source product)

Article contributed by NGA and republished with permission. Approved for public release, 22-757.

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