Upjohn Center takes top international honor for map product

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Map of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula.

This section of map from the GeoChange series shows part of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula.

KALAMAZOO—A cutting-edge center at Western Michigan University has been honored for developing 2013's most outstanding map product or service in North and South America.

The W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change received the award from the International Map Industry Association (Americas) during its annual conference Sept. 10 in Cambridge, Mass. The association selected the center as the winner of its gold award for Best Digital Map Product of the year as well as its Americas Award for the year's overall most outstanding map product or service.

In earning the overall award, the Upjohn Center bested public and private organizations including the National Geographic Society and U.S. Geological Survey.

In addition, the center's map product was runner-up for the three-region International Map Industry Association's 2013 global award. WMU celebrated those achievements during an Oct. 11 reception in the center's offices in Welborn Hall.

Many special features

The Upjohn Center was recognized for its Authoritative U.S. Topos map initiative, which includes a Topographic Maps series and a hybrid sub-series called GeoChange maps. The hyper-accurately geo-referenced maps in the two series can be used with GPS-enabled mobile devices and software based on Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Each map is self-contained in the tablet or smartphone, so no wireless connection is required. This means the maps can be used in wilderness areas and on large water bodies out of range of cell towers. They can also be used for navigation and location finding, because a blue dot displays the user's location on the maps and moves across the maps as the user moves.

Photo of the Authoritative U.S. Topos map initiative team.

From left: Marilyn Johnson, Kevin Agema, Katy Moharter, Gregory Anderson, Margaret-Rose Spyker, Caitlin Prior and David Dickason

"Our maps seem simple, but are very sophisticated," says Dr. David Dickason, WMU professor emeritus of geography and the Upjohn Center's founder and first director.

"They are incredibly accurate, easy to use and quick. Information added to a map can be emailed back to base or transferred by Wi-Fi, and can be used immediately with Google Earth."

Professional and student staff members in the center began the Authoritative U.S. Topos map initiative in 2007 and have put years of effort into scanning, georeferencing, image processing and related work necessary to bring its maps to market.

Available so far are some 35,000 maps of U.S. places, primarily Michigan and the East and West coasts. In addition, the center is beginning to release maps of various Asian countries.

Invaluable for making comparisons

The Topographic Maps series consists of digitized and georeferenced versions of the U.S. Geological Survey's most recent fully quality-assured maps, the bulk of which were produced 25 to 35 years ago.

The GeoChange maps series combines those enhanced USGS topographic maps with digital aerial images of the same areas covered in the topographic maps. Readers see through the maps transparently to the aerial images, most of which were taken in 2011 to 2013, so it is easy see where changes such as road construction, river diversions and urban sprawl have occurred.

"Maps like the ones from the USGS and other agencies are scientific documents. Comparing maps of the same area over time is like viewing multiple X-rays or MRIs of the human body. It's useful to show the state of the earth similarly. Digital maps are essential tools to monitor, study and predict what happens next, and where," Dickason says.

"Environmentalists can use our GeoChange maps to monitor the health of watersheds, cities can monitor their roads and services, and researchers can study why people's health varies so greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Law enforcement will also find the maps useful during power outages and emergencies."

Variety of potential users

Importantly, Dickason notes, users of the Upjohn Center's maps can collect information in the field and attach this information as well as photos to any points on the maps that they choose. This capability will be a boon to businesses, government agencies and researchers.

But casual users will also find the capability valuable for personal uses, such as tracing family histories and recording vacation travels.

"For the first time," Dickason says, "it's possible to experience the Gettysburg or Antietam Civil War battlefields, or Glacier and Yosemite national parks using comprehensively detailed maps as guides to rediscover history or nature excitingly in the field."

Maps cost between 99 cents and $1.99 in the topographic series and $2.99 in the GeoChange series. They can be downloaded with Avenza Inc.'s free PDF Maps app, which is available from Apple's App Store and comes with built-in tools to customize maps as well as to add and export data. Once downloaded, PDF Maps has its own map store, where individual maps from the Upjohn Center and many other vendors may be purchased.

For more information, visit wmich.edu/ucgc or contact the Upjohn Center at cgc-upjohncenter@wmich.edu or (269) 387-3364.