Frank Biasi: Saving the World with Maps

Frank Biasi is the director of Conservation and Special Projects at National Geographic Maps.

We all know (or should know!) that geography is the study of the Earth and its lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena. This breadth of fascinating subjects is what led me to become a geographer 25 years ago. The sub-discipline of cartography allowed me to combine my earlier interest in visual art with my newfound passion for geography. I was lucky to come of age early in the growth of computer mapping technologies, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Seeing the potential of GIS to make a difference in the world and to build a career, I quickly jumped on that bandwagon.

I first used GIS to do maps and analysis for geography courses, and to inventory property parcels around my campus as part of an internship. After graduation, I worked for a regional planning agency to help design transportation corridors that maximize business opportunities and minimize environmental impacts. I went on to work for a state environmental agency where I helped to map all of the wetlands in Massachusetts to aid in the permitting of development and construction projects.

I further developed my geographic thinking and skills working for The Nature Conservancy, where I used GIS to help conservation planners and preserve managers map biodiversity and design and execute ways to save it. I realized that conservation, as with many other fields, deals with a wide variety of systems operating across the landscape, including biological, geological, hydrological, climatological, political, transportation, and economic systems. GIS provides a powerful platform to create and combine data layers representing each of these systems in order to make maps and answer questions about the world. Seeing these maps and answering these questions helps organizations across all sectors make informed decisions about what to do and where to do it.


Recently, we as individuals have begun using simple GIS tools on our PCs and mobile phones to make maps and answer spatial questions to help us decide where to eat, shop, travel, and invest. The growing phenomena of geo-browsing and geo-searching are enabled by interactive mapping services by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, MapQuest, and others. These services are becoming increasingly personalized through GPS-enabled mobile phones and apps that tell us who and what is near us, wherever we are. The initial applications of these services have been for commercial and social uses. However, they can also help us discover and decide how we can make a positive difference in the world.

Many people are unaware of the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of dedicated nonprofit organizations working around the world to reduce human suffering, protect wildlife and ecosystems, preserve cultures, and advance scientific knowledge. These heroic people and organizations are stepping in to fill critical gaps that governments and businesses are unable or unwilling to fill. Most of the organizations have very limited financial and human resources to accomplish their objectives, yet they still manage to make an enormous difference in the lives of people, animals, and society at large.

At National Geographic, we have begun an initiative called the Global Action Atlas to highlight the work of these heroic nonprofits, and to give our audience tangible opportunities to discover and get involved in this work by donating, volunteering, advocating, visiting, and sharing with their social networks. Although it is still a beta site, ActionAtlas.org has over 400 on-the-ground projects by more than 100 reputable nonprofits around the world.  Users can browse projects on an interactive global map or by themes including Conservation, Humanitarian, Cultures, Exploration, Climate Change, and Energy. They can also enter keywords to get a list of relevant projects in the U.S and around the world.

Frank_Biasi_Pic10.JPGEvery project has an interactive profile where the organization summarizes the issues the project is working to address, their goals, and the progress being made. They also include photos, videos, documents, blogs, maps, links to more information, and lists of similar and nearby projects. Once a user has found a project that interests them, they can become a fan or comment on the project, as well as donate, volunteer, visit, or share the project with their Facebook friends. Users can build up a portfolio of their favorite projects to follow and interact with over time, thus establishing their own “Geography of Action.” We plan to add thematic layers to the map viewer such as infant mortality, biodiversity, and cultural hotspots to help people decide where they should invest their time and resources in making a difference.

We hope that the Global Action Atlas provides the public a useful and trusted service that advances National Geographic’s mission of “inspiring people to care about the planet,” by enabling them to turn inspiration into action. Over the past century National Geographic’s writers, photographers, and filmmakers have richly documented places and cultures and the challenges facing communities and the planet. Our Mission Programs have funded thousands of field-based projects to understand and conserve wildlife and cultures and advance the frontiers of science.  The Global Action Atlas is the beginning of a new effort to deeply engage our audience in this wonderful, but challenged world, and to help them become active participants in making it more wonderful.

Global Action Atlas YouTube video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRCmd2n6ip4

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