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Getting To Know... Larry Bowring

This Arlington mapmaker knows the way

<strong>LARRY BOWRING</strong> is a mapmaker and an Arlingtonian. Through his company, Bowring Cartographic, he has worked on the StationMasters guide to D.C. area Metro stations as well as the official Arlington Bike Map and many others. He has even published his own board game, “Beat The Beltway.” In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Bowring talks about what he likes about maps and what the maps of the future will look like.

<p><strong>How did you get involved in mapmaking?</strong>

<p>With an undergraduate degree in geography from the University of Michigan, I found that my most marketable skill was cartography. My first job was to produce tax maps for small communities throughout New England, a job that also involved photogrammetry (taking precise measurements and making maps from aerial photography). I then went on to become the city cartographer for Worcester, Mass. and supervised their new photogrammetric mapping program. By that time I knew I wanted to go into business for myself, so got a graduate degree in cartography at the University of Wisconsin, and moved to Washington, D.C.

<p><strong>What is it about maps that interest you?</strong>

<p>It's a number of things. The practice of cartography draws on both art and science. I enjoy bringing together disparate information and organizing it in a geographical framework, yet in an artistic design that engages the reader. And every job is like solving a puzzle, especially when the results must appeal to and be understood by a broad audience.

<p><strong>What are some challenges that you face mapping the Arlington area that people who are trying to map other areas may not face? In your opinion, is Arlington a difficult place to drive in because of its lack of a street grid?</strong>

<p>In many ways Arlington is an ideal environment in which to create maps. It has an informed public, with many people accustomed to working with maps through their government service. But there are challenges. For example, like most urban areas, Arlington County has a fairly dense array of features and services that would be useful to convey on a map to potential users. The trick is in knowing how to be selective with the subject matter, and how to portray it using the available tools, so that using the finished map becomes almost intuitive. Another challenge common to locales on the east coast and Arlington specifically, is that the street network has evolved over centuries, without benefit of a more rational grid system one might find in a Midwestern city. This fact makes clear and accurate maps of transit systems even more critical.

<p><strong>How have some of the recent advances in mapmaking, such as Google and Mapquest maps, affected what you do? What is your opinion of these programs?</strong>

<p>The availability of electronic street maps and satellite images like these to anyone with internet access has made a huge impact on the industry. It's a tremendous resource if used correctly, and it has exposed many people to the benefits of maps who might otherwise not have that experience. But some features of these map systems are influenced more by programmers than by cartographers. For example, a search on an address that isn't a perfect match to the database will often result in a map with a location highlighted that is simply the geographic center of the zip code in question, and not the exact location itself. But many users take the map as gospel, and get in their cars to try and track down the feature. I've personally given revised directions to many lost drivers on the streets near my home, which is near a zip code "centroid".

<p><strong>Are maps still necessary now that many cars come with GPS devices?</strong>

<p>GPS devices are good navigation aids, as long as the databases that they are dependent on are up-to-date. But every user I've spoken to has a horror story about being foiled by road construction, one-way streets in the wrong direction, or routes that took them far out of their way. Their biggest drawback in practical use is that they don't easily convey the context of a route, but give sequential directions as though the driver were equipped with tunnel vision. Some people find this the simplest way to navigate . . . until they miss a turn and get lost.

<p><strong>What will maps look like in the future?</strong>

<p>I think the future of maps depends to a large degree on how geographically aware and informed we are, which in turn depends on the state of geographic education in our schools. One recent survey shows that 14 percent of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map of the world, which pretty clearly points up the challenge for the cartographic industry. We have a primary role of informing the public, but our works first have to engage the public with creative design, and with increased accessibility through the use of new technology and new distribution systems.