The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
Rachel Zack
Editorial
The Forefront of Diplomacy: Making Maps at the State Department
We sat down with Brooke Marston to understand what it's like to work at the nexus of intelligence and diplomacy.
We sat down with Brooke Marston to understand what it's like to work at the nexus of intelligence and diplomacy.

Describe a day in your life as a cartographer at the State Department.

I work in the Geographic Information Unit of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues (GGI), in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which is the oldest civilian intelligence element in the U.S. Government (USG). It is our job to provide policymakers with independent, all-source analysis to make informed decisions about U.S. foreign policy. So in addition to making maps, our unit advises, briefs, and coordinates on any number of questions that policymakers are asking every day. We are at the nexus of intelligence and diplomacy, and because we are in the advantageous position of sitting in the same building as the policymakers we provide finished intel to, we’re right at the forefront of diplomacy. Here is one example of our work that Newsweek picked up for an article about China’s assertion that the U.S. Navy intruded on waters near the South China Sea:


Here is an example of GGI providing a map for policymakers working on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis unfolding in Burma’s Rakhine State in 2017:

What’s it been like working through the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine?

In a word: intense. This type of 24-hour, rapidly evolving conflict turns our unit into a newsroom, metaphorically. There are frequent, rapid turnaround requests for everyone from intel analysts to embassies, to senior officials including the Secretary of State. Many of the maps you’re seeing in the news are similar to what we have been mapping, too–incursion and troop locations, humanitarian issues, aid relief, refugee diaspora, etc. Oftentimes our maps, and many maps in general, are ephemeral so we’re constantly updating or creating new products to visualize the complex, ever-changing geopolitical landscape.

Broadly, what is your unit (GGI) responsible for?

We have three main pillars of responsibility. The first is sovereignty and international boundaries. We hold the authority for creating the Large Scale International Boundary Dataset (LSIB), which is the only international boundary dataset approved for USG use. It incorporates information from treaties, courts, tribunals, national mapping agencies, and international arbitration (de jure), and not necessarily limits of control “on the ground” (de facto). The LSIB is the only dataset we are responsible for providing as a National Geospatial Data Asset endorsed by the Federal Geographic Data Committee 

Because we are responsible for this information, we field questions on a daily basis about territorial and sovereignty claims and disputes around the world. A good example of this are the multiple maritime claims in the South China Sea or the Arctic, or the disputed sovereignty in areas like Nagorno-Karabakh or Aksai Chin. All these questions about territory and sovereignty issues wind up in our unit. 

The second pillar is cartography. We are cartographers not only for INR, but for the entirety of the State Department. Anyone in the Department or at our embassies or posts overseas can request a map. One of my most memorable projects was making maps for an international treaty. There are important considerations to weigh when designing a treaty map since it’ll be printed on various printers, signed, scanned, emailed, and printed again so you really need a clean, clear, and elegant style that will hold up through all of that. The maps will exist in perpetuity, and it was truly amazing and humbling to have been a part of. 

The final pillar is geographic names. I represent the Department and our foreign policy interests on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN), the federal body mandated by Congress to  standardize geographic place names and spellings for the USG. The BGN is made up of several committees–the Domestic Names Committee, the Foreign Names Committee (FNC), and advisory committees such as for Antarctic or undersea feature names, for example. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency hosts and maintains the USG’s official gazetteer of BGN-approved foreign place names. In addition to advising on geographic names, I also serve as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) and represent the BGN in meetings with our British counterparts, the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (PCGN).

Geographic names questions come up more frequently than you might expect. Every map we make we check place names with the gazetteer. Policymakers often have questions about place names, like whether it’s Burma or Myanmar or when Macedonia changed to North Macedonia. Lately we’ve had a lot of questions about Ukrainian place names and why Ukrainian spellings differ noticeably from older Russian transliterations. The Aral Sea is one of the more interesting geonames topics I’ve researched. It was the fourth largest lake in the world, but has decreased dramatically in size over time due to Soviet irrigation projects. As a result, the Aral Sea is now multiple, largely separate features. Should the “Aral Sea” name still apply to these separate features if the “sea” no longer really exists?

What is the process for changing a place name?

It differs based on whether it’s a domestic or foreign name. If it’s a country that is changing their name, that country’s government usually amends its constitution and informs other countries through official diplomatic channels, and then their permanent mission to the United Nations in New York provides an official letter of notification specifying what their new name is. I propose the name change to the BGN FNC and the Committee votes to approve changing the name in the official gazetteer.

Name changes happen constantly, and don’t often make the news, but one particularly notable place name change was Kyiv (from Kiev). In 2019, the BGN was using Kiev, the Russian transliteration of the Ukrainian city name. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine reached out to our office and recommended changing the spelling to Kyiv. You can read the BGN FNC statements on several key name changes here.

Place names feel are constantly changing. How do you manage the database?

The BGN FNC staff manages the database that comprises the gazetteer. I’ll catch issues in the database while working on mapping projects. As I’m working on a map, I may find a couple places where the coordinates have moved because the city has expanded, or the name of a location has officially changed (like Astana to Nur-Sultan). But sometimes I’ll just get an email from a curious member of the public who has taken the time to let me know about something they found. 

...we field questions on a daily basis about territorial and sovereignty claims and disputes around the world.

You must have worked on many incredible projects. Does one stand out to you?

The project I’m most proud of is the Department’s Foreign Service Posts map. It’s a world map that shows the Department’s presence overseas including all of our embassies, consulates, passport offices, and other facilities around the world. It also includes the Department’s six regional bureaus and time zones. That’s a lot of information for one map!

This is one of my favorite projects for a few reasons. This is a map that is hung on the wall of the Department’s offices in DC and overseas. It’s referenced nearly every day and serves to increase geographic literacy across the Department, illustrating U.S. perspectives on international boundaries and sovereignty. When I toyed with the idea of removing time zones, multiple customers told me absolutely not! They reference this map to quickly determine when it’s appropriate to call someone in another region or at Post. It was a great exercise in knowing your audience and what the purpose of the map is.

Another reason is that this map has such a rich legacy. We have a canvas atlas iteration of this map from 1888 in our flat files that I found while doing research for the update. Our office has updated this map for 120 years. It’s amazing to see the various iterations that have captured and contextualized the world’s evolving political geography and understand how this latest iteration fits into a much greater, more continuous legacy.

Department of State Facilities and Areas of Jurisdiction, April 2021. 

To see examples of some of the previous versions of the map, check out Brooke’s article “Mapping Diplomatic History: the transformation of the ‘Foreign Service Posts’ map” in the January 2022 State Magazine issue here.

Last question - why are time zones particularly challenging to map?

There is no international authority for time zones! That means I had to verify each time zone in the world to understand what had changed between the 2014 version of the map and this new one. 

The most useful resource I found was a Microsoft blog that noted every time zone and daylight savings time they documented when they had to change time zone metadata information. That's one of the ways I confirmed what time zone changes had happened in the last seven to eight years.

And you might think it’s only a few changes, but time zones change more often than you might think. In 2015, North Korea adjusted their clocks 30 minutes to sync with South Korea in a sign of rapprochement and goodwill. After Russia attempted to annex Crimea, Crimea switched from UTC+2 (which the rest of Ukraine observes) to UTC+3, the same time zone as Moscow. The USG recognizes Crimea as sovereign Ukrainian territory so to allay any confusion, I added a caveat to the legend. It’s interesting to see how, on a map, a time zone can be used to exert influence like that. The world is a constantly changing place and the cartographers in GGI are here to help map it.

The world is a constantly changing place and the cartographers in GGI are here to help map it.
Bio
Brooke Marston is a cartographer in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State. She attended the University of Colorado Boulder for Geography and Music, and studied with Dr. Bernhard Jenny at Oregon State University where she received her Masters in Geography. Brooke is Vice-President-Elect of the North American Cartographic Information Society and serves as the Scientific Program Chair for the International Cartographic Association’s Commission on Mountain Cartography.
More articles

Tips for Improving Your Elixir Configuration

SQLAlchemy Reflection and PostgreSQL for Data Schema Flexibility

Mapping Climate Change at the Washington Post

Tools for Fast (and Less Furious) Frontend Development

Computer Graphics in the Land of Maps