Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Anna Savina
Maps
Editorial
Mapping for peace: Cartography at USAID
Victoria Johnson-Dahl explains how mapping can help distribute resources to underserved communities.
Victoria Johnson-Dahl explains how mapping can help distribute resources to underserved communities.

The mission of the United States Agency for International Development Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID OTI) is to end extreme poverty and support people in need all around the world. Tell us a bit more about your role at the agency and how you contribute to its mission.

I've been a contractor supporting USAID for ten years. For the first five years, I supported the USAID Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs (OAPA). After that, I worked at Food For Peace (FFP), and currently, I work with the Office of Transition Initiatives. It supports U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping its local partners advance peace and democracy. 

I’m mostly focused on the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and Asia. Much of my day-to-day work is about analyzing, synthesizing, and mapping relevant data. What’s interesting is that we are always working with a large variety of data sources — our maps and graphics contain a great deal of information. It’s a fun challenge to convey that information in an elegant and user-friendly way.

How did you get interested in cartography? 

When I was a kid, my mother took us on many car trips and whoever sat in the front seat was the navigator. I was better at navigating than my sister (sorry Val!). I got to sit in the front seat with our enormous trucker’s atlas on my lap. When we were on an interstate for several hours at a time and I didn’t need to give any directions, I enjoyed flipping through all the pages. That’s how I fell in love with cartography.

My interest was also fueled by the maps I saw in books and movies. I remember maps from Winnie the Pooh and The Phantom Tollbooth — even when I was a child, it was clear to me that a map can be much more than just a navigation tool. It can serve as a storytelling device, a source of inspiration and delight.

Victoria planned a solo vacation in London. She likes to find her way around without a fixed destination on foot and on bike. London has a robust bikeshare system and a good network of bike lanes, so she will use the map as a reference while exploring. 

What’s it like creating maps about the conflict zones and regions that are recovering from a natural disaster?     

The work I support occurs in challenging environments. It is essential for my team to gain a better up-front understanding of the rapidly changing context of this environment. This highlights an important element of my job that we call “ground truthing.” My team will sit down with the locals, and we try to map out their lived experiences, observations, and perspectives. The resulting maps harness the essential local knowledge that can be used to inform OTI activities. 

We start by putting a large paper or digital map in front of a person — sometimes we use OpenStreetMap or Google Maps, or printouts of reference maps we’ve made depending on the area, and ask the participant to walk through their understanding of the area. Then we map this initial layer of information, check if it’s correct, and build on the basics there through further conversations to fill the map with detailed, accurate information. It’s a very iterative process, and getting the precision is difficult, but you end up with a really useful map!

What challenges do you encounter when mapping regions like the Middle East and Eastern Europe?   

It’s often hard to find accurate data about ongoing conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation changes hourly, and the data is outdated almost immediately. There are also areas where a lot of official information is outdated because the local government hasn’t done a recent census, or the population has unexpectedly fluctuated due to natural disasters, critical resource insecurities, or conflicts arising in neighboring countries. For example, it can be hard to accurately calculate the number of people needing aid after a hurricane or an earthquake if we only have public records from eight years ago. 

Your first book, Buffalo in 50 Maps, tells stories about your hometown through dozens of different perspectives. How did you come up with that idea, and what is it like creating maps for a non-professional audience?

I’m so happy I got a chance to write this book because it allows me to talk about maps to people outside of the cartography world! One of my favorite side projects is a column called ‘Fun with Maps’ that I wrote for The Awl. With this project I could share information about the coolest toxic sites across America, review historic maps of the moon, and discuss peculiar U.S. borders.    

In addition to that, being from Buffalo is a big part of who I am. When my friend encouraged me to contact the Belt Publishing team, which was looking for an author/mapper for their book about Buffalo, I jumped at the chance. I am excited to work on that book and tell stories that make my hometown so special. 

The book is broken down into several sections, and each one is devoted to a different aspect of Buffalo's history. Even today, Buffalo ranks as one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and I really wanted to show how its layout affected the different communities within the city.  For example, I decided to include a map that shows how the introduction of the Kensington Expressway in 1971 effectively broke apart certain neighborhoods in a way that has enabled continuing segregation of the city. This project illustrates one of my favorite parts of cartography: developing hyper-local maps that can connect the dots between the history, demographics, and geography of a region.

One of Victoria’s favorite maps from the book shows the age of housing in the city. The data comes from a tax assessment database that the city government has on their open data portal. Buffalo had a massive housing construction boom in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the steep drop off in population over the second half of the century means that a lot of beautiful old houses haven't been redeveloped. That also means that a lot of them have fallen into disrepair, resulting in vacancy, and in many cases, demolition.
Ground truthing — mapping out ephemeral or non-physical features of an area by using local personal knowledge.

Do you have any tips for someone who is just starting out and wants to create beautiful and impactful maps?

First of all, join The North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS)! Everyone there is enthusiastic and supportive. We know there are not a lot of us in the profession, and we want to encourage everyone to succeed.  

Second, don't be afraid to try new things and fail. I've made some hideous maps! No one starts out in cartography making the most beautiful and perfect product on the first try. Or the second try, or even the thirtieth try! As a cartographer, you must be very comfortable with the process of trial and error. And sometimes, when you’re just screwing around, you’ll accidentally find the nicest color combination, or a very impactful visualization. Part of the process of becoming a cartographer is learning from your own mistakes and being, as Bob Ross always said, open to “happy accidents.”

And finally, it’s important to share your work. You don't have to make a map alone if you don't want to. You aren’t mapping within a vacuum. Collaboration is a big part of what we do, and it’s always great to get someone else’s perspective. At OTI, everyone has something they are passionate about. For example, one of my coworkers has an amazing eye for color. Another develops the coolest interactive products. Personally, I’m into representing borders correctly and fairly, because I love investigating their historical context and understanding the best way to represent this kind of demarcation (which often involves reaching out to Brooke’s team!). 

Cartography is all about building community, and by learning from each other, we can together create maps that make a difference.

I really wanted to show how Buffalo's layout affected the different communities within the city.
Bio
Victoria is a Geographic Information Officer doing project management work for USAID OTI on conflict prevention and stabilization. She’s been sent out on assignment in Germany, Kenya, Iraq and Tunisia, while overseeing the needs of programs in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. She is also a director at large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), and a Buffalo native. Her favorite things to do in Buffalo are kayak on the river and enjoy a chicken finger sub.
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