Cartography Award Winners PT 2: Aly DeGraff

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Each year the National Geographic Society sponsors a number of cartography awards to support up-and-coming student map makers. Last week, we met Adam Thom, winner of the Arthur Robinson Award. This week, we’ll meet Aly DeGraff, who won the National Geographic Award in Mapping with Treasure Island, a map of Colombia’s Isla de Providencia, a.k.a. Old Providence Island. Her prize: $900 and a National Geographic Atlas. Aly shared her map with us, as well as her thoughts on cartography, design, and “ground-truthing.”
First, can you give us some information about yourself?
What was your undergraduate major?
Geography with minors in Latin American History and Portuguese
Where are you from?
East Middlebury, VT
Name one or more dream jobs: 
Who is your favorite geographer, map maker, or adventurer?
Bernard Nietschmann, a Latin Americanist Cultural Geographer whose work focused on empowering native peoples to fight to protect their rights to land and the environment, and on the use of traditional knowledge in marine conservation (he received five grants from National Geographic for his work).
What is your favorite thing about cartography?
I love making visually appealing and yet extremely practical products that help the audience to approach the landscape through a new and different mindset.
Name an important skill that you learned before college: 
The most important skill I learned before college was basic graphic design from my mom. I understood early on the importance of presentation in my work and I cannot thank her enough for that!
Now then, about your map…
What class was it for?
I turned the final work in for my Spatial Visualization (Cartography) class, but I collected all the field data during an independent mapping project over Middlebury College’s January-Term
What inspired you to do this project?
I decided to embark on creating a map of Old Providence, Colombia on my second trip to the tiny Caribbean island where my best friend spent his childhood.

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(Right: a section showing the Airport, the sea, and barrier reefs–the squiggly blue line. Above: Aly in the field.
On my first visit to Old Providence in December 2007 I could not find a single map that showed more than a basic outline of the island, and it was not until mid-2008 that Google Earth had a satellite image showing Old Providence as more than a change in the depth of the surrounding sea. Online maps rarely pictured more than a single road, some gullies, and the airport, scattered with approximate dive sites in the surrounding blue, and the only quality map I found was a British 1835 survey from NOAA that was rather outdated.
All that the tourist center on the island could provide was a poorly copied map with Spanish toponyms. (Historically, the island has been passed back and forth between Anglo-Caribbean colonizers and Spanish rulers, causing tension between English and Spanish speakers. This became especially true after the 1926 ‘Colombianization’ campaign, which decreed it illegal to use English or Creole in schools or official documents until the adoption of the new Constitution in 1991.) When I returned to Old Providence in January 2010, I went with the intention of creating a cartographically accurate reference map of the island that remained faithful to the ‘native’ islanders.
What were your biggest design decisions/challenges?
My most important design decision was the orientation of my map. In my search for every existing cartographic reference (accurate or not) of Old Providence, I found that many of the maps tended to orient north to the right side of the page. Despite it being a common cartographic occurrence that informed my own mental map of the island, I chose to orient west at the bottom of the page, because the strong winds and storms come from the west. The map therefore depicts the eastern side (top) buffered from the western wind (coming from the bottom) by the hilly topography of the volcanic island. With the map not oriented north, I had the flexibility to add a dual-use compass to show the wind frequency–an important feature when considering water activities dependent on wave-height (such as snorkeling).
Ground truthing was an important part of the research for your map…
What is ground-truthing? 
Ground-truthing is the process of fact-checking data in the field; for me this included correcting a significant amount of the data that I had received from other sources. For example, on one map, any trail from a long-abandoned cow path to the paved road that runs around the island had been labeled as part of the road network and, on another, numerous Spanish misinterpretations of the English/Creole toponyms had altered place names completely (ex- Allen Bay became Almond Bay).
What did you ground-truth for your project?
I ground-truthed all of the roads, sidewalks, paths, beaches, kilometer markers…more simply, the only data I did not ground-truth were the elevations (you need a very expensive GPS to get accurate elevation readings), the biosphere reserve, the populated places, the reef, and the gullies.
Treasure Island has a unified and beautiful aesthetic quality…
What other art/design do you do outside of geography and cartography?
While not quite outside of the field of geography, I was the Managing Editor for my college’s publication, the Middlebury Geographic, which required extensive art/design work. I also did a lot of graphic design for my job at the Language Schools Office and for the TEDx Middlebury event.
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(Above: section of Aly’s map… including Cedar Valley!!!)
-Cedar Attanasio, for My Wonderful World

One thought on “Cartography Award Winners PT 2: Aly DeGraff

  1. Hello,
    I just fell across this wonderful page while researching my home island of Old Providence.
    I would like to congratulate Allison for this project.
    Kind Regards,
    Ralph Newball, MD.

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