The Arrowhead on the Internet: A Conversation with National Park Service Cartographer Mamata Akella

On a Saturday in March, UW Madison Geography graduate student Carl Sack sat down at a coffee shop on State Street with Colorado State University’s Mamata Akella, a cartographer for the National Park Service’s NPMap team. NPMap is a project to create web mapping tools for the national parks and their supporting partners, and has revolutionized Park Service maps on the Internet. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Carl Sack: What role do the maps you create play in connecting people to the landscapes of national parks?

Mamata Akella: We’re just getting into mobile mapping, where people are going to be using the maps on the ground. The traditional print mapping that the National Park Service has been doing forever helps orient the visitor, but I think what’s really cool about the mobile maps is the accessibility component. Now, somebody who can’t see is going to be able to walk around a national park and listen to the description of it. We’re doing one for the Statue of Liberty, and there’s going to be some augmented reality. You’re actually going to be able to put your phone up to the Statue of Liberty, see inside, see how it’s constructed, and see what it looks like from that kind of how-it-was-built perspective.

Our web maps right now are more information products based on different research going on in the parks, or just to generally show you can’t go into the park at this road right now for these reasons. With these Air Resources [Division] maps, it’s been really cool to connect the public to the research and science that’s going on. To show their research in a visual way with all the information combined helps people maybe not experience the national parks per se, a national park per se, but overall what’s going on at national parks and what National Park Service people are studying and researching and doing.

CS: There’s currently a lot of research interest in the digital humanities. How can digital mapping projects contribute to the national parks’ role as centers of history and cultural heritage?

MA: In so many ways. One of the parks that we’re doing is Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site in Skagway, Alaska. [Before] I went out there, I never even knew this place existed, but when you go there the story is just so interesting. Somebody said, “I found a nugget of gold up here,” and then so many people came without even knowing whether they were going to find gold. There are two treacherous trails that people would take up. One of them was the Chilkoot Trail, which was an American Indian trail that they would take to go up to The Yukon. Then there was a town, Skagway, where people would go and get a year’s worth of supplies to take up to the Yukon. Because Alaska’s terrain is really treacherous, they would go in winter to cross rivers when things were frozen. So that’s a really neat piece of cultural history. Everybody goes to Skagway because it’s a big port for cruise ships, where you go and buy jewelry and do all these things, but what we’ve been trying to do through these mobile maps is really tell the story of the place.

There’s so many cultural resources that people don’t even know exist. I went to New York City because we’re going to be doing an app with National Parks of New York Harbor. In Manhattan, there’s one building related to Theodore Roosevelt, and [park employees] were saying, “nobody ever comes in here because nobody knows that this was Theodore [Roosevelt’s House].” This app is going to make it part of the tour. Meeting with these park people, staff and rangers that are so passionate about their tiny place of the world that they care for and they know everything about, and then being able to bring that information and their passion into a map and into a mobile context so people can understand, I think that’s a really cool thing.

Another project that’s still under development shows American Indian land removal from 1790 to 1840. There are over 65 different tribes here, categorized as geographies. This shows all the northern forest tribes. As you go through, you can see how the lands start to change, sometimes just to a point for those tribes.

CS: Who contracted you to do this application?

MA: It’s for the Cultural Resources Division of the National Park Service. There’s this group that looks at the War of 1812. It’s this woman, April, who wanted us to do this project, and she’s really passionate. She’s working with the tribes She’s and working with an ethnographer. It’s not necessarily a park, but it’s a really important national story that needs to be told. So they’re going to have that on this website, as a highlighted map to show what happened to the Native groups through these different time periods.

Disappearing Homelands, a Park Service web map currently under construction. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

Disappearing Homelands, a Park Service web map currently under construction. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

CS: This is very interesting to me, because one critique that’s been made of national parks is their removal of human occupation, particularly Indigenous occupation, from the history of that landscape. It seems like what you’re doing here is sort of addressing that.

MA: I was so excited about this, because that’s how I felt too. I was like, well, the National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial. What story are you going to tell? You know, you use the arrowhead as your logo. What does the arrowhead signify? I’m really hoping that a lot of American Indian stories get highlighted during the Centennial. We’re working with the leaders of these tribes to have something out there in the public eye showing what their people went through and how they just got pushed out.

It’s in a similar vein to our map showing troop movements during the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. I really like working on these cultural projects, but at the same time we need to be able to push the National Park Service forward with technology, and that’s kind of the role that we’re taking on right now. With NP Map Builder, people are going to be able to tell these kinds of stories. That’s really what I’m hoping.

With Builder, one of the maps that got made was Rocky Mountain National Park. When they had all the rains and the floods, they went in and made their own map showing pictures and where it was closed. Then, they also made another map that was kind of assessing all of the damage for their own internal purposes. In the past what used to happen was people would always come to us with even these very simple projects. “I have these points, I need them on a map.” And we’d have to build it for them. But now we can say, “Go show your points on your map, and you figure out what the story is about those points, and you tell that story through this tool, and it can be shared with everyone.” That’s kind of exciting.

Part of a national park made with NP Map Builder. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

Part of a national park made with NP Map Builder. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

All of our products are totally dynamic. The update process with printed park maps is that if a new feature is added, or if a road is no longer there for whatever reason, the park has to go back to Harper’s Ferry Center, the cartographers have to go back out to the park, see what’s changed, go back to their office, redo the map, and then the map gets reprinted and redistributed. But in some instances, like with Yellowstone when you’re trying to show live information, you don’t have the time to go through that whole six-to-eight month process, or however long it takes to do that. Our maps are constantly updating with our new boundaries, with our new roads, with our new points of interest, everything.

Our basemap, Park Tiles, is one of the first times that people have actually seen the breadth of the National Park Service. When you look at this map, you’re like, “oh wow, look at all the parks there are.”

CS: What kinds of features, values, and ideas go into making Park Tiles? How is it different than the brochure maps? Could you talk a little more about the difference between desktop and mobile? 

MA: Park Tiles is really meant to be the National Park Service online basemap. Back around 2012, we were using basemaps like Google and Bing to overlay Park Service-related information. There were a couple problems with that. First, you couldn’t see the national parks on these maps. Second, to maintain licenses with something like Google—their prices skyrocketed. We kind of had to think about, you know, the National Park Service has such a rich cartographic tradition, how can we transfer that to the web? And now what’s really interesting is that Park Tiles is actually the most detailed basemap of national parks, even more than Google, than Bing, than anything.

The purpose of it initially was to kind of start prototyping what we can do with web cartography and how we can start getting things to look like a National Park Service-branded map. They differ from the printed park map because they’re multi-scalar and the purpose of the map is very different. Park Tiles is a very plain basemap with subtle use of color and not many features added so we can support the theme of overlaid information. We don’t want our basemap to be distracting from the story that somebody is trying to tell.

Park Tiles is becoming a suite of maps. We’ve done a lot of work on thinking critically about how web maps should be presented. You shouldn’t be throwing your information on top of a basemap; your information should be sandwiched into the basemap in a meaningful way. So we’ve done a lot of work on what I call exploding Park Tiles into multiple layers that can be mixed and matched depending the theme of your map. We’ve also created a dark version of Park Tiles meant for low-vision users so they can switch in between a light and dark version depending on the settings on their computer.

A Park Tiles Mobile basemap. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

A Park Tiles Mobile basemap. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

We’ve also started the Park Tiles Mobile work, which are maps that are highly detailed and meant to be used on the ground by visitors of national parks while they’re there. We’ve increased the contrast of features and labels on the map because those maps are meant to be viewed on mobile under different viewing conditions. You could be in the sun or you could be in the clouds, you never know. Similar to Park Tiles, we’ve kept everything subtle outside the park, but then when you go in the park, you start seeing a lot more detail, much bolder colors. Even things like flag poles are there because they’re very iconic and something people see when they’re at the park. When you’re walking around the park using this map, you want to be like, “oh yeah, that kind of looks like where I am.”

CS: I think that most Internet users in the general public don’t think of accessibility concerns when they’re online. But there are Federal guidelines and international standards you have to abide by as a Federal agency. What have you learned about programming for accessibility through needing to fulfill those guidelines?

MA: We’ve learned especially that we can’t use proprietary or any other tools out of the box. It’s also been really great for us to be leaders in web mapping in terms of that. Leaflet out of the box does come with some accessibility features built-in, but we’ve had to add even more to meet the 508 [guidelines]. That’s a really cool thing as a Federal agency too, because we’re connected to open source projects and customized on top of them, to then be able to share that back. We’re planning on working with the Leaflet community and pushing the accessibility changes that we’ve added in.

From a cartographer’s perspective, I’ve learned a lot. We know how important colorblind consciousness is. I didn’t really know about low vision users; I didn’t realize that we needed to be thinking of people who can’t see contrast. In terms of symbology, we can’t just put points and lines and polygons, we need to offer something different. In the points, you need to be able to put markers, because color can’t be the only variable. If they can see a shape that’s different in two different points, then that’s an indicator to them.

 CS: As a web map developer, you’re a woman of color in an industry that’s overwhelmingly dominated by white men. What sorts of personal challenges have you faced in your career? Do you think that the industry is making progress? 

MA: Honestly, I’ve had a lot of really bad experiences. Not at the National Park Service; this has actually been an amazing job for me, and one of the first times for about six years that I didn’t come home and cry everyday because of something that somebody had said to me or a way that I was treated by a colleague. As a young woman coming into the industry, I was really good at what I did, and that was very intimidating to the older white men crew. They could not handle it, and they were sure to bring me down anytime that they could. What I really love about my [Park Service] team is we’re all around the same age, we are all really passionate and interested about this web mapping field. Out of five people on our team, we’re two women, which I feel is pretty good, but we’re a small team.

In the industry itself, I feel like there is a big push to get women of color and women in general into this stuff, which I feel is a really great effort. I personally have not done anything to push those efforts forward, because I just don’t want people to look at me and see about me that I’m Indian. I just don’t even really like to think of myself as a woman of a different race in this field. I am a woman, and I’ve worked really, really hard to be really good at something, and that’s what I am.

Park Tiles Imagery layer. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

Park Tiles Imagery layer. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella.

CS: What’s your favorite national park and why?

MA: Before I took this job, I had been to not too many national parks. I remember when we were younger my parents took us on a road trip through national parks. You don’t remember a lot of things from when you were young, but for some reason I can remember what Crater Lake looked like, standing there with my family. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily my favorite national park, but it’s one that really sticks in my mind.

Really, what’s happening right now, traveling to these different parks, is every park is becoming my favorite national park. That’s because I’m getting to meet the people that work there, and the people that care for the place, and really like seeing how passionate they are about it. Every single story that every single national park has is extremely captivating when it’s told by the people that are there. These stories have really helped me understand what these places actually mean.

Featured Image: Nitrogen Deposition Risk Map from the NPS Air Resources Division. Image courtesy of Mamata Akella. 

Carl Sack is a Ph.D. student in Geography at UW-Madison. He studies the cartographic representation of landscape values, the ethics of volunteered geographic information, and the teaching and use of emergent web mapping technologies. Contact.

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