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Disaster Symbols Put UMBC on the Map

While some UMBC departments help train first-responders, the faculty, staff and students in the department of Geography & Environmental Systems(GES) recently helped make sure that emergency workers could accurately navigate the realities of homeland security in America.

In a project that alternately chilled the blood and got the creative juices flowing, the GES department’s Cartographic Services Lab worked with the U.S. Department of the Census’ Map Division to produce approximately 150 map symbols for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Joe School, director of the lab (one of only a handful of full-service map-making facilities at U.S. universities), teamed up with Tom Rabenhorst, a lecturer in the UMBC GES department. Each semester, Rabenhorst guides his cartography students as they produce final project maps for real-world clients such as local state parks and the Baltimore Bicycle Club.

The UMBC team of Rabenhorst, School and Pat Hipp, Ethan Wells, and Mike Sturtevant, three undergraduate students specializing in Cartography & GIS, began brainstorming and sketching ideas for symbols representing many unpleasant scenarios—looting, chemical exposures, FEMA disaster field offices, hijacked planes and unexploded bombs—in order to represent homeland security-related incidents, operations, infrastructure and natural disasters.

According to Rabenhorst, “The creative process of coming up with symbol ideas was fun, but the reality of how they would be used was sobering. It’s indicative of how the U.S. has changed since 9/11. Six years ago we’d never thought that we’d have to map this kind of thing.”

According to School, a growing pipeline of partnerships and alumni employment between UMBC’s Geography and Environmental Systems department and federal agencies helped make the project happen. “The project came to us primarily because of our contacts at the Department of Census,” School says. “We have three UMBC alumni working there now and we hope to continue training skilled mapmakers for homeland security-related work in the federal agencies.”

Posted: November 14, 2005, 12:00 PM