Home > Public Domain Data > The National Atlas of the USA is Disappearing

The National Atlas of the USA is Disappearing

One of the most useful sites of the past 15 years for GIS users, in my judgment, has been the National Atlas of the United States.  It contains a “map maker” that allows you to create online maps of climate, ecoregions, population, crime, geology, and many other layers, and a “map layers” repository that houses all of the raster and vector data layers that are displayable in the map maker.  All of those hundreds of layers are downloadable in standard formats that are easy to use with GIS.

Sadly, the National Atlas is scheduled to disappear on 30 September 2014.  According to the transition FAQ, “the National Atlas and The National Map will transition into a combined single source for geospatial and cartographic information.  This transformation is projected to streamline access to maps, data and information from the USGS National Geospatial Program (NGP).  This action will prioritize our civilian mapping role and consolidate core investments while maintaining top-quality customer service.”  Thus, the National Map is scheduled to be the content delivery mechanism for the National Atlas content.

But, data users take note:  Not all of the National Atlas content is migrating to the National Map.  According to the FAQ’s question of “Will I still be able to find everything from the National Atlas on The National Map web site”, the answer is, “No. Most National Atlas products and services that were primarily intended for a broad public audience as well as thematic data contributions from outside the National Geospatial Program (NGP) will not be available from nationalmap.gov.”

I think this is most unfortunate news.  In my opinion, and that of many students and educators that I work with in courses and institutes, and the other data users I have worked with over the years, the National Map is almost as clunky and difficult to use as it was 10 years ago.  I use it frequently because it is still one of the richest sources of data, but it is by no means easy to obtain that data.  And equally importantly, it serves a different audience than the National Atlas does.   Yes, the National Atlas viewer is dated, but it requires little bandwidth, making it accessible to schools and other institutions contending with poor connectivity. How much effort is required just to leave national atlas alone and leave it online, with an understanding that it will not be updated?

In an era where more geospatial data are needed, not less, and improved geographic literacy is increasingly critical to education and society, the disappearance of the National Atlas seems like a giant step backward.

National Atlas website with Map Maker and just a few of the many data layers available.

National Atlas website with Map Maker and just a few of the many data layers available.

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  1. Nathan Lowry
    July 8, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Joseph,

    The National Atlas was the only place to find a deliberately consolidated federal lands layer. Although dated and not highly granular, I’m not sure other options are much better. The GAP Analysis contains many but not all federal lands and may have significant boundary and inclusion issues. The US Census may not be as concerned about these areas but as exclusions for the Census and other surveys. Compiling from federal agencies is the highest quality option but requires much time and effort on the part of consumers.

    I sure hope a consolidation point of federal lands that derives from source (agency) boundaries becomes part of the essential products of the National Map. If not, I hope that A-16 responsibilities will help the Census to gather these as accurately as possible from other federal agencies into a consolidated layer that is kept current and its completeness and accuracy measured.

    Sincerely, Nathan Lowry
    GIS Outreach Coordinator
    Governor’s Office of Information Technology
    State of Colorado

  1. July 6, 2014 at 11:38 pm

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