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.