• Real-World Geography: Juan Valdes
    Juan Valdes, center, is the official geographer of the National Geographic Society.

    Photograph by Irmina Skonka

    Cartographer's Choice
    There have been many, many maps Ive loved working on. Maybe the most enjoyable was the Switzerland tourism map we worked on last year, says Juan. The reason being was the ease of data gathering and verification; we had good sources and contacts. The map was for the Swiss Tourism Office out of New York.

    The map was published as a supplement map in the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. An interactive version of the map is available online from the Swiss National Tourist Office.

    By Sean O'Connor

    Monday, February 28, 2011

    Juan is the official geographer of the National Geographic Society. He guides and assists the Map Policy Committee in setting border representations, disputed territories, and naming conventions.

    Juan also serves as the director of editorial and research for National Geographic Maps, where his prime responsibility is to ensure accuracy and consistency for all maps and map products.


    Juan was born in Havana, Cuba, and spent time in Miami, Florida, as a boy. He remembers coming to Washington, D.C., in winter 1963: “The first thing that struck me was that all the trees had lost their leaves, and it got dark very early. I thought that Washington was the ends of the Earth.”

    Juan stayed in the Washington area, where he studied geography and cartography at the University of Maryland in College Park. After college, he worked as a cartographer at the World Bank.

    Before long, Juan found his way to the halls of National Geographic, starting off as a typographer in the cartographic department in 1975. “In order to master the craft of cartography, it was almost like a trade apprenticeship; when you walked in the door, you were immediately put into the typographic section, familiarizing yourself with the Society's typefaces and sticking type on . . . overlays. Once you mastered that art—and it was an art, because it was done manually—after you mastered that, you could go into map production, research, or editorial,” says Juan.

    Juan found his cartographic niche in researching and editing maps, eventually working his way to a lead position as director for Editorial and Research.

    In his time at National Geographic, Juan has seen a lot of changes in the way maps are produced and information is gathered. “It’s been the rapidity of accessing information—that’s been the most amazing thing to occur over the past 20 years,” he says. “What took years, if not months, to generate, you can now do it in days, if not hours.

    “Back then, no one blinked an eye if you had to get on a plane to go to the source to get the information. Consequently, the time to produce a map was a lot longer; a typical supplement map [usually published in National Geographic magazine] could take as long as a year. Now it can take five weeks or less.”


    “I think what’s most exciting is that you really don’t realize what a dynamic place this Earth is until you map it on a daily basis. You’re constantly bombarded with new changes, and not just political changes—fault lines, changing mountain heights . . . The Earth really is a very dynamic place!”


    “Keeping your finger on the pulse of geopolitical issues, when that pulse can be rather erratic; it can be really static one day, and the next it’s going off the chart, changes needed on a map coming at you left and right.”


    “From my perspective, I think geography, whether consciously or subconsciously, is what provides context to our lives. What I mean by that is at the most basic level, where you live pretty much dictates who [you] are. At a more abstract level, your daily functions—whether it be the food you eat, the beverages that you drink, or the type of car that you drive—are all one way or another dictated by geography.”


    Juan starts his day by sitting down at his desk and checking newspapers and news websites for any changes in the world’s geography that might have occurred overnight. He checks his messages on email and phone to see if any of his colleagues at the U.S. State Department or foreign embassies have new information on changing place names, political boundaries, or physical features of the Earth.

    Then, it’s off to the races—researching and editing maps for the Map Policy Committee at the National Geographic Society. Juan and his team of map editors and researchers compile and edit maps that appear in atlases, magazines, websites, mobile apps, and other products that National Geographic publishes.

    “Sometimes readers will write, email, or call to let us know of a place-name change; we’ll do follow-up research to verify the change,” Juan says. If the change is verified and approved by the Map Policy Committee, it will be updated the next time a map containing that name is published.

    In the last quarter of 2010 alone, Juan says, the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved, Louisiana officially changed its state flag, and the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, were renamed Haida Gwaii. “Many place names throughout the world are reverting to their former indigenous or historical names, while others are being officially named in dual languages,” he says.

    According to Juan, maps of the United States are typically updated three times a year. When such changes occur, Juan will put out an email notifying the Map Policy Committee, as well as the staff of the National Geographic GeoBee. GeoBee staff members need to be informed of changes right away because they are responsible for formulating questions for geography competitions held around the country.


    To be an adept geographer, Juan recommends dabbling in a wide variety of academic subjects. “Geography needs to be your core area of focus in your studies, but in today’s world you also need to be a generalist—you need to know a little bit about every subject, whether it be history, mathematics, or the arts; they’re all interconnected,” he says.


    To stay on top of geographic issues, Juan recommends brushing up on your knowledge of history. “With a good background in history, you can see exactly how all the pieces of current-day events are interconnected to the past, the present, and ultimately the future.” Checking daily news from around the world helps.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    academic Adjective

    person or thing having to do with school, particularly college or university education.

    accuracy Noun

    condition of being exact or correct.

    atlas Noun

    a collection of maps.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atlas
    border Noun

    natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: border
    cartography Noun

    art and science of making maps.

    consequence Noun

    result or outcome of an action or situation.

    consistent Adjective

    maintaining a steady, reliable quality.

    dispute Noun

    debate or argument.

    dynamic Adjective

    always changing or in motion.

    ensure Verb

    to guarantee.

    generate Verb

    to create or begin.

    geographer Noun

    person who studies places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    geopolitics Noun

    the study of the impact of geographic factors on a country's politics and foreign policy.

    history Noun

    study of the past.

    indigenous Adjective

    native to or characteristic of a specific place.

    manually Adverb

    done without electronic or mechanical equipment.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    mathematics Noun

    study of the relationships between numbers, quantities, shapes, and spaces.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    niche Noun

    role and space of a species within an ecosystem.

    overlay Noun


    prime Adjective

    ideal or very good.

    supplement Verb

    to increase or add to.

    territory Noun

    land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

    type Noun

    metal block with a letter or symbol engraved on one side, used in printing presses.

    verify Verb

    to prove as true.

    World Bank Noun

    United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.

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