Where in the world is ...?

Database Gets Explorers Where They Need to Be

The U.S. Geological Survey’s new National Geologic Map Database provides a wealth of online information for everyone – but is particularly valuable to geoscientists who need to quickly find some geologic and geographic data. Here, a look at the graphical MapView search interface.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s new National Geologic Map Database provides a wealth of online information for everyone – but is particularly valuable to geoscientists who need to quickly find some geologic and geographic data. Here, a look at the graphical MapView search interface.

As the flood of data becomes a tsunami in the Information Age, the question is not:

“Does the information I want exist somewhere in the world?”

The real question is:

“How in the world can I find the information I need?”

That’s exactly the question the U.S. Geological Survey addressed when it revised and updated its online National Geologic Map Database (NGMDB), accessible at the website ngmdb.usgs.gov.

Dave Soller is chief of the NGMDB project for the USGS in Reston, Va.

“When you have a website that started 16 or 17 years ago, it’s obviously overdue for an update,” Soller said. “But we didn’t want to go with an update of just the look and feel.”

Instead, the Survey took a user-based approach to creating a graphical MapView search interface, a map catalog, a guide to stratigraphy and a separate map interface to locate geological mapping in progress by the USGS, state geological surveys and universities.

A surprising amount of the redesign and update effort was aimed at aiding the non-geologist, non-industry, private citizen.

“I’ve had the fewest contacts with my (USGS) colleagues down the hall.” Soller said. “They already know where the maps are.”

Congressional Mandate

It’s fair to call the task daunting. The online map catalog contains references to over 91,000 maps and related products – a majority from the USGS and state geological surveys, but also from more than 600 other agencies, universities, societies and private publishers.

Search results from the NGMDB site can be both impressive and surprising in detail.

A search of map resources in the vicinity of Wood County in Oklahoma uncovered a reference to an extent map of the Mississippi Chat Tonkawa Sandstone contained in a 1953 master’s thesis.

And a search on northwest Pennsylvania retrieved several hundred citations relevant to the area’s economic geology, including coal resources and the Marcellus Shale.

Congress required the USGS to create a map database with the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992, specifically mandating a national archive of spatially referenced geoscience data, including geology, paleontology and geochronology.

In addition, the act stipulated that new information added to the database had to adhere to the scientific and technical standards developed under the project.

Given the scope of the mandate, Soller said the description geologic map database is “a little bit of a misnomer – it was given to us by Congress.” It was left up to the USGS and the Association of American State Geologists to interpret exactly what Congress wanted in collecting and standardizing geological information.

“What that meant was taking long-developed standards in the paper map world, which were developed going back to the 1800s, and bringing those standards into the digital map world,” Soller said.

In addition, the database designers wanted to provide a standard lexicon of geological names – not an easy pursuit, Soller noted, since “everybody uses stratigraphy in different ways, especially industry.”

New Look for a New Era

Redesign of the original site started about three years ago and involved merging separate databases into one master database in order to manage all the information, he said.

The website then got a cleaner look with a task bar and four major “buttons” for Map Catalog, Stratigraphy, the MapView interface and Mapping in Progress.

“Really fancy websites don’t always mean they’re well supported and the users get what they need,” Soller observed.

The map catalog itself has both a keyword search interface with drop-down menus and a map interface where areas can by defined using bounding coordinates. Users also can limit a search to a specific state or county.

In addition to a search interface for the USGS Geologic Names Lexicon database, or Geolex, the stratigraphy section includes AAPG’s North American Stratigraphic Code.

The initial release of the updated NGMDB website came before all the elements could be completed. The MapView interface includes a map overlay, which recently covered almost the western half of the United States. It looked a little like the United States was being invaded from the left-hand side, but with Kentucky and Virginia already captured.

“What we released last Oct. 19 was the initial version of the new interface,” Soller said. “Basically, we have not finished the catalog search. In the next few months we need to clean it up.” 

The Big Challenge Is …

The geological lexicon database also was a work in progress, with about 75 percent of unit names from the USGS Geologic Names Committee card catalog already included and several thousand unit names remaining to be checked and entered.

Efforts to build and maintain a stratigraphic lexicon tool and other ancillary resources for the maps database added a special degree of difficulty to the project.

Those are “clearly ongoing,” Soller noted. “We’re not going to declare victory any time soon.”

He said gathering and managing content were among the biggest challenges to creating the unified online NGMDB site.

“There’s the obvious challenge of information technology. That’s a given. But I think really the big challenge is content, bringing together the various resources, things like the maps from the state geological surveys,” Soller said.

“You have content issues you think wouldn’t exist. But they do,” he added.

Users also can find relevant reports and papers cited along with the map search results.

“It’s very challenging to bring other resources into the system. Keywords and boundary boxes are not often part of the bibliographic references that librarians use. More frequently, now, but not always,” Soller said.

“It all comes down to who you know and the people who want to work with you,” he added. “To me it comes down to working with the collaborators and customer service. It’s not the technology.” 

Result Oriented

Today, the general information searcher has grown accustomed to intuitive interfaces, quick results, Google searches and desktop downloads.

“What people are increasingly looking for is downloads of maps and information in pdf form and that sort of thing,” Soller said.

“I remember going to a meeting 15 years ago in Canada, a meeting sponsored by the mining industry. The guy from the industry said, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing, Dave, but I just need to know if you’ve published a map in the area,’” he recalled.

So ease of locating information has guided the USGS approach to the maps project. No matter how valuable a geological information resource might be, it isn’t useful if you can’t find it.

“It’s very, very satisfying that we’ve had good comments from the users, especially of this MapView tool,” Soller noted.

“We do the best we can do to make sure people come away from the site with what they’re looking for,” he said.

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You Say Tomato, I Say ... Cumquat?

Exploration geologists apparently LOVE making up their own geological terms.

Sometimes they don’t even mention a specific unit, saying things like “We’re chasing the extension of those Morrowan channel sands,” or “We’re targeting a zone on top of the Oxhide.”

When exploration geologists talk about a play, they often invent names.

In Texas, the “Eaglebine” doesn't exist as a geological unit. That play combines the Eagle Ford and Woodbine formations.

The “Wolfberry” isn't a formation; it's a combination of plays in the Wolfcamp shale and Spraberry sandstone.

Today's hot Mississippi Chat play? “Mississippi” is a loose descriptor and “chat” isn't a geological term at all. It's an oblique reference to weathered chert, limestone and dolomite.

Pity those trying to develop a lexicon of terms used by industry geologists.

“It's frustrating for us because we want to get you the information you need to do what you do best,” said Dave Soller, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Geologic Map Database Project.

You won't find these invented geological names on USGS maps.

“A lot of names in the last 30 years are only described in a borehole, or are not really mappable,” Soller said.

So don't worry the next time you hear the name of an unfamiliar geological descriptor. It's probably just the exploration geologists making stuff up again.

– DAVID BROWN