Xtreme Mapping

Here are four uses for geospatial technology that you may not expect.

by / September 22, 2006
Few technologies are used more widely in government than GIS -- and few seem to spark more innovation. We set out to find examples of geospatial technology being applied in new and useful ways. The following is our salute to government agencies that are harnessing geospatial innovation to perform what we call "xtreme mapping."

Speaking in Tongues
The many possibilities of a GIS application designed for missionary work.

By Chad Vander Veen

If one has followed the news over the past few years, it might seem logical to conclude that only two spoken languages exist in the United States -- English and Spanish. So it may come as a surprise to learn more than 160 languages are spoken today in the United States, according to Ethnologue.

Globally some 7,000 languages are spoken, many of which are known only to tiny tribal communities or those living in small regions within a country. The small Caucasus region -- between the Caspian and Black seas -- is home to nearly 60 languages. Similarly dozens of obscure tribal languages are spoken in the Horn of Africa.

For Christian missionaries who believe in spreading their faith, language barriers have always been an obstacle. Over the last two decades, however, a unique GIS application that literally maps all known languages has been developed. Known as the World Language Mapping System (WLMS), the GIS application is regarded as the most comprehensive ever created. Originally designed to share religious beliefs, the WLMS is now helping spread news and music, and even some hope, freedom and democracy.

Lost in Translation
For more than three-quarters of a century, Wycliffe Bible Translators have walked the Earth gathering linguistic data to translate the Bible into every known language. The task is a monumental one. With more than 600 translations to date, Wycliffe's research served as the inspiration for creating the WLMS.

Bill Dickson is vice president of research and development at Global Mapping International (GMI) -- half of the partnership that built the WLMS. Dickson said with 7,000 languages in existence, Wycliffe fought an uphill battle.

"If they were going to carry out their mission, they needed to know what all the languages of the world were and where they were spoken," Dickson said. "From their beginnings ... they've been sending survey teams out to essentially walk the ground and find out where languages are spoken."

GMI was founded in 1983 to develop a global computer mapping system that could provide useful information to churches and missionaries worldwide. Shortly thereafter, GMI partnered with SIL International, a Christian linguistics research institute known chiefly for its annual publication of Ethnologue -- a comprehensive catalog of the world's languages, where they are spoken, and by how many people.

"We started talking with them in the mid-1980s," Dickson said. "We believed doing GIS work would be useful for all kinds of people doing missionary work. SIL has all of the survey data, and had various kinds of localized language maps -- thousands of maps of local areas drawn by survey teams. From roughly 1986 to 1997, we were working with them to compile thousands and thousands of paper maps to put together a coherent digital database of the world. That's been available to the Christian missionary enterprise through the GIS datasets we do, partially since 1995, and with a complete view of the world since 1997."

For several years there was little interest in the WLMS outside of missionary circles. But, like most other things, that was changed by 9/11. Dickson said GMI began getting requests from various government agencies that suddenly needed to work in all kinds of places that weren't previously of interest. So in 2004, GMI released the WLMS to anyone who needed it.

Sending Out a Message
One government agency particularly interested in the WLMS was the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which operates under the supervision of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), providing technical engineering for U.S.-government-funded international broadcasts. Although largely unknown in the United States, the BBG has, by its own estimates, more than 100 million listeners around the world who tune in for objective news in their native language.

"We do broadcasts overseas in about 60 different languages," said IBB technical engineer Terry Balazs. "The bureau actually supports all of the U.S. government's international broadcasting activities. Our use of the [WLMS] is really quite straightforward -- it's to figure out where in the world people are speaking various languages. And it allows us to really pinpoint, better than any other product I know of, specific areas where a language is spoken, even within a country. That gets to be a concern for us to really target our resources even within a country, especially areas where they speak multiple languages. We like to know what the dominant language is in one area versus another so we can pinpoint our resources as best we can."

Because the BBG and the IBB don't broadcast in the United States, most Americans probably have never heard of the agencies. They may have heard, however, of the Voice of America, the BBG's leading international news broadcast.

"It's basically news and information," Balazs said. "The [BBG's] objective is to provide -- particularly to people who do not have sources of objective news and information -- an objective source of news and information. So we provide just a general news service. Voice of America will also emphasize news about America, and also give statements of the official policy of the U.S. government."

With current world opinion about the United States divided, it's more important than ever that the BBG reaches those who cannot access information freely. And the more languages in which the organization can broadcast, the more people it can reach.

"There are not many resources that geographically give you that information," Balazs said. "In terms of pulling it all together, this is, as far as we can tell, a rather unique product. We really try to reach people in their own native language, and try to be as culturally sensitive as we can. We need to know where they are and what they're speaking as a starting point."

The BBG currently draws huge numbers of listeners in vital areas of the Middle East by combining news reports with contemporary music. And with the help of the WLMS, the BBG can better broadcast critical health-care information to impoverished people in Africa.

The BBG's work goes unnoticed here in the United States, and any success it has is inevitably tinged with a bit of sadness. "Once we really do our job, they don't need us anymore," Balazs said. "We are, by law, prohibited from broadcasting in the United States. That's too bad, because it hurts us in our public relations. We can't show people and share with them what we're doing."

The WLMS was a tool originally designed to spread the Bible. Now it's also used to give oppressed people a chance -- if only for a fleeting few moments -- to hear truth. It would seem there may be something of a small miracle in all of this, even if most Americans don't know it's going on.