Copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste, click/drag/place, click/drag/place, click/drag/place... the seemingly endless cycle of creating a dot distribution map on an old computer program.

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The year was 2002 and I (Gabriel) was spending a lot of time on the geography floor of the old science building at Appalachian State University—the one that has long since been replaced by a fancier, newer structure. Being one of only 12 students in the geography department, our class worked closely together—eating loaded nachos and drinking a cold beverage with professors at Black Cat Burrito, where we discussed everything from Remote Sensing to the best runs for snowboarding on our local mountains.

During an assignment for a dot distribution population map in the Department Chair's Geography 2310 Cartographic Design and Analysis class, I thought I’d be clever (as you do when you’re in college and a dot distribution population map is your assignment). For this type of map, we had to create one dot for each X amount of data (in this case people). I.e., one dot = 5,000 people.

I poured over the U.S. and decided that New Mexico surely had to be one of the least populated states. I knew that Montana or North Dakota was probably even less populated, but didn’t want to appear to be taking the easy way out. So I sat about in my clever idea to map New Mexico’s population and crunched the numbers. I mean after all, how many people could possibly live in New Mexico? There's Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and a few other cities I thought…

Headphones on, I fired up my mp3 player (the one with removable memory cards!) and with Nickel Creek pumping through my ears, I carefully created my map with everything in proportion; the scale, legend, title, name, date, references. Everything was picture perfect (in my 20-year-old brain). I meticulously copied and pasted hundreds of dots and meticulously moved them around their corresponding city in New Mexico. Many hours later, the map was done. 

 My "millennial" wife literally LOL'd when she looked at this contraption. She glanced at it and thought it was some type of medical device! This picture doesn't show the included card reader that you had to use to  load mp3s  on the memory cards!

My "millennial" wife literally LOL'd when she looked at this contraption. She glanced at it and thought it was some type of medical device! This picture doesn't show the included card reader that you had to use to load mp3s on the memory cards!

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I thought I’d pulled one over and gotten off easy with this assignment. But my professor looked at the map and immediately got out the red pen.

“Theres not enough dots on this city in the SW corner.”
“Sir, here’s the data I used and the dots correspond correctly.”
“There are not enough dots. I'd know, because I used to live there.”

Humility comes in odd ways and my clever idea had backfired miserably. How of all the places and states had my professor lived in New Mexico?

I learned a lot from that class, like the importance of being detailed. Every dot mattered. Every line, every detail, every amount of space (negative and positive) mattered. Those who are a little OCD will certainly agree. Messy folks will probably say “eh, it looks fine." But I learned that maps are important and over the last decade of teaching, when my students create neighborhood maps, or maps of their homes, the importance of details still matters. Rulers help! 

Most will recognize the map below. A similar one was probably hanging in your classroom during school. It's called the Mercator Projection. It was invented in 1569 by the cartographer Gerardus Mercator and is by far the most common world map referenced. However, it has problems. Lots of them. For one, look at Greenland and the northern part of Canada—do you actually think that Greenland is close to the size of AFRICA?! Look at Antarctica... holy cow, it's enormous! The problem is called distortion. To explain it as simply as possible, you can’t take a round shape (Earth), and roll it out flat, or in this case project it on a cylinder and roll it flat, without having some places look too big, or too small. Mercator maps also make more historically white nations/continents look larger than they are. Nowadays, there are great digital references for comparing map types

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Recently, I have discovered some maps that are amazing and lack distortion! This year, out of the minds of my wonderful 5th and 4th graders, have come some maps about their lives. Teaching at an international school for missionary and expat kids has offered me a unique opportunity for some map activities that would not have presented themselves at a traditional school. From this data, I’ve collected and determined (and plotted) some amazing information. 

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My students (sixteen 5th graders and seventeen 4th graders) were born in 12 different countries:

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Have lived in 27 different countries: 

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Have parents who have worked in 40+ countries:

 By the way, these maps are in the  Miller projection  which I happen to like (even though this basic map program severely neglected Antarctica)!

By the way, these maps are in the Miller projection which I happen to like (even though this basic map program severely neglected Antarctica)!

My students' parents work in a broad range of fields, varying from 20 different ministries and including nurses, doctors, engineers, humanitarian works, sustainable development and agriculture, translators, political officials, and relief workers, to name a few. 

Looking at the data and crunching the numbers, it is evident that every student has a story to tell. Their families have made sacrifices to care for, treat, and provide services to West Africans who are in need. Dakar Academy allows them to continue their work by providing a safe environment for their children to learn in. Our goal at the school is to serve the children so their parents can continue to serve within their unique ministries. 

More than 20% of missionary kids return to the field as adults. I’m blessed to be able to hang out with these kids every day. I know that my short 180 days is a small part of their lives, but I work hard knowing that one day they will be out there on a map of their own, impacting people all over the world. The ripple effect in this context is truly global and I am thankful for this role! 

Every detail matters. Every dot. Every pixel on a map. Details are stories and I'm happy to be a part of these lives for this season

P.S. In that same geography class, I later did a map of shark bite occurrences per counties in Florida, which virtually eliminated all data from non-ocean bordering counties, which was clever!


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