Geographer for diplomats: Maps matter

State Department Geographer Lee Schwartz has been fascinated by maps ever since he was a teenager.

At age 13, he helped his family plan a road trip across America that took them from New York to Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and elsewhere. Using a marker to draw on top of existing maps, Schwartz mapped out how to get from one place to another, taking road conditions, traffic and travel times into account.

“We had to figure out what we could do in a month and when we would be in certain places — because if you didn’t show up in Zion National Park on June 28, you’d lose your camp spot,” says Schwartz.

“I really loved the value of maps — what maps can do for you — even more than the beauty of maps.”
Lee Schwartz, Geographer, U.S. Department of State

The work he did for that trip wasn’t much different from the work he and his team in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues do today. They consider checkpoints and mountains, for instance, while tracking routes for aid workers who might be moving food shipments across a country in conflict.

As the geographer of the Department of State, Schwartz bears statutory responsibility for how international boundaries are represented on the U.S. government’s maps. He ensures the maps conform with U.S. policy. Schwartz issues boundary policy guidance to all U.S. government agencies and approves virtually every map produced by the State Department’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues. (The office is part of the department’s 75-year-old Bureau of Intelligence and Research.)

Map of South Sudan, with parts of Sudan and surrounding countries (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

Many maps from the office buttress diplomatic efforts related to emergency response, environmental issues, human rights violations, boundary disputes, conflict mitigation and even U.N. peace operations. The office produces maps that combine geographic information system (GIS) software and imagery analysis to support analyses and negotiations on many topics, including conflict-related population displacements, climate change variables, maritime claims in the South China Sea, access to humanitarian aid in South Sudan, conflict minerals in the Horn of Africa and continental shelf limits in the Arctic.

“From early on, I really loved the value of maps — what maps can do for you — even more than the beauty of maps,” Schwartz says.

The Geographic Information Unit — staffed by experts in cartography and boundary analysis — creates most of the office’s classified and unclassified maps. Meanwhile, the office’s Humanitarian Information Unit produces unclassified “infographics” for responders to global emergencies, both within the U.S. government and in its partner governments and organizations.

Recent maps and infographics include such topics as conflict in the Lake Chad Basin, population displacement in Syria and Venezuela, and evacuation planning for the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, both units produced nearly 500 maps in support of the U.S. government’s work.

Schwartz recalls some of his team’s projects that prompted U.S. government action.

An investigation the office conducted during President George W. Bush’s administration meant interviewing Darfuri refugees and combining maps and imagery analysis to show that killings of Darfuri men, women and children in Sudan were widespread and systematic and targeted civilians. The work led then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to determine genocide was occurring in Sudan, a move that supported multiple war criminal indictments.

Recently, the Office of the Geographer designed and oversaw a field survey at the request of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor that documented atrocities against Rohingya refugees driven out of Burma and, together with other analysts in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, wrote a report based on the survey, the findings of which were shared with the Burmese government prior to publication.

China-India western sector boundary map (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

Schwartz has overseen countless maps in the 15 years he’s served as the geographer. His team has also worked on mapping boundaries to help resolve territorial disputes between countries, including the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the world’s newest independent country.

In recent weeks, the team has been monitoring the China-India border dispute and working to produce a primer for State Department policymakers on the disputed areas along their border, Schwartz says. They use satellite imagery and other methods to capture developments along the Line of Actual Control.

Schwartz has come a long way from when his family needed a camping reservation. His mapping still matters, just a great deal more.