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Website of the Week — National Atlas of the U.S.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, it's a site for people who love maps and want to learn more about the United States.

DONNELLY: "In essence, it's maps and geographic products and services that promote geographic awareness of the natural resources of the United States, and unlike other mapping systems on the World Wide Web, we attempt to step back a little bit and portray our nation's broad, conditions, patterns and trends."

Jay Donnelly is Managing Editor of the National Atlas of the United States, online at

The website grew out of a printed atlas, last published in 1970 — 400 pages, a hefty five kilos, and long out of print. In the 1990s an online edition was conceived, to harness the power of the Internet with emerging GIS technology

DONNELLY: "GIS, or Geographic Information System, is pretty much just software that allows people to build their own maps by allowing people to select their own 'layers' or themes of information that they choose to portray. But the great thing about it is that the lines, points and areas that represent features in the real world on the map display have information behind them that's stored in a database."

The available layers cover a wide range of information, from forest cover to rainfall, birth and death rates, and a variety of information about the American population.

This Map maker feature is a very powerful tool, but it only takes a few minutes to understand how it works, thanks to extensive testing of the interface.

DONNELLY: "It does not take a great deal of training. Most people get up and running. When you sit down and first run the Map Maker, there's a link there that says these are the four things you need to do to make your first map. From there on it's fairly intuitive, but there is online help, and there's also context-sensitive prompting of what to do next."

This is obviously faster if you have a high-speed Internet connection, but Jay Donnelly says he tests the site at home on a dial-up connection to make sure users with slower connections can still use the maps.

In addition, there are static maps, historical maps, and a wide variety of articles on history, geography and other subjects. The National Atlas of the United States online at, or get the link from our site,