Making Sense of the World Through Mapping

Michael Tischler brings fresh eyes to the National Geospatial Program at USGS.

Chet Susslin
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Oct. 9, 2015, 5 a.m.

It’s early even­ing at the start of fall, and Mi­chael Tischler sug­gests we go for a walk. I’ve driv­en from D.C. through ter­rible traffic to meet him at the In­teri­or De­part­ment’s leafy, green U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey cam­pus in Re­ston, Vir­gin­ia, and I’m glad for the op­por­tun­ity to stretch my legs. So, it seems, is he. For a guy who got in­to his line of work in part to be out­doors, he’s spend­ing a lot of time in­side these days.

At 37, Tischler is the new dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Geo­spa­tial Pro­gram at the USGS, the com­pon­ent of the agency re­spons­ible for design­ing and pro­du­cing the na­tion’s to­po­graph­ic maps. It is a field he has long loved, he tells me. “I’m a very visu­al learner. When I see a map, things click,” Tischler says. “I also like the fact that people love maps. It doesn’t mat­ter what you’re talk­ing about, if you’re try­ing to de­scribe where you’re go­ing to build the next bridge or where you’re go­ing on va­ca­tion or where do you want to go to din­ner to­night, the first thing you do is look at Google Maps: How do I get from here to there? It’s something people un­der­stand. And I think part of the reas­on people like it is be­cause it helps them—it helped me—make sense of the world.”

Since he star­ted in the role on April 6, he has been over­see­ing a host of pro­jects; the one he’s most ex­cited about is the 3D El­ev­a­tion Pro­gram, the aim of which is to sys­tem­at­ic­ally gath­er high-qual­ity to­po­graph­ic­al data across the coun­try, which will be used for all kinds of mod­el­ing ap­plic­a­tions that in­form gov­ern­ment and in­dustry alike. The work will be done primar­ily through the use of LID­AR—which stands for Light De­tec­tion and Ran­ging—a tech­no­logy that provides de­tailed 3-D in­form­a­tion about the Earth’s land­scape and what’s on it by ana­lyz­ing the way ob­jects re­flect pulses of light from a laser. What’s so thrill­ing about that? “It’s go­ing to serve as a found­a­tion­al data set against which you can meas­ure change,” Tischler says. “It could be land­scape change, it could be cli­mate change, it could be de­for­est­a­tion—all of these things can be meas­ured if you have a good bench­mark.” The pro­ject is ex­pec­ted to save lives and money in a vari­ety of ways, in­clud­ing identi­fy­ing act­ive geo­lo­gic­al faults be­fore dis­aster strikes, im­prov­ing pre­ci­sion farm­ing, and boost­ing avi­ation safety.

Born and raised in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Tischler had a sense of what he liked to do from early on. “I knew I wanted to be a sci­ent­ist, and I knew I wanted to do something out­doors,” he says, “so en­vir­on­ment­al sci­ence seemed like a good place to start.” He earned a B.S. in soil sci­ence from North Dakota State Uni­versity in 2000 and a mas­ter’s in soil and wa­ter sci­ence from the Uni­versity of Flor­ida. He worked as a con­tract­or to the NASA God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter, look­ing at high-res­ol­u­tion soil mod­el­ing, be­fore join­ing the U.S. Army Corps of En­gin­eers’ En­gin­eer Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter as a re­search phys­ic­al sci­ent­ist. He spent 11 years there, be­com­ing as­so­ci­ate tech­nic­al dir­ect­or in 2011 and serving as act­ing tech­nic­al dir­ect­or of the Army Corps’ To­po­graph­ic En­gin­eer­ing Cen­ter for six months in 2013.

Dur­ing that time, Tischler was also pur­su­ing his doc­tor­ate in Earth sys­tems and geoin­form­a­tion sci­ence at George Ma­son Uni­versity, a de­gree he star­ted two years after join­ing the Army Corps and fin­ished this past spring. (His doc­tor­al work in­volved cre­at­ing in­ter­act­ive, col­or-coded, di­git­al maps that in­teg­rated his­tor­ic­al data to pre­dict where burg­lar­ies in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., were most likely to oc­cur based on where they had oc­curred in the past.) That peri­od of his life also in­cluded a four-month ci­vil­ian de­ploy­ment to Ir­aq, where he helped provide tech­nic­al sup­port for area-map­ping ini­ti­at­ives, and stints over­see­ing ground-pen­et­rat­ing radar sur­veys for haz­ard de­tec­tion in Ant­arc­tica and Green­land. His cur­rent work may be tamer than some of what he did over­seas, but it’s also some of the most ex­cit­ing he has ever done, he says. And every day is a new chance to use his fa­vor­ite lens for learn­ing about the world.

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