Putting Martha’s Vineyard on the map

It’s all in a day’s work for cartographer Chris Seidel.


I sat with Chris Seidel on the top floor of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission building in Oak Bluffs. Seidel is soft-spoken and articulate, with a neat and composed appearance, befitting someone who creates order out of the unruly world of Vineyard terrain and topography.

Seidel’s official title is the GIS coordinator at the MVC, but she says people get confused with the acronym … “I usually just say that I’m a cartographer — I make maps.” 

What is it about maps anyway? As a kid I could stare at them endlessly, being transported to the Outback of my imagination, to the Serengeti of my mind. It was escapism, but it also shaped my reality, giving me a sense of where I physically fit into the grand scheme of things.

Chris Seidel’s milieu is Martha’s VIneyard. And to her, maps are a way to organize and visualize information about the Island, making it usable. She always had an interest in drafting, and in college she studied biology and environmental science, but when she took an elective in something called economic geography, she said, “A lightbulb went off. I realized you can’t talk about geography without thinking about a sense of place. Everything has a cascading effect, and what happens in one location will have an effect on what happens in another location.”

Seidel went on to get a master’s degree in geography from the University of Connecticut, where she was introduced to Geographic Information System (GIS) land maps that have transformed mapmaking, taking them from one-dimensional “X marks the spot” documents to the multidimensional tools they are today. Seidel explains that GIS maps are created with computer software that allows one to make maps, classify data, and perform spatial analysis. 

“The main distinction, for me,” she said, “between manually drafted maps versus computerized GIS cartography, is that in the digital world, the picture of the data — let’s say buildings — can be linked to lots of additional tabular information. That tabular information provides the opportunity for extensive data inquiry and quantification.” 

Following graduate school, Seidel worked at a consulting firm in Newport for five years where she pursued her interest in GIS cartography, and then came to the Vineyard to work as GIS coordinator at the Martha’s VIneyard Commission, where she’s been for the past 17 years. 

The MVC is the regional planning agency for the Island, and Seidel works extensively preparing maps for the county, the towns, and the community at large. Typically, on average Seidel creates a map every day. “So, given that there are 52 weeks in a year,” Seidel says, “with five working days per week, that means I’ve prepared about 260 maps a year, or about 4,160 maps in the time I’ve been working at the MVC.” 

And the work she creates covers subjects that are — all over the map, so to speak. Much of it can be seen at the Map Hub on the MVC website. If it happens and it involves a sense of place, it can be mapped. Seidel creates maps on property boundaries, zoning, watersheds, points of interest, tick populations; there’s even a map on traffic crashes between 2012 and 2014, showing the exact location of every accident that took place on the Island during those years. 

There are maps showing the change in shorelines over the years, maps showing the flood zones on the Island, and a particularly fascinating animated map showing the building development on the Island over time — spoiler alert, we’re going to need a bigger Island. 

Creating maps is not something that Seidel can do just sitting behind her computer at the MVC; in many cases, it requires getting her feet on the ground. She makes the trail guides for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, and does the pocket guide for “Walking Trails of M.V.,” 

published by the Vineyard Conservation Society. 

“For certain information, you can look at aerial photographs,” Seidell says, “but for other information you have to get out there and map it.” To map a trail, Seidel will often go out with a handheld GPS and walk the trail for herself, then go back to her office to download the precise path of the trail. 

“But it’s not just about location,” Seidel says, “it’s also about information associated with the thing you just mapped. The GIS map can contain information about the type of surface that you’re walking on: Is it paved, is it a boardwalk? What is the vegetation like? What are the blaze colors that go with the trail? Are the trails easily accessible to someone who has mobility challenges? This is the kind of information we’re looking for; it’s more than just location.”

For the past few years, Seidel has used a drone to help with her with mapping; she has her FAA pilot’s license to operate a drone. A good application for drones is in the mapping of phragmites (invasive species) in marshlands. By getting an aerial view of the marshlands, you can distinguish the phragmites from the cattails, then use mapping software to document where the phragmites are, and how many of them there are. 

“This information is valuable to shellfish groups on the Island who are interested in potentially harvesting the phragmites to reduce the nitrogen load on the ponds,” Seidel says. 

Looking at the big picture, Seidel refers back to the “light going off” in her college geography class. “Cartography is looking at how the minor pieces come together to create a larger picture,” she says, “and realizing that often, one piece has a connection to another piece. It requires understanding how one piece of information relates to another, and recognizing what characteristics make a collection of things either similar or different. The overall purpose of the map will dictate if the visual will highlight those similarities or accentuate those differences.” She suggests looking at the old Sesame Street skit, “One of these things is not like the other.”

“What I enjoy is bringing all the information together and then trying to present it on a map in a presentation that’s both intuitive and aesthetically pleasing. It’s a blend of science and art,” Seidel says. “I try to find the right balance.”

And what impresses her is how many people on the Island are so deeply involved in so many issues, from housing to zoning to conservation, and how all these topics get channeled through her, to try to make sense of them in the form of a map.