Streams, like houses on city blocks, have addresses. They don’t have numbers, but the places they live are meticulously catalogued by the Department of the Interior. Their new interactive map Streamer is like Google Maps for creeks–click on any stream in the U.S. and make your way upstream to track its origin, downstream to discover where it deposits, or anywhere in between on its winding way.
The online exploration tool “allows people to learn a little bit about waters and outlets, and visualize the classic, ‘Drop a stick in a stream and see where it goes,’ idea,” says Jay Donnelly, editor of the National Atlas of the United States.
It took the National Atlas team 20 years to create the complete dataset of hydrology. The map makes clear two astounding feats of the country’s network of streams: The first, and more obvious, is the reminder that there’s an incredible amount of water flowing around us. The second is that streams travel extremely long and unpredictable distances. “I might think, based on my knowledge and geography, that when you are just a little bit outside Chicago everything is draining to Lake Michigan,” Donnelly tells Co.Design, “when it actually drains into the Gulf of Mexico.” To wit, a huge swath of the map turns red when you visualize the tributaries in total pouring into the Mississippi River.
Donnelly envisions strengthening the map as it becomes a product of community input, building further topographical intelligence from feedback. “When MapQuest was built and introduced, it was very useful for going from point A to point B,” he says. “That was only the starting point. People wanted to add their own information. I think that’s where we’re at with Streamer.”