WATERVILLE — Working as a cartographer for National Geographic has given Ross Donihue, 23, an appreciation for maps as a storytelling tool.

The Waterville native’s travels have brought him from the coffee plantations and canopies of Costa Rica back to his hometown to design an interactive online map for this year’s Common Ground Country Fair, which opens Friday in Unity.

“I think the whole sustainable-agriculture movement is sometimes looked down on because they don’t always have these tools,” he said over coffee recently. “But if you want to get young people engaged, you need these tools of communication.”

The Common Ground Country Fair emphasizes agriculture and Maine-made products. There are no amusement park rides, and the food in the Common Kitchen comes from organic farmers and natural food stores.

Donihue, along with a colleague from his job at National Geographic, Marty Schnure, 24, approached the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association last spring about making maps for farmers. The idea sprang from a mutual interest in using maps to help the community, which is also a goal of their small business, Maps For Good. The organization produces maps for clients who in Donihue’s words “are doing good work — good for the Earth and good for communities.”

The Common Ground Country Fair map can be seen on their business website, www.mapsforgood.org.

Donihue, who has rust-colored hair and was carrying a copy of National Geographic and a few maps tucked under his arm, graduated from Waterville High School in 2007. He is the son of Susan MacKenzie and Michael Donihue and went to Macalester College in Minnesota, where he studied geography and environmental studies.

“Growing up, I think camping and hiking in Maine instilled in me a love of nature and being outside,” he said.

His definition of geography has expanded to more than the place-name recognition he said most children are taught in school.

“Geography is really about the relationship between humans and the environment,” he said.

He studied abroad in Costa Rica and completed an internship mapping a coffee plantation where free-range chickens and goats also were raised. Last spring, he returned to Costa Rica with Schnure to teach students about mapping through the same program.

After graduation, Donihue interned and then got a job working as a contractor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., before leaving to apply for the organization’s Young Explorers Award with Schnure.

The award is a grant that funds the work of young people in conservation and research. Because National Geographic employees cannot apply for the grant, Donihue decided to leave his job, which had been temporary with a possibility of extension. In January, he and Schnure plan to travel to Chile’s Patagonia region to create a conservation map.

The Young Explorers Grant provides a “seed” grant of $2,000 to $5,000. Donihue and Schnure are supplementing their award with a campaign on Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform.

“I think people have this perception that every place in the world has been mapped,” he said, “but in reality, once a map has been printed, it is out of date.”

“Ross is really good at working with students,” Schnure said. “He was also friends with somebody he met two years ago who ran a hotel (in Costa Rica), so we stayed for free in exchange for a map of the property.”

Back in the U.S., they spent six weeks living in an apartment at the edge of the fairgrounds this summer.

Organizers expect about 700 exhibitors, 750 scheduled events and 60,000 people during the fair’s three-day run.

“It can be a little overwhelming,” said Jim Ahearn, fair director. “We had to ask ourselves, how can we do a better job of presenting this information?”

“When you look at how Ross gathered the information for the Common Ground Fair map, you realize how rich the detail is,” said Stephen Engle, Director of the Center for Community GIS in Farmington, where Donihue has also worked and interned. He described the process of walking the fields, collecting data with global positioning tools and aerial photography.

The interactive map, which includes an aerial view layout of the fairgrounds, also links to the agricultural organization’s Twitter feed, a pullout tab featuring a list of events and vendors and a slideshow of pictures that will be updated with photos made during the fair.

It won’t replace paper maps, which will be available at the entrance, but instead works in conjunction with them.

“I don’t see books going away and I don’t see print maps going away,” Engle said. “I see them continuing to coexist but with a definite expansion on the digital side.”

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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