Jack of all trades—cartographer, archivist and pilot all in one

Published Nov. 30, 2023
A man in a red shirt unrolls a brown sheet of paper and gazes down at it.

John Atkinson, district cartographer, looks over a historical map of the Missouri River in the Kansas City District Richard Bolling building on October 19, 2023.

A map is shown with black ink on white paper.

Close up picture of a historical map of the Missouri River, taken on October 19, 2023.

A man in a blue plaid shirt with a tan hat holds an orange airplane object while standing in grass.

John Atkinson, district cartographer, stands with the Kansas City District fixed wing drone at Pomona Lake on November 7, 2023.

A black and white map sits on top of a beige and yellow map.

Scan of historical aerial photo of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers.

When asked to describe his job, long-time Kansas City District employee John Atkinson has a humorous response.

“Jack of all trades, I guess,” he says.

Officially, Atkinson serves as the district’s archivist and a cartographer in the Survey and Geospatial Data section. However, Atkinson’s diverse background and skillset, as well as his openness to trying new things, have combined to turn his career into something he never imagined. From deployments to piloting a drone to working with century-old photography, Atkinson’s work with the Kansas City District has been full of surprises.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what a typical day at work looks like for Atkinson. As a geographic information system professional, he works with maps and gathers survey data. But in addition to that, on any given day, his tasks could fall under any one of the many roles he now fills for the district.

“Archive work, cartography, GIS…” Atkinson says. “I just got started flying [drones], too. I was hired to be a geographer, but it’s morphed into a lot of different things. I never thought I would go this route because where I came from … I was just making maps [before this].”

However, “just making maps” doesn’t really describe what Atkinson did before, either.

In 1986, after graduating from Towson State University, Atkinson commissioned into the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and served at Fort Riley, Kansas, working in both the maintenance and ordnance career fields. After leaving active duty, he worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense Mapping Agency, working in imagery and cartography before coming to the Kansas City District in 2000.

Shortly after his arrival at the district, it became clear that Atkinson could fill other needs for USACE besides strictly making maps. When the previous district archivist retired, Atkinson was assigned that job as an additional duty. This is a multi-faceted job that requires organizational skills. Atkinson keeps track of the historical systems and records for identifying features on maps, like bridges for example. Another responsibility of the archivist is preparing the district’s collection of aerial photos to be sent off to the federal records.

“There are about 250 boxes with probably at least 1,000 photos in each box,” Atkinson said.

These photos date back to the beginning of aerial photography with the district, meaning many of the photos are over 100 years old. Aerial photos provide useful information for the district, like what a site historically looked like or the progress of contamination clean-up.

Today, the district still depends on aerial photography to support many of its projects, and this is an area where Atkinson again lends his skills. He and another coworker operate the district’s two drones, taking pictures and video for preliminary site investigations for project managers.

“We fly [over] the levees,” Atkinson said. “What this does is, it [allows us to] create an elevation model out of that data from [the footage] we shot from the drones.”

The drone operators help project teams see documentation of the project and construction, as well as see the effects of certain tests and gather data on the sites. It’s a unique and needed skillset, and Atkinson is the perfect person for the job. He’s never turned down the opportunity to try something new with USACE, or to take on a challenge at work. There have been times during his work at the Kansas City District where Atkinson has volunteered to take on very demanding tasks in difficult circumstances. 

He has provided support to the district during both the 2011 and 2019 floods and has also deployed as a civilian to both Iraq and Afghanistan with USACE in 2010 and 2011, respectively. These experiences, Atkinson stated, were his most unique while working for USACE.

“Those were very good experiences. I was doing kind of the same work as here, but more military-oriented,” he said. “When I got to Afghanistan, to Kabul, we had the military escorting us.”

It was a far cry from his office back in the Kansas City District, but Atkinson’s time overseas working for USACE was a great service to his country. Although those were some of the most unique and challenging experiences during his career with USACE, he sees the value in all the work he’s done here, and in the work his teammates do with him in the Survey and Geospatial Data section.

“I can see the value of our job, our assistance with flood fights,” Atkinson said. “We put real-time data up so people can see [what’s happening] … [This] helps people make decisions.”