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19-38. Knowledge engineering of topographic features


Closing Date: January 4, 2021

This Research Opportunity will be filled depending on the availability of funds. All application materials must be submitted through USAJobs by 11:59 pm, US Eastern Standard Time, on the closing date.

How to Apply

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In the United States, the spatial extent of named topographic features such as mountains, valleys, bays and coves are best represented through the placement of text in the historical topographic map collection (HTMC). The lack of defining boundaries presents challenges to geographic information systems (GIS) and semantic analysis and mapping. The modeling, identification, and extraction mechanisms for delineating topographic features in various forms are in part dependent on an understanding of the creation processes (Wilson and Gallant, 2000), and in part on morphometric properties such as shape and size (Pike, 1988). Datasets supporting these mechanisms include digital elevation data from the 3D Elevation Program, the HTMC and Geographic Names served by The National Map and images from the Department of Agriculture’s National Aerial Imagery Program. The ability to use these data as a source for extraction of terrain features for support of spatial reasoning and natural language processing, topographic science modeling, and map generation, depends on a thorough understanding of both the processes which formed the features, and the everyday conceptions of the environment (Smith and Mark, 2003).

Recent research in the core of artificial intelligence called knowledge engineering suggests a promising future for this work (Arundel et al. 2020). Knowledge engineering attempts to take on challenges and solve problems that would usually require a high level of human expertise to solve. Paired with semantic technologies, knowledge engineering enables the explicit representation of knowledge and its further processing to deduce new knowledge from implicitly hidden knowledge. Thus, we seek a Mendenhall Fellow to advance the knowledge engineering of topographic features in support of their extraction from multiple data sources for representation as a part of The National Map. The Fellow will be expected to investigate specific research topics such as:

  • Transferring learning of text recognition methodologies, such as that of the NSF Linked Map (Shbita et al. 2020) project, to topographic features.
  • Interfacing machine learning and Semantic Web technologies to create topographic knowledge bases or link to external knowledge bases (for example, LinkedGeoData).
  • Matching profile to plan view of topographic features to leverage available training data. 
  • Managing scale issues in multi-resolution object detection through machine learning.

The incumbent will develop models using machine learning image analysis in conjunction with traditional GIS and image processing software to isolate and extract topographic features from lidar and other data (Li and others, 2012). The procedures for building specific features from process modeling and ontology design patterns will be developed as part of the research. During the past several years, USGS Center of Excellence in Geographic Information Science researchers have developed ontology design patterns for specific terrain and hydrologic features (Varanka, 2011; Usery and Varanka, 2012; Sinha and others, 2014a; 2014b). The extension of this work to model topographic features will allow their effective extraction from various data sources.

Applicants are encouraged to contact the Research Advisor early in the process to discuss project ideas and how they fit into the overall goals of the National Geospatial Program.


Arundel, S.T., Li, W. and Wang, S. 2020 “GeoNat v1.0: A dataset for natural feature mapping with artificial intelligence and supervised learning. Transactions in GIS.

Li, W., R. Raskin, and M.F. Goodchild, 2012. Semantic similarity measurement based on knowledge mining: an artificial neural net approach, International Journal Of Geographical Information Science, v. 26, n. 8, p. 1415-1435.

Pike, R.J., 1988. The Geometric Signature: Quantifying Landslide-Terrain Types from Digital Elevation Models. Mathematical Geology, 20, pp. 491-511.

Shbita B., Knoblock C.A., Duan W., Chiang YY., Uhl J.H., Leyk S. (2020) Building Linked Spatio-Temporal Data from Vectorized Historical Maps. In: Harth A. et al. (eds) The Semantic Web. ESWC 2020. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 12123. Springer, Cham.

Sinha, G., D. Kolas, D. Mark, B. Romero, E.L. Usery, G. Berg-Cross, A. Padmanabhan, 2014a. Surface networked ontology design patterns for linked topographic data, Semantic Web Journal.

Sinha, G., D. Mark, D. Kolas, D. Varanka, B. Romero, C.C. Feng, E.L. Usery, J. Lieberman, and A, Sorokine, 2014b. An ontology design pattern for surface water features, Proceedings, GIScience 2014, Salzburg, Austria.

Smith, B. and D. Mark, 2003. Do mountains exist? Towards an ontology of landforms, Environment and Planning B; Planning and Design, v. 30, p. 4111-427.

Usery, E.L., 2013, Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science research plan 2013–18: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013–1189, 50 p.,

Usery, E.L. and D. Varanka, 2012. Design and development of linked data from The National MapSemantic Web Journal

Varanka, D., 2011. Ontology patterns for complex topographic feature types, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, v. 38, n. 2, p. 126-136.

Wilson, J. P. and J.C. Gallant, (eds.), 2000. Terrain Analysis: Principles and Applications, John Wiley and Sons, London: 520 p.

Proposed Duty Station: Rolla, MO

Areas of PhD: Geography, cartography, geographic information sciences, computer science, physical science, or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet one of the following qualifications: Research Geographer, Research Cartographer, Research Physical Scientist.

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Human Resources Office Contact: Kimberly Sales, 703-648-7478,

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