Wednesday, October 14, 2015

That's All

I started blogging at IDV in April of 2007. Over the years it has become a terribly important venue for me, where I've shared surprisingly personal events and surprisingly exciting adventures in cartography and visualization. But most fun were the intersections of those things. Everything is personal.
The things I've made and written here have been heartfelt and an honor to share. Thanks to everyone who has chimed in or just dropped by. And thanks to a tremendous team of cohorts at IDV.
As with most endings, this is the beginning of something else. I'm excited to share new adventures over at

You can also find me at these fine establishments:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Beautiful Old Map

Etsy is a bittersweet treasure trove of vintage maps. I have mixed feelings because, on one hand, sellers disassemble awesome old cartographic volumes, yanking the plates out of their bound context. On the other hand, they go on to live in tidy frames in Brooklyn apartments where human eyes can appreciate them for the first time in a hundred years (or ever).
They are helpful to me, both as aesthetic and technical inspiration, and as a heady reminder of the care and thoughtfulness of a process that was, compared to our current technological advantage, a laborious investment.
Anyway, here's one I found recently that has grown on me, and this is why...

This is a map of Biarritz, France, published around 1914 by German cartography firm, Wagner and Debes. Two color lithographic passes over black ink (a German actor invented lithography, by the way).  They made these scale maps of zillions of cities. That this one was published on the eve of unprecedented violence between these two countries casts a strange shadow on something so clean and beautiful.

My immediate impression is the precision and clarity of the building footprint mapping.  It reminds me of OpenStreetMap data (which would come some 100 years later) and I wonder if it was also the result of tracing imagery captured via aircraft. I doubt it, considering the infant state of aircraft technology at the time. Balloon reconnaissance? Pigeon drones?

Coastal Vignettes
The meticulous (hand-rendered) coastal water lines are fantastic. This beautiful effect does the following:

  • defines the fore/ground relationship of the map
  • accentuates coastal nuances and proximity
  • warns of sandbars
  • defines tidal uncertainty
  • provides visual balance
  • just looks right

That's some heavy lifting. If this is the first time you've considered the humble coastal vignette, allow Daniel Huffman to illuminate.

Stepping on the Neatline
The inset map in the top left corner of the map shows a detailed view of the business district and harbor. I love that the cartographers spilled over the neatline to accommodate a rogue island and its coastal vignette. This sort of liberty and playfulness appears pretty frequently from cartographers of the past. Anytime I see someone wink at the dogma of the neatline, I have to salute it.

Check out the willingness of the cartographers to omit data (even the reference grid) underneath and around the map title to avoid visual complexity -rather than boxing a title into a neatline. On point.
It's also fun to note that this 100 year old map uses the metric system, which had already been in use in parts of Europe for about 100 years.

I tend to avoid cartographic labeling and annotation. 1) I don't generally make reference maps so I don't feel the need, and 2) It's really hard.
All of the type in this map is seriffed, to help the eye track through the letters (particularly when they curve and meander along features). Except for the Title. Mixing serifs with non-serifs is risky and this is a good example of when to do it. Serifs, by the way, have interesting but uncertain origin stories and equally uncertain benefits to legibility.
The massive large font of the title doesn't need that embellishment or readability-tracking and it sets it apart from the underlying content. I don't know what the font used here is, but it sure is early-1900s.

Notice how the neighboring town labels in the neatline read vertically with the top of the letters facing the near edge of the map. Did you ever wonder why vertical (up-down-reading) text tends to be oriented so the tops of letters are facing the nearest edge? It's because we have necks that pivot and eyes that roll in a way such that our brains prefer the continuity of "up" as we tilt our heads to one shoulder or the other. Even if we don't tilt our heads to read the vertical text, we still like it that way. To run text the other vertical direction on the edge of a page requires our brains to do a mental flipping at some point.

There you go. A simple little reference map. Packed with professionalism and craftsmanship. This is the fun of looking at the work of experts. It is deceivingly simple, but that simplicity comes from a level of workmanship that only an expert can apply. To be the maker of something admired one hundred years later must be pretty satisfying, if only Wagner and Debes knew.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Tornado-Specific Alerting

In North America, tornadoes can be a real...problem. Their geographic pattern and seasonal trend is something I think a lot about here, from the perspective of understanding risk -especially on behalf of organizations that have people scattered all over the place.
Considering how many drug stores of a certain variety exist on corners across the United States, you quickly realize that at any moment in the summertime, there is probably a tornado bearing down on one -a location filled with employees and customers.

The path of a storm cell over the weekend, spawning several warning zones of relative tornado risk. These boundaries are used to trip alerting rules in the event of people and assets in their path.

Weather alerts are ok, but generally they are too general. Working with the team from Weather Decision Technologies, we've pulled in their tornado forecast cones as alertable geometries (as optional low, medium, and high-risk plumes). Based on the current conditions of a storm, the forecast-modeled zones swipe out a predicted impact area which can then be used to trigger on-site notices to employees and response teams in the event of an approaching tornado.

Here is an animation of the alerting areas as the storm cell moved east through the Midwest. These zones were used to notify folks ahead of the danger.

Tornado risk zones trigger alerting rules as a storm cell rolls eastward, notifying folks and response teams ahead of the event.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

If Earth Were The Size of This Globe...

You are beholding the magnificence that is the Churchill globe, the colossal creation of Peter Bellerby and company. While marveling at images of its hand building and painting, I wondered about the relative size of things on Earth that we consider massive and how big they would be at a scale, like this, I can actually comprehend.

The Churchill globe, by Bellerby & Co., measures 127 centimeters wide.

So if Earth were actually the size of this 127 cm diameter globe (and that by dragging my hands along its surface I would not be destroying a soft dusty lava ball, snuffing out all life), I wondered what it would feel like under my fingertips. The answer is insanely smooth.  For instance...

  • If, in the process of painting in the beautiful coastlines, one of the hairs of the paint brush fell off onto the globe, its thickness would dwarf the world's tallest building.
An electron microscope scan of the Burj Khalifa on the surface of the Churchill globe, with a hair for scale.

  • The tip of Everest would reach 0.88 millimeters above the overall surface. Like two grains of salt stacked on each other, or the height of Lincoln sitting on the back of a US penny.
The very tip of the Himalayas would rise one Lincoln tall on the Churchill globe.
  • The Mariana Trench's Challenger Deep, the deepest known location on the Earth's seabed, would be a 1 millimeter scratch. Similar to the depth of the characters punched into your credit card.
The deepest location under Earth's oceans would, on the Churchill, plunge to similar depths as the characters punched into your credit card.
  • The Troposphere (pretty much what we think of as our atmosphere), where our weather and breathing happens, would be a wispy 1.2 millimeter coating -likely not much thicker than the layer of lacquer coating the Churchill globe. This makes me feel uneasy.
  • A Boeing 747 at cruising altitude would hover 1 millimeter above the Churchill (probably suspended inside the Churchill's lacquer coating). It could fly about 97.8 cm (38.5 in) on a tank of gas.
  • All of Earth's multi-cellular organisms would live within a tenuous 3 millimeter-thick envelope. 
The troposphere would coat the Churchill globe about 1.2 millimeters thick.
  • Geography nerds like to talk about how the Earth is slightly wider, generally, than it is tall, because the spinning motion mooshes it out a bit at the belt. But how much? To accommodate that equatorial bulge, the Churchill globe would have to be 4.3 millimeters wider than it is tall. You could never tell by looking. If you wrapped a string once around the Churchill globe's equator, that string would be just under one-and-a-half centimeters longer than when you wrap it around tall-ways.
  • A dust mite (the invisible-to-the-eye little guys who feast on your shed skin scales) on the Churchill would be reminiscent of the Cloverfield Monster, only bigger.
A dust mite on the Churchill would cover much of Central Park.

Here are a couple more pictures of the construction of this 127 centimeter-wide scale model of Earth...

And my back of napkin sketch of the relative sizes of stuff...

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Poster print. If you scratch this poster and sniff it, does it smell like like the acrid energy of excited oxygen and ozone? Will it make the hair on your neck stand at attention? There is one way to find out.

Poster print. Does this poster glow in the dark? No. But if you hang the poster, stare at it for one minute, then immediately look at a blank white wall, you will receive complete consciousness.

This data comes from the National UFO Reporting Center, which is "dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data." That, and some census data, and we are off to the races.

Of course, as is the case for any observation data, there is a strong tendency towards echoing a population map. This is certainly the case with this sighting data, as well. In order to visualize the actual sighting phenomenon, I needed to normalize by the underlying population.  The first, more prominent map shows a simple ratio of the sightings by population. A per-capita approach.  The second, smaller and slightly more complex map, shows a bi-variate mapping of sightings in the color dimension (dark slate for low-sightings and bright green for high-sightings) and population density in the opacity dimension (denser populations are more transparent). The result is a map that is more nuanced regarding the problem of variable populations and area sizes. Double normalized? Sort of. If you would like to traverse the rich and complex world of bi-variate mapping, check out this tour-de-force how-to by Joshua Stevens.

Poster print. Terrain of sightings, normalized by population (because without that, it would just be a population map). Blow your visitors' minds when they see this beauty hanging proudly on your, otherwise incomplete, wall. Regale them with a nuanced conversation about the subtle interplay of underlying populations and observed phenomena. Then point to your county and say, "Right there. That one's me. Let's have a few drinks; I'm not ready to talk about it quite yet."

You may be thinking, "wait a second, I thought you said aggregating non-political data into political zones was lazy and pedestrian!" That's true. I am admittedly violating my own unrequested map tips 1, 5, and 6. But I am doing it with gusto.

One of those great questions that you have to ask yourself when making a visualization is, "compared to what?That's why the shape trending section was so interesting. Shape popularity compared to other shapes.  Compared to other times.  Physically analogous shapes like Disk and Egg? So mid-century materialist chic. Uncertainty? So late-century neo-relativism. Flaming lights? Such millennial clarity. No matter the phenomenon, crowd sourced data tends toward a first-order trend of how we see ourselves.

Poster print. Check out the USA's history of unidentified flying...fireballs? Triangles? Eggs? Feast your eyes on the distillations of thousands and thousands of reported sightings by what shape they were reported to be. Upon receipt of this poster, invite six friends over for a small dinner party. Reveal the chart and kick off the conversation with something like, "The postmodern age of uncertainty is eroding beneath our feed, my friends. Behold its pre-digital-age rise and abrupt fall at the hands of frenetically optimistic millennial certainty. Pedestrian notions of eggs and saucers? Robert Wise wants his breakfast back, thank you. Mbwa ha ha. Now then, who takes their absinthe with a cube of sugar?" So on and so forth.

It isn't surprising that there is a clear spike in sightings on summer nights, but I wanted to see for myself.  As soon as somebody sends me some time-stamped data that quantifies when people are looking up, I'd be thrilled to normalize this by it. In the meantime, I still like seeing a picture of the terrain of observation. Like the shape trending, it may be more of a revelation about our own movements, than the schedule of unidentified flying objects, but there is value in revealing that structure. If you enjoy spurious correlations, feel free to indulge here as a first step.

Other print options.

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