Archive for the ‘Critique’ Category

News Cartographers Map Russia-Georgia War (Kelso)

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Summary of Monday’s maps for the growing conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the BBC.

When conflict hits over the weekend staffing often dictates how exhaustive the mapping coverage will be. Tuesday’s maps are proving to be more detailed in:

  1. coverage of war events,
  2. reference locations, and
  3. secondary context such as relief shading, landcover, population density, pipelines, etc

For background, from the Washington Post (disjointed):

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s and have formed close relations with Russia. Last week, Georgian forces launched a major offensive that captured the South Ossetian capital in an effort to reestablish central government control; Russian forces drove them out two days later.

Russia escalated its war in Georgia again Monday, sending troops and tanks out of friendly separatist enclaves to stage the first major invasion of undisputed Georgian territory. One armored column seized a town and major military base in the west of Georgia, while another menaced the central city of Gori.

In Washington, President Bush toughened his rhetoric. “Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century,” Bush said.

Read more . . .

Mikhail Gorbachev has a different take:

What happened on the night of Aug. 7 is beyond comprehension. The Georgian military attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with multiple rocket launchers designed to devastate large areas. Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against “small, defenseless Georgia” is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.

Mounting a military assault against innocents was a reckless decision whose tragic consequences, for thousands of people of different nationalities, are now clear. The Georgian leadership could do this only with the perceived support and encouragement of a much more powerful force. Georgian armed forces were trained by hundreds of U.S. instructors, and its sophisticated military equipment was bought in a number of countries. This, coupled with the promise of NATO membership, emboldened Georgian leaders into thinking that they could get away with a “blitzkrieg” in South Ossetia.

Read more . . .

And now to the maps:

Washington Post (below)
By Gene Thorp.
View original at full size.

New York Times (below)
View original at full size.

Wall Street Journal (below)
View original at full size.

CNN (below)
Interactive map, the red markers click thru to photo and extensive caption.
View original at full size.

BBC (below)
View original at full size.

Less is More – Don’t Default to Shaded Relief

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

montana map gene thorp wash post

My colleague Gene Thorp has a good map in today’s Washington Post showing land ownership in Montana near Missoula. The accompanying article by Karl Vick is headlined Closed-Door Deal Could Open Land In Montana Forest Service Angers Locals With Move That May Speed Building. (The Washington Post, July 5th, 2008.)

Here are the first two graphs of the story:

MISSOULA, Mont. — The Bush administration is preparing to ease the way for the nation’s largest private landowner to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of mountain forestland to residential subdivisions.

The deal was struck behind closed doors between Mark E. Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Plum Creek Timber Co., a former logging company turned real estate investment trust that is building homes. Plum Creek owns more than 8 million acres nationwide, including 1.2 million acres in the mountains of western Montana, where local officials were stunned and outraged at the deal.

And another key graph:

That same impulse drives a different kind of land deal in the area: The buyers are the Nature Conservancy and other organizations that purchase desirable private land to preserve it. Since 2000, the groups have paid Plum Creek market rates to secure 280,000 sensitive acres in Montana alone.

When drawing maps of mountainous areas cartographers often get over-excited about adding relief shading to indicate the shape and height of the terrain in question. This is often appropriate for a reference map but on other maps the relief can be simply gratuitous.

When relief shading is not needed to understand the story and it may muddy the picture by creating distracting visual noise that interferes with communicating the map’s message. Just because the cartographer knows how to create the shaded relief or has a new wiz-bang data source or software program to do so does not mean relief shading should be added to the map.

By removing the relief from this map and choosing to show the Forest Service land in a muted olive green instead of glaring green, the red and black of the private land ownership pattern is allowed first visual prominence, thus strengthening and clarifying the map’s message.

Finally, the map’s message is clearly set forth in a prominent and clear legend. The map reader knows there are two primary and 1 secondary element to examine and compare on the graphic. A context map shows where in Montana the detail is located. Other features have been added for orientation, such as the Rocky Mountains label, Glacier National Park, and the call-out pointer box for Missoula.

Topology and Projections: 21st Century Cartography

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

maps splash walters gallery baltimore

The traveling map exhibit MAPS: FINDING OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD at the Walter’s in Baltimore, Maryland (via the Field Museum, Chicago) wrapped up last weekend. While looking at John Adam’s Road distance map of England and Wales I was put in mind of how map projections try to preserve several of:

  • Area
  • Distance
  • Shape, and
  • Direction/angle

Then the question arose: Might information (thematic) topology now be interchangable with purely geographical topology?

John Adam’s map from 1680 places towns in relative (not absolute) geographic lat-long coordinates in a rough framework that preserves their orientation to one another and in the rough-shape of their original geography. But the primary purpose of this map is to emphasize the relationship between towns and intra-town distances. Below by Royal Geographic Society.

john adams road map 1680

This topological focus (of NODES and EDGES in math-speak) is perfectly represented in Adam’s map. Circles (nodes) are inscribed with town names and straight lines (edges) connecting town circles are annotated with road distance (not straight-line geographic distance).

Modern scientific cartography, with an emphasis on visualization, might finally be loosening the geographic straight jacket to the point where purely lat-long geography doesn’t matter so much but the inter-connection (edges) of said features (nodes) gains emphases and is preserved.

I believe such thematic topology maps are “geographically” accurate and employ projection just like conventional cartography but these “projections” are as of now ad hoc and not properly defined or formalized and are often created manually. Efficient and effective mathematical formulas should be devised and listed along conventional map projections in publications like Snyder’s (USGS) Map Projections: A Working Manual.

The nearest we come to topologic maps are subway maps and cartograms. More on cartograms below.

new york subway map slice

This subway map of New York City is a topological map where the island area of Manhattan is relatively small geographically but is significantly exaggerated to accommodate the “accurate” display of the topological nodes and edges of subway stations and subway lines. (Dorling cartogram example below by Zach Johnson.)

zach johnson cartogram

Cartograms are a good example of topological maps:

  • Area of symbol represents the NODE weight alone.
  • Distance is based on EDGE weight first and and geographic distance second (trying to approximate the “relatedness” between each, eg close countries close, far countries far).
  • Direction is approximated.
  • Shape is approximated.

Zach Johnson has a good post on this topic on his blog (cartograms are the focus of his Masters Thesis).

Below a New York Times map showing the weighted electoral votes of the 48 contiguous states as the topological area of each state.

ny time cartogram example

Let us examine a map of water flow in a stream network (Kelso and Araya):

six rivers streamflow

One usually sees these maps with a conic projection to preserve equal-land-area. But the river segments are drawn exaggerated to their geographic width to represent the EDGE weight between nodes in the true geography space.

The map is dispensing with equal-land-area between nodes (the overall area and shape are preserved) and instead focusing on DISTANCE and DIRECTION between each node. The edges are “preserved” by exaggerating the stream centerlines to preserve the thematic variable. Overall SHAPE is preserved, but local land AREA is not.

Such topological maps are not diagrams because they are still rooted in land-geography; the placement of the nodes is guided by land geography but shift accordingly to best show the interrelationships between nodes. Ignoring the land-geography by listing the nodes and edges in a chart or table is not a map. A topological map takes a complex n-dimensioned space and represents that topology in a 2d dimensioned space.

precip swiss atlas

Some precipitation maps use “gridded” tightly spaced, regularized nodes and edges (above: Swiss Atlas, 2.0). The “weight” of rain and snow fall is indicated by color. Because of the spacing of the nodes and the hyper-localness of the mapped theme, this “topological map” manages to preserve both the topology and the geography.

nat geo 8th world atlas human chapter opener

The above example from the 8th Edition National Geographic Atlas of the World focuses on the quantity difference between nodes and represents that with height spikes (3d). If this were a topologic projection that needed to show the contents of each node (not the inter-relationship between nodes) the spike height would be flattened out into area alone (2.5d), leading to a grossly exaggerated land-area map but correct population-area cartogram such as:


Above from the Dutch company Mapping Worlds via Zach Johnson.

tom patterson relief example

Tom Patterson (above) uses this 2.5d term to talk about relief shading of land elevation. But I think it can be used to represent any map that is a representation of more than simply 2 variables (lat and long). Really, much of thematic cartography is 2.5d when it tries to represent complex datasets (like precipitation) with color and other visual variables.

So visualization / modern scientific cartography is focused on examining and preserving / projecting topological relationships. Often these are closely related to geographic space, but not always. That is why I am so fascinated by cartograms :)

How do we measure the “error” and “conformal”-ness in a topological map?

  • Area: Does this “view” of the topology preserve the node and edge weights?
  • Distance: Does this “view” preserve the inter-relations between nodes?
  • Direction: Both topological between nodes and geographically.
  • Shape: Purely geographical. This is what sets some cartograms above others.

For topologic shape:

Projecting a n-dimensioned topology onto a 2d surface has one or more points tangent to the 2d surface. An ideal solution shows all nodes and edges shown flattened out but this would likely require using an interrupted projection with dashed linkage lines between like-lobes content (I have seen this somewhere, need example).

For geographic shape and direction:

We are concerned with local shape (direct neighbors in the topology) and global shape. In the England example above for the Dorling cartogram the north-south direction axis tilts left in the topology. A “best” solution preserves this geographic orientation by rotating the topology network until it “conforms” more to the geography.

Finally, we can visualize this with a modified cartography cube from Zach Johnson:

cart cube zach johnson

Getting Stuck (NY Times)

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Editor’s note: I like how the “worst 10″ table shows all the different map variables in a single matrix where they can be compared numerically. The map shows “all” the sundry elevators in New York City as graduated circles where they can be compared visually. The circles are graduated in size for any of three variables. The mapped variable is chosen with a dropDown menu easily found at the top of the display. There is not an overwhelming number of variables, but those that are listed are fully integrated and cross referenced within the display by using rollOvers on each circle. The DNA-sequence-style time series below the map shows breakdowns by day for 2 elevators and provides a finer resolution picture than the year-sum map. It would be cool if the table and the map could trigger each other (on mouseOver the Times Square station on the map, that row in the table highlights, and visa versa).

May 19, 2008 by Matthew Bloch, Shan Carter and Ford Fessenden/The New York Times

A New York City Transit program to install elevators and escalators in the city’s subway system has been plagued with problems. The machines often break down or are closed for repairs and maintenance and many people have been stuck in elevators. Last year, there were 286 incidents, known as entrapments, in which passengers were stuck in elevators, up from 177 in 2006.

Screenshot below. See and interact with the original Flash graphic here.

ny city elevator outages

Info Design Patterns

Monday, May 12th, 2008

the form of facts and figures 

(Thanks Peter! Description via

Christian Behrens, a Berlin native, created this website of information design patterns for his masters thesis at Postdam University of Applied Science. The website is a web-representation of content he has formatted into book form, and judging from the screenshots on his site of the book he’s rocking the design of the printed matter.

Christian’s website has a Flash based interface akin to Color Brewer or Type Brewer for picking what visualization should be paired up with what data. Each visualization includes a Fact Sheet with a description, general layout, implementation, and real-world example.

the form of fact and figures example

Dorling Cartograms – Carbon Atlas – SND Awards

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

The Washington Post won 12 awards from SND’s annual contest this year. The Society for News Design awarded NewsArt where I work 5 individual graphics awards and one “staff graphic portfolio” or general art department excellence. One of these was for Laura and Brenna’s Operation Turkey graphic which I promoted here last year. Laris and April received one for their full-page map of the Cherry Blossoms last spring, too.

cartogram world carbon atlas thumb

While viewing other entries we came across this double-page spread from Mark McCormick’s December 15th, 2007 graphic in The Guardian (Britain) titled “Carbon Atlas” showing off a style of cartogram named Doring after Danny Dorling now of The University of Sheffield (download full res PDF).

(From NCGIA) A Dorling cartogram maintains neither shape, topology nor object centroids, though it has proven to be a very effective cartogram method. To create a Dorling cartogram, instead of enlarging or shrinking the objects themselves, the cartographer will replace the objects with a uniform shape, usually a circle, of the appropriate size. Professor Dorling (…) suggests that the shapes not overlap but rather be moved so that the full area of each shape can be seen.

Carbon Atlas Details

Note how the world map below shows true geography and establishes the region color code. Graduated circles, by region, establish proportions between regions and later iterate onto the background of the Europe detail image. Circles are labeled by rank on the main map (Europe clip below). Graduated circle labels could have been augmented with the 2 digit county code in many cases (e.g. 64CH for Switzerland). Use the table at the very bottom to lookup the rank number by continent to get the country name, total tons of C02 emissions, and ton-per-person equivalent.

cartogram world totals

cartogram world carbon atlast clip

cartogram world carbon atlas list

I prefer this automated charting method as it emphasizes proportions while still approximating geographic relationships (spatial proximity) yet avoiding the abstract art distortion noise common in the fish eye method. Some cartograms do a better job preserving shape while scaling it proportionally to the data theme like this map of Oil Reserves where a fish eye algorithm might have guided creation of final art but the original shapes are better preserved. Automated routines are available for the Dorling method (including non-overlap) and the fish eye method.

oil cartogram

Prof. Dorling is now involved in which uses a fish-eye lense effect to generate cartograms like this one. Some areas like Africa are relatively easy to digest. The Americas have turned into an ink-blot fractal. High marks for thematic coverage in the online atlas project, though. The fish eye artifacts are partly negated in this project by comparing so many different maps in sequence, especially with the selective use of animation.

cartogram fish eye

The Electoral Map

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

the election map logoFind extensive analysis of the primaries on The Electorial Map. The blog features maps from a variety of sources (including The Washington Post) and has both pre- and post-contest. Thanks to Aly for the tip.

Design Police Stickers

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Design police logoBring bad design to justice with this Visual Enforcement Kit with multiple stickers (Flash and PDF formats). Examples include: Kern this!, Consult a typographer, Hierarchy required, and Design cliché. These are for fun, not vandalism. Seen on Aly’s blog.

Primary Jam — Wall Street Journal Graphic

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

With Iowa voting later this week, the 2008 presidential primary election season will be open and in full swing (really, not just taunting like the last 102 weeks). Conventional wisdom says the first states can make or break a candidate’s chances of actually landing their party’s nomination to the White House’s office.

This Wall Street Journal graphic diagrams how certain caucuses have moved forward (or fallen behind) on the calendar as states jockey to have the most impact on the nominating process. States are represented by circles which are graduated in size on the timelines to represent that state’s electoral votes and by an alphabetical listing (by two digit postal code) at top. Both the graduated circles and the postal code buttons are interactive revealing more information on mouseOver. Restrained animation is provided when navigating the graphic as some circles change color or size up to full volume. A link back to the article that originally spawned the graphic is provided (well, section front).

Nitpicks: the mouseOver effects on the graduated circles should have been above or below the circle, not left or right. This would allow the next few caucuses to be viewed in sequence. The present method obscures this information. Fonts size is small on my screen, almost to the point of illegibility. I would have liked to see the state names spelled out fully in the mouseOver boxes. The postal code abbreviations used in the keyboard buttons above the graphic (the index) are effective, but the full names should be provided here too. The representation of Super Tuesday is effective but the large circle shape is slightly deflated in 2000.

Primary Jam — Wall Street Journal Graphic

Tracking Presidential Campaigns

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

If you’re a politics junkie, have a look at both the Washington Post and the New York Times. Each have excellent campaign tracking pages for the 2008 presidential election.

The Washington Post page implements this using Django and a custom Google mashup for all dates past and future. It is extensively cross-indexed by date, place, candidate, and more. Detailed event summaries are provided. We’ve had this feature up for almost as long as this “early” election cycle has been around. Alyson Hurt and Adrian Holovaty collaborated extensively on this project. Event data is continuously updated by WPNI staff.

wash post election tracking

The New York Times page is newer and focuses on past events in their map-based interface, but also has a listing of future events by date and candidate. The map is implemented in Flash by Shan Carter & Co. but is still powered by a database backend.

The map timeline can be played in whole or “scrubbed” in part and individual candidates can be isolated (very nice!). The map reveals more geographic detail on zoom in, and prebuilt zooms are provided for key “battleground” states such as Iowa, giving several “entry points” into the graphic. Nitpick: There should be a “show all” listed at the bottom of the zoom list to go back to the full US map.

Graduated circles with transparency effectively convey the magnitude of event clusters, and the “onion skinning” of seeing more than one date at a time complements trend analysis. Mouse overs provide a quick summary of who had how many events at that location. But event details are not accessible. I wish onRelease (“Click for more”) would take me to a detailed listing like on the Post site. Circle diameter could be scaled better on zoom-in, too.

I find the Google Calender offer interesting but overwhelming. Perhaps better to subscribe to a particular candidate’s schedule, not all of them en mass!

new york times election map