Crafting an Imaginary Atlas for a Dystopianly Disproportionate World

What is one to make of the silkscreen prints Hong Hao assembles from digitized versions of antiquated printed world maps?  While dispensing with anything like an exact correspondence to the world, each creates a fantasia of borderlands, and offers something of a wry response to the frustration at imbalances of globalization, as much as they appropriate antiquated cartographical conventions and forms.  Hao’s silkscreen prints manipulate scans of older global maps, he’s argued, as a set of confines or parameters to draw the world in new ways, but in doing so deploy the conventions of mapping to empty the familiar authority of the conventions of cartography.  The huge success of his production of world maps in the series Selected Scriptures, which this ambitious and eclectic printmaker began in the 1990s, but dramatically expanded after 1995, have reached a demanding public.  Is there appeal how they question how we see nations as best described on a map as they make foreign–and winkingly poke fun at–the authority of the print map as a register of the nation-state or territorial boundary lines?  Or does it lie in the special appeal of their static form, presented as a classical sewn binding of an encyclopedia, in an age when most of the maps we use are downloadable networked media?  In an age of online and digitized maps, Hao seems careful  to design the sequence of maps as situated and constructed forms, that open to the viewer in the site of a stable book.

But the maps that he produces also chart an increasingly globalized world, no longer subject to the confines of antiquated or inherited cartographic forms he creatively has appropriated, and seem to gesture to the construction of a warped world of a less clear balance of power or status quo, concealing many unseen networks of financial exchange or The increasing introduction of corporate logos, upbeat slogans, and fractures of linguistic translation into the imaginary corpus of maps Hao has produced with astonishing invention and rapidity question not only the hold of the power of maps but the medium of mapping, by dislodging the conventions of mapping from a familiar story and by suggesting the outdated nature of narratives of bounded territories and balances of power, as well as to indicate the increasingly skewed nature of global relations.  If Hao has chosen the silkscreened image to be confined by antiquated formats of mapping, unlike the screens we use to view maps on hand-held devices, his crafted silkscreen prints take the map as a liberatory form to reorganize global space in something of a provisory or provisional fashion for their viewers to contemplate.  In ways that dispense with notions of geographic correspondence or way-finding, and adopt the conventions of mapping to undermine western narratives, Hao distances us from older Rand McNally maps in ways as appealing as they are successful on the international art market.   In appropriating Western conventions for viewing global space, Hao surely comments on the power of mapping as a symbolic form and graphic practice, if only by undermining and defamiliarizing the coherence of the map as a record of familiar territory:  not only do his silkscreen prints mutate forms of mapping, by altering names, locations of countries, color-schema and mirroring continents in wry ways, but adds weird arrows, graphs, and currents mark the ties of countries and continents.  Rather than confusing the surface of the map, the direction of viewers’ attention to the map seem to reveal fractures and imbalances in the globalized world, even if in ways that seem to undermine–or question–the map’s own claims to reality, by releasing the map from claims of accuracy or indeed truth-claims.

The appeal of these images among his other attempts to synthesize an eclectic variety of scaned brightly colored objects from everyday life seem quite distinct.  For not only do they indulge in the translation of maps to Chinese culture (and a global art market), but they raise questions of how all maps are translations of reality in ways that are comforting in an age of the web-based map.  If Hao severs the map from claims of precision or forms of way-finding, he rehabilitate antiquated structures of mapmaking, now somewhat foreign to our period eye, to orient us to the impossibility of proportional mapping in a truly disproportionate globalized world.  The images Hao defines are extremely popular as a sort of response to the failure of globalization, and indeed the failure to create a new map of the modern world.  The sustained return to the map as a medium seems quite unlike the numerous ways that artists have long referenced the authority–and formal objectivity–of mapping as a register of the political status quo, in how they question the vision of global unity that maps and politics that maps have so long bequeathed.   For if Hao uses the palette of mapping as a clear set of constraints to in Selected Scriptures, an inventive sequence of silkscreen prints that create revisionary maps of the world’s countries, begun from 1992-95,  dismantle the oppressive presence of the map in our world to question the new hybridization of map making by moving it out of a “western” art.  There is a sense for many art critics of the ready-made artifact, of Duchampian inspiration, as each seem to announce  “This Is A Map,” or maybe even “This is a New Atlas.”   Hao reached back to the conventions and forms of printed maps and Rand McNally-esque forms of mapping–if not an earlier cartographical sublime–appropriating the claims of novelty and reduction of information as an elegant and economic statement of truth to make an artifact that  lies between found objects and the “ready-made,” even as his final products seems to satirically advertise their own cheapness and untrustworthiness as a vehicle:  the translation of the format of mapping in much of these works not only undermines its authority, but suggests an impatient and persistent attempt to find meaning in the map.

Hao’s sequences of silkscreen prints chart dystopia in faux open pages of an imagined traditional thread-bound Chinese encyclopedic text–as if to create the fictional broader corpus of which each form part.  While they do not pose as recreations of an actual experiential world, they seem to comments on the mapping of the world that have particularly pressing urgency to the material presence of the map in an age that is increasingly online.  Hao’s work, including  fictional pagination from the ostensible encyclopedia of knowledge referenced in  their titles, register glimpses of an atlas that charts the oppressive nature of global divisions, or an imagined atlas of the social construction of space, if not of an attempt to start dialogue with a “new world order.”  The prints appeal s a way of romancing the hand-made map, in an age of the web-based maps and a surfeit of digitized data, however, by recycling such foreign, if familiar, conventions of printed maps to orient the viewer to a disorienting world.  In place of the data visualizations that chart the process of globalization, Hong’s recourse to screening maps to show inequalities and disparities seems by no means accidental, even as Hao takes the map’s surface as his own field for further manipulation:  the world seems an open book, in the silkscreen prints shown below, made after the original series, and use the cartographical surface as a charged field for modification, inversion, and inscription, adopting the abilities produced by digitization to create a mock-permanence in his silkscreen prints.

Take two examples.  The very mutability of the medium of mapping in his work suggest not the tyranny of modern mapping, but the provisory nature with which maps translate space for their viewers, and the indiscriminate nature of how they present global inter-relations as a space that can be read in “Selected Scripture, page 1999, The Memory of MIllennium” (2000).  If all maps are translations, these are quizzical ones, as much as physical ones.

 

NEW WORLD PHYSICAL 2000

Latest Practical World Map

 

In the first, the excavated distorted “North America Ocean” and “South America Ocean” are dotted by odd arms and insignia, their actual confines warped to create imagined lakes and emblems of airplanes and Microsoft, unlike the “Asia Ocean,” and oceans become land mass.

 

America's Microsoft Explorers

 

In the scanned maps Hong has altered and manipulated, America might be expanded, renamed as the PRC, Asia folded into obscurity save Japan, and Canada foreshortened into a swelling United States, all to upset viewers’ expectations for reading their surface, which he reiterated in “New Political Map, 2” (2000), “New Political Map, Which One” or “New World No. 1” (2000), repeatedly playing with the apparent constraints of mapped space in ways that not only skew actual relations, but invite us to examine the arbitrariness with which we map our mental space or are accustomed to do so.

 

%22New World No. 1%22 p. 2001

 

Hong Hao was trained in printmaking, and values the medium of silkscreen prints as versatile tools not only to sort objects and create catalogue, but to treat the map as an ordering device.  The series of Selected Scriptures, which are distinct from much of his work in their ostensible unity, are distinct from Hao’s interest in sequence of assemblages that are characterized as mosaics of found objects, for the maps he has invented are anything but disinterested collections of visual information or compilations of objects.   Hao’s sharply observed maps are not aestheticizations, so much sharply observed post-modern satires, and comments about the recoding of information systems and the processes of the translation of information that occur in maps.  In his powerful series based on the clever appropriation of older maps, the antiquated nature of the maps allows them to be treated as a new expressive field.   For Hao’s Selected Scriptures (1992-2000) seems to ask us to about the role of visualizations in suggesting the global imbalances of networks of power often removed from actual terrestrial relations in an our over-mapped world, treating the map less as a totalitarian constraint or a set of fixed conventions than something like a musical piece that could be assembled, varied, and reorganized in sharply provocative ways.  Hao has created skillful digital transpositions of world maps in his silkscreen on heavy wove paper, as if to recall their craftsmanship and artifice to contrast to the mechanical reproduction of serially produced maps of topical concerns.  The contrast of materials of their subject and handmade production recall the power with which printed maps once assembled the lived world, in ways that masked all its inequalities and absence of proportions, working within the structure of the maps to undermine their content and reveal the very inequalities that they concealed.  Hao has claimed to be especially attracted to historical maps as being “capable of inspiring ideas on what we take as common knowledge” and as “almost the most direct and most economical way to know the world.”  But the economy of mapping by no means limits his variation of his range of artistic expression in this series:  Selected Scriptures exploit this economy of graphic expression and its organization as an inspirational guide for playing with their formal transcription of space, redeploying the map as a new arrangement of space in works that bear such self-titled silkscreen prints as “Latest Practical World Map,” “New Political World,” or “New World Physical”–to cite the prominent English typeface in his Selected Scriptures series.

Several of Hao’s set of maps, which appear below, capture the promises of how maps make new claims to organize the world’s totality in readily legible ways that make us look at maps in new ways, alternately whimsical, quizzical and ironic look at space.   In an age of online and digitized maps characterized by the near-constant mapping of financial transactions, geographic locations, and activities, Hao’s images are less about “found” maps than the rediscovery of the assembly of space from digitized images maps and varied map detritus that he wields and transfers onto his chosen medium.  For he has adopted the particularly copious formal syntax of mapping, preserving the appearance of cheaply printed maps that he emulates, to ask how successfully maps might ever translate an image of our world, subtly reshaping their economy to upset their meanings–evacuating the map of any sense of wayfaring tools, but enriching its symbolic form.

 

1.  The formats of mapping that Hao appropriates are, of course, removed by several generations from our own notion of map-use or the medium of mapping in modern life.  If it is increasingly confusing how to orient oneself to an increasingly imbalanced world whose inequities have been put on display in how news media often ignores most inequities in the inhabited world–not to mention the disproportionate threats of global warming to ecosystems, regional economies, and global food supplies–Hao assembles more light-hearted–if deadly serious–maps that invites us to engage the mystifications on maps.  Artists have long worked with maps.  But rather than offering an aestheticization of the map’s surface, as Jasper Johns, whose re-used the familiar image of the names of states in the United States, repainted to transform a well-known image,  converting familiar conventions of maps to encaustic, in an aetherial blurred space of dripping paint that obscured clear lines–

 

CRI_159124

 

–Hong Hao actively remakes the surface of the map as a map.  And his works demand to be taken for that reason as maps, or at least as interventions in practices of mapping, rather than images that appropriate cartographical images, conventions, and signs.

Hao’s maps map, of course, a globalized space as a space into which the artist makes his own interventions, although his work is in ways resonant with Johns’ evacuation of mapping forms.  For Hao’s maps re-assemble the disparities and tyranny of the globalized (over-mapped) world.  The disparities within the global economy has the danger of being recapitulated, of course, in ways that he lampoons.  The collective atlas that he imagines, which collectively run against the global maps we carry around in our heads, or the maps that we use to try to come to terms with unimaginably complex implications of global military constellations and warming processes.  Already, in a work that predates the Selected Scriptures, Hao’s “World Distrtibution of Guided Missiles” [sic] (1992), a monochrome silkscreen print replete with the mythical beasts and figures that recall the figures on medieval portolan charts for ocean travel, suggests a new debasement of the map as a communicative form, even as he works to expand the boundaries of a map’s informational value.  When he locates the bulk of guided missiles in Antarctica, the effect is a debasement of the map as a record of inhabited space, and a repurposing of the cartographical iconography with which he knowingly plays:  in this map, the effect is oddly to diminish the appearance of the world’s size:  at the close of Operation Desert Storm, of Gulf War, and the inundation of airwaves with images of US fighter jets on a sustained campaign of aerial bombing more extensive than expected, and provoked counter-attacks, Hao imagined the world as cowering from missiles poised for launch in the “World Distribution” silkscreen i seem to translate the cheaply printed paper ink map into his own image that magnified China at its approximate center.  As much as translating western cartography into a new art language of classical Chinese origin, Hao seems to confront the difficulty of mapping power in this and his many subsequent silkscreen prints.

 

World Distribution of Guided Missiles (1992)

 

The disproportionate prejudices in these maps are well known.  Global warming, a concept few can claim to understand, is also the,  most mapped–if perhaps most disproportionately mis-mapped–is repeatedly wrestled with in a variety of maps that try to lend the process a concrete appearance.  Despite the fact that 40% of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of the shore, and  200 million people live within five meters of sea-level, the disparity of the dangers of shifting shorelines that are poised to shift dramatically with global warming are only partly evident in an interactive “Global Hot Map” produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists:  and the extreme dangers that the shifting shorelines poses for low-lying countries is by no means limited to the United States, even if this sometimes seems the case in our own news media or the relative blindness or radical shortsightedness government working papers on shoreline sensitivity–subtitled “American Starts to Prepare–on the impacts of global flooding of low-lying lands.  (Even if there are exceptions in American media publications.)  The deepening disparities of our own mental maps–evident in apparent perplexity of one out of six Americans in where in the world Ukraine is located, according to the Washington Post, which almost makes one wonder if the survey was credible or if it generated sarcastic responses–the lopsided maps we contain may make Hao’s imaginary  corpus of lost maps apt commentaries on global inter-relations, as much as a formal syntax for creative expression.  But they grapple, if in a light-hearted way, with the problems of mapping the globalized world.

 

2.  Hao’s work is a retrospective recreation of a cartographical sublime that reaches back to a lost medium of paper maps.  The particular productivity of mapping as a new form of invention in Hao’s work from the late 1990s, suggests a particular neat coincidence of how maps speak to power, or power through maps, that interestingly mirrors the growth of online mapping:  although Google Maps was only launched just less than a decade ago, in 2005, shortly after Steve Coast created a free, editable map of the world, OpenStreetMap, based on Wikipedia, in 2004, the first online mapping service, MapQuest, If OpenStreetMap responded to the inability to freely download government-run and tax-funded projects like the Ordnance Survey in England, as these mapping projects have expanded, the epistemic remove of maps such as those that Hao uses–and the apparent chronological distance of a map created by silkscreen, but belonging to a printed encyclopedia bound as a classical Chinese book–gains new appeal as a rehabilitation of mapping as an aesthetic medium and as a tool for imagining and locating geopolitical abstractions.  Unintentionally, the rise of GPS and geocaching as modes of map making, satellite imagery, digital searchability, the branding of Google Maps and the Google map viewer, and dramatic expansion of use in over one million websites of the GoogleMaps API, have conspired to so remove the five-color map from our “period eye”, that its epistemological antiquity may be increasingly difficult to distinguish from the thread-bound classical encyclopedia Hao’s Selected Scriptures referenced.  (Google’s corporate logo is absent from Selected Scriptures, but the presence of Internet Explorer and other corporate insignia suggest a new need to locate the web-based map on the borders of what we once new as the world’s inhabited territories.)

Yet the weird notions of contiguity of a flattened earth that Google Maps has perversely re-introduced–reinstating a continuous block of Eurasia and Africa, for example, isolating China, Australia, and North America–mirrors the  oddness with which Google Maps has rehabilitated its own variant of the long-discredited and cartographically retrograde biases of the Mercator projection, a handy solution to the flattening of the earth’s surface to coordinates of straight lines of latitude and longitude but which amply distorts its surface, irrespective of actual land-mass, but whose convenient centering on Europe provides the basis for all Google-derived web-maps.  (China’s role in this internet society is contested, with most social networking sites banned in the country, including Facebook from 2008, Twitter from 2009, and Google+ as it was introduced–despite relative open-ness to LinkedIn, reborn in China as 领英, pronounced “ling ying”).

 

Contiguity in Google Maps

For all the personalized coziness of the Google Maps Navigation, Google Street View, or My Maps, this close variant of the quite retrograde Mercator projection has perpetuated a primarily targets that Hong skewers as a frozen model of global relationships of power, which is striking for how it eerily corresponds to Hao’s “New Political World” (1995), whose evocation of the modernity of rewriting the world’s geopolitical structures is not only reminiscent of the early modern cartographers Mercator or Ortelius–the former’s “Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata” ["New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe] properly adapted for use in navigation]” of 1569 and the Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula . . .” of 1570–but also to announce new political configuration of landmasses in relation to one another.  Although Hao didn’t prominently include Google’s logo among the logos of international corporations  in the sequences of maps he has designed from 1995, his work succeeds by upsetting our Westernized confidence in mapping, more than playing with cartographers’ formal conventions.  And if Ortelius prided himself on drawing national boundaries and distinguishing the world’s expanding number of continents, Hao’s silkscreen prints take pleasure in redrawing boundaries, reconfiguring the shapes of countries, and shifting and switching toponyms, as if to describe a world less defined by boundaries than the continued symbolic authority that maps have long continued to exercise.   Indeed, rather than accessing or retrieving data in the format of a map, we are presented a map in the legible form of an open book and private space, even if we are invited to imagine the audience of readers for whom such a map might be mechanically reproduced.

The maps are forms of imagining a conscious redesign of the balance of power and populations that antiquated static maps once mapped.  Indeed, Hao’s reassembly of the map may as a form of memory might even recall the famous translation of the Ortelian project in 1602 by Matteo Ricci, working with the astronomer, mathematician and geographer Li Zhizao (1565-1630), who engraved it, in ways that affirmed the dynamic and interactive nature of the actually static nature of a woodcut print map.  (Although Hao may not reference this famous notion of cartographical translation, his appropriation of the format of world-mapping seems to intentionally reverse the trajectory of Ricci’s importation of cartographical iconography and place-names on a somewhat comparably busy and densely crowded symbolic field.)

Ricci Map 1602James Ford Bell Library

Hao’s subversion of western mapping as a national political tool is often too crudely cast as reaction to the western–and American–dominance of constructing the world map, and an incorporation of traditional cartographical tools within a “Chinese” art.  This is too simple, and too readily essentializes “western” and “Chinese,” and where these works of art lie in relation to map making as a craft–or how Hao’s art relates to the currency of the mash-up as a map.  For Hao works with antiquated maps–indeed, making maps, rather than than only find them, to play new stories out on their surfaces–and indeed its distance from the imbalances of authority in our geopolitical world.  Reading the surface of the distribution of political power in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) in the Selected Scriptures project playfully inverts the notions of legibility to demonstrate a balance of power regularly elided:  the playful projection of geopolitical values is exploited to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse that is divided into naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images.

If we love to read maps to move across space, and cross frontiers drawn in space, the shifting toponymy and place-names that we encounter in the imaginary Atlas of Hao’s device opens up a world we’re sad to read but that we can at the same time also recognize as something that the anonymous mapmaker has synthesized.  Hao’s work suggests a uniquely hybrid creation, as well as a satirical relationship to the Rand McNally political atlas, which seems its primary target at first.  Hao, who graduated from the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts the year of the suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square, has specialized in transposing digitized images to silkscreen prints that skew the actual geography of the world in his prints, much as they play with the reproduction of five-color maps in print culture with the format of an hand-made artist’s book, but derive from reproduced images scanned, digitally altered, and reproduced as silk screened images, linking traditional crafts, the Cultural Revolution, and modern digitized media to deconstruct and repackage (or redeploy) the map as a political statement.

The weird translation of cartographical images is part and parcel of the project, evident in the irony of the most “accurate” map in the Selected Scriptures, the “World Defenge Layouy Map” [sic] (1992), a variant based on Hao’s earlier 1992 work:

 

Scriptures Hao

Hao’s new map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, recycling the map as a metaphor.  As much as it suggests a cheap reproduction, with its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters, the image of a “new political order” is meant to dislodge our expectations for reading a map centered on t:  and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, and reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations and that, indeed, the power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality to a seamless whole.  In Hao’s Scriptures, the integrity of the map is disrupted by the shifted orientation in the digitized images of names, landmasses, and pastel hues, as if to recall the mass-produced posters on cheap paper that recall Maoist times, the upbeat candy-colored easter sunday pastels worthy of PAAS Easter Egg paints.  But they describe a scary surface of disproportionate global powers, with the People’s Republic of China at their center, now straddling the Atlantic and Pacific, whose places are oddly reversed, as if one emptied a Rand McNally map of toponyms and reshuffled their location, as if to mock the faux disinterested nature of maps from the  perspective of the current PRC, which finds itself somehow between the Atlantic and Pacific, in the place of North America, with an expansive Israel to the North, and the United States somehow gone:

 

%22New Political World%22Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

3.  Artists have been making maps–or using maps to make art–since before the first printed atlas, if not since the first globe.  But Hao takes the map to excavate it of meaning, and ask about the oppressive world system we have inherited, playing with the oppressiveness of that system and the almost light-hearted pastels of artificial colors (pink, yellow, orange, blue and green) we use to divide the inhabited world in printed maps to suggest that the map has little bearing on it.   The odd remoteness of the historical map offers a “tool to think” that exposes the discrepancies of our mental maps of geo-bodies.  Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map:   and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space.  Reading the surface of the distribution of political power in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) plays with notions of legibility that are regularly erased or elided within print maps, but seem especially pregnant with the distance of time:  the playful adoption of the map’s projection of geopoltical values is exploited in Hao’s work in order to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse that is divided into naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images:  Hao’s new map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, but even its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters:  and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations.

The power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality, so that the PRC now occupies where we expect the United States:

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art

New PRC

 

The humorous reconfiguration of space in these maps transpose space and place with a flighty flippancy foreign to any actual land map.  Why is Hong Kong now at the mouth of the Mississippi, in the place of New Orleans?  The legibility of the rest of the world is almost made ridiculed, not only as the ocean off of what seem Alaska’s shores is labeled “Atlantic Ocean,” but since the region is actually Uganda, nestled beside the newly bordered Israel and Chad, creating a perverse geopolitical world that seems an absurdist collage of what might be:  as the People’s Republic of China now occupies, save in Florida and parts of Norther California, most of the land that one might associate with the United States; to the north, Israel lies lazily across current Canada; London is dispatched to the South Pole; Canada is relocated to a strip of diagonal land in Eastern Africa, beside the Indian Ocean; Europe divided between Vietnam and Mozambique as if their names are dislocated from the geographic fields in which we are accustomed to find and locate them.

Hong Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map:   and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space.   Many of Hao’s works trumpet their modernity in analogous, if tongue-in-cheek fashion–”The New Political World Map” (from 1995); “The New World Survey Map” (1995-96); “The New Geographical World,” Selected Scriptures p. 3085 (2000)–as if they offer windows on a newly registered reality to readers. Is ‘place’ less of a signifier, in the map, than the global distribution of power?   The sizes of countries are ordered, not only in terms of the military and economic power of nations, but in ways that upend the semantics of the legibility of space, despite the familiar color-scheme.  The result is often a fairly scary image whose totality one pays far more attention to, decoding the configuration of countries and assessing their sizes with an eye to power perhaps far more than geographic relationships, which are–witness the fighter jets–of far less import today.  The clearly cultivated flimsiness of a mistranslated map, standing askew to the actual world and placing Asia at its center, pushing mirror reflections of Europe to its margins, and dispensing with America, in ways that not only skew spatial relationships but show the reproduced map as a field for staging imbalances of power.

 

New Political World Hao

National Gallery of Canada

 

 

hong_hao_art_atlas2_400

“Selected Scriptures, p. 1999, The Memory of the Millennium” (2000) assembles a grab-bag of cartographical inventions around an inversion of land and water, so that oceans that connect and separate continents now seem landmasses:  as if to exploit the map not only as construction, but assemblage of cultural artifacts that desperately press space into readily legible terms, Hao presses the fertility of the format of the map as a signifier into his service to new extents:  emblazoned with the prominent descriptive legend “New World Physical,” the map is difficult to orient oneself to even more than his earlier work, its oceans (NORTH AMERICAN OCEAN; AFRICA OCEAN; EUROPE OCEAN) erase landmasses, as if to repurpose this most conservative of media so that where once lay land, oceans are overburdened with objects.  Weird graphs erase any familiar promise of the legibility of mapped space.  The didactic iconography of educational maps becomes a repository for graphs, varied iconographic detritus from warships and the logo of internet explorer:

 

Memory of the Millenium (2000) Artsy Artis

The playful array of translations in the map–both translations among mechanical processes of reproduction, and contexts for viewing maps, as well as translations of map-signs, conventions, and toponymy–play with the “novelty” of the map and its antiquated medium to make a new material object for readership.  By using a base-map, scanned from a four-color map of Westernized derivation that seems printed on foolscap typical of the posters of the Cultural Revolution, which Hao cast in the form of a traditional hand-made book in  a set of individual silkscreens, as if it belonged to a corpus of lost maps in the Chinese tradition, rather than informed by Western cartography.   We are a far cry from the Eurocentric “Map Translator” functions, if the adherence to a cartographical structure and the color-scheme is oddly familiar:  Hao takes the the levels of translation, indeed, in a much more playful and wryly sarcastic direction that exploits the almost generative fertility of the proliferation of meanings in mapping forms, that consciously reveals the power of mapping forms that are left as a neutral backdrop in the image that uses the Google Translate API.  To be sure, unlike the Google API, the maps Hao crafts, if in their collective dizzy the viewer in percussive ways, rather than retrieve or access data, present a fixed tableaux.

 

Map Translator_Nation State

 

 

Some of the other imagined pages Hao designed from Essential Scriptures of 1995, as “Latest Practical World Map,” manipulate and lampoon the sense of practicality of a map, even as they introduce emblems of consumerism as much as militarism within the map the maps themselves, in ways that play with their surfaces by renaming continents so that countries, continents, and cities are no longer recognizable, hydrography abstractly symbolized and an eery globalism illustrated in the surface of the map itself–and slogans such as “Be satisfied” or “Be careful” will later give way to those of free market neo-conservatism, from “Control, gain, own, exploit” to “Fame and fortune:  you can have both”:  these maps have been compared suggestively to a traditional Chinese landscape in which the manipulation of the conventions of landscape become a register for a subjective state of mind, although in Hao manipulates conventions takes aim at their ostensible objectivity, and indeed the images of globalism they present:  the conceptions let silent in the map are used as commentaries on mapping practices, or on the concepts of globalism.  Or, the map becomes a surface for an almost random generator of slogans and injunctions–”BE SATISFIED,” “BE LONELY,” “BE CAREFOL,” “DON’T BELIEVE,” “BE LONELY”–that suggest the alienation of its viewers.   Whatever constitutes the practicality of a map, the combination of odd translations, even odder graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical remove of the map-as-image and inscribed surface to puncture its utility and authority, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.

 

Latest Practical World Map bigArtis

 

4.  What, indeed, constitutes practicality in a map, and how is the translation of the world to “practical” terms defined?  Practicality suggests that it offers ease of ready consultation by readers, but we find a surplus of significations that mimic many maps in their almost distracting quality.  Many of the slogans that are on the map–”NO RELEAE IS TERMITED OTHERWISE WILL BE–subvert any sort of reading for sense.  Indeed, Hao’s intentional layering of odd  translations (BE CAREFOL), odd graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical quality of the map-as-image to puncture the very notion of utility, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.

Hao’s “New World Survey Map” engages playfully with the ways maps symbolize the proportionality of space in powerful ways, reduced Asia, as it magnifies Japan, but shows the globe wonderfully distorted with the magnification of Europe and America, in a playful accentuation of the disproportionate distribution of weapons and political influence.  Or is this the image of the political order that the West–or an exaggerated and hugely magnified Europe and [North] America and Japan–purports to create and legitimize at such political organs as the UN Security Council?  In the below map, the “legend” is of little help, but the map says enough, shrinking oceanic expanse and magnifying countries that are bloated in the disproportionate attention that they receive from news channels, or in international political bodies, as if to render a map based on their prominence in a world historical record or online news-sources:

 

New Topographical  World Map

 

This utterly “othered” “New World Survey Map” (1995) punctures the hegemony of the map, and stubbornly it refuses to relinquish the truth-claims of a map:  if the westernized cartographical tradition to diminish all Asia save the Japanese, which it so greatly magnifies.

 

5.  The invention of re-inscribing the cartographical surface in these silkscreen prints provided Hao with a particularly rich vein of production among his varied projects, and one that met a large audience.  “New World No. 1″ (2000), Selected Scriptures, p. 2001, contracts the known world to a scary picture of three imagined continents or landmasses, surrounded by warships, arms, and satellites that suggest their military might:  where the Typus Orbis Terrarum is a contraction of Eurasia and the United States, who bracket the vastly expanded island of Japan, improbably raised to the status of a Superpower among them, and only a hint of Antarctica to the south.   America is emblazoned by iconic “lounging ladies” between Las Vegas and Texas, this map is emblazoned by the odd emblems of progress from the ancient Skylab to Internet Explorer, as if this “New World No 1″‘s order were antiquated already, its seas haunted by blueprints of jet fighters or warships, inhabited surface surrounded by satellites circulating its perimeter, as if floating in outer space.

 

New World No ! bitArtis

 

The image of a new book of world history and global powers is particularly powerful, not only for disturbing the mapping of a stable geopolitical orders that maps perpetuate, in a sort of inversion of the Peters’ projection disturbed our preconceptions for seeing the world as imitating or mirroring a political order, but inviting us as viewers to make and remake the maps that perpetuate political orders and biases in our minds, and how the an atlas for a disproportionately under-represented world might be renegotiated by its readers.   The reproduction of these cartographical orders of representing global powers becomes a sustaining theme in Hao’s work, so infinite and unending is the variety of silkscreen maps that he produced, almost haunting by the disproportionate images of the world and by maps as the flimsiest of representations that continued to be accorded a significant weight for so long:  the map is lampooned as a reproduction, albeit one with deep westernized connotations of arrogating claims for totality to itself, while presenting a diminished image of what it purports to map.  Indeed, the flimsiness of its reproducibility is evident in the difficulties of its translation, laden with “corrections” and odd graphs seem to record the map’s remove from the viewer, lampoon the tyranny of its own absurd assertions.

 

Latest Practical World Map bigArtis

 

6.  Hong Hao is by no means alone in questioning the inheritance of mapping forms.  His work is evocative of Ai Wei Wei’s interest in the hybridization of Western commercial logos and ‘traditional’ art forms, apparent in his powerful statement of the naturalization of his “Map of China,” (中国地图) (2006).  Ai Wei Wei’s  work that might be said to literally translate a map of the frontiers of China into the stolidity of a classically Chinese material–wood of Qing dynasty temples–that might be verging on sacrilege.  The “map” suggests the consolidation of the official map of China from fragments of the past, as much as a terrifying isolationism, unlike Hong Hao’s odd global refigurations.  Yet Wei is far less interested in the symbolic conventions and legibility of the map than what might be called its iconic form–even if his work indulges in some of the same questions of the synthesis of old materials and practices with modern symbolic forms, and the translation of maps to new media.

Yet rather than present the “fantastic and absurd” world “governed by violence and greed,” Wei’s art-map forces us to find the map in and that is refigured from it, even as it asserts the isolation and frontiers of the unit of the Peoples’ Republic of China, as if a continuous tree trunk.  In translating actual geographic frontiers to something that looks like it emerged from a 3D printer more than a map, Ai Wei Wei invites viewers to linger over the shifts in shading on its face, even as it distances the map as powerful construction, emptying the stale medium of the map of its stale symbolic authority by translating it to another medium:  in the above, the PRC is fashioned out of Qing dynasty wood; the below, out of recycled cartographical imagery.

 

Ai Wei Wei New PRCMetropolitan Museum of Art

 

Both images ask what sorts of opaque surfaces, rather than mirrors, something like a map creates.  But  perhaps the playful irony of distancing any of the positive associations–if any still remain–from globalism in a more engaging view of the legible conventions of a bounded map, Wei comments on the fetishization of the form of the map and its delineation of naturalized frontiers.  Hong Hao’s work seems more engaging, and more familiar, because it speaks more incessantly to our own habits of reading of maps, and the increased business of the making of the map’s surface as a format that increasingly unceasingly begs to be read and re-read.  Hao returns us, with comfort as well as to produce considerable unease, to the reading of the map’s surface, making fun of its transparency and referentiality at a time when online maps dispense with claims for transparency or signification that now seem to be artifacts of letterpress typesetting or print.  Hao’s maps recall objects of serial production–and he indeed seems to be serially producing such artifacts for an eager art market–in ways that recall habits and formats of reading space that are in many ways no longer accessible or familiar, but which register the difficulty of the possibility of undertaking an ethical mapping of the inhabited world.  Not connected, and not networked, Hao’s almost serially reproduced maps gesture to the translation of the authority of the static map from another time.  Rather than offer images delivered by the screen or accessed remotely, even if he does not think so, Hao’s maps translate back to western eyes as cartographic eye candy and comfort food.

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Filed under Beijing Academy of Arts, Google Translate, GoogleMaps, Hong Hao, Jasper Johns, Map Translator, OpenStreetMap, silkscreened maps

On the Repeated Mapping of the Unknown Path of Malaysia Flight 370

The expanding number of maps that display the diverted flight path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 enact an exercise equivalent to that of mapping the unknown:  if the early proliferation of possible maps of its flight path matched the shock of its disappearance, the continued frenzy of the search for signs of the fate of the airplane and its 238 passengers, as if trying to help get our minds around the implausible nature of its disappearance on a rather routine commuter flight.  The rapid proliferation of hypothetical maps of plausible diversions hang on the turning points in the trajectory of the vanished plane from its last point of contact and observation all seem to be seeking to explain what happen with something like the surety we expect from maps:  in the absence of any information that is clear, we turn to the map as a way to ground what we know, and to try to find meaning in it. But the multiplication of these maps almost seem to respond to a lack of real information, or conceal the absence of any clear leads as to what happened.  For each map includes an abundance of bathymetric detail, shorelines of islands, point of take off and the place of the satellite had last contact with the flight are all included in these maps, which obscure the sadly open-ended nature of the tragic narrative that exists around it.  While none presents the individual narratives of the passengers or pilots on the flight, by necessity, and may even represent the frustration of our remove from whatever happened on board the flight after it left the airport, the multiplication of news maps and digital reconstructions capture desperation at not knowing what sorts of events or potential diversions occurred.  The proliferation of news stories seem driven by the continued technological attempts to produce a comprehensive detailed account of what happened on the plan in its final moments–or of the location of potential wreckage –as we openly worry about the controlled nature of our international airspace, and the extent to which it can ever be fully mapped.

Existing maps largely proceed from reconstructions of plausibly altered itineraries the airplane may have taken after it veered dramatically off-course in the course of an otherwise routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The underlying questions to which they appear to respond is how technology and ramped up security could prevent us from losing another plane, and how we can, as Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, Tony Tyler, calls for the need “track aircraft wherever they happen to be, even if they go outside normal traffic coverage . . . in the most effective way.”  After the intentional closure of the transponder during the flight, the increased suspense of any air travel–and the anguish of the families with members on the Air Malaysia flight, increased attention has been directed to border control, as minimal information seems provided by attempts to map–or digitally reconstruct–the diverted flight.

 

Site of Last Contact

 

The map of flight-paths is often combined with maps of search missions and sites of possible wreckage in news maps and online media, as if to condense the slight information we encounter in a single map.  Chances of discovering or locating whatever is left of the lost plane–the ostensible goal of the search mission–seem remote, like a needle in a haystack, despite the lack of an appropriately marine metaphor.  The insistent and repeated mapping of the Boeing 777′s flight path and its contact with ground control is not only an artifact of the news cycle; it is an incomplete narrative we keep on trying to resolve or find resolution for:  the story of the interrupted flight path has left audiences world-wide wondering whether the storyline will ever be resolved, how the intervention in flight path was made that caused it to shift its planned itinerary, and why our apparently refined abilities of mapping can’t complete the narrative we all want to bring completion to. There is a commanding logic in matching the search area to the possible diversion of the plane’s in-flight trajectory, but everything is complicated by trying to balance a narrative of the flight’s tragically diverted course with the mute azure surface, without landmarks or points of orientation, of oceanic expanse over which jets travel on search missions and boats patrol.

In ways that have gripped viewers but also raise frustrating questions of how to best search international waters, as well as unfamiliar perspectives on mapped space, all eyes were for a time directed to the South Seas with an intensity that oddly echoed eighteenth-century speculators. For after we have watched a cycle of maps of the flight paths, we have found them substituted by the maps of the dangerous search conditions of the area, and the stories that they tell of the challenges of searching in the South Seas, at the same time as a fairly constant drumbeat of the maps of potentially sighted objects–things that can at least be mapped, unlike the plane itself–in the hope to locate something that might close the rather terrifying narrative of another potential diversion of a passenger jet’s flight path.  (That fragment of the story–an entrance into the cockpit or pilot’s cabin; the diversion of the path of a preprogrammed flight–is so powerful to summon nightmarish scenarios, and to search for any sign of resolution.)  That “other map” that has increasingly dominated news-shows and newspapers of potential fragments of the lost Boeing 777-200′s wreckage in the Southern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Thailand or even the Mediterranean has taken over, spinning the search mission into something like a cartographical myse en abyme, which lacks the possibility of clear resolution of perspective in mapping the shifting sites of searches that are super-imposed into maps of the flight path.

For fragments are repeatedly being reported in the ever-expanding and shifting search area for the tragic and still as of yet inexplicable disappearance of an airline with 239 passengers aboard:  in ways that have driven comparisons to black holes into which the jet mysteriously disappeared have created an almost near-impossibility of locating what one thought were the most trackable of flight paths, if only given the broad area of the radius of 2,500 miles which the fuel tank of Flight 370 might have allowed it to have gone after its last contact with radar.  The open seas that provided the only places to be less carefully tracked, as it left Malaysian for Thai airspace, seem a rare region removed from land-surveillance, as well, as we have since discovered, the sort of windswept area of fast-moving currents that have sufficiently flummoxed the densely concentrated and often multi-national surveillance systems that have mobilized around the area.

 

mh370-range

The mid-March findings that the airplane took a planned sharp turn westward, most likely programmed by someone inside the cockpit contributed grounds for fears of hijacking by someone on board, bolstered by the swerve of flight path toward the Strait of Malacca that the Royal Thai Air Force observed, traveling back out to the Indian Ocean, rather than its planned course to China, and the search has progressed along the lines that Flight 370 headed in another direction than was first believed, costing significant delays in time for the search for the missing plane, but not reducing the search area beyond 2.97 million square miles. But how does something like a plane fall out of contact with civilian radar or satellite?  Where, simply put, could it go, and how did it get there?  As the story has circulated in the major news outlets, a sort of popular response to the inability to map its course has surfaced or emerged.   The disappearance of the American-made airplane has recently provoked the existence of something like—you guessed it—a Bermuda Triangle, that often evoked conceit of the 1970s, or provoked (in less responsible news outlets) the existence of a “greater force” that just gobbled it up, in ways that explain (in comparable  ways) the sudden disappearance of aircraft from civilian radar monitors or satellite reception.  The notion of a “Bermuda Triangle”-like theory matches the odd absence of clear territoriality over the open seas in the region from the Gulf of Thailand or Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, whose rapidly expanding search area that has involved the Chinese, American, Australian, Malaysian, British, New Zealand, and Thai governments, and evoked potential dangers from Uighur separatists, as much as Al Qaeda.

The notion that no government is prepared or able to adequately chart the waters of the wild South Seas suggests an absence of governmental supervision that somehow links the plane to separatist groups–even if no one seems to dare to claim responsibility for diverting the flight. The difficulty in stopping the search starts not only from the tragic disappearance of a jet with some 260 people aboard.  The compulsion evident in the maps of air traffic controllers to the sighting of debris seems almost to derive from the fact that something managed to evade the system of worldwide surveillance somehow managed to escape being tracked, despite its size–or, more probably, the fear that we are not being surveilled and mapped as well as we had all hoped.   The latter not only opens the door to invite a further future opportunity for terrorist acts that we might all of course want to avoid, but lifts the veil on the surveillance industry itself. The images distributed by the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office, no doubt in response to how frustration made the government an early target for the inquiry, seemed to suggest an eery possibility of a middle-eastern connection, now doubt familiar to American ears–even though this expanded search area suggests little basis for such fears.  How, a concern runs across the media, did it ever disappear from radar coverage and surveillance?

 

mh370-possible-positions

 

But the very vagueness of potential trajectories Based on the amount of fuel within the jet’s tanks, the possible position of the flight when it was last heard from satellite suggested only that it lay along one of the red arcs of potential diversion of the aircraft’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur in the 7 1/2 hours after its 12:41 take-off, tracing some  2.97 million square miles in which to conduct the search for the areas to which it was originally delimited and confined:

 

Estimated Range of Possible Flight PathsNew York Times

 

Although the area the arcs encompass approach the expanse of the continental United States, the arc to the Caspian Sea or Kazakhstan seem to have received far more initial attention:  it would, one supposes, be confirmation of the tentacles of Al Qaeda rearing their head.  The far smaller areas in which the plane had first been searched, defined by white rectangles, suggested in this map, made a week after the airplane had disappeared, as well as the difficulty of tracking what had been assumed to be so readily confined to the Gulf of Thailand, but which now has expanded to cover much of the South Seas.  But the fact that even those flying the most up-to-date jets of American Navy surveillance like the  P-8A Poseidon have been peering out of glass airplane windows and not looking at their electronic screens to spot the potentially downed craft, relying on the human eye to scan the open waters, and only spotting such objects as orange rope, white balls, or blue-green plastic reminds us of how much ocean-borne garbage might create distracting signs to frustrate the search.  And the reports of a low-flying plane sighted March 8 near the Maldives might potentially refocus attention in other areas that might well be mapped.

 

INitial Search AreaNew York Times

 

It’s a bit shocking that in over three weeks, no sign of the airplane’s disappearance has been noted, despite numerous potential sightings that have in the end proved red herrings.  The oddness of plotting an opening of an escape from surveillance and tracking that are the basis of the concept of modern airspace find reflections in the repeated maps of loss of contact with controllers, exit from tracking systems, and potential paths of flight, all concealing the absence of surety in being able to verify what happened to the unfortunate passengers on Malaysia Jet 370 more than the results of an ongoing inquiry with little sign of any clues in the transcript of exchanges between the flight and controllers for the seven and a half hours after it took off, and little indication of the expected tussle that would be associated with a diversion of flight paths. The potential sites of wreckage that have been found are something like the catalogue of a junkyard–including some 122 pieces of unknown floating objects in the Indian Oceanseventy-eight foot debris off Australia’s coast; white balls, orange string or other junk–in ways that have led to an explosion of articles on potential sightings that seems without end, each announced as potentially “credible” as the last.  So many potentially distracting objects that bear no demand for further scrutiny seem to exist that the Australian military took it upon themselves to include a list of those objects worthy of follow-up, including “debris, distress beacon, fire, flares, life jackets, life raft/dinghy, marker dye, mirror signals, movements, oil slick, person in water, smoke, wreckage.”

The demand for news maps suggest the shifting areas of the search and the aporia of inquiries that reinforce how difficult it is to believe that anything like an airplane would be so difficult to map.  The Australian government assembled a colorful collage of spots already examined, indicating the intensity of their daily attempts, which have shifted as time progressed and new theories emerged:

 

Australian Colorful Collage of Searches

 

The Chinese government sought to provide ocular proof and exact coordinates of what looked like aircraft, 74 feet long and thirty feet wide, as if to reassert their claims to be monitoring the airspace by satellite, and staking claim to a region of particularly intensely disputed nautical boundaries–but so far finding little confirmation of the wreckage by boats:

 

Chinese Object in India Ocean

 

Are we just discovering how much garbage is in the ocean?  Or are we staking a claim to rights of sovereignty over maritime lanes, when maritime sovereignty still seems particularly difficult to define–raising questions of what sort of waters the craft may have been lost in, and whose right it is to retrieve whatever of the plane is left, but also pushing the search out to international waters, to avoid fraught questions of contested maritime sovereignty.  The oddly international complexion of the search parties that have been engaged so far has all too often muted the deeper salient question of the complex contestation of maritime jurisdiction in the same region of the seas.  (While few would want to suggest that the search has progressed in reaction to disagreements about jurisdiction, the difficulty of mapping jurisdiction in these waters has received far less press coverage than one might expect.)

 

Complex Delineation of Nautical Borders Legend-boundareis

 

In a field of disputes of maritime boundary lines, the search for the place is filtered through the actually contested sovereignty on multiple fronts, in ways that greatly complexify the questions of responsibility for searching for the aircraft and its presumably dead passengers:

 

Complex Maritime Boundaries   Legend-boundareis

 

Indeed, the territorial complexion of many of the uninhabited islands of the South Seas resembles the random bright coloration of the multiple islands of medieval isolari, or books of islands, even if the colors are no meant to denote sovereign claims:

 

Spratly_Is_since_NalGeoMaps

 

The larger picture is even, of course, both a bit more complex, and carries deep conflicts of how one can best understand maritime bounds, in ways that raise but a corner on the difficulties of resolving maritime boundary lines:

 

Complex Question of Boundaries

 

For most Americans, of course, oblivious to contrasting claims of sovereignty over water in a globalized world, and amused by the idea of contesting the sovereignty of maps, the questions might turn around the simpler incredulity at what has happened to our satellites or systems of radar.  The amount of ink spilled over the absence of indications of a major airline’s flightpath leaves viewers aghast at not being able to interpret the map that results. The pleasure that commentators on ‘The Ed Show’ or ‘Bill O’Reilly’ take in evoking and imitating authoritative maps that show potential arcs of air travel provide a scary shock-tactic of disorienting observers to an over-observed world, and suggests the discomfort not only at the potential for future skyjackings or dangers of flying aboard airplanes–but that we’re just not being watched as well as we all wanted to be, as if that was what we wanted. Or is it that the mapping of the results of post-9/11 surveillance have let us lapse, reassured, into a false sense that we need not worry about the dangers of the diversions of commercial flights, or that all is indeed under control?  Yet the hunt has now turned to the southern Indian Ocean, based on scattered new evidence of active flight diversion, after being centered in the Gulf of Thailand or South China Sea, with concern arising from the fact that the batteries on flight data and voice recorders–the main hope of finding the plane’s location–are due to die, and with them much potential evidence of what transpired in the cockpit, as pings emitted to facilitate their geolocation are due to die, after which the hopes to find evidence of what occurred would be drastically reduced.

The search for the information is being collected in the need to affirm the continued safety of airspace, not to mention confidence in the air travel industry.  Does it also serve to conceal the huge costs that the US government is ready to spend on the search, already having allocated 2.5 million for the participation of US ships and aircraft to this mission, presumably in the hopes to find clues to the disruption of monitored airspace.  (The flight of an search of the average high-tech surveillance navy jet of the sort equipped with the requisite surveillance cameras lasts two hours, deploying the most cutting edge example of surveillance of the “sea state”:  the theater for remapping the waters by planes such as the P-8A Poseidon suggests a rehearsal of the gamut of equipment that the Navy has assembled and huge costs to use must be balanced with the eagerness of being able to deploy our latest surveillance toys.)

average Search Plane(from The New York Times)

 

The frames of geographic reference somehow seem part of the dramatic narratives spun about the disappeared plane, whose possible paths not only inspire limited confidence in the accurate measurements or tracking capacities but oddly orient viewers to the South Seas from a strikingly new orientation on landmasses and marine space, in which the dramatically open areas frame the aerial search along a diverted flight path far from land, in an area that is moreover swept by winds that often exceed 100 miles per hour, and rough seas:

 

Reconstructions of Flight Paths (New York Times)

 

The deployment of all this technology to map the region by weather charts or debris-sightings seem designed to bolster confidence that this area, if blocked by cloud cover and rain and tremendously powerful waves, and deep waters, is still being mapped with relative accuracy. Yet what is one to make of the mapping of potential sightings? What significance does their clustering in the Indian Ocean mean save the intensity of searchlights turned to that direction, and the new horizon of expectations that results–even if the idea that pings from the airline’s data system, ACARS, dating from the period of four to five hours after the last transponder signal, and transmitted to satellites, indicate its arrival in the Indian ocean.  But why map potential sightings if they are not confirmed, except to try to restore some confidence in a search that might be akin to searching for sightings of Elvis or Christ?  In the meantime, the proliferation of alternative theories continue, from the plane being attacked by extraterrestrials, captured by folks who’ve shrouded it in an “invisibility cloak” or the locally generated theory that the disappearance of the plane is part of a an ambitious life-insurance scam, and not a terrorist plot–floated by Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar.  Over the month since the airplane’s disappearance, the biggest winner has no doubt been CNN, whose 24-7 coverage has stoked continued interest in the story; CNN President Jeff Zucker boasted how the new ratings showing reveal “a record-setting month for CNN’s digital platforms, including record-high page views, video streams and mobile traffic,” as if he was addressing shareholders, as it continued to describe and map objects floating in the Indian Ocean, without any sense of whether they were related in any way to the flight–so long as they were located along “possible flight paths.”  Is the technology of mapping a legitimation here for the absence of any actual detection of the flight path?  

 

Objects Spotted(New York Times source Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

 

It’s hard to follow the logic of those who are organizing the Australian search teams, even thought the New York Times does its best to keep us in touch with the latest, but the recent relocation of the search by some 700 miles to the northeast suggest the hunt is a grab-bag of guesswork, and reveals the intense feelings of desperation at the narrative spinning out of control.

 

Relocation of Air Search(New York Times; source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

 

But to generate more information about the “unfolding story” of what CNN has continued to call the “airline mystery,” given the fact that no resolution of this mystery is in sight, and no indications that the plane crashed have emerged, nothing does the trick like a map to link the event to a number of alternate narratives and abstractions.

And as it has emerged after almost three months that the unending search is the most costliest episode of recovery of a jet in human history, the devotion of such emergency apparatuses to locating a lost jet must be assessed:  at the cost of millions of dollars per day, and over three and a half million dollars just to deploy an underwater detector of potential pings over the past weekend, it might be time to return attention to what is the end of the search, save an attempt to give closure to a traumatic disruption of the illusion of total surveillance of airways that the United States government wants desperately to be able to maintain?  What else occasioned the repeated search for the ruins of the jet without any sense of limits of cost, and indeed the devotion of a recently developed technology of surveillance to the detection of potential signs of the lost plane and its passengers?  At the same time, the rescue mission seems a sort of dress-rehearsal for surveillance of submarines on the high seas, the narrative of locating fragments of wreckage of the plane’s fuselage or wings fits into a sense we need to find closure in a sense that something happened while we all thought we were being watched:  this notion that the incident of Air Malaysia 370 suddenly disrupted and shattered that sense of an achieved limited peace, even in a time of ongoing contained military engagement in several theaters of the world.  It is hard to get used to the fact that we are not, and cannot be, safe in air travel.  (But at least, perhaps, we have produced all of these amazingly detailed maps, which seem to be reassuring of a sense of monitoring an unfolding story, even if it is one that seems to have not gone very far after all.)

The sense that we’re somehow being less well-watched than we once were seems to have driven the constant stream of news stories—unconscionably, never edited or diminished on airline flights, but almost increased in an attempt to keep passengers more relaxed and on their toes, the jet has increased critical thinking to the extent that it has provoked calls for the re-introduction of “reliable psychics” (in a return to the Nancy Reagan White House).  Where the plane went is less the concern of these maps, it seems, than the fact that draw as many maps as we want, not much turns up on them. The courses of potential flight paths after the pilots lost contact with the airport in Malaysia from which they first took off on that tragic day seems less directed to the protection of our own frontiers—or even airlines—than the notion that we cannot map a map of that path, even with all our satellite coverage and technologies that we’ve devoted, in the wake of 9/11, to monitoring maps of all movements along flight paths across the inhabited world. One problem may be that 9/11 opened a narrative, or saw one forced on us, so haunting that we don’t know how to bring to an end, or cannot see an end of, so deeply unsettling is it all.

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Filed under ACARS, CNN newsmaps, mapping flght data, mapping flight paths, mapping possible flight paths, radar maps, satellite surveillance

A New Other Green World? Mapping Algae Populations and Tracking Harmful Algae Blooms

Access to pure freshwater seems an innate right, and freshwater lakes conjure pristine landscapes.  But the twinned threats of global warming and industrial farms threaten to alter the geography of watery world in an apparently definitive fashion, as rivers, ponds, and lakes across America–and the world–have been found to be teeming with toxic algae.   In what seems to be a photoshopping of lakes, the apparent aquatic “greening” of formerly fresh waters contains sinister associations:  but if they recall the modern miracle of the annual greening of the Chicago River each St. Patrick’s Day, algal blooms are both less clearly staged at regular times and places, and reveal a clear relation to the worldly environment, as clear consequences of human acts.  But they are also–in the manner of all “offshore” events–both particularly challenging to chart or to measure by fixed or clearly demarcated lines so often employed in terrestrial mapping.  And, rather than being photoshopped, the changes that these maps illustrate make points that are difficult to interpret or decode, even if they trigger immediate danger signs and red flags of the dawn of a differently mapped world, and a quite different nationamap of drinkable water.

 

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Populations of algae move with the currents of local waters, as the blooms of pools enter rivers and rush down streams, as a weirdly alien presence in water supplies that have impacted fish in numerous ways, and stand to impact humans as well.  As we start to chart our relation to their presence, their emergence in select spots of the US and other countries demands to be connected to one another, or placed in a causative web geographic as much as environmental in nature.  The nature of this greening suggests a new presence of the bacteria in the world.  For Northrop Frye, the “green world” in Shakespeare’s plays connoted a pivot scene of action–an extra-urban environment not only conducive to personal insight or reflection but the perfect forest to overcome natural challenges that stood for inner obstacles; the appearance of green algae in waters across midwestern America suggest not only an environmental challenge, which in 2011 cloaked one-sixth of Erie’s surface, but something of a site to reflect on both a local and a global struggle with environmental change–linked not only to rising temperatures, but to the increasing over-saturation of nitrate-rich fertilizer in agricultural run-off.

Algae populations are not usually mapped as the populations, but the recent spread of algae in what was once called American freshwater lakes and rivers has not only generated significant media attention and concern.  For it posed problems of locally mapping of algal growth in compelling ways–not only for fishing or swimmers, but for communities and regarding the potability of water often piped into public circulation.  While algal blooms are the concern of environmental studies or marine biologists, more than geographers, their inescapability as part of the impact of humans on the environment force us to include them within our spatial experience and  geographic horizons:  it is as if the very bucolic settings we had known are being reconfigured as nature, and dramatically scenographically redesigned, and their origins remain ineffectively mapped, even if they are often bounded by vague warning signs.  Where did these blooms arise, and can we relate their inland flourishing to the mapping of their marine migration?  Can they be placed, more importantly, not only in a given set of waters that are polluted, but within a web of land-use that unintentionally geographically redistributes nitrates and phosphorous so that they tip the crucial quotient of algal populations and bacteria in the waters that lie in rural areas, near to farmlands?  The abundant greening caused by rural pollutants pose a major ecological imbalance still neither comprehensively acknowledged nor assessed.

Ages before online memes circulated about dating of the anthropocene in the guise of critical thought, George Perkins Marsh declaimed the widespread environmental changes effected by human actions.  Back in 1860, Marsh bemoaned dangers posed to mountaintops and  deforestation and evoked the losses that were the result of dried water channels, reducing meadows to parched infertile stretches and creating sand- or silt-obstructed streams where irrigation occurred, poetically lamenting the shifting ecology which “converted thousands of leagues of shallow sea and fertile lowland into unproductive and miasmatic morasses”:  Marsh’s 1874  The Earth as Modified by Human Action was written in the hope “to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions.”   It set the template for Paul Crutzen’s later dating the “anthropocene” and its diffusion as a critical concept and a form of global introspection about our environment:  and as that impact becomes ever more apparent, the recent appearance of toxic algal blooms.  Algae blooms offer one measure for mapping the advent of anthropocene.  Actively mapping such population in freshwater and marine bodies of water are as visually striking an index as any of the impact of poorly agricultural planning and practices on living geography.  In a sort of stunning irony or counterpoint to the nosedive of the worldwide algal mass by 40% over the past sixty-five years, a huge reduction of biodiversity of marine ecosystems altering the marine food web, the appearance of algal blooms is less linked to human impact on the environment.  Could expansion of the ozone hole, and global warming, be easier to render compellingly in a graphic map, and toxic algae harder to register in compelling cartographical forms?  Or is the appearance of blooms just too overwhelmingly entangled in multiple circumstantial factors that already assume inevitability–from global warming to chemical fertilizer–that the map seems a fait accompli?

Marsh was also an active champion, of course, of a more custodial relation to the water, forest, and the land.  The problem of mapping algal blooms in a coherent or compelling manner is problematic, even though the data is there, and the visualizations in snapshots of lakeside scenes arresting.  The recent rise of “toxic algae” are, while apparently visible to Google Earth, difficult to decipher on maps, or even in satellite images, which carry ominous signs of a changing global geography with immense impacts to human and animal life alike–the effects of whose shifting bacterial populations radiate out from local ecosystems to human disease, but are rooted in a deep uncertainty that something in our bodies of water is either just out of kilter or deeply wrong.  But the hardest question is how to compel attention to these maps, which provide a basic charge for understanding and communicating how the blooms spread, as well as the networks of causation that contribute to such strikingly hued waterborne algal populations.

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This 1999 image of algal blooms off the southern coast of Devon provides a visualization of the spread of harmful blooms of toxic algae that have hurt the whales and dolphins who have ingested them, as other fish.  Dissecting data visualizations of the prominence of such toxic algae or “harmful algal blooms” in oceans or inland raises pressing questions about their nature and causation, and about the salient mechanics that might be revealed in how such blooms might be better or more clearly mapped in web-based platforms.  In an age of the omnipresence of Google Earth, or satellite views of significantly high resolution, as well as MODIS, as well as the imaging spectrometer MODIS aqua of high resolution launched in 2002, the measurement of water populations should not be difficult to define:  but the presence of algal blooms requires increasing introduction of data layers based on local detection, in ways that the surface appearance of all aquatic environments just cannot register alone.  Algae provides a case for looking at the unmapped, and mapping the sort of rapidly reproducing migrant bacterial populations in aquatic environments that are otherwise particularly difficult to detect by superficial observation–until they have already rapidly progressed or bloomed.

Algae’s presence in lakes was rarely a mapped population or identified as a species until the spread of toxic “harmful algae blooms” (HAB’s) and alarms over cyanobacteria:   algal populations have recently gone off the charts, and the explosion of their accumulated biomass has created huge alterations both in food web dynamics–and sucking off most of the oxygen in waters on which fish depend–as well as increasing the growth of bacteria that themselves pose dangers to human life, best known in the bacterial spread of the so-called “Red Tide” of Karenia brevis that flourished in ocean waters off the coast of Florida during the late 1970s–but more terrifying, and considerably more difficult to track, across the freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers that are often sources of drinking water.  Mapping and charting the presence of bacteria in waters is notoriously difficult, born as they are by currents, weather, water-depth and amount of refuse that locally enters waters, and the alarming visuals of chromatic variations caused by algal presences in aquatic environments poses practical challenges to visually represent in maps that combine dispassionate distance and analytic engagement.

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These maps are less fun or enjoyable to read, if only because they so often bear bad news.  The adverse effects of algal blooms on local animal populations and food webs are even more difficult to track along clear analytics, although a varied range of metrics and maps–from MODIS satellite views of remote sensing to GIS plotting of specific readings to Google Earth views and aerial photographs.  Even as folks are downing Spirulina and eating Kelp, the pernicious cyanobacteria of green-blue algae blooms, The effectiveness of the beauty of mapping algae is difficult to effectively use as compelling narratives, however, whether about that danger, or in ways that overcome the difficult distaste of the un-kelp-like sludge of algal blooms, about the alarming spread of Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB’s) either off the shores of the United States or as effectively clogging food webs in its lakes-.  As of 2013, health authorities issued advisories and warnings on algal blooms at 147 different sites and untold cost and environmental impact due to such harmful blooms, of which no systematic collation seems to exist.  Mapping the presence of such HAB’s is not only a question of reporting locations of efflorescence, but of mapping both the causative webs by which they seem to emerge with the deposits of phosphorous-rich fertilizer and waste in rivers and runoff, as well as mapping the impact of blooms within food webs and food-cycles, although it is often discussed primarily or solely in regard to its potential dangers only to humans–given the neurotoxins that it has produced in rivers, lakes, and even waterfalls in Minnesota, as well as Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Ontario, Ohio, and even the Sacramento River delta, in addition, most famously, to Lake Erie–whose shallow waters encourage algae blooms, and where locals of recently sought a joint US-Canadian agency called for the immediate imposition of fixed limits on local fertilizer use.   If over 140 sites of algal blooms are present in the bays, ponds, and lakes of New York State alone, and in many lakes across the world, the widespread occurrence of such blooms have been tied to fertilizer runoff, but their endemic presence in so many freshwater lakes have only relatively recently been systematically tied to outbreaks of disease.

Hand of HAB

Only now is the efflorescence of algae blooms being linked both to the production and broadcast dispersion of industrial fertilizers.  One back story that demands to be mapped is the effect of the longstanding encouragement that farmers in the United States have received to  minimize plowing of their lands, less the huge carbon mass that regularly tilled lands release not only erodes the atmosphere but degrades the soil itself; tilling costs more to pursue in a systematic way, and, especially in large farms, has been discarded as farms have shifted their equipment for tilling to a program of “no-till planting” that uses machinery to drill seeds into undisturbed soil, and scatter fertilizer atop in prepared pellet form that needn’t be entered into the soil by tilling machines–even though such pellets depend on rains to enter the soil, and up to 1.1 pounds of fertilizer per farmed acre enter rivers directly in rainwater, as a result, rather than serving to fertilize the soil, working to effectively unbalance ecosystems far beyond the bounds of farmed lands.

Harmful algae blooms’ explosive off the charts growth responds to a confluence both of high usage of fertilizer in crops and lawns, intensified by rapidly rising temperatures that foment their spread in freshwater and seawater alike:  the expansive growth of algae seems something of a by-product of our current global warming trends, as the increased summer heat provides an optimum occasion for spurts of algal growth, nourished by streamed-in phosphorous and other animal wastes, in ways that change the microbial populations of freshwater lakes.  And the world of rapidly growing algae has deep consequences for public health.  For rather than the edible sorts of seaweed, the toxicity of algae in freshwater systems is all too likely to foster bacteria-levels in human drinking water and fish that are not usually seen, making the mapping of stagnant water algae of increasing concern in much of the midwest and northeast–especially nearby sites of large-scale or industrial agriculture.  What are the best ways that algae can be mapped, or that the mapping of algae can be a proactive safeguard on the responsible stewardship of the toxicity of agricultural and lawn run-off?  The blaming of practices of fertilizing soil and huge expansion of chemical fertilizers with phosphorous, combined with the increased problems of storing waste, create a new geography of pollution that seems to be most saliently mapped by the spread of an algae bloom crisis around the Great Lakes, which since 1995 have emerged in the Maumee River that feeds the Great Lakes and runs through many factory farms in these inland lakes:  increasingly, Kansas is reporting widespread algae blooms in lakes, as well as Pennsylvania and Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection blog and which the Courier Journal describe as the first cases beyond the lower Midwest.

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Even when not toxic in nature, the problem of uncontrolled algae blooms lies in their absorption of all oxygen from the body of water in question.  The predictive maps of expansive algal blooms specifically in Lake Erie, where aerial photographic visualizations recorded the  record levels of 2011, warn of the spread of toxic blue-green algae–a harmful algal bloom (HAB), focussed on the lake’s western basin, based on the careful reading of the nutrients that flow into the lake.  The new levels of algae that have steadily increased in recent years, hark back to the algal blooms of the 1960s and 1970s in the same region of the lake.  But the blooms have recurred with a new intensity, spurred by hot weather and an increased amount of phosphorous, sewage, and manure into Ohio lakes and streams, boosting the blue-green cyanobacteria to new levels last summer that more than doubled previous years–increased by the accepted practices of broadcasting fertilizer on fields without tilling, and the reluctance of the Environmental Protection Agency to issue any warning on cyanobacteria in these waters–even after the algal blooms broke previous records in the summer of 2011–although we know that colorless odorless carcinogens like microcystins can linger long after the blooms have left.   Mapping the blooms proses a problem of going beyond geo-visualizations or aerial photography as a way of mapping the flow of bacteria and subsequent algae blooms that deoxygenate waters in an easily legible form, or linking the toxicity of blooms to set intensities.  Are we even close to cultivating the ability to read the levels of toxic agents like microcystins in algae blooms, or able to find reliable ways of transcribing their potential harmful side-effects? The specific case of Lake Erie, specific both since it is one of the densest sites of such blooms and on account of its low water-level, may itself be predictive of the danger of algal blooms in future years.

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The 2011 bloom was rapid and sudden, evident in two aerial photographs of the lake snapped just five months apart, between June 1 2011 and October 5, which illustrates the blossoming of the algae under the summer’s sweltering sun:

0315-nat-ERIE_webNew York Times, source: NOAA Centers for Coastal Ocean Science; data from the NASA MODIS sensor

If not a map, the green coloration of the algae highlighted the frontiers of its expansion so effectively as if to isolate that one feature within the aerial photograph.  Such local photographic “mapping” of the density of toxic algae blooms is perhaps the most compelling chart of their impact.  But the expansion of algal blooms, if similar to that covering 300 square miles in 2003,  now threatens to spread across the entire southern shore, has been closely tied to new levels of toxicity, producing liver and nerve toxins, and creating a dead-zone of oxygen-depleted fish.  If not as severe as it was in 2011, when remotely imaged by MODIS satellite revealed a particularly disturbing concentration of cyanobacteria close to Detroit and along several spots of the lake’s shore, before extending from Toledo to Cleveland in 2011.

erie-forecast-art-gmqnkink-10703gfx-erie-forecast-compare-eps MODIS Cyanobacterial

The existence of sediment in the Great Lakes revealed a distribution of particularly thick portions of algal spread, no doubt particularly notorious due to its low average depth of just 62 feet.  At the same time as Western Lake Erie continues to experience a fairly unprecedented resurgence of toxic algal blooms,  health advisories and “do not drink” orders have been issued by the state of Ohio, although Michigan, which lacks a formal monitoring program to monitor waters’ purity, has not issued any:  the current debate on the Farm Bill has led to a jeopardized program of Conservation Stewardship and fails to include controls to encourage farmer’s to monitor their effects on water quality–or even to set uniform standards for the toxicity of HAB’s to drinking water, local ecosystems, or lake life.

Algal Blooms 2012 true

Modis Green Erie

The spread of their population in the lake was visible on Google Earth:

Algea on Google Earth

The intense concentrations of algal blooms can be likewise revealed due to remote sensing of the absorption of light in the lake’s water, to image the toxicity of the most polluted of the Great Lakes. based on data from the International Space Station.

Lake Erie satellite image

Looking at lake Erie provides something of a well-mapped test case of algal blooms.  Most of the blooms are typical of the over 200 toxic blooms in the United States, due to run-off of fertilizer and manure in rivers and lakes, often carried by heavy rains, often confined to the northwest, but spreading throughout the high farming regions of the midwest, where phosphorous no doubt increasingly leaches to water supplies–leading to public health warnings and closures of lakes or beaches.  Rainfall has increased the flow of agricultural run-off and nutrient-rich storm water into rivers and lakes, providing food for algae to grow to toxic levels.  Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has developed an early detection and forecasting system for the Gulf of Mexico by using remotely sensed data to monitor harmful algal blooms beyond the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay–some of the largest repositories of freshwater in the United States–and in over one hundred and forty sites as of the summer of 2013.  And the clean-up of many Minnesota lakes has led to a call for reducing the use of nitrogen-rich and phosphorous-based fertilizers by some 45%, although no realistic ways for achieving the goal–which might not even be as high needed to reduce algal blooms–has been defined. The difficulty that occurred when a satellite photograph of Lake Ontario suggested a similar efflorescence of blue green algae blooms of cyanobacteria in that large body of water led an overwrought panic-attack to be voiced on Twitter, as the photograph that ostensibly boded the local arrival of an onslaught of heptatoxins, already problematic in Hamilton Bay, to have metastasized to the lake as a whole.

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But the “bloom” was a boom of plankton–mostly plankton like diatoms, and chrysophytes, dinoflagellates, in other words, which are often mistaken for blue green algae in remote sensing, although blue green algae blooms just a small amount of it, and little cyanobacteria–was an optical illusion.  The apparent errors in the imaging of algal blooms suggest a greater difficulty in its accurate mapping, and makes us rely on self-observations by water-sampling for certitude.

This is not to minimize the danger.  But only to warn of the limitations of tracing by superficial observation.  The actual potential for the sudden spread of HAB’s in the continental United States is in fact quite serious, however, as is the need for ensuring water-quality standards in many rural regions–from questions of potability to the eventuality of die-offs of fish.

blooms across USA

The interest of this very broad-scale map is the proximity of blooms to large-scale farms raising cows and pigs:  such  concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate unduly concentrated amounts of livestock waste in precise locations–termed “liquid lagoons”–thee liners of whose storage tanks regularly leak in heavier rainstorms, creating a manure run-off from poorly regulated sites into lakes.  The EPA estimates that over half do not have Clean Water Act permits, creating deep problems of local stewardship that becomes evident in the efflorescence of toxic algae blooms–but only long after the fact–in ways that reveal the ingrown nature of poor standards of agrarian stewardship.  Living in the right town, we might see such headlines as Citizens of the Town of Lincoln, Kewaunee County are concerned that the Kinnard Farms Inc. plan to manage 70 million gallons of untreated animal waste doesn’t protect groundwater from contamination, or How Big Meat is taking over the Midwest, describing the widespread multiplication of permits for such “poo lagoons” in the landscape to hold the refuse of the 19.7 million pigs raised annually in that state alone, and the return of a booming industry in 2011.

Factory Farms Focus on Iowa?

Lying down water of such overflowing containers of animal feces creates a possibility of toxic contamination that is particularly difficult to contain–especially when fueled by an unnatural abundance of phosphorous and nitrates that has all too often been insufficiently or ineffectively tilled into agrarian lands.  The contamination of so many of Minnesota’s lakes offers a sad case in point.  The striking case of green waterfalls in Minnesota suggests something like a direct inversion of the rural picturesque–and a compelling need for new standards of river pollution or run-off, as well as intensive attention to the tilling of fertilizer so that it remains buried as much as possible underground. 

Operation-Downspout-Logo

Somewhat more ecologically conscientious states, like Vermont, removed from the landscape of the factory farms, have begun to provide interactive local maps to measure and track the intensity of algal blooms, of “blue green algae tracking,” as this map recording the blossoming of green by the shores of Lake Champlain–a tourist destination–that are considerably interactive and detailed, as well as allow a considerable fine-grained detail of local reporting that are incorporated into visual overlays for ready consultation each day.

Algae by Burlington

Others, like Florida’s inland waters, have seen massive toxic algae outbreaks that have killed manatees, fish, and birds, as well as dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, where fluorescent green slime filled the river this past summer, leading to widespread health warnings.  Of course, such a menace is not only localized:  the actual specter that is haunting the mapping of algae comes from China–where, coincidentally, few controls exist on fertilizer or greenhouse gasses, and algal blooms fill large, slow-moving rivers like the Sichuan.

220px-River_algae_Sichuan

In the course of preparation for the 2008 Olympics that the Chinese government pulled some 1,000,000 tons of green algae from the Yellow River, famously, relying on some 10,000 soldiers in the project to remove the waste, leading folks to just negotiate with algal blooms as they appear, and their relative toxicity not to be tested.

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The disquiet conveyed by the images of raking algic scums off the Yellow River, or of swimmers happily standing waste-deep in the light green blankets of what looks less like fresh parsley than artificial coloring can only be viewed with the alarm that Bartholomew Cubbins witnessed the arrival of Oobleck in the Kingdom of Didd.  (We might reconsider the assumption that the last printed work in the Dr. Seuss corpus, The Lorax, was the one most directly about the physical environmental.)  Indeed, the comparisons of Oobleck to HAB’s seem unavoidable given their sudden ubiquity across so many of the changing climates of the United States and world.

220px-Oobleck_Cover

Mapping something as imaginary as Oobleck might be an apt association, if intentionally slightly ridiculous if evocative comparison, but the odd appearance of green toxic slime in freshwater deposits evokes the sudden omnipresence Oobleck quickly acquired in all Didd.

oobleck in act

The fear of self-generated Oobleck seems implicit in much literature.  Indeed, Qingdao’s 2013 summer scourge of “surf like turf” meant the arrival of what locals called “sea lettuce.”   Perhaps from the farms of Nori on Japan’s Jiangsu coast, or from irresponsible farming in China itself, the consequence of a massive failure of marine stewardship created currents of harmless-to-humans algae running toward the center of the Yellow Sea.   The blooms, given the run-off of nitrate-rich fertilizers from farms and industry, didn’t seem to threaten beaches often used as centers of tourism, but created an odd sight of bathers luxuriating in the aquatic lettuce they were told had not toxicity.  The algae are often regarded as harmless to humans.  But harmless to fish they are not:  the algae serves as a ravaging of the aquatic ecosystem:  bright green beds of algae were deemed a “large-scale algae disaster” by the Shandong province, and 19,800 tons of it cleared as it started to decompose, releasing noxious fumes of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, at a cost of over $30 million.  The relation between harmful algae and the local ecosystem or food chain has not been fully explored to map, despite the wide ramifications of its impact on the greater food chain.

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The explosion of algae blooms has been linked to the rise of the so-called red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, has already hit our coasts as well:  southern California coast and Florida have both placed a new premium on mapping the density of algae that flourish in these warm ocean waters, which have long been worried to disrupt local ecosystems and food chains, before the toxicity of fertilizer-fueled algal blooms started to appear inland.  These tides have largely been treated as dangers to marine life, and specifically to the shellfish regularly harvested there, however, and were consequently charted and mapped in relation to water currents, salinity, and winds, in an attempt to get a picture on their sources of origins of these concentrations of  dinoflagellates of reddish hue that so rapidly accumulated along the Florida coasts from purple to pink, and which seem–despite their name–to be entirely independent of tidal flows, but were toxic to birds, fish, and mammals, and potentially harmful to human beings when consumed in shellfish.  The awareness of this vector of transmission has led to the monitoring of these early HAB’s, which have disrupted fisheries along the Atlantic as far north as Maine, and, according to some were witnessed in Canada as early as 1793 in British Columbia:  but far more recent measurement of red tides in northern California, where they created a massive die-off of shellfish, the Gulf of Mexico, the Southwest Florida coast, Malaysia, Maine, and Massachusetts, killing fish, manatees, and shellfish like abalone, has led to increased NOAA alerts and concerns of respiratory irritations at beach shores.

Are these efflorescences due not only to lower rainwater that flushes the system of oceans, and increased warming, but also to the nitrate-rich outflow of fertilizer from Florida plains, and indeed the Mississippi?  The lack of tilling in larger farms, driven by the needs to produce more crops in their growing seasons, has encouraged the dispersion of high-grade fertilizer across the Midwest, most of whose runoff enters the same waters. Indeed, the inland growth of HAB’s echoes historical documentation of the approach of “red tides” that endangered shellfish and fish living along Florida’s western coast in recent decades.

The ability to survey the massive growth of Karenia brevis organisms in the warm shallow waters of Florida’s western coast, and the dangers that they posed to local fish and marine life, benefit from the extension of data and record-keeping along the Florida waters since 1954 by multiple agencies.  The data creates a context for data visualizations of the expansion of the “red tide” of HAB’s in ocean waters near to an exceptionally rich and endangered ecosystem, but also one huge stretches of whose coast falls under environmental protections for endangered species, and whose waterfront economy enjoys far greater protection than most inland lakes.  By exploiting the largest continuously recorded database of Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States–and world–we can examine the spread of sites of the Red Tide of 1979 in relation to ocean currents, which appear, based on data from Florida Marine, clearly clustered in shallower waters by the ocean coast:  maps track the abundance, intensity, and duration of growth of Karenia brevis by color, switching to rectangles for the largest, and the extent of their presence by shape-size, based on data collected on November 1979, Christmas 1979, December 20, and January 20, 1980.  They reveal the algal spreads as moving quite rapidly from being concentrated around Tampa Bay along the coast to Naples in dense brightly colored blooms that flourished for the longest time near bays, often in the shallower waters sometimes within the red line marking a distance of 18 kilometers off the coast, where they have most contact with shellfish.  The evolution of these animated static maps provides a temporary solution, based on intensive compilation of water data by the Florida Coastal Commission, but provides an exception of the degree of successful visualizations of algal presences in aquatic environments.

Nov 2 1979--Florida Marine

FLorida Marine 1979 Red Tide

Florida marine Dec 30 1979

Red Tide Expands 1979 Florida Marine

The “tide” returned in 1985 to the shallow waters off the beaches and coastal inlets of western Florida, pictured with a key of the local density of blooms which is also applicable to reading the above images, and the increased presence of blooms on New Year’s Day 1986:

Florida Marine carina 1995

Florida Marine Key

new year's day 1986

More recently, Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Research Institute charted the same coastal waters of its coasts.  By using readings that were based data for the NOAA Ocean Service and Satellite Information Service, who registered high levels of marine chlorophyll by MODIS Aqua imagery, bacteria clearly hovered especially, when present, around the Floridan shores and coves in which they multiply.  Does this suggest that they are specific to shallower, warmer waters, or more likely densest at the very point when they enter the seawater in such high concentration from the land?  Commonly known as “red tides,” these off-coastal aggregations of algae, again Karenia brevisseem largely in decline on Florida’s southwest coastal waters for the present, but had long flourished on its relative shallow ocean shelves.

Florida Fish and Wildlife HAB

Or, in October 2013,

October 2013 Florida Fish and Wildlife RI

But the bacteria and algae are focussed not so much offshore–notwithstanding the so-called Red Tides–but rather in the very estuaries and inlets where freshwater leaches out into the surrounding seas, evident in this self-reported data of algae via Google Maps, where sightings were crowded upstream the inlet of the St. Lucie St. Park Preserve, with a congestion that travelled up the course of its river.

Google Maps St. Lucie River, 2013

Indeed, the particular porousness of these offshore waters in the below engraved map, which shows a region characterized and distinguished by circulation of rivers in wetlands and estuaries, so long characteristic of Florida and much of the American south, struck early cartographers as so distinct by its density of estuaries.  The map, in the context of this blog, provides a striking contrast as Ooblek-free, even if its territory was far more submerged and coasts follow far more irregular lines.  This early eighteenth-century map–possibly 1720-30–this version courtesy of the expanding on-line collections of David Rumsey, offers the start of something like a cartographical archeology of the region, whose coves and inlets evoke a pristine Gulf of Mexico, fed by multiple rivers from the southern plains still inhabited by Native American Peoples:

Florida--part of America

Florida at that time was described by the cartographer as a “Neck of Lakes and Broken Land, surrounded by man-eating Indians, whose Straits were nourished by streams, before being included in Herman Moll’s Atlas, with its rendering of glorious irregular shorelines, inlets, and islands that suggest a Florida before the expansion of landfill and filling in of much of the southern state.   There is something akin to a raining of Oobleck in Florida, the sudden and widespread appearance of HAB’s in modern maps of different states offers a point of entry into how the map can be taken as a rendering and record of man’s impact on and relation to the land, or of how our maps of human knowledge provoke questions of how to map man’s own relation to the remaking of the environment, less by setting the benchmark of a given date, but by how  it slowly started to be filled up with lots of sorts of shit, all of human origin or introduction.  To look at the elegant bird’s eye map that John Bachmann designed of Florida, among his many images of the southern states of America of 1861, printed as a collective “Theater of War,” the mapping of the water surrounding the peninsula shows a much more clearly integrated web of land and water.  In the panorama the peninsula is colored a light green oddly reminiscent of the algal blooms, but the green land, fertile with rivers crisscrossed with estuaries and permeated by lakes where brackish waters surrounded archipelagoes of islands, each its own flourishing ecosystem, and shipping docks, suggest an interpenetration of green land and water in a settled land.

Panorama of Florida

Northrop Frye coined he notion of travel in and to the Green World as a dramatic device evoking a crucial passage, which the protagonists must survive in order to restore balance to the actual world and to the plot.  One could argue that travel to old maps, rather than being only a form of antiquarian indulgence, provides and affords something of a parallel site of reflection on our environment.  The Green World that they present is an “other world,” and a world that seems increasingly distant as our own bodies of water are polluted, and we might look back to maps to see the lived environments we are in danger of loosing–and loosing sight of.  Viewing old maps like that in Moll’s Atlas after reviewing the above data visualizations and overlays is chastening and ethical, in ways, something like returning to a site of meditation on a relation to a world we have lost, and perhaps a way to turn back the tide of inevitability that informs our relation to the mapping of algal blooms.  Whether we can restore balance to our world may seem another story, assembling a coherent map of toxic blooms of algae that recur around the world, we can map its distance to the world we knew, and ask what sort of balance lies in our own.

Straits of Florida 1720

 

But it is the “other world” of blooms of green algae that the run-off of industrial agriculture appears to have bequeathed that is the world that seems, for the moment, far more likely to be left with us.  Without mapping the growth of such recurrent aglal blooms, and tracking their mechanisms of causation and varying intensity–feared only to increase in an age of global warming–the other world will become our own.

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Filed under algae blooms, George Perkins Marsh, infographic, Landsat Maps, mapping algal blooms, mapping effects of industrial agriculture, mapping global warming, MODIS Aqua, NOAA, Paul Crutzen, remotely sensed maps

Facebook Tracks Migrations across Borders: Harvesting Data, Ten Years In

The pleasures of all forms of mapping respond to the deeply satisfying ends to which they process ties across space for viewers, allowing them ways to access space through spatial networks that one never before had the pleasure to observe:  and watching these connections and webs appear in a graphic template gives one a new sense of imagining travel across space, but also an almost innate pleasure of seeing how places are tied.  The multiple frogleaps between shores and across countries in the above world map suggests a shifting notion of the inhabited world.  With Facebook at its tenth anniversary, the immense amount of data that the social network generates offers opportunities to map impressive patterns of interconnectedness which shift attention from those borders which have long defined nation-states or indeed the bounds between land and sea.

In ways that might well be signs of the times, and surely aim to chart a sort of post-modernity, the maps of connected identities offer striking ways to see the world less in terms of its divisions than the links web-based communication allows one to harvest.  Indeed, without depending on the nation as the unit of meaning:  Facebook’s project of comprehensive social graphing has maps populations and social networking by tracking a combination of individuals and aggregates over space–at least, across self-reported locations.  Facebook has already showcased its data as a means to map friendships in ways that suggest a new way of reporting linkages in the very sort of social networks it promotes.  If all maps map human knowledge, these data maps also visualize space outside of spatial constraints:  but a new type of mapping emerges by tracing populations on the basis of how its users self-identify as birth cities and cities of current residence.  For Facebook engineers map actual spatial distributions by big data of the sort economists admire measuring, but most have found hard to discern.  They are worth attending to in some detail, not only to ask about the data on which they are based, but to examine the beauty of their construction.  By charting patters so compelling, they also force one to wonder whether the real story they tells go beyond the reach of the world-wide web–and what ways to best understand the geographical connectedness they actually reveal.  Perhaps we can begin by asking what sort of vertiginous views they offer of the world and its inhabitants, and how we can best relate to the stunning images that Facebook engineers seem to have taken such pleasure to produce–and whose visual economy seems so pleasurable to view.

After a decade of storing Facebook-generated data in a thick dossier of computer files, Facebook claims the ability for a sort of aggregate mapping, but one that erases individual stories:   its aggregates conceal the somewhat obvious fact that it tracks the self-selected members of Facebook users, and showcases them as if they offered a comprehensive enough record of the inhabited world to base a definitive social graph of global populations.  Perhaps Facebook users are the population that we want to notice, or the population that it makes sense to track–but this limitation of data is a liability as much as a strength–and because it treats the usual boundaries that have long offered practical constraints to travel and exchange as superseded, aside from the unstated boundary lines that divide China or North Korea from the other countries of the East.  The map suggests a new sort of human knowledge of connectivity and of the different sorts of markets, presumably, that those who are web-connected participate and are attracted by or move within.  The map that results is striking both because of its erasures of the border-lines and boundaries–and maps webs and arcs of population links without clear reference to spatial directionality.  The skein of ties that emerges has become somewhat iconic, and has also provided a sort of template or inspiration for the map of users’ “migrations” or shifting geographic locations in ways considered below.

Given the intentional elision of individual story-lines that is characteristic of the data being harvested, it’s important to try to untangle the maps it makes from the data on which they are based–if only to understand the bias of the picture they present:  a demographic restricted to their users, as well as based on data that is self-reported and without any objective control.  Rather than tracing the unidirectional movement associated with moments of migration driven by famine, slavery, war or ethnic tensions, the strikingly geometric maps Facebook engineers created reveal patterns of connectedness of special interest in tracking geographic mobility, but also in mapping (and perhaps describing) the new patterns of interconnectedness Facebook engineers would probably like to associate with the Facebook networking site.  The oddness of using the self-generated information on a site of social networking as demographic data may reveal a thirst for processing big data; once invested with the aura of objectivity, the collective patterns it reveals can erase individual stories as much as synthesize completely credible and coherent narratives.Connectedness is fascinating to track.  And such information like place of birth and city of residence are not considered categories massaged for personal advancement.  But the internet offers enough screens of concealment and opportunities for disguise that the social graphs Facebook makes tend not only to lack objectivity, but base themselves on data pontentially massaged by users–who, living in the suburbs of one city or in a nearby village, may report themselves as living in the best-known largest nearby city readily recognized, less in an act of deception, but in ways mistakenly treated as objective in character.

If all maps tell stories in how they embody meaning, the stories that the maps based on Facebook data suggests demand unpacking, if only since their numbers are so apparently comprehensive and large, as well as the stories that they submerge.  One story they promote, which we might not accept, promotes an increasingly inter-connected world; others that it conceals is the specific stories about who is connected to whom and why.  With almost half of Facebook users identifying two hundred friends, the webs created by the data purely of Facebook connections reveals an inter-connectivity that privileges the densest distribution of populations in North America and a broad sense of Europe, with a particularly active groups of users also dispersed in Central America, Peru, Argentina, Anatolia (Turkey), Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan and India, and Indonesia.  This map of global “friendships,” developed by Facebook intern Paul Butler in 2011, offers a “social graph” of some 500 million people, linking users’ friendships to actual coordinates of latitude and longitude to create a visualization in a sort of media mash-up, illuminated by an intense if other-worldly backlit glow of FB blue.  The map of social networking that results suggests not only who is networked, rather than density of habitation but of course also maps the density of the culture of social networking that has come to stand, especially for Facebook, as a sort of index of modernization.  The equality between Facebook use and modernity recalls how closely the ‘Twitterverse’ maps onto the maps onto the global flight-paths of airline routes, as new study has found, suggesting that airline connections between cities provide a statistically valid proxy for twittering to sites beyond one’s own hometown–and the ties that Twitter makes in virtual terms should not be in any way that distinct, after all, since “Twitter is part of the real world” as is the internet, as Matthew Battles astutely observed, and tweeting is shaped by real-world social ties, even if it offers a new media for communication.  But it would seem a misleading inversion of cause and effect to take tweeting as an out-and-out proxy for modernization, equating it with the tracing of ties commerce and capital flows.

The question is not about the data of Twitter vs. Facebook, but about how big data is used to create the multitude of variant maps generated by Facebook media, including this map of ties among its users.  The multitude of variant maps generated by Facebook media seem particularly striking for their post-modernity in how they elide or ignore the frontier as a primary unit of meaning in world maps.  Is this map an illustration of of the acceptance of Facebook as a part of one’s identity, and do the great arcs themselves constitute something of an accurate index or emblem of post-modernity?  While Facebook is actively interested in promoting is own ability for harvesting data, many of the maps of friendship, migration, and social ties of course read a lot like images of its ability to promote social networking.  The arcs of light that map online ties not only mirror the sort of etherial airline map that seems as good a predictor of twitter ties–does this suggest the similar likelihood of access to airplanes as access to tweeting?–but a gauzy penumbra spun around the earth’s inhabitants who sit spellbound before backlit screens, luxuriating in the proxy embrace of on-line connections and affections? It’s always important to ask what sorts of abstractions that any map seeks to communicate through the tenuous bonds they draw linking actual regions.

Paul Butler's map of friendships

Is this a new story the habitation of the select areas of the information-sharing world that Facebook links?   The above image tells one story about the inhabitants of the world, or rather of a specific world,  and a strikingly suggestive one in how Facebook’s data defines the worlds inhabitants as its users.  For there is no doubt a certain amount of estrangement from other forms of communication that this image, linking pairs of cities weighted for how many friendships exist between them, also maps, varying the intensity and brightness of lines’ coloring by the number of friendships shared as a way of mapping “real human relationships” across space in ways that Facebook does not note explicitly:  the map devised by Facebook’s infrastructural engineering team is a map of the very distances that Facebook as a medium is best able to bridge.  If perhaps just as revealing of access to computers, digital literacy, and wealth, the arc drawn across the empty spaces of deep blue that are oceans charts the networks of inter-connectivity among which news travels, memes grow, personalized photos shared, and a sort of quasi-information society exists, by the construction of the social network on which it travels.  This “globology” reflects less the currents of cultural contact, migration, and exchange that define global history, but something analogous to the cartographical flattening of it, viewed through access to the options of like, connect, dislike, or share that Facebook offers its users.  It charts the options that have shaped, to one extent or another, a transnational psychology of communication.

Which makes the ambitions of Facebook engineers to map patterns of “coordinated migration” an interesting case in mining of new trends in geographic mobility from the massive amounts of data that they collect, if only because of its goals to map actual spatial position over time.  The somewhat-recent maps of what FB term “coordinated migration,” based on the patterns of relocation that emerge from self-reported data of the site of birth and current location of FB users.  The result of the database’s collation is to track and define the lines of the global phenomenon of urban migration, once reserved for larger industrial cities or metropoles, but not significantly broadened across the world, both to population growth and a drying up rural prospects and jobs in the magnets of urban metropoles.  The idealized format of these arcs of migration create a social scientific aura of explanatory simplicity, and serve to affirm the notion that individual itineraries respond to an economic marketplace.  The boast of Facebook to chart such pathways with accuracy has been critiqued for its use of private data without evaluation through the scrutiny by peer review, and may deviate from standards of impartially objectively derived data, or by using publicly listed self-identification to endow with the graphic objectivity (or appearance of it) on a map.  The maps make tacit claim to reveal the real attraction of populations both from neighboring cities in the same country, or, in South East Asia and India, from neighboring countries, by the web of tiny green arcs discussed in greater detail below, provide a useful filter for sort of big data economists have problems measuring of global migration, and indeed to distinguish quantifiable migration numbers and patterns in different regions of the world.  Once again, frontiers are less significant than the ties of cities that the data input by Facebook users enter into their pages, and which they map.

Underlying questions remain, but seem to be waiting for further or future analysis.  For one, how, Sheryl Sandberg, do these patterns of migration map out along gender lines?  In mapping “destination cities” by red dots, and “origin cities” by blue, the design group Stamen has helped render a smooth arcs of migration as a set of naturalized movements, in order to throw into relief the relative density of a phenomenon of “coordinated migration” around the world, but creates a naturalized web.  They give one useful key to read meaning from these idealized arcs by setting them against a global map coloring regions of relative urban growth in 2000-12 pale yellow, in the sort of compelling image  compressing a density of variables to simple graphic forms of which Tufte would be proud:  routes replace cities that they link, or that appear as numinous purple blurs that remind us of the messiness of mobility; the crossing of frontiers replaces frontiers, which must be deciphered by the limited role of crossings from China, whose very existence is only implied by paths of emigrants abroad.

Coordinated Migration #2

The mottled blotches of blotting-paper blue to which the thickest green trails lead indicate the fastest growing markets of production that provide the magnets from nearby countries as well as for regional residents.  The linking that the map tracks suggests a sense of populations in flux, and of the market-driven nature of the migrations that Facebook’s data tracks, and whose intense mobility is a sign of relative modernization as much as social unrest.  The broader linkages such data implies between Facebook and the global process of modernization is, certainly, good publicity, no doubt, if largely on the level of a subconscious association.

But the emergence of what Facebook has christened in quasi-sociological jargon as “destination cities” might be taken with a grain of salt.  But the data that Facebook has so far collected is also an inversion of a somewhat embarrassing incident that occurred at Facebook back in 2010, when Pete Warden devised with the inventive project to scrape the public Facebook profiles of 210 million users in the United States to derive the clustering of networks that divided the country according to FB ties, creating his own national map, but then withdrawing the offering of the data as public when Facebook threatened suit, but had to allow him to keep up the map he derived from the data–brilliant if only for its definition of clusters that would never be rendered in a printed map, with eponymous if imagined toponyms as SocialistanMormonia or winning ones like Stayathomia, designating the greater northeast and midwest–a region viewed by most as revealing less geographic mobility, but which wouldn’t appreciate that name.

United FB regions

The map, soon taken down, may have encouraged a sort of counter-posting of a heat-map that announced the world-wide distribution of Facebook developers, which seems designed to celebrate their global geographic diversity, rather than social or geographic segregation, to dispel the notion that they are concentrated in the United States or, in terms of the city where most FB developers live, San Francisco.  (The coloration of whole countries based on local concentrations of software developers finds all of North America painted red.)

Facebook-Developer-Heat-Map

But the huge amount of data that Facebook has developed in a decade-long harvest is hard not to want to map, if only to see what sort of visualizations it produces.  And the three or four maps they issued tracking the benefits of ten years of social networking have led to the claim to reveal new patterns of social migration to cities or urban metropoles that are the equivalents of hot-spots in a globalized world.  The shading yellow of regions the World Bank found marked by high “urbanization growth” over the same period–2000 to 2012–creates a simple context to situate the migration, although it would only really make sense to chart that growth in population over a broader period  corresponding pressures that impacted those who were migrating in ways tracked during this period as a way of registering, or so Facebook would like us to think, some of the primary forces that have reconfigured a globalized world on which Facebook has a clear take.  The cities noted as cross-national destinations reveals a sense of global mobility and inter-connectedness with which Facebook wants to promote, to be sure, linking a sense of globalism with its product’s global reach, but wrap the world in a skein of green lines link with differing intensity selective cities an towns, suddenly giving prominence to the links of a potentially economically prominent demographic.

Coordinated Migration #2

The elegantly arcs of migration charted from original residences are quite impressive localized illustrations of geographical mobility:  if the result might not be truly comparable to how Aude Hofleitner, Ta Virot Chiraphadhanakul and Bogdan State have decided to evoke the many “large-scale migrations [that] are an important part of human history,” the chart reveals micro-patterns of geographic mobility by neat green lines would make a social historian turn green with envy, mapping “flows” from hometowns to current cities.  The responsible social historian would ask whether those nice curved swirls map along a symmetry misleading in portraying actual paths that those migrations took–many, one could speculate, were routed through multiple other cities or post-modern metropoles, as the line connecting any two points anywhere is rarely a perfectly smooth trajectory or arc:  the visualization betrays, in this sense, the data-centered models from which they derive, and are, in a sense, less revealing of a picture of actual populations.  But the floral patterns they create, spinning from blue-dots of geographic origins to red dots of final destination or current habitation, document a fairly radical shift toward urban in-migration, reminiscent of nineteenth-century Europe, and a huge attraction to sites in coastal west Africa, not only Lagos, whose urban population’s growth by almost one-fifth reflecting the expansion of the city and oil-production, but also Dakar, Accra–whose urban growth also approached 20%–, Ghana, the Gulf of Guinea, and Nairobi, as well as Dar es Salaam.  (One suspects that this is but a shadow of the true migration of populations, since it only represents data from the social network that Facebook runs, and is silent about its very selective picture of folks with internet access and net-literacy.)  But the migration of Nigerians it tracks to Lagos is nonetheless prominent.

Could this data not be usefully cross-mapped with the growth or social compositions of destination cities in more provocative ways?  What sort of visualization would that create?  Can it be refined, by accessing data like the changed place of Facebook users over time, creating a somewhat more messy, but perhaps more informative, way of tracing patterns of migration, than a graphic that seeks to underscore as well as illustrate the notion of a “coordinated migration” from smaller towns to metropoles?  To be sure, the arcs used to denote the alleged concentration of migration area a way of softening the image of Facebook’s data, making it more organic part of the map, and not serve as an apparatus of any accuracy.  The arcs are aesthetically engaging as a way to illustrate each “destination city” by its reach to its hinterland–or to other cities of origin–to visualize and showcase the massive amounts of data that it has collected, much in the way that Facebook has engaged in multiple ways to visualize the scope and extent of data that it generates over a huge expanse of the world, if not to suggest it forms a way of tracking the inhabited world, under the name of Data Science, always keeping that data anonymous.

The map of major destinations of folks in the two year period of 2010-12 is striking for how it reveals a changing face of global socio-professional mobility that seems specific to some classes.  The usage of circle arcs in the streamlined OSM cartographical data is almost as misleading as it gets if one thinks that the arcs mirror the messiness of routes of actual spatial migration.  But the abstraction of defined population currents offers an abstraction of presumably “eminently hirable” individuals looking for more profitable lines of work, linking the Facebook populations with the up and coming professionals of the future, as much as with job mobility.  The yellow highlighted areas of notable urban population growth create a backdrop that increased the legibility of this slightly restricted map, and others below–one  wishes for a bit deeper patterns of urbanization and rural pressures–at times far preceding the decade we are describing in these maps.

Coordianted Migration--Africa

The graphics are particularly striking visually, and effective as compelling images of global patterns, even if they also might not be that deeply informative:   they trace a collective social history of urban in-migration in Istanbul, the city Facebook’s researchers found to have the greatest “coordinated migration,” largely as it is the greatest metropole in a largely rural but rapidly “westernizing” country whose infrastructure has greatly transformed–as if Facebook use was a predictable index of economic modernity and, by extension, growing markets for its advertisers.  The foci Facebook’s data has illuminated here indicates as “growth towns” such destinations as Nairobi, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Accra, Kumasi, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam, but purged of the living conditions in those sites.

But a more complex super-imposition or layering of not only urbanization, but annual rates of populations’ change worldwide, in ways that the United Nations has also charted in ways that would be of particular importance for such coordinated migrations, which focus, say, not only on Mali’s and Kenya’s urbanization, but growth in Zambia, the Central African Republic, Chad and Tanzania–and explain why these are to differing degrees loci of the very migratory pressures that Facebook has detected.  (All data deserves to be mapped, but the Facebook seem to privilege almost exclusively the very data that they generated, in order to showcase the trends that its use is able to detect, but some maps are misleading enough that they are perhaps less better drawn.  This leads to some complications, both since the data is not made public and controlled, but also since it is not able to be combined by other data or metrics in responsible ways.)

Population Growth UN Charts

The transformation that these maps chart might be one of the huge expansion of internet users–the maps map their own data, after all.  The clustering of such users in a rapidly growing city like Istanbul is particularly compelling, and interesting reveals the huge amount of in-migration from the less sparsely populated areas of Anatolia around the Black Sea that led to the city’s growth by almost 12% in 2010-12.  It would especially profit from a charting to areas of the city–if possible–or the expansion of the city itself, as well as the growth of other Turkish cities from which those arriving in Istanbul hail:  are these towns declining, and just dying, or are they also growing at a comparable rate?  Do folks moving to Istanbul list actual home-towns, or the nearest large villages?  Istanbul is perhaps also unique in being a modern metropole drawing educated populations from many nearby Macedonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Albania and Hungary, as well, it seems, the Ukraine–in a sense of the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire, but in ways distinctively lopsided to the East:  a blanket of green gauze of strings of differing intensity whose arcs blankets the northern regions of Anatolia bordering on the Black Sea.

To Istanbul!

The simplified elegant light green arcs in the above map and its above counterparts stand in quite sharp contrast to the rapid circulation of populations mapped in what is by far the densest and in senses most complex map groups India, South-East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia)–almost a data-overload itself–or of the specific stories of these immigrants.  Of course, the question of why this region–embracing really at least three, but probably four sub-regions, should be seen as a collective is not clear, but it is essentially “the rest of the world” aside from the main regions Facebook has parsed.   The graphic suggests a far more massive amount of mobility that is almost difficult to distill to a single image or map.  (China is absent from the dataset, because internet use is so less common; public self-identification is also no doubt far more rare, and foreign, anyways.)   There was quite explosive growth in this period in Bangkok (significantly over 10%), Hyderabad (a bit under 15%, or 14.4%), and Chennai (also slightly under 15%, or 14.4%); one wonders more about the social demographics that motivated this growth, and how much of it maps onto the Facebook users who it maps.

The loss of the stories of individuals who are immigrating to cities is almost part of the point of these maps:  there is no story that needs to be told about this immigration, because it is a process of migration that responds to uniform global pressures we all recognize, which are specific to the demographic of Facebook’s users.  This sense of a story is far from Satyajit Rays’s vision of “The Big City” of the immigration of rural villagers to their new life of searching for commercial employment in the banks, mechanical sales, and lawyers electrified Calcutta.  For the migration to the city that dominates each regional state–rather, the data charts the growth of emerging metropoles as Chennai, in southern India:  it charts mobility from cities to cities, inter-city mobility, among a I-think-that-I’m-probably-quite-employable demographic of relatively educated Facebook users who are most often online, and would coincidentally provide a selective demographic for advertisers to reach.  Indeed, large swaths of rural territories are essentially unmapped, save by the intersecting bright green arcs that cross over their terrain, as if without Facebook users, they did not deserve to be mapped–or, at least, without necessary data, fall out of it–as if to locate the intensity of migrations around its rim, although quite a few sole threads of migration originate from its empty interior.

The image of a growing South Asia is, however, particularly interesting for the number of itineraries it traces out of China, migrating to Taiwan and Hong Kong for the most part, as well as South Korea and the Philippines; the active clustering of Facebook users along the coast suggests that it is were the true action is occurs, as if to rewrite the attention usually paid to charting China’s escalating economic growth.  The vibrancy of ties across borders (and across seas) is striking, as a certain demographic seems irresistibly drawn by Taiwan, and others to Thailand (Bangkok) or Cambodia and Vietnam, whose arcs reveal notably dense ties of geographic mobility.

Coordinated Migration--Asia

Whose stories is revealed in this amazingly dense map of neat green arcs, which, if they simplify the messiness of the individual stories they collectively track, seem intended to create a sense of a coherent network of meaning that might not be present in the area’s economy but is actually extra-national in nature:  these migrations seem links of like to like, and of educated to industry.  One however wishes for greater resolution in an image such as the above:  what is going on in the Philippines, for example, where Manila is not so much the central hub one might expect, but that each island seems to have its own centers of aggregation and congregation, is unclear; out- and in-migration also seems mixed, as it does around Djakarta and to an extent in southern India and Sri Lanka.  Would a close up, say, of Polynesia or at least of the area around Singapore be of help in discerning what patterns of “coordinated migration” might emerge? The huge urbanization of Java, Bali, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, and the circulation in populations in the rapidly growing region, as well as any other political and economic pressures on this sea of population shifts.  Many of the arrivals in Bangkok are from within Thailand, moreover, rather than from other countries, suggesting a very traditional pattern of migration within linguistic and cultural units, rather than the global circulation that such maps might be expected to chart, or might at first glance appear; similar interior migrations characterize Vietnam and, it seems, the Philippines, where much migration even appears specific to each island.  How, to use a metric that Facebook has cleverly adopted in its map of friendships across nations, can one view these ties through the lens of shared languages or linguistic similarities?

Philippines

There appears considerably less defined patterns of migration, it bears observing, in the United States.  What does this mean, or might it indicate?  (Or, which seems likely, are Facebook users in the United States just less interested in noting the cities where they live after they geographically relocate, by updating their profiles?)

The patterns provide a new way of reading ties within the map that trump, or erase, geographic proximity, in ways that seem of interest in tracking, for example, the shifts of economical mobility that might be tied or associated with NAFTA.  What is one to make of the far lesser webs of connection or migration in the North America, where there seems, save for the Cubans who have arrived in Miami, far less social mobility or a zero-sum game?  Facebook works–and thinks–in coordinated networks in this case, and finds little similar coordinated migration within North American cities; even in the international migrations from Mexico and Cuba, which seem to be potentially overstated–they reflect the number of Cubans in Miami that state their origin as Havana or Cuba; one can detect less of a coordinated action than a mass movement, in the case of migration from Mexico, than what might be  of a phenomenon chain migration, rather than one independently coordinated, and determined more by family links than economic need.  Three different patterns of migration seem to be evident in the three countries shown below–even though the Stamen projection seems to erase national boundaries or borders by rendering them as equivalent to regions or states:  Canadian cities draw amost exclusively from the surrounding province,  unlike most of the US, save North Dakota and New Mexico; Mexico shows active cross-national migration patterns, perhaps based on familial ties, the engineers note, to such major destination cities as Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

Coordinated Migration in US

So do the above mapped elegantly detailed distributions, given the selective nature of their self-reported data, mean anything definite at all? The skein of green lines of differing intensities wrap the world in a variety of ways that contrast, for a start, with a simple map of flight paths:  what remains untold, however, is exactly what demographic the Facebook family has been able to attract.

It is hard to say what they mean exactly, as a result, or how much they provide indices of mass migrations, even though this quite valuable data should by no means be dismissed.  Since it depends on self-reporting of information, they capture a small number of the actual migrations that occur between countries, by migrants who are less likely to log their travels in internet profiles or lists of friends, but the data that the engine of Facebook has, ten years into its existence, managed to compile, and is now eager to show the world that they are able to track.  Of course, the data is only data–and it’s of interest to create a map of data, if only to see what results.  And the somewhat over-determined data of who uses Facebook–folks who are geographically removed from their loved ones?–may be difficult to map as a trend.  It provides a compelling collective visualization among folks who belong to that demographic that often reveals the persistent meaning  of the local and regional in a so-called globalized world.  Perhaps it doesn’t really map a world that is less rooted in geography–Google, after all, generates the GDP of a small country in itself, after all–and where place isn’t supposed to be so great a determining factor or constraint in most markets and lines of work.  The question is what such trends of migration–if that is what’s being charted–mean, and what corner they raise on a map of larger trends of relocation.

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March 5, 2014 · 3:04 pm

Local Landscapes in OSM: the Shifting Economy of Mapping Place

A cry goes out over the internet, Crowdsourced OpenStreetMap Trounces Google Maps,” in a banner headline intoned as if intended to evoke the battle of David and Goliath.  It affirmed the victory of not a company, but of the members of a mapping community who slung myriad shots from the slings of multiple local mappers in Sochi,most of  whom we only know by their monikers, to topple trust in the corporate behemoth’s maps at the same time as the whole world was watching.  And the basis by their cartographical diligence is evident in the juxtaposition of two visuals of the ski runs at Sochi that we’ve been watching on TV, since we can easily contrast it to the terrain on which we’ve already watched so many ski events–and use them to track the skiers whose slalom courses we might was better placed in space.  The on-site demand for maps is so acute that the divergence from the now nearly ubiquitous Google Maps engine is striking, and has caused a bit of a shockwave in the mapping micro-world–”In Sochi, Open Source Maps Beat Google”–as if this was a not-to-be-unnoticed Olympic event, when the “Wikipedia of Maps . . . has bested the corporate giant” at its own game.

This was not only a symbolic victory, but a dent in what Adam Fisher aptly terms the “Google Maps-based ecosystem” that has grown out of the widespread reliance of a small and growing sector of the economy on the Google map making machine.  The reliance on map-providers is evidence that even now, in an age of satellite maps and extensive geovisualization, mapping is a marketplace and a business to best orient viewers to an image of the ground in some very interesting ways:  rather than exercising the dominance of organizing “all the world’s information” through a monopoly geo data, fast on the heels of some rather nasty accusations that some yahoos caught using Google IP addresses had set out to vandalize OpenStreetMaps from India, entering false information in their competing images to undermine trust in their accuracy by things from reversing the directionality of one-way streets and altering script in order to dissuade users of expectations for OSM’s accuracy.  As much as an act of random hooliganism, this is a sort of trade-war waged by undermining the credibility of the opposition–a huge change from the days when Google might have sponsored OSM’s annual conference.  Alas, no more, as the two generators of landscapes are at one another’s necks:  at the very time that Google is trumpeted as inevitably on its way to charting a road-map to world domination, cracks in its geo location armor appear.  And the interesting part was, in part, that rather than finding weaknesses or inaccuracies within the many photographs that Google engineers thread together to create a database of terabites that allow us to flip through an apparently seamless photograph of the world, the absences lay in the value of selectivity in labeling the sites, routes, and courses that athletes took, and their exact levels of elevation:  information absent from the outdated photographs Google used in its Earth View.

The two media of mapping provide essentially different landscapes–and a different access to the surroundings that they described.  These contrasting visions of landscape are so readily generated by the Map Compare tool designed by Geofabrik, which actively promotes the commercial use of open-sourced maps.  Designed to suggest the difficult selectivity and clarity that the Google offers on the environments it maps, the juxtaposition of the ski runs from the Google Earth view and OSM map are a triumph in the value of embedded signs and measurements of elevation, as well as potential routes of skiing on the slopes of Sochi.

.sochi-ski-satellite

Despite the authority of the Google Map view, the rhetorical power of this juxtaposition between these forms of mapping shows the extent to what Open Source allows in the recently built environment of the Olympic village:  one is immediately struck by the absence of the Skiing Pavilion on the less-often updated Google Maps views, where not only the routes of skiing on the local slopes are less often noted, but the structures built for the Olympics remain entirely absent, and the far limited points for attending to the landscape and its elevation. There is less data in the Google View, even when one goes outside Google Earth.

Indeed, the comparison and turned up many more signs of orientation than the blank spaces of Google Maps which so strikingly recall the “terra incognita” covered by cartouches in early modern maps of the New World or the icy uncharted regions of polar expanse.

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Sochi Ski Center Mapped

What seem open areas marked by the faintest of trails or icy frost engage viewers in concrete ways in the OSM maps, raising questions about how they effectively invite us to see, and what constructions that they use to invite us to contemplate space from eight models of the same landscape.  In an age of the huge expansion of Geographic Information Systems and geovisualization, it is amazing not that different modes of mapping circulate–that’s to be expected–but that their contents will continue to be so diverse, or that the very multitude of information that they’re designed to visualize are available in so many competing models.  The ‘Map Compare’ function devised, in ways that recall the classic art history course’s comparison of two slides side by side each other, provide a slippy-screen template to compare any regions with the boast that the open-sourced OSM version will both be more complete and inclusive in its details, and a better commercial model for anyone interested in mapping any city, anywhere, on demand, on account of the multiple modifications OSM users have made.  The story of the more complete coverage of OSM is anything but new, but the recent focus on the demand for better maps in the Olympic games is a great news story, making the lack of information on Google’s map browser comparable to the shoddy quality of the ready-made rudimentary hotels in Sochi in quite potentially embarrassing ways.  Despite the copious Street View detail, Google’s maps of Sarajevo were lacked in the information and visual detail that OpenStreetMap could readily provide to its users.

open-versus-closed

Sarajevo OSM Google

For all the innovation of push-pins mapping cities, Google seems to have neglected the Bosnian and Herzegovinian landscape, and the very elements of regional mapping we need for detailed spatial orientation.   The mapping of green space,  rather than the Olympic village and the architecture of the skiing slopes, that OpenStreetMap provides a distinctly different approach, which makes it more valued so often by hikers or outdoorsfolk, rather than the streamlined images of roads of Google Maps that so often cast geographical surroundings only as lightly colored muted blocks.  Is OSM a more geographically ethical mapping of space, in ways that reflect how its composite character derived from a community of mappers, as much as a collective crowd-sourced medium whose users have championed it as an anti-corporate mapping model of map making?

The differences in local mapping are evident in the sextet of views that  Map Compare function offers.  Starting from Geofabrik’s local town, Karlsruhe, which seems the default starting place for Map Compare, one can scan the different levels of information they supply, in a massive time-suck and complex compare-and-contrast exercise, moving a nice view of the area around the town’s central castle, that invites visitors to compare what sort of map they’d rather use to navigate the city’s groundplan and to do so with the grain and detail that best illuminate or shine a light on the fabric of its urban planning:

Central Karlsruhe

Moving around Karlsruhe, away form the castle, one can compare alternate mapping views, which offer their own alternative glosses on the fabric of urban space, and their own points of entrance to it:

8 Maps Karlsruhe

There’s a neat abundance, underscored by a healthy pinch of relativity, in this crowding of a variety of perspectives.  Although there is an association of certainty with the map, each of the above images, using different databases which are often protected by copyright, offer different tags to recognize and navigate exactly the same environments, some focussing on the greenery and paths through it, or the road maps and the presence of the national border near Durmersheim, and others letting the national borderline slip into barely detectable gray.  There is a certain healthiness in this plurality–a plurality underscored, in the case of OpenStreetMap, by the varied contributions individuals have made over time, a la Wikipedia, to its contents.  There is a crossroads at which each stand, between data and design, that reflects an attempt both to give and to parse the most useful information in attractive form, and to create a selective map that give each meaning:  as far as selectivity of its record of urban space, the Stamen Toner map in the lower left gives it the most prominent definition by far:  it is something like a bleached version of a diagram of urban design.  The notation of walking-friendly regions of the city in the “Hike and Bike” map offer something like an index of walkability; the OSM De map, made by local German mappers, provides the clearest model to navigate the network of the largest driving streets in Karlsruhe.

And we can follow each into the nation, at a similarly close scale, toward those regions on the French-German border, near Durmersheim.  The maps foreground the different natures of indicating not only country roads and trails, but the nature of national boundary lines, suggest fairly radically different selective views of the local landscapes.  Are roads more important, or is green space?


8 Veiws Maps of Durmersheim

Or, in a clearer juxtaposed context, closer to home, but with similar concerns for the mapping of green space, contrast the highlighting of lakes, freeways, or greenery of the countryside, which the German OSM details in its lakes and countrysides, whose rather picturesque palette of lakes and greens that contrasts with the blah matte of Google maps, in whose flattened 2D color scheme the lakes stand out, but paths to navigate the landscape are annoyingly muted:

Comparing Info Foregrounded in Mapped Landscapes in Germany

Even if the map in Stamen Toner offers the sharpest contrast, as a strictly road map, the German OSM offers a clearer–or crisper–reading of the autobahn’s highway system and its levels of classification–important to drivers, but mute on Google Maps.  The relatively unprocessed nature of the OSM platform, which after all privileges the local detailing of a landscape in ways that are argued to recover the craftsman like nature of remapping space, albeit in a digital format, and after all process the viewer’s relation to place in ways that champion the individual agency of the locally situated mapper’s techniques.  Rather than deriving form LandSat imagery, even if including the backdrop deriving from Bing to ensure its global coverage, thanks to the new friends it gained at Microsoft, or satellite imagery, the structure of OSM uses a form of illustrator that seek to rehabilitate the familiar values of accuracy and open debate in the creation of a local map:  we are all, OSM users say, digital mappers, and can take back the overdetermined datasets all too often passively read and interpreted via GPS.

It’s well known that the detail put into the OSM maps offer a less synoptic view point on areas without roads–or where one might be more likely to travel as a pedestrian or hiker on a dirt path.  Close to my home, OSM is widely favored by hikers in National, State or Regional Parks.  Moving to one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful areas, around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, the pronouncedly different views of space offer distinct ways of negotiating place and terrain, from the relatively blanched Google Map view of the terrain of the State Park to the mock-lithographic topography of MapQuest or Bing to the comprehensive detail of OSM–more busy, for some, but extremely relevant to orient oneself to the world-famous green space:  the density of the trails around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin are perhaps extreme, but this isn’t information that one would want absent from one’s world mapping system (or data) and suggests an erroneously vacant image of the park:  and the absence of points of elevation from most all mapping platforms, even if all GIS data is always “imperfect,” reminds us of the importance of finding criteria of selectivity that are comprehensive enough.

Mt. Tam Visualized

The question of cartographical comprehensiveness in a sense resonates with the perennial fantasy of mapping a complete view of place or region.  But comprehensiveness–or accuracy–is less the point than the filters on data that exist in the structures (and databases) of certain GIS platforms.  Questions of accuracy are relative to the sort of point of view that one wants to measure, to be sure, and elevation points or nature walks might not be relevant to some–or ski runs.  But the features of the landscape surely are, and so are the role of maps as tools by which we attend to those features.  Something of the distinction that French theoreticians like Jean Baudrillard made between media of film and television in relation to the human imaginary seems to offer an apt point of distinction between the collective visualizations of OSM and the muted visuals in Google Maps, derived from LandSat photographs:  there is no trace of the imagined relation to the place or region in the platform, which offers far less of a basis to imagine one’s own relation to the places that it maps.

Moving to the greener space of the northeastern United States as a test case, I wanted to examine in some detail the different features of each platform a region that I know well, using the scalable functions of each to zoom into a specific place in the green space of central Vermont.  The distinct landscapes of different mapping media nicely foreground the benefits of Geofabrik’s own Topo map, and the OSM counterparts that suggest even greater detail and differences in the options of roads, paved and unpaved perhaps–for long an important local question–as well as variations of landscape green.  While MapQuest provides some important basic detail here, OSM offers a better view of the greenery and scenery, encrypting more information at a great density, especially in contrast to the generic light greens of Google or Bing.  (Sure, you have the Google Earth function to toggle to, but having a single sheet–either on a screen or paper print out, is an important navigational and orienting tool.)

Map Compare-  Vermont and NH

Moving to a local landscape that I know even better at first-hand, in greenish north-central Vermont, we can alternate among a range of mapped views to foreground or highlight distinct areas of the topography and roads that run through the flattened map:  between the topographic views of a cycle map to the routes of a Hike & Bike, the simple landscapes of an Open Cycle map, or the austere Bing and generic Google Map with its crowding of place names at odd angles, while the OSM offer views of the greenery that few others can beat.
8 Maps Near Montpelier

As we focus on a clustering of lakes further south on the Interstate, scrolling down at a greater scale, the clustering of three lakes offers a specific point to contrast mapping styles and the different data they embody and store, out of which we might focus on the somewhat notorious bridge across the lake that occurs in six of the following eight maps, but which I can confirm exists, a bridge which, while on the other six maps, it’s never noted that one cannot drive across:

Lakes and Ponds near Brookfield VT

The contrast in mapping styles grows more evident around the smaller town of Brookfield proper, where the variety of map-signs offers a sharpened difference in perspectives on place:  the eight different conventions of noting the interstate are not only surprisingly different in color scheme to differentiate their source, but the mapped data seems surprisingly distinct in these images:  OSM Mapnik suggests a bridge, lined in black, and overpass, but both disappear in Google Map, and in Bing Sunset Lake disappears, while in none of them is the fact that the bridge is wood, floating, but mostly submerged, and closed much of the year to driving noted.  Not only is the coloration and breadth of Interstate 89 distinct in each, but so is the presence–or absence–of the small lake, the old wooden Floating Bridge that cuts across the Sunset Lake, and the foliage that surrounds Brookfield village itself.  But the inability to traverse that Floating Bridge, either in winter, when it is covered by snow, or in summer, since it has been blocked to all but foot traffic, made me smile at the multiple absences in the map engines arrayed below.  And, perhaps as important for motorists, which mapping renders the transformation of paved to unpaved roads?

Map Compare-  Brookfield VT x 8

What is the best way for a map engine to engage its viewers?  A slightly tweaked variety in another grouping of maps of the entrance to the floating bridge one can’t traverse by car, at magnified scope, suggests the range of arranging information in only one small intersection, and the need to constantly compare mapping forms for their different level of detail:  from the differences among dirt and paved roads, to the range of topographic detail, to the view that the so-called Floating Bridge is in fact perpetually sinking in Brookfield, VT.  At the end, it will all depend on what we want to see in maps, and the array is simply and increasingly boggling.

 

Dirt v. Paved in Brookfield VT x 8

For while Google has gobbled upwards of six million miles of streets for Street View, the interest in offering an accurate survey of the land surrounding seems to have eluded, as the aim of completing a complete set of photographs of place–as if to seduce us to allowing Google to maintain a system of location-awareness through it–may be removed from what we want to see when we trust the selectivity of the map. For a generation weaned on video, and gratified by the dazzling display of visuals, the sunny streets of Street View and panorama of Google Earth may be enough eye candy for some, but the need for selective filters and for improving semantic legibility in maps might well lead the best maps to be those that are most carefully iteratively refined.

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Filed under Compare Map, Geofabrik, GIS, Google Earth, Google Maps, GPS devices, GPS maps, Jean Baudrillard, open-source, open-source maps, OpenStreetMaps, OpenStreetMaps (OSM), OSM, Sochi

Follow the Money from the Bay Area’s Shores

Cartographer William Rankin’s splendid 2006 project of mapping city income donuts across urban America did not perfectly pan into the geometry of concentric circles of wealth he imagined.  But the donuts of income distribution within the Bay Area do suggest the wedded nature of the bay’s shore with lower incomes, reflecting the deep historical association–outside Marin, but only partly–of the bay’s shore with heavy industry and piers.  In part, this is due to the pronouncedly low-lying nature of downtown Oakland and the low density housing of the shore.  It also reflects how the shoreline–after being reclaimed from marshland–was rebuilt after World War II.  But it creates a distinct social topography that transformed (and transmogrified) the ecotonal bay shore from San Jose to Richmond, into the site of hazardous waste that it became until relatively recent times.

The trend of flight from the shores was solidified by the concentration of the highest incomes at the greatest remove from the shorelines that were associated with commerce and shipping–the peninsula–the deepest red of the region, and the similar remove of the Piedmont and Oakland hills.  Tiburon be damned:  to withdraw to lofty peaks far away from the commerce of the shoreline seems to be the distribution of the most desirable land.  (Tiburon, if an outlier to this region, itself stands at such remove from the commercial shorelines of the bay to confirm the trend–Marin City is of course the bit closest to the bay as we know it.)  The economic panorama of the Bay Area makes some sense of region’s socioeconomic distribution and settlement that reflects its industrial past, even though that industry–with the exception of some shipping and oil reserves–is less present in the region than it once was.  Is this a ghost or a legacy?  This mapping makes a sense of the Bay Area’s social topography:  it both clearly privileges panorama, but somehow doesn’t like to look at the bay around which it lives.

William Rankin's Income Donut of the Bay Area (2006)

Donut Distribution Income Scale

One can see the same income distribution echoed in the map of those buildings in San Francisco whose residents were recently cleared by legalized evictions, based on the Ellis Act that permits landlords to issue legal eviction notices to the tenants of multi-unit buildings, very few of whom lived–or rented–residences that faced or were even near to the East Bay:

Ellis Act Evictions

Rankin’s elegant donut mapping of local incomes glosses the odd historic relation to mapping the distribution of incomes around the San Francisco Bay–a neglected area partly defined by landfill–and later residences–but also by proximity to a body of water that was never that desired.   San Francisco Bay extended the county past Treasure Island so that it brushed lightly against the island of Alameda, for some odd reason of territorial jurisdiction, that predates the Flea Market, the naval station at Point Alameda, peculiarly carved out for reasons little to do with military bases, left a sliver of landfill on Alameda cut off from Alameda County, and lying in San Francisco–not the city, but the County, protective of its water and air rights.  The Office of the Surveyor of Alameda helped in inscribing a line “southwesterly in a direct line to a point in San Francisco Bay, said point being four and one-half statute miles due southeast of the northwest point of Golden Rock (also known as Red Rock); thence southeasterly in a direct line to the point on which the lighthouse on the most southerly point on Yerba Buena island bears south seventy-two degrees west, four thousand seven hundred feet,” reads the Senate Journal of 1919.  And so it still appears, in something of an artifact of geodata, outlived its time as a basis for negotiating shoreline and sea.

But the area by the water was an area for piers, rather than the elegant Victorian townhouses that lined the substantially higher ground of neighborhoods like Fillmore or Noe Valley, not to mention those elegant multi-room mansions in Pacific Heights.

Sliver of Alameda

fhszl06_1_map.38

That extension of San Francisco county to a tiny sliver of the Naval Base airfield created the large brown swath of (low-income) water in the San Francisco Bay within the American Community Survey, of which Rankin’s distribution is in some extent a forbear:  according to the recent American Community Survey, the city of San Francisco and Oakland Hills are flush with green:  there is, however, as if by a perverse computer glitch reflecting county lines, an odd mismapping that extends low incomes over across the Bay.  The area of course has few residents or renters, other than birds, but somehow takes the cake as the greatest continuous low-income area, even if uninhabited, by a software responding to fixed county lines:

ACS SF Median Income

When did the odd division of the San Francisco Bay arise that included a slice of Alameda in its scope?  The area was excluded from the naval airstrips on the northern end of the island, but reflect a line drawn across San Francisco Bay, a triangulation from small rock outcroppings on the Bay drawn from the almost-island “Red Rock,” and still visible in the OSM mapping of the corner of Alameda that enters into San Francisco County’s parsing of the bay, and the resulting odd mapping of Oakland’s boundaries that left it with limited water rights–and Oakland’s harbor or port confined to the area between Alameda and its shoreline.  The same low-lying port region–which Henry Kaiser so dramatically expanded as a militarized area, with Point Richmond and Hunter’s Point, during World War II, together with Marin City, and as centers of lower-income housing–transformed the shoreline from an area of wetlands and ecotones to a region of heavy industry.

Alameda in OSM

The lost history of the settled bay shore, before the redefinition of the shore as a center of industry that constituted the built periphery of the land, is evident in the layered archeology of the bay’s history in early maps, that offer the possibility of recovering a narrative of the somewhat idiosyncratic bounding of the bay’s shores as the area shifted from a maritime port.

Already, in the 1859 United States Coast Survey, the unique shelf off the shore of Oakland suggested a narrow point of arrival for larger ships–even if the bay suggested a readiness existed to define the San Francisco bay exactly along the shelf of land that extended just out to the spit of man-made land of the mole that ran out to Red Rock, which were less suitable for sailing.

 

Depth Charges of the Waters in SF- 1869 Coastal Survey

A few early printed maps preserve traces of the redrawing of the bay shore, and note that region where the water intersects with land and probably also lines of county taxation are drawn around the bays’ islands and shores.  The artificial slivering of the island Alameda in the late nineteenth century is echoed long before the building of the Naval Base, in a Leipzig engraving of the early 1890s, an image attributed to James Blick, San Francisco und Umgebung, which illustrated the island of Alameda is mapped as cut by a secant of railroad track at the point, as Alameda bracketed Oakland’s own harbor and port.  But there is no clear delineation of the county line, and the shore area seems primarily defined by the railway lines that run along it.

 

Leipzig San FranciscoWikimedia Commons

The division of San Francisco Bay postdates the complex settlement of the shores in the East Bay recorded in this openly acknowledged apparent official settlement which evokes a treaty between San Francisco and Oakland.  Derived from surveys that Theodore Wagner compiled  c. 1894, which George Sandow so eloquently engraved, the comprehensive map of the bay charted the oyster beds that Indians had long cultivated, whose mound of clam shells rose some sixty feet high, barely remembered in Emeryville’s Shellmound Road–and is now home to Best Buy and P.F. Chang’s.  The Bayshore area had become, by the late nineteenth century, a site actively contested and divided by prospectors of oysters, which  constituted a very important micro-economy of aquaculture for Oakland’s Morgan Oyster corporation, even in the end of the age of its rancho, at a time shortly after when the city’s amalgamation was formalized, until the increasing waste dumped directly into the waters decreased the imported population of bivalves, and led to declines in local sturgeon by 1920.  The mosaic of lots of oyster beds were mapped some distance offshore, in ways that reveal the dense interaction between the tidal regions where the Ohlone had earlier lived intimately with,  that maps allow one to excavate from the late nineteenth century–when the importation of oysters had led to their widespread cultivation in the relatively shallow waters along much of the coast of the East Bay.

Oyster Plots on Map

It is eery that the same shores, so long fertile with the shellfish that sustained the Pomo and Ohlone, were later almost filled with landfill, by the mid-twentieth century, and almost so readily sacrificed.  It’s humanizing to look back at the shore divided by oyster prospectors, however, and to see a far more permeable divide that existed between water and land.  The distribution of shell heaps was in a way a reminder of the close relations between land and water that had earlier existed in the physical geography of the Bay, where a mound of shells near the current Emeryville, built over thousands of years of the harvesting of shellfish from the bay–not oysters, but abalone, mussels, and clams–was a notable part of local topography, extending some three football fields in length, a sacred site of burial in the large estuary and Temescal creek, from which some seven hundred burial sites were removed in the 1920s, which were mined for fertilizer in earlier years, and partially leveled in the 19th century to become the site of a dancing pavilion, before being leveled in 1924.

The distribution of such middens extended around the East Bay:

Shell Heaps

If the shoreline was a permeable region of wetlands circa 1860, the subsequent hardening of the boundary between land and sea had already occurred by the 1920s, when the region was prepared for industrialization–the wetlands and creeks that were so pronouncedly visible in this early state atlas had been paved over and erased with time, as the shoreline was defined as a fixed boundary of trade and its substantial wetlands disappeared and a clearer division between land and water in the region was effectively over time engineered.

1860 Bay Area Map

An early perspective on the Bay’s shores from 1915 that suggests a clearer bathymetric projection of the ocean floors of the bay.  The elegant lithograph indicated the emergence of early landfill of the marshlands of Alameda island, situating the deep water channel for entering the San Antonio Creek  fully in Alameda county, and placing a county boundary line in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.  While it notes significant estuaries in Alameda, the particularly low-lying lands of the East Bay that it depicts at a certain time became the basis for the cartographic fantasy of extending landfill from the shores to increase the amount of land for sale–or for industry–in the Bay Area.

Mission Rock in SF Bay 1918

The same map reveals a Bay whose bearings were of course primarily aquatic, marked by islands that offered mariners primary points of orientation, and the waters linked by spidery lines.

1915 SF Bay Map

Subsequent post-WWII entertainment of the sacrifice of sunsets and the Bay’s open waters reveals the readiness to development of the coastal waters as an industrial zone that emerged shortly after World War II, as the rise of military bases and the industrial port of Oakland was bracketed apart from the regions of Contra Costa or Alameda County inhabited by a wealthier demographic.  The proposal for  “Lake San Francisco” sacrificed the bay as if it were dispensable:  This compelling evocation of the ecological threat of a proposed narrowing bay waters hinged upon the idea of building over a watershed increasingly seen as a dispensable, whose wasteland of refuse an imagined plateaux would replace, built over a Bay that remained quite polluted, but whose waters seemed as if they would be rendered more manageable:

BIrd's Eye View o Bay

The imagined view of building a “highway outlet” for ships alone was cast as a project of land-reclamation, in surprising ways, and seems to have included a surprisingly ecological view of the seven rivers that emptied into the bay as now filling a freshwater lake–and San Francisco Bay being displaced to Baker Beach and the Golden Gate.  The vision compelled collective resistance–long before the civil rights movement–in a wave of ecological awareness that exploited the power of maps for all they were worth to resist the proposed complex of dams, transportation corridors, and landfill that became identified as John Reber’s plan–drafted at wartime, when the local beds of oysters were no doubt no more, and the Bay had become something of a city of industry.  Reber vividly imagined the commerce to be created by facilitating shipping lanes on a redrawn shore, purged of estuaries and irregularities, lined with a sequence of piers and docks.  If adopted, it would make something of a mockery of the Bay Bridge’s first span, and the eagerness to link the Bay that that Bridge’s celebrated completion seemed to inaugurate back in 1936.  The never-completed but almost-adopted fantasy for redesigning the bay as a lake or freshwater region, shared by Marin, Contra Costa County, and Alameda, as well as San Francisco, was based on building multiple barriers in the bay that expunged or limited saltwater from the waters, drawing the sort of imaginary line that seems to have leaped off of an engineer’s drafting table to incorporate Point Richmond, Clark Island, the Albany Bulb and Berkeley Marina with fill that pushed the piers imagined for East Bay ports in the post-war period almost out to Treasure Island, overrunning the Bayshore as if to displace the port and ship locks half-way to San Francisco.  Perhaps this was to alter the property-values of the Bay Area, if only to fill the landfill with an infinite supply of workers’ houses at a time when the expansion of shipping was the order of the day, more than the marine environment; and the workers on the Bayshore could be moved into new prefabricated houses that the landfill would support.

Red-colorized-reber-plan-4480349065_c878e93eb5_o

John Reber’s 1941 plan for radically restricting the Bay’s waters was never adopted, nor was his notion of creating two artificial lakes of freshwater, divided from the sea by ocean barriers.  But the serious contemplation of Reber’s plans and others through 1962–the plans  elicited active defense of the Bay as a region for the first time–suggest that the bay was seen, even after the boom of commerce in the 1950s, as little more than a source for some marine traffic that could be effectively built or beaten back to the Bay itself, and imagined as an area to grow new industry.  And Reber and his wife were sufficiently joyous to communicate the expansion of coastal building–a gift to realtors, perhaps, but also a plan of industrial expansion–in the future map they staged for their own family New Year’s Card as a misguidedly optimistic celebration of the acceptance of Reber’s plan for expanding landfill on the Oakland and Berkeley shores, and even to divide the bay into separate freshwater lakes.

Reber's Joyous Map

The vision of an industricalized bay was beaten back–in large part by a “Save the Bay” group of East Bay Residents, ancestor of the current Save the Bay that, back in 1961, crystallized, momentarily, priorities of the current San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.  But the image of erecting barriers across the Bay left the image of a sort of aquatic parcellization, as if treating its waters as a built environment.

Barriers in the Bay-1962Bancroft Library

What of that odd divide of Alameda County and San Francisco County that persisted, and would be defined by a Trans-Bay Barrier in the above Savage Plan of 1962?

The landfill on which the Naval Supply Center, Army Terminus and Naval Air Station lie had indeed gained new prominence after World War II in defining the areas topography.  But San Francisco County defined the Bay, and that slim corner of Alameda, drawn here as if at the convenience of a surveyor’s line that ran from Red Rock, sliced a sliver off of Alameda County, almost as if foretelling the later line of the toll-crossing on the Bay Bridge.  But the line itself seems not only fortuitous in placement, but contingent of a redrawing of the bay, perhaps reflecting the vagaries of lines of marine jurisdiction, to judge from the bay’s rendering in this section of the 1915 map, in which Red Rock fails to appear, or have the boundary line function that it later would:  and one can see public lines of transit that linked Oakland to the Key line on the San Francisco-Oakland terminal and to its own deepwater channel.

1915 SF Bay Map

Returning again to the bayshore as it was shown in the elegant Wagner-Sandow map, waters on the coasts of Richmond and San Pablo were similarly clustered with oyster beds, a micro-economy at the Rancho San Pablo.  The history of the lots of oyster-beds in the East Bay may be even more forgotten, but their mapping seems to unveil a lost tie to the ecology of the estuaries and shallow waters that blessed the region, making it a popular site of native congregation, just before the industrialization of Point Richmond’s or Oakland’s shore.

Mapping Oysters in East Bay--Wagner

Oyster Foraging

The once-living shorelines remembered in the lithographic engraving show a lost site of commerce, but of sociability, one determined and experienced by the rising and the falling of the tides, in ways that captured a knowledge of landscape we no longer share, but from which the money, flying from commerce and industry, seems to have fled, until the shore might be restored to not only a habitat for birds, but something more than the washing up of detritus along its sandy shores that not only existed before the 1972 Clean Water Act ended the dumping of refuse directly into its waters.

Rancho San Antonio

The overlapping of the waters and lands in the bay was, however, recuperated at a time shortly after the enacting of the 1972 Clean Water Act, an attempt to rid the Bay of the waste that was directly pumped into its waters–without any treatment plants.  The attempt to revision the ecotonal intersection of the region seems something of a rehabilitation of its shoreline, if the abandoned stretches of shores persisted in Point Richmond and in the Emeryville Mud Flats seen from the highways.

But the way that public transit system of the Bay Area bridges land and sea is, to an extent, commemorated in the simple “BA” logo of the seventies, whose “B” and “A” interlock and overlap in something like a bold rounded font, whose overlap, as if a Venn Diagram, is a cognitive bridging of land and water on the edges where land and water so gracefully intersect–the ecotones of the Bay Area that the Rapid Transit can bridge.  The iconic lexeme maps the region, if in abstractly oversimplified form, indicating the ecotonal mix by the smooth font of the registered trademark and copyrighted logo–although it erases the far more complex history of negotiations with the shores we have lost.  But the environmental optimism it expresses of public transportation across the bay link the regions in something like a neat resolution of the final rejection of plans for more building around the bay.

BART

The maps above open an area of the muddy shoreline, although that still seems a barrier for the city’s own far less fluid income divides.

This post was begun before seeing the successful “Above and Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay”  at Oakland’s Museum of California, but was revised and expanded with its benefit.

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February 15, 2014 · 9:42 am

Maps for Reframing an Over-Farmed Landscape

Agriculture maps nicely frame the viewer’s relation to a measured settled expanse, and chart changes in the relative fertility of cropland.  Maps can also offer a recent rural palimpsest of our reshaping of our relation to farmland, in the hope to bridge the remove of most Americans from an agricultural world.  Rather than mapping farmlands’ fertility, they try to map the active recreation of the rural as a site of economic activity, as much as an ecological unit:–a recreation underwritten in our current Farm Bill, even though few seem to have familiarity with the evolution of Department of Agriculture subsidies to the geography of farmed lands.  For although nearly 54% of the continental U.S. is devoted to agricultural land–a slightly larger amount than the 40% worldwide–almost 99% of folks in the United States don’t work on farms.  Their geographic and conceptual remove from rural life stands at odd ends with the fact that most policy-making decisions occur across a rural-urban divide.  Indeed, the disconnect between most Americans’ lifestyle and the growing spread of large farms in rural America suggest some salutary benefits for perusing the wide range of maps and data visualizations to immerse oneself in the quandaries of sustaining rural productivity in an age of increasing food demand.

For this is how we largely use our land:  world-wide, an area approximating the size of South America is dedicated crop production, and far more—7.9 to 8.9 billion acres—to raise livestock.  If this division does not seem that effective, we might begin from how the devotion of our own landscape to agriculture an effective form of land-use.  For this landscape provides a model for how macroeconomic interests have altered the relation to the agrarian landscape worldwide.  Despite the romance of the pastures and crops we produce, the mapping of agriculture productivity is particularly difficult in the failure to define the multiple adversely impacts on national farms–a problem that seems multiplied by the disconnect between most politicians from our agrarian landscape, and, indeed, most concepts of space and our agricultural space–both of which have led to a disquieting hybridization of our political and agricultural space that demands to be untangled.  In an age of data-driven maps, the static images of data visualizations may seem out of date.  The layering of visualizations however challenges viewers to assemble an image of urban-rural relations across the lower forty-eight–by concretely mapping and rendering evident such variables as crops in farms, farms in the land, the folks in the farms and the cities–that can provide a portrait not only of where we are, but of where we’re spending money, and how we might better conceptualize the fertility of the land we farm.

If all maps are based on data, maps of our agrarian landscape also create data for their observers in powerful ways.  Agraricultural maps of land-use deserve to be examined for their inter-relations, as much as for what they ‘say.’  No single visualization should be taken as an image of the farmed landscape–but rather a point of entry into that the forces that shape the landscape and the very contested views of our national cropland, and what might be appreciated as the ‘cropscape’ of a changed rural world.  (Even if over 90% of the farms in America are small and, for a variety of reasons, family run–96% of farms with cropland are family run, producing some 87% of the total value of crop-production in 2011, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, based on data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey–the landscape is increasingly defined by large agribusiness, and by how such farmers react to a market of global futures as much as national or regional needs.)  The expansion of our agrarian land has been mapped by William Rankin, whose “World Cropland” (2009) provides something of a base-line for the conception of the temporal expansion and intensification of farmed crops.

 

Agriculture-landuse-2000William Rankin, courtesy Edible Geography

The layered images of farmlands that I consider in this post create a basis for future interactive analysis.  Even without snazzy animations of time-lapse imaging of Google Earth or Google Earth Pro.  The goal is also to raise some questions about how the relation and use of cropland to American agriculture might be most effectively mapped in ways that would bring greater familiarity with the dilemmas of farming and agricultural practices, at a time when most are increasingly unfamiliar with the organization of agricultural life, as they are with the rising of the tides, and ready to view agricultural practices in a macroeconomic–rather than environmental–lens.  Although the agrarian landscape is conceived as open space, the visualizations offer insight into what  might be best be understood as a complex mosaic not only of individual interlocking ecological regions, as this Esri visualization of the High Plains, Corn Belt, and Great Plains, but a complex economic dynamics it conceals.  For despite its accuracy, and the differences between bioregions and eco regions, the unified landscape indeed conceals the divides created by the now dominant (if warped) view of each eco region as a source of crops on a global market–a view that has informed the rural landscapes over the past twenty to thirty years, from corn belt to the wheat fields to High Plains.

ESRI Ecoregions

For as much as map nature, the division and conceptual of agricultural space in America is under-written by the world market’s orientation to its products, rather than to the individual farm as a unit of farmed land.  There has been something of a cognitive re-mapping of the national agrarian space, not only in terms of the needs of local bioregions or the diverse needs of bioregions that distinguish the alleged uniformity of agrarian expanse, that turns around the greater significance of cropland as a term of economic value, based on the extraction of grain or grasses from the land, distinct from the management of agriculture.  The change in focus–and indeed of conceptual mapping–might allow us to look at the very same verdant terrain in Moscow, Idaho in markedly different ways, even before we’ve begun to map the variety of local crops.

Moscow, ID

Indeed, the increased extraction of goods from crop lands–from corn to ethanol to silage to switchgrass–instills a view of the commoditized landscape, more familiar from contemporary images from real estate maps of land-value than to the locally or spatially situated sense of agricultural land in a specific landscape.  Part of this seems to have derived from the shifting nature of the farm:  despite some debate on the future of the family farm, the deceptive average stability of the size of farms has masked the proliferation of small farms and expansion of large agribusiness, and the consequent conversion of most farming acreage to cropland of far larger farms, with new processes of production:  if the mean size of a farm is 234 acres, most cropland is on farms of over 1,000 acres, and over a third on farms of over 2,000 acres.  We have seen a very recent massive increase in the sizes of farms in the corn belt and northern plains–two areas where they have more than doubled in acreage and productivity, no doubt partly in response to agricultural technologies, fertilizer, and farm-seeding, as well as to the reclamation of grasslands.

Decline of Small Farms

Something of a tipping point may have arrived in the expansion of farm size in these regions of the central United States, and the power of the economic investments behind them:  the ecology of the landscape threatens to become replaced by the commodities we extract and map in them.

A similar change might under-write, in multiple senses, the reframing of the agrarian landscape of the United States as a source of investment rather than a landscape:  the proliferation of recent data visualizations of farmed land in the United States suggests a similar sense of tipping point has passed.  Data visualizations are supple tools to chart notions of cropland and pasture are less rooted in place and space, and mark the results of viewing the farms in extractable units–corn or animal feed or soybeans–that shift agrarian wealth from the fertility of the lands and bounty of a region, into a map of value and investment, and often of intensive production, fertilization, and even GMO crops.  There is something paradoxical or perverse about using data visualizations as a record of landscapes, and the end is not to aestheticize data visualizations as cognitive tools–although the visualizations offer provocative colors schemes in themselves:  the images by which the conversion and farm management of the region has created offer interesting images to meditate on both the construction and the future of crop lands, and relative coherence of the concept as a viable construction of the agrarian space with which we live and to which we are deeply attached in ways that cannot only begin to be mapped.

Maps and data visualizations of the continuous forty-eight are a useful place to begin to visualize the transformation of cropland, because their qualitative depth presents such compelling pictures of the community and of how its inhabitants use its land.  Take, for example, how Dustin Cable’s mapping of Census Data by one dot per person, mapped on Stamen design’s base-map of the nation’s topography affords a clear division in population just west of the Mississippi River.

Census Block gaping hole west of Miss

1.  Cropland, increasingly located in the less inhabited region between the High Plains and west of the Mississippi, has been shaped by the devaluing and reframing of cropland in terms of how much can be extracted from investment.   Even in the face of new stressors on agricultural land-use, from rural out-migration to the decline of the family farm to the decline of hospitable local environments, and the government under-writing of agribusiness and large farms:  crops are valued have combined to create a new agricultural landscape and concomitant foodscape that was more often linked to a macroeconomic context, in place of questions of how food can get to the marketplace.  The expansion of transportation has effectively removed what food we eat from where we live for most.

By reconsidering the range of forms of mapping farms and the use of farmlands, this post tries to direct new attention to the landscape of farming in which we increasingly live, even if our food rarely derives from it. US farming incomes have appreciably risen since 2010-11, attracting some financial markets, but the dynamics of farming are too often based on models of extraction, rather than of nurturing the local landscape.  As the production of corn has increased, since 1980, 400 percent, soybeans 1,000 percent, and wheat 100 percent, as US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has noted, largely based on agricultural technologies and machines, including GPS seed drills, combines, and tractors, the mapping of farms have relied on being under-written by tax dollars to the tune of 30-50% by government agencies that have less regard for the mapping of farmlands.  If crop insurance has helped to increase productivity some 50% since 1982, the expansion of farming technologies have detracted attention from the ecosystems and landscapes where they work:  cropland used for crops declined almost uniformly by about 50% since 1982, especially in the Northern Plains, and land-use for crops by 13%–at the same time as the amount of land dedicated to pasturage markedly increased.  Corn, soy, wheat, hay, cotton, sorghum and rice traditionally constitute the bulk of farmed land; corn, soy, and wheat remain the largest cultivated crops, but the production of corn has peaked.

 

Millions of Acres

The range of visualizations of the changing face of farming and consequences of the emerging landscape or foodscape have neither been fully calculated or understood, and, even in an age of continuous LandSat photographs of the nation’s land cover, is challenging to map.  The very proliferation of mapped images, including Landsat images of cropland suggest a compelling illusion of coverage that may provide less of a guide to an actual landscape being devoured by agricultural machinery in comparison to the dynamic data visualizations included below:  if our agricultural policy is intended to bolster the strength of its remaining crops, policy has changed the landscape based on macroeconomics more than on-the-ground decisions, often ignoring place and space as construction with  monocrops such as corn, soybeans, or grasses that are far from demand-based.  The scarcity of water for irrigation in large part need to take stock of irrigation practices in such intensively farmed lands, in the hopes to “provide a better accounting of water use, cropland productivity, and water productivity.” The consequent proliferation of satellite-based remote sensing of farmlands provide an archive and a mirror of land use that may evoke the fear of a new form of agrarian surveillance–albeit one to encourage agreed best-practices of water conservation–but provide a feed-back loop to view the recent transformation of the landscape that the reframing of national farmlands has wrought.

The striking concentration of farmed acreage in the central ten to eleven states has led to an imbalance of the demand for agricultural subsidies and desire to control wasted water that has been so sharply contested it is difficult to agree on among elected legislative representatives.  Is it possible that special interest groups might here gain sway in the manipulation of agricultural policies?

Farms in America

It is striking that during the period of just 2002-7, the acreage devoted to farmlands intensified in those central states, even as the nation saw a dramatic reduction in agriculture’s spread.

Change in farmed acreage 2002-7

The period was marked by a decline in farmed cropland acreage across the entire nation that exceeded 27 million acres, a loss apparently predominantly located in the central United States, but also California’s Central Valley and the rural South, from Louisiana to central Florida and West Virginia:

Declining Cropland USA 2002-7

As of 2007, concentrations of those farms operated either by families or individuals were uneven in the very same regions of the central states, and in the north-central states dropped to less than 75 percent.

Farms Operated by Families or Individuals--2007.

At the same time, national drought placed undue pressure on farms to maintain their profitability, as this map of the counties affected by drought through 2012, compiled by the USDA’s Farm Services Administration–and who are compelled to take up drought insurance–seems to make clear.

Primary and Contiguous Counties of Drought, USDA FSA

2.  Maps of agricultural production reveal the increasing remove of an agricultural landscape of the nation from its cities, and from large urban areas–and indeed concentrated in a relatively restricted region of the central United States.  Of the 2.3 billion acres in the United States given to agriculture, in 2007 just under one fifth were dedicated to crops (408 million, or 18 percent)–a number that had decreased by some 34 million acres over 2002-2007.  The claim to map the comprehensive changes in land-use and land-cover in the coterminous United States from 1973 to 2000–the broader goal of the professional paper–by local surveys and satellite imagery and remotely sensed data–begins to document and explain many of the deeper changes in contemporary land-cover change, to which this post returns below.

The composition of farmlands in current years suggest a marked concentration in cropland.

Cropland in USA (2007)

13sept_feature_macdonald_photo

The concentration of cropland at a remove from urban markets (noted in grey sectors of wheels in the above data visualization) and at a remove from population concentrations defines something like a belt of government subsidies that sustain large regions of agriculture–often of monoculture crops–that are abstracted from actual patterns of habitation.  It is impossible to map how this concentration of cropland came about from a disinterested point of view, but data visualizations offer a fragmented view of some of the narratives by which the landscape has been and is being shaped, and the distorted notions of place and space that they generate:  the visualizations suggest a range of narratives about the effectiveness of agricultural subsidies,  the foodscapes created in the rural United States, shaped through the changing relation of farming as an extraction of value from the landscape, rather than as a response to local economic needs.  The shifting optic that stresses the relation of the landscape to the national economy has re-framed the landscape’s fertility.

Rather than providing a coherent “map” of the agricultural economy and government investment in farms, data visualizations offer snapshots that provide a sense of multiple narratives that shape the relation to the new rural landscape.  The somewhat fragmented picture they offer present several narratives about how we’ve come to regard the farming of the land, and present questions of how to unite or reconcile the varied and discordant narratives we’ve come to tell about our tutelage of a agrarian landscape and how to best meet its needs. And they don’t add up to a collective image of a landscape that is designed to be habitable over the long term, let alone economically viable.

The problem of all these maps is how to visualize–and conceptualize–or relation to the collectivity of farmed lands that could best take account of their variety.  Indeed, the possibility of mapping the mosaic of agricultural productivity must begin from remapping their relations to regional needs, in ways that are obscured by privileging their relation to commercial products and food markets, as opposed to food needs–or the value of locally produced food.  The multiple mechanisms by which the state and government has chosen to invest in agriculture–and promote the production of certain products on farms, to the exclusion of others–have historically shifted away from  traditionally microeconomic understandings of the farm and rural agriculture to more macroeconomic questions in ways that are difficult to map, but have rewritten one’s relation to the land and the obscured the landscapes that they have begun to change.

3.  The remote-sensing of shifting maps of land cover in the United States is extremely of the moment, and not only for the impact of climate change.  It may be odd to present data visualizations as a landscape, but as indices of both productivity and indebtedness, regional map-based visualizations offer ways of thinking about how the land is seen in ways that have not yet been fully understood.  For if the mapping of rural America and its agricultural productivity are increasingly contested, the landscape .  Maps of farm subsidies offer telling mirrors of the extent of government investment in agrarian expanse.  They provide a sense of the expectations for the value of land-use, and frame the image of productivity one would want to produce:  but they are also the result or end-product of the negotiation of local demands, by tracing an image of the changing face of farmed land riven with debts, subsidies, relative unprofitability and indemnities, the bulk of which go to larger farms, that expand to make up for the sizable decline in farmed acres.

When we map the huge levels of out-migration that occurred from 1980 to 2000–or from the Clinton years to the Bush years–marked by a decline of the population of the so-called “corn belt” in Nebraska, Iowa, southern Michigan, and Kansas–we can see the changed character of the rural landscape in America, as much as by the huge decline in crop diversity about which I’ve blogged in relation to the expansion of agricultural production that has been fed by agricultural subsidies–monocrops that maps of food reveal as having far less reference to a region or place, at a remove from urban areas of consumption that do not best serve populations.  The shifts in settlement away from the central US were evident long before 2010, but the distribution devised by Dustin Cable maps from that year’s Census maps a starkly blank central and west, into which extend feathery wisps, clinging to roads and interstates, the new rivers of rural settlement.

 

Dustin Cable's Census Block Data Divide

The long-term but recently drastic population declines from the Great Plains and Corn Belt have been a prominent back story on the remapping of American agricultural diversity, as has the declining revenues and work associated with farmlands, often worked by fewer and growing crops with greater intensity; losses of population in rural regions orient the viewer to the shifting national foodscape, whose image of dwindling population in non-metro areas reveal stressors on the economic structures of rural agriculture, and of the relation between urban and rural lands, or between the expansion of farming to meet the population growth of urban areas.   (This population shift that can also be charted by the expansion of “Heat islands” of “impervious surface area,” paved urban and extra-urban areas, mapped by Landsat images and night-time lighting, that exert disproportionate influence on climate change and remove a sense of urban settlement from agricultural space.)  The loss of populations to some extent mirror the decline of family farms and rise of agribusiness, which tries to meet growing population needs.

 

rural-pop-loss-map Economic Research Service

 

This picture gains another layer of complexity once we consider the infusion of government subsidies to agriculture in the very same states–subsidies inflating monocrop cultivation that have created a new map of the country’s farmlands, over the decade dominated by the previous Farm Bill, and created a new and unprecedented level of indemnity and indebtedness in farms that are now considered as cropland, but often face too little water to be productive.  While funds were distributed, they were concentrated in the same area where economic profits declined, and family farms shuttered–and an overall decrease in cropland nationwide was offset by increasing amounts of land dedicated to pasture and grasslands, according to the 2011 USDA ERS report.  There is a tortured logic of dedicating increased land to corn and silage as animal feed:  since it takes 10 to 14 pounds of grain-based feed for a cow to gain 1 pound of flesh; subsidizing animal feed is an outrageously uneconomic way to produce our food supply–although the international market for American meat is high.

 

subsidies-map499

Many of the same farms and acreage of farmlands are enrolled in federal crop insurance, changing the complexion of farms and character of government subsidies for land and increasing fear of their indemnities–and an increasing amount of farms enrolled in insurance programs nationwide, but especially dense in areas where state farming programs are established.

Acres Enrolled in Crop Insurance--2007

4.  What are the reasons for this investment, aside from the desire to keep the local economy afloat in hard times?  Despite the relatively restricted regions of intensive planting of subsidized crops, we remain tied to the mindset of a picture of the nation’s economically productive landscape as it was imagined circa 1940, when one-third of the world’s production of corn came from the central states, and half of the farmers in the central United States were tenant farmers:

An Economic Picture of the US 1940

The current agrarian landscape has sharply diverged from one where 62% of global production of oil was located, 52% of the entire world’s corn was harvested and Grade “A” farmland existed across the Midwest. But the attempt to invest money in the landscape to bolster its production of economically desirable products that might perpetuate this image, even at the expense of local farms and rising levels of indemnity.  Protectionist legislators have continued to write into and perpetuate in our most recent national Farm Bill, although that landscape no longer exists, even if it struggles to support the image of a fertile range of grazing and farm land in the “Nation’s Bread Basket” in a land where subsidies are crucial and indemnities endemic, and local ecologies often overlooked.

The more restricted areas of cropland, combined with the recent expansion of federal subsidies to certain areas, regions, and crops reflect the relative constraints of crops within the national land cover–whose row crops are measured below across the coterminous United States–can be traced from 1992 to 2006, with special attention to relations of row crops (light brown), pasturage (yellow) and shrub lands (tan) in the central states–noting the tortured logic of dedicating cropland to animal feed if it takes 10 to 14 pounds of grain-based feed for a cow to produce but 1 pound of animal flesh.

Midwest Landcover in Tan row crops

1992 Landcover icons

Row Crops 1992 v. Pasture and Shrubland

The Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium from 2001 reveals deep inroads of grasslands–with a slightly changed color-scheme–at a stunning spatial resolution of thirty meters, using remotely sensed Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper+, to differentiate land cover, and show an expanding northwest and midwest, even if the changes are slightly exaggerated by a stronger color spectrum–in which it almost seems that the physical remove of these row-crops from agrarian needs creates its own internal economy of production that has altered how cropland is conceived across the central states.

Landcover 2001 mapUSGS Land Cover Institute (LCI), 2001

The 2006 wall-to-wall land cover database, although it groups crops collectively, shows increasing inroads of pasture (yellow) and grasslands (lightest green) and slightly diminished cropland:

Land-Cover 2006

NLCD 2006 Legend

It might be compared to the highlighting of pasturage in a lighter almost neon green in this USDA map of cropland layers of 2009:

cropland-2009-us

5.  The increased incursion of grasslands, pasture, and silage into the cropland in the cover layer conceals the deeper changes in the organization of agricultural expanse–but also masks the sort of crops that are growing in each region–including the expansion of corn and soy.   Given the complexity of processing these groundcover maps, a sequence of data visualizations might reveal as a radically changed landscape both of government intervention and of expanding monocrops.  As a point of contrast, however, the North American Land Change Monitoring System monitored the land cover of all North America in 2005, using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to reveal the far greater expansion of cropland to the north–an area projected for greater future productivity of crops such as wheat, due both due to lower rising temperatures and the expansion of arable land for growing wheat, canola, and barley in all Canada by 15%  in a 2008 United Nations’ Environmental Program map based on predicted “increased temperatures, precipitation differences and . . .  carbon
fertilization for plants,” while American productivity of crops is predicted to drop some 15%-50% on account of the impact of climate change.

agricultural productivity, projected

The image of arable land above the 48th parallel indeed seems much more expansive, anyways, and even far more fertile with crops today–not only due to a different structure of state subsidies, but also to different agrarian practices, and a high-speed rail dedicated to transporting grain to across the country.

2005 North American Crop Land

The relatively restricted cropland in the United States was balanced by, oddly, an expansion of land dedicated to agribusiness crops that were less dedicated or directed to the dining table, and to an increasing mountain of investment in ostensible farmlands.

There is some evidence for the bad effects of the unmitigated expansion of row-crops in the landscape of the central United States.  For the area of American cropland include a conversion of a substantial amount of land–2.5 million acres–from the Conservation Retention Program to the growing of soybeans and corn in North Dakota and Montana, creating some total plantings of some 97 million acres on formerly CRP lands since 2007, largely to the benefit of large agribusinesses who employ monoculture plantings, with a huge impact on the local landscapes.

Conversion to Cropland:Corn

The distribution across the country partly reflected a new “map” of how agriculture gained USDA appropriations to expand the growth of crops that might not necessarily meet food demand.  Although the investment in agriculture lumps subsidies, disaster relief, crop insurance premiums, and conservation programs in an area effectively costs the nation; questions of such spending are perhaps too significant to be determined by guidelines of a single Farm Bill.  In this map, farms have increasingly met needs for feed, fuel, and fiber, even while using less cropland to do so–and the design for subsidization was warped through the different agribusiness and corporate interest groups that may well have led legislators to concentrate resources in specific legislative districts, with limited  investigations of their long-term effectiveness.  Despite a massive conversion of nearly 400,000 acres of grasslands into cropland in 2012 alone, such “sodsaving” provisions in the Farm Bill are difficult to secure; states so notorious in converting grasslands to agricultural interests–like Florida, Nebraska, or South Dakota, and Iowa–to be known as “Sodbusters” seem indebted to the promise of jobs that big ag might secure.

cropland-conversion-map

A similar logic seems to play out in the receiving of agricultural subsidies to encourage the development of farmlands, most often with an eye to farm futures rather than local needs.

Sumner-Eddyville-Miller FFA Chapter (1)_thumb

farm-web-g

As a result, states are not directly subsidized–or farmers, for that matter–but the Department of Agriculture allocates funds to districts, creating a new map of the economy, as much as a map responding to needs of crop-cultivation or food-needs, based on this map of subsidies collected in bulk by some twenty-two congressional districts in the decade 1995-2004.

subsidies-map499 with payments

6.  Such representations reflect the realities of the shifting agrarian landscape.  They offer resources to refine our picture of the land by delineating varied concentrations of national resources by government investment.  These representations of agrarian landscapes serve as a gauge to negotiate our relations to reality, as much as to measure them, placing into visual relief how we project value onto agricultural landscapes without attending to the specificity of their character–and tend to link value to the continued economic productivity of rural lands in ways that deny local changes.  This even extended to the conversion of much “highly erodible land” (HEL) into cropland for moneys from 2008-12, often to intensify the farming of subsidized corn and wheat, filling areas from Montana to Texas that are centered in what was once a Dust Bowl devastated by persistent drought.

2008-2012 acreage of eroded land to crops

This occurred even as large numbers of wetlands, also important wildlife habitats of their own, and wetland buffers, were were also being converted to cropland in many of the same regions of the Dakota prairies, Montana and Minnesota, adding up to a loss of far over 15, 300 acres each year from 2001 to 2011–most (60%) in order to plant corn and soybeans.

Wetlands to Croplands

The individual county costs for such conversion of such acts of bad agricultural stewardship averaged, in the case of counties loosing wetlands, $10.1 million, and in counties of highly erodible lands $5.8 million–four and two and a half times the national average respectively.  And particularly notable seems the expansion of conversions of either both wetlands and highly erosive lands (framed in violet), or either wetlands (framed in sky blue) or erosive lands (framed in light green) both in Montana, upstate and western New York state, Texas and in northern California, suggesting a diffusion of bad practices of land-reclamation at much cost.

Raw_Idem_Map_revised

Farming Subsidized Corn

7.  How much does this actually cost the government?  And is this level of investment and subsidization financially sustainable?  If one filters data and divides subsidies per inhabitant of rural regions,  the largest six programs of USDA funds pump debt to diminished rural populations at astounding rates; if farming remains less profitable, it has gained and retained legislators’ ears for continued support for subsidizing crops as corn in areas of low population–dominated by agribusiness.

Federal Agriculture Subsidies

 

Despite the typo, the map displays an astounding concentration of relative farm dollars in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska–as  Kansas, the southernmost state shown in the below subsidied map of local counties, and bright blue Montana in the upper left.

CENTRAL US FARM SUBSIDIES

 

The limited profitability in many of the very same regions–and indeed the focus of profitability only in states of the corn belt such as Iowa–suggest the deep economic constraints about such macroeconomic policies, and the limited success of farm income in many of the same regions in 2005–even as governments have shifted their investments to larger farms–with under 30 percent of farms receiving commodity program payments in a typical years.  Indeed, the shift in the allocation of funds to farms with higher incomes and higher-income households has encouraged commodity-related programs–like grain sorghum, wheat, oats, or soybeans–that are removed from actual food needs, and creates a picture of radical imbalance for the smaller farm, privileging “high value crops” in a macroeconomic sense, in ways that were often removed from actual farm income in many regions outside of Iowa, Nebraska and select parts of Missouri and Texas in this map of 2005.

CropSubsidyMap

The shift to larger farms whose incomes actually far exceed average household income in recent decades created a new dynamic of regional and rural investment that has privileged a food trade removed from local needs or a variety of foods, and considerably increased the percentage of non-family farms in ways that seem poised to increase over future decades.

shift to larger farms

Are the results even profitable?  The level of indemnity is striking.  There is not only considerable variation in crop indemnity nationwide, but evident intensity in regions of greatest population loss that are relatively removed from metro centers:

INdemnities as of 2010

The patchwork strip of heavy indemnities of over $10 million per county, designated in dark brown, that run across the center of the country in 2010 (and are particularly concentrated in North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas–all big foci of federal farm expenditures) raises question of the allocation of farm dollars in any Farm Bill, and indeed how to encourage local best practices with federal policies.  Can such levels of indemnity be fiscally justified as a food policy?

Indemnities of over 10 Million:county

How do they indeed distort the sort of food policy that the government might want to encourage?  The question of best managing the balances of investment in the continued productivity of farmlands may have been too long framed in macroeconomic terms removed from local markets or best food practices–farm dollars being dedicated to the production of grains not destined to be consumed by human mouths, and whose cultivation imposes increasing costs for limited exchange value.  Are these losses concealed in most maps of investment, and what sort of image of crop production do they effectively produce?

Some of the same states are highlighted in the below, more detailed, map of such direct and counter-cyclical payments–those payments that depend on weather changes or currency fluctuations, rather than cycles of agriculture–emerge in the recent he Farm Program Atlas, mapped for the USDA by Anne Effland, Vince Breneman, David Nulph, and Erik O’Donoghue, mapping variations in the dollars received by local farms in 2009.  (The atlas will be completed through 2012, but this map provides an initial snapshot of where the money goes, county by county.)  It offers  a baseline of a picture of the benefits that the seven largest USDA programs give the nation’s farmers that is likely to be a touchstone of future debates.

DCS map USDA

The fluctuations charted respond to global markets and profits on crops, now removed from the calculus of local, regional, or national needs.  Given that in 2009 corn and soybean prices were extraordinarily high–too high to trigger counter-cyclical payments as well as the direct–they offer an image of direct crop payments.  And the image of direct cropland payments per acre is not in fact drastically different or distinct in its complexion, if it lightens the amount expended in the Northwest, Kansas, and Nebraska:

Direct Payments per Cropland Acre

(If one were to look only at the counter-cyclical payments for that year, however, the rise in prices would make most monies appear devoted to the South for that specific year:

Countercyclical Payments 2009

The different image that this provides of dollars spent in the Southland, however, is effectively a distorting mirror of the continued monies that flow to the acreage in the corn belt and across the midwest.)

If one charts the picture of the proportions of base acreage receiving either direct or counter-cyclical investment in farm dollars, a similar clustering of density emerges specific to the Midwest that suggests the remove of crops either from centers of population–metros–or areas of dense population–and even something of a marked inverse relation to population density:

DCP--Acreage

The below map breaks down variations among individual counties that received dollars in ways that offer something of a mosaic not only of government investment, but a map of the competing interests that defined the future of our land use in states as of great population loss–and increased allocation of dollars/person–like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas, suggesting considerable local variations perhaps based on local agitation.

Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas

What this means is not only an increased investment in large agribusiness, but a skewing of investments to areas removed from urban populations in the mosaic of those areas where federal farm dollars are received, and over $700/person of farm subsidies arrive yearly.

Which Counties Get Subsidies?

It is the underside, as it were, of increasing “over-specialization” in agricultural production and in the agrarian landscape–and the divorce of that landscape from our national foodscape, whose disproportional warping over the years has been described and charted by William Rankin with visual eloquence, revealing in five colors the recent expansion of monocrops in corn (orange), wheat (green) and soybeans (red), destined for agrarian feed at considerable expense both as an investment and a use of land.  Local economies, such as they exist, are sustained by agribusiness–the largest property owners in many of these states, who privilege a uniformity of crop.

8.  The most dangerous implication of this mis-managed mapping of federal investment may lie in the removal of local needs from a sense of what crops are being encouraged or discouraged by the USDA, creating distorted foodscapes evident in how the below map of William Rankin clearly reveals the disproportionate amount of farm dollars dedicated to specific crops–and to practices of monoculture–that are most often removed not only from the food needs of urban areas or urban poor, but run against both good agricultural practices of local variation and environmental health.

crops2007_big

And just to focus on the monolithic intensity of Soybean and Silage in one area, one can see how little of the per capita funds spent by the USDA on agricultural acreage actually reaches the tables of Americans, or might contribute to their health.
red crops

US Government data, relatively recently released, provides a shockingly similar distribution of funds picture of roughly the same area received in subsidies, as of July 11, 2012:

USDA--as of July 11, 2012

9.  The dramatically lopsided geographical distribution that results among farmers’ markets across the nation–those ever-present upbeat small-scale micro-economies of the food trade–is no surprise:  even when providing the select with “fresher” food, such markets are  removed from very centers where those subsidies arrive–the inaccessibility of those markets in the major metros to folks on SNAP programs (or food stamps that the farm bill guarantees) is no surprise because it is a sort of niche agriculture in an age of the homogenization of crops, and the withdrawal of industrial agriculture from produce:

v6SNAP_FoodAtlas

The concentration of organic farms spread to areas located outside the most intensively farmed acreage in the US by 2007.  Where have the organic farms gone?  Outside of the corn belt, in part, although the clearly cluster in many areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana and Iowa, but often in the Northeast, Northwest, and Central Valley of California, the great producer of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Acres:Organic Farming Prodcution 2007

What happens to larger markets of food when areas of the concentration of fruits such California’s Central Valley face sudden drought?  Just stay tuned.  It’s most likely coming to a food-stand near you.the USDA’s Economic Research Service, using data from the Agricultural Research Management Survey

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Filed under corn belt, Farm Program Atlas, Landsat Maps, Mapping Land-Cover Change, Mapping Monocrops, Mapping the Nation's "Bread Basket", Mapping USDA Subsidies, North American Land Change Monitoring System, Tom Vilsack, USDA