National Waters, Legal Fictions, and Rivers of Fertilizer

We’re increasingly compelled to map land from the point of view of the waters in an age of water scarcity.  Over-use of water and poor land management, as well as the augmenting stress of drought, challenge us to develop maps able to orient ourselves to effects of water scarcity that we have rarely faced.  The formats and dynamic strategies with which web maps allow us to map water-flow serve and better express one’s relation to the blue expanse of water on paper maps.  Such maps offer particularly compelling tools by which to enter debates about what make up the “waters” of the United States–a question increasingly contentious in interpretations that revisit both the subject and intent of the framers of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

For maps offer the opportunity to resolve questions of debate over what constitute national water systems and how we might best act to protect those waters–whether, for example, the riverine network of national waters extends to artificial ponds, lakes, or ditches that are repositories of agrarian waste, wetlands, or tributaries, or should be limited only to navigable waterways–and its impact and purview far diminished as a result.  The beautiful delineated pristine blue network of rivers in the header to this post lies at stake–as does our relation to it.  For as we seek to embody the “national waters,” the relation between the land and water in such maps present a dynamic cartography of land use–aiming to encompass water waste, agrarian return flows into streams and rivers, as well as other levels of pollutants–to offer a sufficiently dynamic picture of a complex ecology of an often disembodied riverine network.  For only by mapping the fluid spaces that the national waters inhabit, and the change that they are poised to face in the severely moisture-limited regions of the American west, can the national waters be accurately embodied.

Debates over interpreting and defining “national waters” has provoked multiple glosses, not likely to be resolved in a regular map, to orient viewers to those waters subject to government oversight:  and as doubts are raised on what exactly “national waters” include, and what sorts of waters they include, the value of dynamic web-based maps will undoubtedly grow.  Debate about the parameters of “national waters” is intense because it delimits what areas mandated by the 1972 Clean Water Act to be kept free of pollutants and preserved in their integrity–and to what extent the Act is an optative or enforceable model.  If the intent of the law has been interpreted as only limited to navigable bodies of water, the potential exclusion of streams, tributaries, ditches, headwaters and agrarian return flows have called into question what the body of national waters is in ways that web maps offer opportunities to measure water-use, gauge water diversion, and embody the environmental effects of water waste and of pollutants.  As much as to celebrate the aesthetic idealization of a virgin land and promise of agricultural abundance, they offer something stronger than a cautionary note of how water levels and quality reveal a reliable map of land use.

The evolution of mapping tools give a basis to parse whether “national waters” constitute every body of water in the country–and to distinguish what bodies of water that merit inclusion within that once self-evident but now benighted category.  The ways that maps can most dynamically render water bodies and water-use compel us to better refine how we define a legal relation to our national bodies of water:  is a river always mapped as a river?  or are there criteria by which certain rivers and bodies of water are not mapped in our national waters?  does the below map offer a comprehensive picture of the future network of national waters?


Tile Vector map of Unfair INsularity


Even admitting that “national waters” are more encompassing but more restrained than “jurisdictional waters,” whether “waters” refers only to bodies of water, or includes brackish marshlands, headwaters, and swamps provides fodder for extended debate.  The debate might be balanced with the wonder at how Jason Davies’ elegant river-map, based on the data of Michael Bostock, offers a landless image of a well-nourished land, irrigated by natural tributary networks discounting canals, man-made ditches, or man-altered ditches. All of these rivers might be considered “waters,” given the ecological interconnectedness of their paths; the aesthetics of the digitized projection in the header to this post stands as an eloquent response to the difficulty that the definition of national waters has come to face.   Debates over the real jurisdiction of these waters–and their relation to property claims or industrial use–threatens to encourage something more like despair than idealization of the celebration of riverine nourishment one feels after seeing Davies’ rather fluid map of the waterborne nourishing of the continent.  Can we better define who has rights to use their waters, or to what event they can pollute their flow?

The multiple and different claims of water-use have resulted in something of a legal quagmire and even of defining the waters we see below as “national waters” across the apparently pristine fluvial system pictured below:  while “national waters” are clearly not equal to “international waters” of jurisdiction and clearly lying within the territorial confines of the country, they must embrace the rivers that run through the land.  Yet the range of legally sanctioned uses of groundwater and rivers relies on claims of property ownership and industrial uses difficult to simply follow a paper map.  It is far easier to idealize the riverine network than draft maps to define “reasonable use” of groundwater or reasonable standards of cleanliness–or what makes up a rationale for the appropriation and diversion of waterways within “reasonable use.”  The below image reminds of the need to map more effectively groundwater use, overdraft, or pollutants returned to waterways.


River Map of US--Bostockian, by Jason Davies

Jason Davies


The lattice-like web of bright blue riverine pathways reveals a visually compelling icon of agrarian fertility by mapping the “blue streets” that run across America–although as in any map, questions arise for cartographers of what is a river:  the Russian River is left out as a water source, and Mendocino Rivers like the Noyo or Little River seem reduced to one.  Does the map imply categories of what bodies of running water it recognizes as a river?  Such questions are of import to maps of national waters for the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency has indeed taken some heat for detailing its own maps of the waters and wetlands of each of the 50 U.S. states, defining in the last year a National Hydrographic Dataset that embraces the varied types of waters in the country, from streams and water bodies (lakes, ponds, etc.) to “adjacent waters”–in short, “the waters” of the United States themselves that the Clean Water Act’s authors  concerned and addressed–in a massive act of constitutional clarification to define the limits of pollutants and maintain the integrity of the aforesaid waters in perpetuity.  Rather than only address waters that were navigable, or the question of what the traditional understanding of navigable waters is, the agency sought clarification on what such waters were outside the broader rubric of territorial seas to clarify the purview of the wages over which they have jurisdiction–and debates about whether to retain the exempt status of waste treatment centers or converted cropland from the “waters of the United States.”

The resulting clarification of national hydrography was traced of “Streams and Waterbodies” to set something of a standard that were quickly feared to be a posturing to gain control over private lands, but constitute an early attempt to fashion a standard to differentiate surface water features across the United States.


Streams and Waterbodies



The remapping of these water bodies–surface water features that are parsed as stream water, perennial, intermittent, ephemeral, or unclassified, canals, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, playa or just “wash,” so as to comprehend them all, manmade and “natural,” within the scope of the standards for pollution that are applied to the national waters.

They range in complexity even in the Bay Area alone, viewed here thanks to the considerable scale of the USGS projection, is dauntingly comprehensive, at the impressively discriminating scale of 1:63,360:


Bay Area Water Types



In a larger section of the complete map, if its shades of granularity in this intensively farmed area comprehending the Central Valley and High Sierra are less clear, the complexity of what it means to be water in the United States are tantalizingly clear.



Norhtern California



The considerable fragility of this network of waterways has begun to be measured and mapped by public interest nonprofits whose web maps parse the claims, ownership, or rights of water use across the country, and indeed suggest some of the standards for mapping local pollutants. Interactive web-based maps offer  interactive tools to track both rights and relation of industries to bodies of water with a level of detail never possible, directing a new level of attention and access to relations between water-use and industry by remapping the context of riverine waters in the United States to illuminate their levels of chemical pollution.

The access that they offer to the landscape, and a range of stories that they both tell about it and invite viewer to zoom in to better examine at the same time as our access to a precious common need like water is increasingly challenged due to environmental change.  Maps cannot freeze or forestall changes, but offer versatile tools to track the effects that agricultural or industrial claims make upon our national waterways.   For while we are used to the legal fictions that dominate much of corporate life in contemporary America–yes, of course Amazon exists as a corporation only in Seattle, where it operates from its sole warehouse, and from which it sub-contracts to many nondescript warehouses, just as many companies base headquarters or P.O. Box offshore in the Cayman islands or elsewhere, to subvert national tax codes; Richard Branson lives on a Caribbean island Necker which he bought in 1979, purely for health reasons, we accept grudgingly, rather than to avoid paying taxes on his business empire or personal wealth of £3 billion, moving to the British Virgin Islands where tax on income is nil, even if he incorporated the British flag into his corporate logo.  He is asked to pay on UK income alone, while what constitute personal earnings outside of Britain are exempt.  Similarly, in an age of Google Maps, it is a nice rumor that the owner of airbnb himself resides at no actual address but instead regularly travels.  But one ascends new heights of legal fiction to reparse “national waters” as a geography from which man-made sites are absent, given that water is hardly fixed in any given location–in the manner of a town or city–and by nature circulates in space, or might reasonably be polluted.

The compelling interest to discriminate sorts of water usage within a map by distinct coloration demands  new inventiveness to use maps as machine to think about terrestrial and territorial space, and remap inhabited lands from the point of view of water-use.  The need for the above maps lie in creating a  precedent to track water bodies themselves not distinguished on a map–where all share the colors light blue without much variation or discrimination.  Pinning down both water usage and “water rights” on a map has been a sort of fiction which American law has long engaged, often without employing clear map signs; one result is the difficulty of using map-colors or conventions to map the effects of declines in groundwater levels or overdraft, groundwater management, squander of water, groundwater contamination, polluted agricultural return water and the effects of existing water rights on ecosystems.  Such changes in water are especially difficult to map given its inherent fluidity, but one can start to scrutinize these questions carefully through a map of granted water rights, which grant “permission to withdraw water from a river, stream, or ground water source for a ‘reasonable’ and ‘beneficial’ use” of the 250 million acre feet of water in California.

The determination of “water rights” within the state of California are particularly complex, on account of the close relation between local agrarian industry and the water-sources and the precedent of staking claims to water rights in the Gold Rush.  Despite rejection of Anglo-Saxon rights of water use accruing to whosoever digs a well on their properties, and although a prohibition on unregulated pumping on any tract of land dates from 1903, giventhe endemic scarcity of water in the state, no regulations on the book prevent pumping water or diverting rivers.  The restriction on well-digging did not seem to include prevalent practices of groundwater pumping, which California has been the only state not to restrict, and which depletion of aquifers only quite recently compelled the state to review.  Indeed, the absolute lack of regulation on groundwater extraction that has historically encouraged California farms has created large loopholes and exceptions for the Water Resources Control Board.  The inadequate regulation of groundwater–regulations that are “sorely needed,” according to Graham Fogg a groundwater expert at UC Davis–and its waste has led directly to the eventuality of the current “chronic lowering” of aquifer levels, and created collapses of overlying lands, and increased subsidence after heavy pumping of groundwater has significantly lowered the ground level.  Even as 80% of the state lands in California has been classified as being in the highest category of drought–and reservoirs like the Almaden in San Jose virtually dry, reduced to trickles–debate on regulating water-pumping have only recently begun.

Legal entitlements that permit diversion of water from their source were designed to serve the public interest.  They include, unlike most of the United States, jointly by the claims of property holders for water passing their lands by riparian rights, not requiring government approval , and appropriative rights of staking claims by posting public notice, now prevalent in agricultural uses of water as well as private land ownership. The web of water use has been greatly beneficial to agriculture, but raises questions not only of the diversion of water or groundwater extraction, but of the considerable pollution agricultural return waters.

The complex web of water usage requires all uses to be “reasonable and beneficial,” but creates difficulties of affirming that a given nexus of water would fall under EPA jurisdiction, and how the multiple claims brought for the water forms a considerable challenge for the EPA to monitor effectively in ensuring their continued cleanliness or lack of significant biological or chemical pollution.  The role or status of waters that did not have a “significant nexus” to other territorial waters as lying within the “water of the United States,” and as outside the purview of the CWA.  Sanctioned access to waters as defined by existing water rights seem to constitute something of an exception to maintaining the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of the “national waters of the United States,” as they suggest a patchwork of promised water rights forcing some compromises in how we understand their integrity.  Indeed, the recognition of the need to accommodate the claims of owners of properties next to water while ensuring that the diversion or appropriation of water matches “reasonable and beneficial” use.

The web of different varieties of water usage that exists in California alone is worthy of attention both because of the shortages of water that threaten the state’s economy and the variety of legal rights to water-use that the state sanctions.  The branding of different water rights have created a complex quilt of regulations and recognized access to bodies of water that suggest just how complex overseeing or managing agrarian or industrial water usage is, let alone mapping its use.  Yet both the increased stressors on state groundwater in California and environmental challenges to such precious common resources with challenges such as global warming compel the need for increased attention to developing strategies of mapping water and water use able to speak back to the interests of industry and agribusiness.

Despite recent challenges of the pollutants that enter through the exemption of waters flowing from irrigated agriculture across the state, irrigation return flows include not only selenium and sodium-rich minerals harmful to animal environments, and populations, but agricultural drainage water and return flow above and below the ground that include pollutants which can affect drinking water quality, while not constituting a discharge of “point source” pollutants that the wording of the Clean Water Act pointedly prohibits as including “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit . . .”   Notwithstanding the clear attempt at comprehensive language in CWA section 301(a), its framers did not address discharges of pollutants into wetlands or wildlife areas in return flows from agricultural irrigation–although such return flows involve pumping polluted waters in untreated irrigation return flows, often collected in culverts, channels, and ponds and then discharged.  Both salinity accumulations and nitrate contamination from fertilizer pose threats to drinking water in California in cities like Davis and Fresno, whose groundwater supplies are respectively threatened the accumulation of salts in groundwater, which are often increased in treated wastewater, and nitrate discharge in groundwater.

Despite our knowledge of water rights, can we start to map agricultural return flows, by considering the deep effects on the state’s water supplies of widespread stock watering (dedicating waters to livestock) across the state and diversion of waters for agricultural needs in much of the Sacramento and Central Valley?


California Water Map

California Water Rights LegendCalifornia Water Atlas

The data, based on face amounts collected by California’s  State Water Resource Control Board together with measurements of daily stream gauge values by the United States Geographical Society, can be examined at the recent clickable webmap at California Water Rights:  the detailed synthesis provides the most comprehensive picture of water usages and availability one can scan–especially useful map at a time when the scarcity of water and needs of local conservation are in need of being better tracked and understood.

The arrogation of claims proves even more difficult to “map” with comprehensive clarity, combining coverage by private ownership and water-use rights, difficult to join to the “waters of the United States,” given the reluctance of encompassing varied water-usages or of tracing water rights that have been granted along riverine web within a single regulatory system.  If the mapping of a distinct topography seems a gambit to “freeze” the image of national waters, at a time when increased drought challenged their availability for the future, the claims for water usage constitutes a layer that is necessary to be read with considerable care.


California Water Rights


Simulated Streams


The colorful dots gauge the wide range of reasons recognized for the diversion of water across the state, and claims for water usage along the rivers’ paths.  It’s difficult to process the plurality of rights in anything like a single comprehensive image given the range of water rights staked around the rivers running into northern California’s San Francisco Bay or from the High Sierra, or the loss of massive amounts of water diverted to irrigate the central valley; the complex mosaic of artificial canals and reservoir or diversions against the natural paths and bodies of waters suggests a wide aggregation of claims to water codified over time, whose complex map remains sadly unknown to most even in an era of state-wide drought:


W Rights in Efflux of water in Bay Area

California Water Rights LegendCalifornia Water Atlas


The veritable mosaic of distinct claims for water-rights inland of the Bay Area show a complex adjudication of water-rights around the rivers that run into San Francisco Bay.  Their mapping maps the region’s settlement against its rivers, revealing a hidden economy of water usage that has accreted over the last century and a half, and suggesting the largest sites for the diversion of waters along a dense riverine web:


Water Use Mosaic outside East BayCalifornia Water Atlas


The crazy quilt of water-rights claimed for stock watering in the Central Valley include licensing for irrigation, fire protection, fish culture or recreational needs, as well as domestic use, begin to trace the complex variety of water use–some rights are merely “claimed” or “cancelled” no doubt made on largely local decisions, without an overall picture existing of water usage across the state–as well as several revoked water claims.  Sort of a negative map of areas of dense settlement–San Francisco is itself entirely black, since it also lacks any above ground water-source, whereas the dense outflow of water along the Central Valley and through Sonoma County meets agricultural uses.

But the agrarian regions of the state are distinguished by a broad belt of a variety of water claims.  Better monitoring of agricultural return flows in tandem  with groundwater supplies could offer the sort of necessary synthetic image of water usage that would effectively benefit the state not only as it faces an era of increasing stresses brought by drought.  Indeed, monitoring return flow from agricultural regions could direct more attention to levels of nitrate contamination from agricultural fertilizers that returns to the drinking water–which , especially as decreased steam flows have effectively decreased the amount of groundwater supplies, are increasingly salient.


Central Valley

Simulated Streams

Hydrologic Watershed


Particularly significant to this post are the multiple exemptions from what constitutes waters able to be regulated.  Indeed, they afford a somewhat terrifying loophole to original intent of the law in how we understand the need to construe their cleanliness and proscribed limits on pollutants that enter their waters.

For how can we limit the waters of farmland from the mandate to preserve the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters,” at the same time as we try to keep the riparian network clean, and recognize existing industrial uses of water as not, in fact, able to be controlled, and presuming that they do not create disturbances to that integrity that we continue to oversee?  Indeed, while groundwater use in California was approached with a misguided belief in its continued presence, while the pumping of water has drained riparian ecosystems and reduced surface supplies, agrarian discharge has effectively more highly polluted a diminishing amount of water.

All of which reminds us of the need for mapping the other side of how the irrigation of the land promised to lead to the bountiful cultivation of crops with the westward progress of Empire–and the need to develop strategies for mapping the often poorly defined presence of water in land.  We have recently learned of the increased loss of water in the state’s major reservoirs–whose startlingly low levels demand monitoring water-rights with better consideration of their impact on local groundwater levels or poorly supervised and managed usages for livestock and cropland, or municipal, domestic and industrial markets.


California Reservoirs

The absence of these reserves–clearly part of our “national waters”–has been less widely remarked.  Yet even as groundwater levels have declined, the amount of available reservoir has dramatically dropped further, on would think putting more pressure to bear on water waste.

And as the diversion of waters has adversely affected local environments, both by agrarian return waters that bear increased traces of salinity and nitrates, the national waters of much of the Mississippi basin bear a similarly terrifying imprint of industrial farming.   Moving to the effluents deposited in rivers in the wide farmlands of middle America, one can read their prominence and density in Jeffries’ map with new eyes.  For the annual nitrate yield from highly fertilized farmlands along the Mississippi from its start to the Gulf of Mexico in particularly striking as it heightens the pollution that enters a formerly rich agrarian land, with unclear consequences.  Recent decades have seen a startling rise in the flow of the remnants of chemical fertilizer into the Gulf.  Adding the unseen enrichment of the crop lands of the basin, active area agribusiness augmented local fertilization of lands in the decade from 1997-2006 increased the runoff of nitrogen wastes in noticeable ways, according to the non-profit Ceres, who charted the extent of nitrogen pollution across it basin, reflecting the marked increase in ethanol plants in regions of agricultural pollution.  Their effects on the land reveal the changed character of the “waters of the United States.”


Miss Basin average annual fertilizer


We can look at this with a bit more precision in a map of ethanol plants and their levels of water pollution alone across the Mississippi River’s basin, where “red” registers a very high level of nitrogen pollution–one can see the extend of nitrogen delivery into watersheds, in something like a secret history of local land-use suddenly made all too plain to survey:


Nitrogen Pollution of Miss Watersheds



One can focus on expanse corn that surrounds and supplies these plants, here illuminated with light green bubbles, to communicate the intertwining of ethanol plants with the local agricultural economies:


Courn-sourcing Radii includedCeres


The density of sites that deliver high agricultural pollution to local waterways has created a clotting of Nitrogen pollution that stands to fundamentally alter the very notion of the national waters’ inviolability:


Watersheds of High N PollutionCERES/Google Maps


One result of such habits of land-use across such a large share of the nation is to imbue an almost radioactive glow to saturated waters that enter the Gulf of Mexico, where waste-water standard developed in the CWA in 1972 have only begun to be developed to curb the resulting “dead zone” in the oxygen-starved Gulf of Mexico, where the enforcement of the CWA seems have obligingly turned the other cheek until quite recent years–and we still await standards for the many industrial wastewater treatment centers along the Mississippi:




Could the dangers of the changing relations between water and landscape be more clearly mapped?

The concentration of almost half the number of fracking wells in sites where water scarcity is greatest and water stresses extreme creates a further and even more tragic wrinkle in how we view the national waters of the US as “clean.”  In such areas, 80% of allocated waters have already been allocated for existing industries, municipal, agricultural, or industrial users, leaving few real supplies available, and the risk of water contamination and pollution extremely great.  If we map a black dot for each and every site of hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the United States against a projection of variability in water stresses, the resulting graphic in almost the same area of the Mississippi basin suggest not only the availability of cheap lands ready for reconversion, but a large national landscape that stands largely depleted of water supplies across almost all of the western states, and little of an encouraging image for hydraulic fracking in the deep south.


Water Stress Dots- Shale and Hydro-FrackingCeres/Google Maps


Zooming in by enlarging the map’s scale the pronounced density of a range of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells that are clustered around the Mississippi suggests an alternate use for water around the waters of the Mississippi, a concentration of intense water demand, rich with the potential of future pollution.  Deep concern about the future plowback of wastewater–chemically enriched waters designed to loosen up shale deposits the better to extract or free oil and gas from underwater reservoirs–into national waters.  Whether these waters enter drinking water supplies or not–their impact is not yet fully known, and under study–the apparent violation of the Clean Water Act’s provisions for the national waters has often gone unremarked.



Fracking Concentrations?


Can we ever isolate the image of a pristine web of blue waterways on a white field in quite the same way?


Tile Vector map of Unfair INsularityNelson’s vector tile web map of rivers across United States


The rivers do not exist, save as a sort of base-map or level from which we must recognize the need to monitor their relation to farmlands and industry, and supervise claims of water use, by continuing to laminate layers onto the fluvial network we would be wise to take as a basis to remap their relation to the surrounding lands.

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Filed under California Water Atlas, Clean Water Act, Fracking, Jason Davies, Mapping Ethanol Plants, Mapping industrial run-off, Mapping Nitrogen Pollutants, Mapping Water Rights, Mississippi Basin, National Hydrographic Dataset, Nitrate Yield

Mapping Ebola’s Recent Spread–while Barely Containing Our Widespread Fears

Tracking the progressive advance of Ebola virus in West Africa in an animated HealthMap projection created an eery sense of inevitability of the virus’ unprecedentedly rapid diffusion.  But the mapping on a Google Maps platform so removes the virulent spread of the virus from any context, noting suspected and confirmed infections and fatalities in a bubble map, to poorly embody the scale and scope of its threat of its contagion.  Omitting the distinct terrain over which the strain has expanded from rural areas to urban slums, and the complex vectors of the new strain’s transmission almost conceal the reasons why this outbreak has been so hard to contain adequately, and leave one raising perhaps unanswerable questions about the delay of an orchestrated or more effective response to contain or try to control its now-exponential spread.

The rapidity with which microbes from the very rainforest allows the virus spread to highly vulnerable populations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as, recently, both Nigeria and Senegal–populations particularly vulnerable to the current strain–foregrounded in a time-lapse sequence of those infected with the deadly virus uses a Google Maps platform and template to map the spread, but might be taken as something of a challenge to better map the virus by refining our image of the virus’ transmission and catastrophic spread.  If such widely circulated maps provide a basis for describing the challenge of containing the virus’ spread, they also present a challenge for better mapping the transmission of Ebola virus and reviewing reasons for slow response, perhaps as we hoped the contagion would not emerge to be so virulent as it has become.  Were we confident in the containment of the disease, or were we not mapping the multiplication of pathways of its transmission?  What sort of maps can we now make to better understand the specific distribution of the disease?  Did our own reliance and use of apparently exacting maps, which were only as good as the data that they were fed, conceal a delay in broadcasting early warning signs to the world?

If this is the case, it makes sense to ask if an unwarranted trust in the metrics of mapping has contributed to a lack of clear understanding or reporting on how the disease has spread.  The outbreak that has outpaced previous outbreaks of the virus in central Africa challenge our models for mapping Ebola the spread of the deadly virus–whose mortality rate has at times been estimated as high as 90%.  Even notwithstanding the low resistance of the populations of West Africa, and its location in a region of recent urbanization–unlike the rural areas of Central Africa where outbreaks had been previously confined–the unprecedented levels of human-to-human transmission challenge us to map the contagion we seek to control in ways that can best process the very rapid transmission of the virus and its advance across six countries with varying rapidity.


Ebola Climbs


The numbers noting rate of mortality in the above map threatens to overwhelm our sense about the virus’s spread by privileging the rapidity of its contagion and not examining causes for its diffusion or vectors of its virulence.  The HealthMap announcements have become the recognizable image of its spread.  But despite the apparent authoritative HealthMap graphics as mapping the disease’s first appearance on March 19, a full “nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic,” notwithstanding the considerably large investment in Health Map of the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), rather than standing at the forefront of health reporting and surveillance, the first maps HealthMap issued in fact antedate the first news conference of the Guinea’s Department of Health of the Ebola outbreak, reported in the first news articles on a “hemorrhagic fever” which summarized the news conference of the Director of Disease Prevention, Dr. Sakoba Keita.  While we have focussed on the HealthMap graphics for the authoritative clarity with which they mapped the virulent disease’s outbreak, forecasting systems played little role in detecting the virus–and little advanced news of the outbreak beyond traditional news sources.  The rhetoric of the map has masked the lag that occurred in the first diffusion of news reports of the hemorrhagic disease.  The unfolding of the maps of the disease’s spread display a similar reluctance to listen or observe on the ground, but rather to synthesize data in what has become something like a proxy for direct observation or reporting.

The limited spatial context for the generic Google Maps platform used on HealthMap especially obscures, on account of its lack of spatial precision, the complexity of new vectors and sources of transmission that differentiate this outbreak from Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past fourteen years.  For it maps the disease only by registering numbers in vague national conglomerates–often using incomplete numbers reported by local agencies.  While the first cases appear to the Guinean forest, the spread infection to urban areas and slums offers a powerful chart of the outbreak that–unlike earlier outbreaks of Ebola in central Africa–gained a virulence that challenged both public health authorities and residents who had little exposure to the animal-born disease.

The crowding of states with tan and brown bubbles to designate human suspected or confirmed infections obscure the dynamics and dangers of Ebola’s transmission to a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and are silent on the dangers of confronting the wide range of potential pathways of its transmission that we seek–and indeed are ethically obliged–to contain.  Maps provide forms for embodying as well as tracking diseases, practices of mapping can both communicate the exponential expansion of fatalities of infected victims across space, and suggest potential future strategies for their containment.  Were we only hoping that, as earlier outbreaks in the Central African Republic or DRC, the West African outbreak would be contained, without considering the multiplication of vectors by for its contagion, or the new terrain and new populations to which it had spread?  Or did we fail to map its dangers as quickly as we could have done?




1.  The lack of qualitative or specific details in these maps treat them as registers of the exponential expansion of epidemiological updates. Whereas no previous outbreak of a strain of the diseases has produced more than several hundred cases, the virulence of the specific strain of Ebola, previous confined to rural areas, may rest in the multiple vectors of its transmission and the difficulty containing new vectors for the transmission of Ebola, easily communicated through contact with bodily fluids or blood, leading to a far greater expansion of human-to-human transmission of the disease than occurred in recent history.  Shock at its spread displaces   the vectors of contagion by which Ebola has so rapidly and virulently spread.  Indeed, the current reproductive rate of the disease suggests its expansion will continue most dramatically.

When epidemiologist Michael T. Osterholm warns “the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done,” the comparison may illustrate both its extreme danger and potential significance, and a need to reconsider how we have charted the contagion’s spread.  Plague was, of course, misunderstood as a miasma and not examined as being transmitted from the bacteria carried on fleas resident in rats.  While we don’t still know the natural reservoir of the virus, or the relations between different strains of Ebola virus, the pathways of its contagion challenge our ability to map the vectors of viral transmission–and the mapping tools we might better use to contextualize its virulent spread from its epicenter in the Guinean forests.  Despite repeated warnings of the dangers that the consumption of infected carcasses as bush meat constituted a neglected source of its transmission, the expansion of human-to-human transmission has obscured its animal-born origins.  The continued possibilities for infection from the meat of carcasses of animals infected with the virus moreover creates new problems as the WHO works to contain the spread of microbes dwelling in the very rainforest that spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal and Nigeria–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.

The need for a map that charts the spatial transmission of the disease, which has itself proceeded jump borders and region divides with ease.  Such boundary lines name the different public health authorities that are forced to face the ravages of Ebola, which may offer a haphazard barometer to calibrate the global danger of the danger, but might obscure the ways humans were infected by the virus in recent months. Already by March 23, cases of the virus were suspected near where it claimed its first victims:


By march 23 ebolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital

The first documented documented cross-border spread of the disease, according to tropical medicine specialist Dr. Estrella Lasry, occurred in late March–about the time that the outbreak was first reported by Guinean authorities to the WHO.  In over just a month, by April 20, the distribution of suspected cases had dramatically grown, in ways that would have already suggested the substantial threat of its growing incidence of what had been confined to inland areas, and had not been associated with the region:  the migration of the disease from forested and rural areas to cities marked the first time urban occurrence of hemorrhagic fevers in urban slums, in crowded areas where it dramatically spreadoverwhelming health care workers whom it affected in great numbers, and the fear of its international spread prompted  military-enforced cordon sanitaire at border areas, as more affluent areas trusted in their access to superior health care protected them from the growing diffusion of the infectious disease even as it spread.


April 20 EbolaHealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The concentration of infections seem relatively concentrated, but had taken on particular virulence on in Liberia–a country with limited health care facilities or health-care workers.  And by July 8, the area of those infected by disease had grown broader and deeper in density, and any hopes that the outbreak would stay in a concentrated area disappeared, although international attention was only gained as the virus arrived in Nigeria in later that month.


Ebola July 8HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


And on August 5, as the contagious virus decisively multiplied in Nigeria, which, one would think, eyebrows were first raised:


ht_ebola_outbreak_map_august_4_jc_140805_16x9_992HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


The number of confirmed cases not only had grown, but the number of confirmed cases in Guinea and Liberia indicated that the disease was spreading both toward the Côte d’Ivoire.  As of September 16, the virus had grown to new proportions and scarp, an epidemiological emergency only partly intimated by the crowded bubbles that hint at the changed profile of the infection even as they offer frustratingly few tools to process it:


Ebola Sept. 16HealthMap/Boston Children’s Hospital


Providing a means of grasping the spread of a disease and the dangers that it poses is an inherent property of the map, but the obstinance of not reading the disease’s widespread infection is difficult to explain fully.  Could it be that the multiplication of the vectors for the disease’s transmission were inadequately mapped?

Yet plotting confirmed incidence of Ebola tells only part of the story of its the expanding risks of infection in the sub-Saharan continent, and the silences of the HealthMap graphic compromise its informative value.  Recent predictions that the spread of infection by Ebola across West Africa will continue for twelve to eighteen months have confirm, if this was needed, the global scope of the health disaster, as the cascading influence of the spreading contagion for which we have no vaccine challenge the region’s food security.  The expected spread of Ebola virus in new areas will continue to raise compelling questions of the ethics of care–and of the availability of provisional vaccines that will be developed as they are tested–as more than 70,000 people in much of sub-Saharan Africa seem to lie at risk–according to the fifty-two received alerts for Ebola in just a week in mid-September.


52 Alerts in Last WeekHealthMap


How did it travel so quickly after being apparently contained so long?  How safe can it even be to remain, at this time, in Liberia, or to send medical doctors and workers, needed nurses, and temporary hospitals there?

This post focusses attention on the ethics of how we have mapped the virulent disease both at a remove from the landscape and surroundings where it has occurred, and the sense it makes to continue to tabulate confirmed or suspected cases of infection.  For we have charted the current spread of Ebola virus spread to at risk populations, suppressing panic at its exponentially expanding scope, as we try to imagine how the infections might be contained by charting the number of humans infected, omitting the virus’ relation to vectors of transmission or hosts that may warp the dangers faced by people who might become infected in coming months.  Although there is the danger that the current strain may mutate to an air-born virus, as some fear, tracking its human-to-human transmission might be placed into better relief by considering both the paths by which the virus migrated into urban areas and jumped to humans from animal hosts.

A chief difficulty of continuing to map Ebola against a base map of national frontiers and boundaries is that it contains the virus lies in locating it within fixed boundaries and perimeters–and misleadingly suggest a controlled outbreak.  Maps of the region foreground numbers of dead and infected along a blank topography, moreover, in ways that conceal the potential for a qualitatively rich map of the virus’ spread from the Guinean forests, where the recurrence of the highly contagious disease first broke out in humans.  Such projections of the virus ignore important questions of how the vectors or courses of transmission the outbreak have made it so difficult to contain:  for we often read the maps for the possibility for human-to-human contagion, although the spread of the virus seems to mirror the possibility of several sources of Ebola’s transmission to humans from its animal hosts.

Indeed, the spread of the virus mirrors the fragility of the broadleaf forests that run from Guinea to Sierra Leone in the West and the Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and Togo to the East, mapped below–an ecosystem that is an environmental “hot-spot” whose diversity is so endangered by slash-and-burn agriculture and irresponsible mining to be among the most “critically fragmented regions” in the world.   The terrain reflects the contours of  regions in which Ebola has spread from the very bats and primates from whom we believe the highly contagious strains of Ebola jumped.  We neglect at our peril possibilities of recurrent transmission from animal hosts as we seek to map the spread of contagion at a remove from the continued consumption of such animal host as “bush meats.”   The widespread contacts with meats of monkeys, rat, and bats–all affected by the virus–from the fragmented forest may have contributed to its spread to more heavily populated regions where we are now struggling to contain its transmission.


Guinean Forests


The coincidence of these regions suggests the need to map distributions of animal inhabitants as we chart Ebola’s dramatic spread across areas it rarely occurred previously–beyond the transmission of the virus by human hosts.  The spread of the disease has occurred without proper precautions or an establishment of best medical practices.  The worst Ebola outbreak ever  confronted by doctors and medical staff was regularly met without necessary protective gear in many West African hospitals for much of the summer.  As if in a terrifying apotheosis of Ivan Illich’s argument of the abundance of “iatrogenic” diseases whose transmission grows in hospital settings, we face descriptions of the frequency with which hospital beds and rooms covered with smeared feces, urine, or blood–the very prime vectors for contracting the virus–were the norm.

The inadequacy of facilities to control or treat the highly infectious disease’s spread has been facilitated not only by health-care breakdowns but an inadequate understanding or mapping of its epidemiological causes, masked in the above graphic, leading President Obama to propose the contribution of multiple mobile hospitals in order to bolster local health-care.  As we brace for waves of panic, challenges to food security with a far more limited harvest, and rising food prices, mappers will be challenged to chart the waves of multiple impact of the simple virus across the continent.

Have we understood the best models for mapping a disease that has been imagined as specific to humans, but which has not only infected as it has jumped to humans from the animal population, but seems to have jumped from rain forest populations of fruit bats, antelope, great apes, and chimpanzees through local food supplies?  Although once the virus has migrated to humans, further pathways of infection will be human-borne, the continued danger of Ebola’s spread through meats and contact with animals’ blood suggest a proliferation of the virus’ impact we need to assess in order to contain most effectively.  Controlling the transmission of the virus’ transmission, which can occur through contact with the effusion of blood or bodily fluids from infected bodies, or spread from contact with cadavers, is now feared to spread to up to fifteen nations–of which some 22 million people stand to be at risk.  The maps of the risk of the infection have, indeed, displaced maps of actual infections or local mortality rates as the focus of international news–as what was at first a West African phenomenon has been replaced by a startling “heat map” of the broader populations at risk for virulent disease, whose infection of which is shown as spreading like an unstoppable cancer across Central Africa toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

The eye-catching graphic in the Daily Mirror used data of at-risk populations across Africa to create a graphic of the disease boring a radioactive hole in the continent’s interior.  But the numerous absences and silences in this attention-getting infographic–as the Google projections of confirmed cases and deaths from Ebola in this post’s header–distort its communication by the remove at which they lie from the local landscape.



Ebola mapDaily Mirror online, Sunday, September 14


Is this eye-grabbing graphic most informative guide to the progress of the devastating disease, if it tracks the range or human infection by Ebola alone?  And could one better understand the multiple “populations at risk” that it illuminates, not only in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast, but Togo, Angola, Uganda, Cameroon, the CAR, DRC, and Burundi by the migration of the virus and  the local transmission of viral infection?  Would this offer a better base map to chart the containment of successive waves of infection?  How would this change our notion of the best practices for the effective containment of the disease?


2.  The World Health Organization hoped last month to control the outbreak of Ebola over nine months to only 20,000 human infections.  But difficulties of controlling numerous vectors of the transmission of the disease through contact with bodily fluids now suggests the reality of soon facing 20,000 cases in one month  that will be increasingly difficult to contain.

Ebola’s spread raises questions of the best practices of mapping the devastating outbreak, and of communicating Ebola virus’s transmission:  so physically devastating and gruesome is the virus, which is notoriously difficult to contain with success, or even to treat by intravenous replenishment, that viewing the virus outside the lens of human-to-human transmission is difficult.  But the huge risks of transmission compels we consider what criteria to adopt to map to best  process the disease’s spread and contagion.  National maps of the distribution of illness make little sense in communicating that spread.  The rapidity with which  microbes focussed in the very rainforest that seem to have spread to vulnerable populations in Guinea to recur in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as Senegal–whose populations seem particularly vulnerable to the current strain.  The outbreak at first concentrated in these three countries was no doubt encouraged by their increasingly urbanized and interconnected populations, especially among the high levels of poor who live in dense slums, whose populations who depend on the foraging of “bush meats”–the term for local animals in surrounding rain forests on which many depends.  Such animals not only seem the hosts from which Ebola “jumped” to humans, but have themselves, due to deforestation, suffered from shrinking forest land, moreover, in ways that have restricted their regional habitat (and that of the virus)–augmenting the risk of a “spillover” of Ebola across species in these regions that it is deeply unethical not to map.

The silences of the info graphic conceals deep changes, including the expansion of a network of roads that have multiplied routes of contact of meats from rural areas to urban slums, that have shifted the ecosystem of the Ebola virus itself.  As we consider turning our attention to mapping the location of the virus and its varied hosts, we stand to gain much from what might be called  a “deep map” of Ebola both less widely discussed and understood, for all the emphasis on the dangers of eating bush meats, and better communicate what underlies the disease’s dramatic distribution.


FAO World's Forests 2000FAO


Absences of endangered forests are by no means the only silences of info graphics depicting the virus’s spread.  The most prevalent way of mapping Ebola’s incidence by national boundaries and human habitation presents a striking contrast with the extent to which its hosts have been bats and other animals as rats and monkeys–whose consumed flesh is known as “bush meats.”  The meats constitute a prevalent form of nutrition among poor in a region without traditions of husbandry.  As much as the virus might be easily contracted by person-to-person contact, we may have focussed on contact of infected bodies, given both the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience, and our belief in familiar microbial transmission of influenza or other microbial diseases.  This concentration on hand-to-hand contact may however have perhaps led us to focus on the bodily fluids of the infected as a vector of the transmission of the disease.  Although such meats are now publicly prohibited from consumption by several governments, animals such as bats seem frequent hosts of the virus, although few mappings of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets?

Such a practice of mapping is recognized by Oxford researcher Nick Golding as necessary to offer “the first step towards understanding where outbreaks of the disease might occur in the future,” as well as help “prepare for future outbreaks and to deal with the current one we need to understand how human movements cause the disease to spread once it has entered the human population.”  Indeed, while the disease is found in animals over a broad territory, the outbreaks of disease among these animals are rare, and the ability to detect infections in animals militate against the ease of such mapping, the ability to synthesize a variety of social and environmental factors where Ebola might be transmitted to people from host animals might be mapped in order to be correlated with the past occurrence of human infection from Ebola.

The mapping of such possible animal hosts of Ebola is not new or unavailable.  But a mapping of the simple distributions of animals who serve as hosts for Ebola–from fruit bats to chimpanzees to cane rats–provides a basis to examine the entrance of Ebola virus into local food chains.



BrainerdDispatch, based on data from WWF and WHO



Wikipedia Commons

–and maps onto the range of populations mapped as being at risk:


1410462125569_700Catholic Online


To do so would present a compelling alternative mode to track spread of the virus from the first epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone ,where it has been particularly virulent, and to Nigeria, and illuminate links that exist from the surrounding forests from urban centers on which health authorities have concentrated attention.  To process the alarming spread of Ebola virus across West Africa, our use of maps to track the illness poses unique questions of how a virus judged to be hosted by animals (fruit bats or great apes or chimpanzees) in the continent’s interior has rapidly spread along its coastal populations as well as rural regions, that demand more advanced tools of mapping to track adequately.

As we synthesize increased data about the precise location of Ebola’s initial outbreak, its pathways of infection, as well as its future risks, it makes sense to increasingly adopt such models to process the virus’ geographic distribution.


3.  The recent closure of national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the spread of Ebola, to create a more complex map of the virus’ diffusion as we work to contain its spread most effectively?  Examining other pathways for the transmission and contraction of Ebola might lead to a more effective attempts to contain its spread, to be sure, even as we focus on rates of suspected or confirmed infections that are reported by national agencies or available to the World Health Organization and CDC, and at least complicate the picture maps might offer of its containment.  As it is, the progress of Ebola from rainforest environments is often labeled a “social problem” difficult to contain due to “deep-seated beliefs and cultural practices” as well as inadequate health care, and not mapped on the ground.  One stares at the progress of figures of mortality and infection in maps, questioning if they even display the full range of the infected, hoping to contain their future spread across the continent, without describing the range of narratives or social processes that have facilitated the contagious disease that they purportedly track.

We have most often mapped the outbreaks and incidence of Ebola across West Africa by tallying infections and mortality in bubble maps that show sovereign frontiers, but might better map to trace the complex narratives by tracking so viciously contagious a virus against the changed landscapes where it has spread to understand the climates and environments in which it has appeared as we seek to contain the over 4,366 cases of infection so far confirmed.  Despite valuable charts and tables that “map” the spread of Ebola virus across West Africa from March 2014, the tally of infections hardly begin to process the shock of the dramatic levels of mortality but both barely chart the striking process of the disease, at the same time as their alarmist tone effectively heightens our deepest fears of contagion.

Recent web-based maps chart the unfolding of the incidence of a virus previously successfully contained in remote areas in the African continent, but long feared to spread beyond its shores, as we picture terrifying screens for scenarios of a global health crisis caused by the tendril-like threads that seem to move from hosts with such ease as to complicate their vectors of transmission and confound the idea of what it would be to map the disease’s spread:  as we come to conceive of Ebola as able to move from contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids, mapping the spread of the virus seems the only way to grasp the meaning of its reappearance and difficulties of its containment.  (The complication for West African food security as the virus has both increasingly claimed lives of rural populations and spread to the interior of the continent.)  The microbe’s spread is poised to create a devastating web of indirect risks of global proportions, where risks of transmission have grown, despite a widespread ramping up of clinical trials by GlaxoSmithKline.

By tracking the virus as if it were transmitted has spread only by human-to-human contact, and by excluding the transmission of the different strains of the virus from animals, we may be short-sighted in perpetuating only a part of the picture of Ebola’s rapid spread.  Alternate scenarios for viral containment among local populations forecast situations where the possible numbers of individuals infected by rates Ebola virus could range from 20,000, if conditions stay roughly the same, to as high as 60,000 if conditions worsen–and, should conditions for treatment and containment improve, or a vaccine developed for humans, below 20,000.  Although the geographic migration of the deadly disease is challenging to track, the maps we make of its incidence raise as many questions as they do red flags and suggest the importance of dedicating attention to Ebola’s spread.

The ways in which we map the virus raises questions of what sort of story we want to tell about the rapid spread of Ebola virus.  Ebola is transmitted by contact with the blood or liquids of the infected.  But the spread of the virulent strain is due not only to human-to-human contact–as suggested in many of the maps or the most inflammatory prognostications of possible avenues of its future global spread–but also in the body fluids or tissue of other hosts, such as animals, whose distribution are for more difficult to map.  As we contemplate the litany encoded in the distribution of over 2,400 deaths caused by the virus and over 4,700 infected, according to recent metrics of its fearsome spread, and a huge future fatality rate, given the absence of any vaccine; notwithstanding several promises to start testing a vaccine for humans, limited successes have been reached for individual treatment, despite the recovery of two Americans flown to Atlanta.  The pathways of the virus need to be mapped both from its first confirmed cases in March 2014 and from the case suspected in Guinea in December, 2013:  but difficulties to chart multiple possible vectors of transmission complicate the effect or informative nature of a tally of those infected, or afflicted.  (While we do not have a vaccine, the tremendous gravity of the situation is evident in the WHO’s recent acceptance of that experimental drugs to treat Ebola patients would indeed be ethical so long as it involves patients’ consent.)

Such maps may erase the very vectors and hosts in ways that obstruct a clear understanding or picture of the terrifying process of the disease across the continent–as we risk essentializing the disease or seeing it as a consequence of inadequate health care.  The drastic manner that the virus dissolves linings of the internal organs of the body by hemorrhaging and bleeding, perpetuate images designed doubtless to increase fears of the further spread of disease whose very symptoms–the discharge of blood and bodily fluids from bodily orifices, and, as blood fails to coagulate, something like the dissolution of linings of bodily organs–so horrific to experience so as to obscure other vectors for Ebola’s transmission.  (Practices for treatment by intravenous replenishment of blood and electrolytes pin hopes on the reconstitution of one’s bodily fluids.)  But the practice of mapping the disease’s incidence may tell only partial stories about the incidence of illness, and offer narratives inadequate to translate into health policies:  for they ignore the danger of the transmission of Ebola in animal meat, and the migration of the disease from rural to urban environments.

Has our fear of the transmission or communication of Ebola by contact with bodily fluids led us to focus, as in the case of SARS, only on the bodies of those afflicted with the disease?  Ebola virus was almost only found in Africa since its discovery in 1976, fears of its migration off of the continent have almost subsumed understanding of the contradictions of its apparent localization in central Africa, where the first cases were discovered in Zaire and Sudan, contained on account of their remote locations, but with high fatality rates in all its strains.  The absence of a vaccine or isolated antibody, the basis for much modern medicine, have increased deep fears about human-to-human communication of the viral disease, exploited in such films as Contagion and partly domesticated by the marketing of stuffed Ebola microbes.  The paramount questions of its containment and isolation–the goal of the World Health Organization–and the difficulty of raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, and the ethics of medical treatment without tested vaccines, as the geographical spread of the disease across two geographically removed regions faces problems of being contained–especially when its communication is not well understood or studied.  The most recent panic provoked by the arrival of two infected Americans infected with Ebola virus in Atlanta’s Emory University hospital elicited immediate fears of the expansion of the virus and sympathy.

But the existing caseload of Ebola victims in all countries seems likely to surge in coming weeks across West Africa, and its spread difficult if not impossible to contain, despite attempts to do so by quarantine.  The virus’ spread have not been mapped in nearly the sufficiently sophisticated tools to comprehend the nature of its virulence.  We continue to privilege human contact with blood, sweat, bodily fluids, or diarrhea of human victims, so terrifying is the apparent breakdown of bodily structures Ebola provokes.  The difficulty of administrating the intravenous electrolytes to stave of its terrifying spread is all but secure, and the HazMat suits and protective gear mandated to be worn in the presence of cadavers of Ebola’s victims or the infected underscore needs to circumscribe contact with the diseased.  Indeed, the fixation on the confinement of the bodies of the ill in continued disputes over plans to quarantine Ebola victims suggest a difficulty of mapping the disease’s spread by local governments and international health organizations.  For while Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans frontières doubts the value of quarantines ill in “death houses” to contain the virus–pointing to the number of cases that will go unreported and the risk of lack of food and clean water for those with the virus–even if they have also established isolation houses in hopes to contain the virus from spreading to further states as the Ivory Coast.  But attention to the constraining of bodies may obscure other avenues for outbreaks of the disease

Yet the logic of its spread may have been poorly mapped in relation to the environments where its progress has been most terrifying.  The challenge of how to project the expanse of widespread waves of infection by Ebola virus across much of West Africa are hardly met by a static map of the region in which it has spread–which treats the environment as a passive field against which the viral infection has spread.  As of August 31, the WHO reported over 3,600 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases of Ebola virus in West Africa,–and the number of people affected by the haemorrhagic disease has indeed recently exponentially grown, as reported cases have multiplied by over 50%.  Could a mapping of the sites of outbreak and transmission of the virus offer a way of telling a story about the physically ravaging and highly contagious virus, or even process the sheer information overload of so many infected or deceased?  Mapping the virus’ rapid and terrifying spread, as much charting its incidence from Guinea to Senegal, and beyond Nigeria, through their populations to Sierra Leone or Nigeria since its first appearance risks projecting fears of the danger of communicating the virus to populations worldwide that remove it from any cause, and limit our response.  This post seeks to raise several questions about what shown in the organization of information in these data maps–and if one is not just tallying demographics not readily updated and lacking clear geographic specificity–and how to map the local outbreak as a global health risk.  As we continue to process further information about the vectors of infection and the needs to contain infection among animals as well as humans, we can hope for more effective mapping of the incidence of Ebola, both in relation to urban centers, slums, and rural areas, as well as to areas of forests from which bush meats come.


NG Ebola Map

National Geographic


4.  The problem of charting local emergencies has become one of mapping a health crisis of truly global proportions.  Even if it is now confined to a region in equatorial Africa, mapping the communication of the virus raises question of what it means to track the outbreak of Ebola, its relation to previous outbreaks, and the incubation of the disease that allowed its rapid spread.  The relative lack of epidemiological sophistication by which maps tally reported cases of infection or mortality in bubbles fails to capture how the very geography that facilitated the contagious’ virus rapid spread by treating the base map of the virus’ communication as an oddly static field, and viewing humans either as potential vectors of infection or passive victims.  For most of the maps of Ebola’s rapid spread seem to confirm the scariest fears of “losing the battle to contain” the virus for which there is no known vaccine, and which has previously ravaged the African continent.  Geographic containment of the disease is a priority of the World Health Organization, the data maps of its spread in West Africa have offered a screen on which to project fears and concerns of outpacing efforts to control a disease whose spread through bodily fluids of people or animals–and the possibly placing the virus into broader circulation among humans once again.

This highly infectious variant of previous Ebola outbreaks in the continent appears to have been likely underreported since the possible earliest case last December.  While known vectors of its communication are poised to multiply, the practice of containment is impossible to achieve by quarantine and isolation of patients in sick-houses or containment of traffic between national borders:  while the sealing of national borders in hopes to create barriers that might prevent the cross-country mobility among the possibly infected stands at odds with recent rapid expanding urbanization and geographic mobility in growing cities of this very region:  demographic changes brought by increasing urbanization, deforestation and geographical mobility have transformed West Africa’s living geography in the past decade, effectively bringing the city closer to forests where the epicenters of past Ebola outbreaks.  Yet the specter of confined borders or the creation of confines stands to create undue stress on relations between doctors and local populations to slow the infection’s spread or arrival of medical staff and supplies, if not generate panic and mutual distrust within local populations at the same time as weekly count of infected exceed 500, with many likely to be unreported.

Quarantines have offered somewhat effective means of containing Ebola.  Their prevalence as a tool to combat Ebola echoes attempts to contain plague in seventeenth-century Italian cities, when the isolating the afflicted within cordoned city-state or regions as soon as possible fit new understandings of the transmission of disease by individual bodies.  Quarantines separated people known to carry the plague, segregated by analogy to goods exposed to plague or disease that remained for periods of forty days [quaranta giorni] in order that  miasmatic “pestilential air” could dissipate, and the rapidly growing numbers of those infected with plague be effectively circumscribed.  The practice of quarantine emerged before plague hospitals, and the same sort of isolation once again emerged as a coordinated reaction to unidentified virulent diseases such as the recent outbreak of SARS:  quarantine managed plague with shifting efficacy from 1347-52, as cities instituted quarantines of neighborhoods or goods in the face of a disease against which there was no known or effective medical response–encouraged or facilitated by the drawing of a fixed spatial boundary on terrestrial maps, as in this late seventeenth-century plan of the barriers that would contain the plague in seventeenth-century Bari.

Is this emphasis on the human-to-human transmission of disease the correct strategy to apply to Ebola?  The spatial containment of bodies of the infected and ill–who are often asked to lie in isolation wards that are deemed an effective death sentence for those effectively removed from medical care–oddly mirrors early modern reactions to pestilence despite our more effective concepts of tracking disease:  although effective if they occurred quickly, the scope of Ebola virus in the region suggests a range of factors have shaped true transmission of a disease beyond close contact with bodily fluids, or its human hosts:  are human bodies rightly presumed to be the sole agents in need of containment, and the sole subjects to be confined?


Cordoning Bari

Containing Plague in Bari (1690)


Is an emphasis on the danger of human-to-human transmission, the sort of transmission that quarantines seeks to limit, an adequate response?  Closed national borders have so far followed the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.  If barriers have contained disease when created quickly, the vectors of Ebola’s transmission are so challenging to map to make analogous quarantines by cordoning off West African regions offer a sort of exemplum of the misleading picture of the pathways of infection that the Ebola virus might exploit.  Fifty thousand people were quite recently forcibly barricaded in Monrovia to isolate the Ebola virus’ spread, limiting access of inhabitants to food or drinkable water and no doubt increasing their desperation, fearfulness and sense of fatality.  The first two Americans reported to be infected with Ebola virus, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebo, have been transported from the continent, and to Atlanta, to recuperate in isolation chambers set up by the CDC in Emory University Hospital, the former recently released after being cured.  Is such a dramatic contrast in understandings of the etiology or response to the disease unconscionable?  With numbers of those affected by the Ebola virus now seem destined to rise exponentially, with some West African countries experiencing an increase of 50% last week, the specter of further quarantines and fears of the airborne transmission of the virus are misplaced.  Although the contact with dead or ill bodies is one clear means of transmission of the disease, its long strands are rooted in the body’s fluids–and its most virulent strain yet encountered seem able to have “jumped” from animal meat to humans, and prove particularly difficult to contain in cases where the disease is advanced.





The initial response of the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention was to issue bulletins restricting non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in the hopes to create distance between the US and the re-emergence of the disease.  African nations followed suit, terrified by re-emergence of the deadly virus and the lack of any public health response that was deemed effective:  Nigerian airlines cancelled flights to Freetown and Monrovia in an attempt to contain human contact with the infected; Nigerians angrily blamed airplanes for allowing passengers infected with Ebola to enter the country as opening the pathways to transmission of the disease.  But presumption that victims of Ebola constitute the prime subjects needing to be contained, or quarantined, or that the disease could be bound and frozen, kept within the boundaries of states where the virus, not only hamper coordinating medical reactions to Ebola and needed supplies, as well as food, but offer a no-exit strategy that may fail to contain the disease or address the actual vectors and incubators of its rapid geographical spread through several cities across the central Continent.  If trade provides a crucial means for the communication of disease, which is not only particularly aggressive but may mutate in the face of resistance.

Rather than being an isolated instance, historian Tom Koch, who has studied the uses of maps to embody the spatial distribution of diseases from the early modern period to the present, warns that “rapid viral and bacterial evolution brought on by globalization and its trade practices” pose deep challenges to how we contain future outbreaks of disease as well as to our practices of medical protocol and ethics.  The reactions suggest a terrifying widespread return of medical quarantine as we face increasing fears of contagion as unable to be contained.  The need for containment is itself echoed in the mirrors maps manufacture about the disease’s rapid spread, and what better maps might exist in an age when our mapping abilities to track the transmission and probable bearers of the highly infectious virus.


5.  The figure of infected victims of Ebola crossing national borders has become a standard and repeated image of the transmission of disease and the challenges of its containment.  A widely read report of late July described with considerable panic the arrival in an airplane of a man infected with Ebola who collapsed in the airport of Lagos, Nigeria, infected with the Ebola virus.  It provoked increased fears about the very vectors of Ebola’s transmission, including airborne transmission (which is impossible) and exposure to the environments where the bodily fluids of its victims have been present.

The communicative value of even the most accurate epidemiological maps of the virus’ rapid outbreak may have failed their readers–as this powerful visualization from National Geographic–in communicating the nature of its transmission, despite its terrifying suggestion of its spread in West Africa serves to emphasize the global threats that Ebola’s spread pose.  Although disease maps provide clear tools to understand the spread and pathways of communication of a disease, the highly virulent and rapidly moving nature of the virus, whose spreading transmission has multiplied because of both growing density of urban population sizes and the increasingly interconnected nature of populations in the region.  Given the increased health risks that are the result of huge changes in West African urban geography, both the simple tally of cases of Ebola the snapshot-like nature of most distributions by country only skim the surface of the depth of multiple stories–and terrifying fears–about the virus’ rapid spread across the West African coast.  For the story of Ebola is increasingly about the new vectors of transmission that result from the relation of the cities to the interior, in ways obscured by data distributions that collectively group numbers of cases and deaths–mutely enumerating the daunting count of those infected and deceased, but without telling a clear story about its geographical spread across a rapidly urbanizing region.


NG Ebola MapNational Geographic


The spread of Ebola across four nations since April, when it was first reported to have spread from an epicenter in a rural Guinea, is unprecedented in the relative rarity of its geographic spread and the rapid bodily decline of those it has infected raises questions of how medical supplies, infection control, and treatments can be maintained, across two geographically removed regions–as the existing caseload of Ebola will likely surge in coming weeks.  The odd mapping of the incidence of Ebola by nation contrasts with the extent to which the hosts of bats and other animals whose flesh is consumed known as “bush meats”–and not person-to-person contact alone, despite the horrors of hemorrhaging and bleeding in an uncontrolled manner so horrible watch and humiliating to experience.  Although such meats are currently prohibited from consumption, the virus’ rapid spread provokes fears of containing increasingly porous boundaries between nations in West Africa, but such containment and isolation may discount other sources of the bearers of disease at multiple sites, or the over two thousand afflicted with Ebola.  And, if bats are indeed the hosts of the virus, few mapping of the incidence of bat colonies have been attempted to determine the possibilities or potential for the virus’ geographical spread.  Could one map not only the presence of disease in populations of fruit bats, a common for of bush meat, and the routes of their harvesting and transport for sale to urban markets, as a basis for the spread of the virus from the first perceived epicenter in Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone where it has been particularly virulent, as well as Nigeria.  Might pathways of the handling and consumption of meats be mapped against the disease?


Ebola Outbreak Poster
And is the danger of the disease’s fatality underestimated above?


6.  Can we explain the dangers of its communication by maps that do not adequately chart the spread of the virus’ outbreak by a range of vectors?  The effort of humanitarian mappers, using OpenStreetMap mapping templates, readily applied mapping techniques to track the first outbreak of infections from April 2014 occasioned an early attempt to trace the spread of the virus from rural areas, and define its Guinean epicenter and routes of travel to coastal towns from the regions around Gueckedou, as Doctors without Borders requested the OpenStreetMap Humanitarian team to map the outbreak in an effort to define with greater precision the spread and immediate impact of the disease, using Bing’s high-res imagery of the region, and maps from Airbus Defense and Space as well as overlaying satellite images with MapBox Streets/Digital Globe to track incidence with a resolution absent altogether from most large-scale maps.  The collective effort of 200 mappers to locate over 100,000 buildings and some hundreds of miles of roadways supplemented the absence of adequate maps of the region of Guinea, the site of the first hemorrhaging confirmed caused by Ebola virus.  At the same time as worries already began of the spread of the virus to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the mapping helped establish the epicenter in Guinea and radius of the outbreak.  Despite the far greater complexity and geographic range of Ebola’s spread, such maps might be beneficially integrated with other overlays in attempts to try to understand the mechanisms of its rapid spread in an area for which we often lack adequate maps.



HUOSM ebola mapped in March 2014Wired/OSM Humanitarian Team


The level of local detail in such early maps already pinpointed the breadth of its transmission, and raises questions about the role of human-to-human transmission as the sole vector of the virus, which has been argued by the World Health Organization in July to have been transmitted by wild animals, such as bats, but in addition to bush meats from wild animals, in the local pig farms that often play hosts to the bats.

Some of the precision of these maps has been lost in the later maps that seem emphasize occurrences of probable or confirmed and suspected cases in “countries” and regional “districts,” rather than in an inter-related web of the transmission of the disease.  The result of the tracking of cases came to embody the sources and centers of fears of its spread, as the confirmed or probably cases of infection were mapping against the continent as a whole, so that the spread of infections gained a new look on the map as a field of red that demanded to be contained, juxtaposed by the specters of historical sites of infection, as if to augment local fears of its future spread, and to understand the migration from regions of Guinea and Sierra Leone to other ports along the shoreline of West Africa as Dakar, suggesting that the spread of the virus has not only outstripped medical abilities in the area, but that the spread of the disease invaded an entire district which would need to be isolated or quarantined–as requested most recently by Theo Nicol, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information–and not public health officials–to respond to the spread of the disease into the country, in ways Doctors without Borders (MSF) cautioned were without benefits and in face quite detrimental to medical care, nourishment, or establishing needed trust of medical professionals:  the mapping of confirmed cases as if confined to a given administrative region reflects a reality of public health administration, but a distorting image if one would like to map the vectors of its communication.  (The historical cases of former outbreaks of Ebola in the CDR or South Africa were another strain of the virus, and, while reaching into the collective memory, not related to this outbreak, which began with a similar jump of the virus from animals to humans.)

The spread of Ebola in West Africa in relation to “Historical Cases” magnify its danger, but oddly contain the virus to the African continent’s sub-Saharan regions.


Ebola cases--confirmed, probable, historical



7.  The mapping of “historical cases” of related Ebola virus outbreaks seems a bit of a red herring.  For although they similarly seem to have begun from similar reservoirs of monkey or bat hosts, relations between the viruses is not clearly understood, despite similarities between the Guinea virus and the Zaire Ebola virus (EBOV) lineage; nor are links between their different reservoir species or hosts and the virus outbreaks understood, although the relations are presumed in the coloration of the above inset map of the African continent.  The vectors of viral transmission may create a map quite distinct from the earlier inland growth of Ebola in both Central and South Africa.  For  outbreaks of Ebola may have all been incubated first within the animal populations in ways not communicated in the above maps.  At the same time, the natural cycle of transmission of Ebola within the forest remains largely unknown, creating problems understanding its transmission–although its appearance in and transmission from animal populations has been clearly identified as the basis for its spread at the forest’s edge in rural Guinea.

The spread of the virus across three countries by late July already made it the deadliest breakout of the contagious virus in the continent as it moved from Guinea to other edges of the forested interior, in ways that the CDC map below does not clearly describe, but explain the odd dispersion of cases reported around the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone.   When Liberia shut most of its border points in late July in an effort to contain the disease and halt the virus, it had already spread across at least four nations, leaving possibilities of its future containment optimistic at best, in an attempt to isolate the migration of infected individuals given deep preoccupations at continued geographic mobility in the region.




The confines created around those districts with suspected or confirmed cases in April, shortly after the spread of the deadly virus had been mapped, misleadingly places the problems of quarantine on each nation–Mali; Guinea; Sierra Leone; Liberia–and not to define the impact of infections on local society or analyze the channels of its transmission, apparently able to have jumped national boundaries with ease in areas.  We perform a far less sophisticated mode of mapping outbreaks by identifying its incidence in isolated districts, without the greater geographic or spatial specificity the OSM map tried to chart–and perhaps have provided a misleading map that raises false hopes for being a ground plan to its spatial or geographic containment.  But the multiplication of incidence has of course made the process of mapping impossible, and fears of under-reporting widespread.  Such a mapping might be particularly important, however, since the evidence suggests that the combination of increasing human penetration into rain forests, and increased human contact with meats in urban centers–in addition, most significantly, geographical mobility between goods from rainforest areas to growing urban slums, creating channels and microclimates that are increasingly likely to change the patterns of the transmission of Ebola in ways maps might better track in order that the virus could be more effectively contained.  In an era when satellite-based mapping and GIS systems could make questions of human penetration into forests, contact with animals, distribution of bats and other species, and population density in urban slums where Ebola has spread could stand to be mapped in quite potentially significant epidemiological ways.

The recent growth of populations in West Africa that are living in urban slums from the Ivory Coast to Senegal suggest an especially dangerous topography for Ebola’s growth, which is left silent or unspoken in most infographics of the region, despite its significance in understanding the social shifts that magnify the transmission of the deadly virus.





The considerable growth in urban areas and slums in Conakry, Bamako, and Dakar make them terrifying incubators for human hosts, again absent from infographics of Ebola’s current spread.





The distinctions of local distributions are unfortunately erased in flat “impact maps” which highlight danger zones of travel, and not effectively map the virus’ transmission and spread or the environments in which it has grown–the flat colors of data maps, prepared relatively quickly with whatever data is at hand about Ebola, and not the region, seem almost to hide, rather than try to foreground, the dangers of the virus’ spread and the dangers of its migration from rural to urban areas.

At the start of the virus’ spread, attempts to localize its incidence expanded the number of fine-grain maps in circulation–although the mapping of incidence onto the urban and rural environments was rare, as were fears and concerns about the mutation of the virulent disease.   The rapidity with which Ebola spread through Liberia and to Senegal makes the distinction between “confirmed” or “suspected” cases, or indeed an administrative mapping of the topography of Ebola less valuable in understanding its transmission or the possibilities of its potential spread by vectors or the overlap of incidence with even a road map of nations that might track the paths of geographical mobility by which removed outbreaks could be related to one another.  Although fourteen of Liberia’s fifteen counties report cases of Ebola, what does such a spatial distribution tell us about the disease save of the dangers that the administrative response must face?  Data on the large numbers of populations of the slums of Monrovia were not even available to the United Nations in its mapping of slum populations, shown above, from 2009–although the terrifying density of populations in urban slums in growing cities in Sierra Leone, Guinea, or the Cote d’Ivoire are striking, as is the massive urban growth of the city of Dakar (Senegal) or Conakry (Guinea), not to mention the large city of Bamako, which lies terrifyingly near to the suspected cases of Ebola in one district of Mali.  (There seems no data available in the UN map of urbanization about Monrovia.)

If in 1990 there were only some 24 cities in Africa whose population exceeded one million, the number of cities with more than a million inhabitants had doubled by 2011, and has exceeded that proportion by 2014, and many of these urban agglomerations are concentrated in West Africa in ways that have dramatically shifted the landscapes across which Ebola has so far most intensely spread.


West African Urban Agglomerations, 2011


The movement of the virus to these cities was terrifyingly close in April, when it seemed inevitable, or evident, but few measures of adequate containment were articulated or in place as the virus advanced from Guinea to Mali and Liberia.  But the shifts of urbanization that have occurred in the region were oddly absent in most of the maps that describe the disease’s spread in districts of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Mali–the size of urban populations only become prominently realized in maps of contagion after the virus arrived in Dakar.




8.  Boundaries between states however provide a limited information to allow us to track the disease’s spread or its scope.  The responses to the spread of highly infectious virus by August was to shut the borders crossings and frontiers between nations, in a terrifyingly shortsighted miscalculation of the spatial geography of viral containment, and misplaced allocation of resources, since the virus had already spread to Guinea.  When Liberia shut most of its border points in order to contain the virus’ progress to the south, was the area of infection from Gueckedou already too progressed to rely on national frontiers as a basis to staunch its spread?  Were other possible causes or vectors of disease less addressed?


Confines around Ebola_detail


While the map rightfully suggests the importance of human-to-human transmission, it oddly omits the very animal populations that both suffer from the disease and from whom Ebola is prone or apt to jump.  Closed national borders follows the logic of quarantines for those infected with the virus–rather than of controlling the vectors of its transmission.

Continued consumption of bush meats across much of West Africa suggests a far likely route for the transmission of Ebola than person-to person contact.  The difficulties of preventing the consumption of bush meats that were infected with the disease–including fruit bats, rats and monkeys–though widely suspected to be as the chief bridge between humans and animals in the region.  The transmission of disease in meats–either uncooked or by butchery–can cause itself multiple centers for the transmission of the disease from infected humans, not tracked by the concentration on human incubators of the disease.   Despite the current ban on consuming bush meats, the possibilities of such a transfer of the virus through consumption poses a decisively high risk and is potentially difficult to enforce.  Many villagers openly blame the arrival of medical teams for the virus’ spread, even as fruit bats and antelopes and rats have disappeared from the markets of the main towns, attempts at curbing the consumption of animals that are both plentiful in the forests and provide a prime staple to meet local nutritional needs of urban and rural poor in an area without animal husbandry; such curbs on the butchery and sale of bush meats are however most often met with incredulity among many–“Banning bush meat means a new way of life, which is unrealistic”–in regions without animal husbandry, and the eating of potentially uncooked meats or handling of dead infected animals from the forests effectively multiply the potential for further human-to-human transmission of the disease.  A ban on consuming bush meats–Liberia forbade its consumption and shopkeepers selling bus meats were jailed in attempts to retract its consumption in Nigeria–was less effective in practice, and pushed trade underground.  Bans on the importation of bush meats into London reveals fears of the meats as vectors of transmission that are difficult to control in West Africa, but have gained less attention than they deserve.


9.  The policy seems to hope to contain the spread of bodily fluids that are associated with its transmission from those inhabitants infected with Ebola, as if the enforcement of clear boundaries could prevent future transmission in an era when far great border-crossing and dramatically increased interconnectedness of urban populations across West Africa.  Indeed, the mapping of the epicenter of its “outbreak” seem to be beyond the point, if important to register, in dealing with its spread:  the unwarranted closing confines with Sierra Leone and Liberia rests on the conception that human-to-human transmission  constitutes the sole or primary sources of its incubation.  But this inference may be false, according to Mapping the Zoonotic niche of Ebola virus disease in Africa, who suggest that the transmission from infected humans is in fact surprisingly low.  The absence of attention of a topography of the network of transmission of the disease, and of the presence in animals, as well as humans, would offer a far more complete picture of its transmission beyond the numeric tabulation of the dead in datasets.

What could a more dynamic terrestrial mapping of the spread of disease show, beyond the fears for its further expansion?  In what ways does the embodiment of the virus’ spread in maps of the districts of West African nations poorly communicate the nature of its spread–or the relations between Ebola virus’ spread and recently increased connections between large urban centers on the coasts to rainforest areas previously less often penetrated by purveyors of goods for urban food markets.  Indeed, health authorities would do well to monitor then expanded unrestricted or reviewed traffic of foodstuffs and plants from vendors who move with increased access to the deforested rainforest areas on new roads into growing cities, even if the virus is already out of the bag:  for the very roads linking regions that were previously with far less contact with one another create new pathways for rapid transmission of the virus, as much as they might be seen as forms of regional modernization.

Other maps might offer unwarranted alarmist images of the potential pathways of Ebola’s feared future spread.  The justifiably intense fears now emerging about the uncontrolled spread of this hemorrhagic fever have grown after the spotting of several cases in Senegal and seems possible to be transmitted on any flight out of Dakar within the contents of a plane’s shipments.  We map the increased fears of cross-border transmissions of the dread disease in a particularly terrifying fashion, forecasting future distributions of illness by transposing a map of airplane flights from Dakar into a graphic that might be read as one of the exponential growth of the airborne transmission of a disease, in ways that misleadingly label the global health crisis as one of transmitting Ebola out of Africa, rather than trying to contain or understand the mechanics of its rapid spread on the ground trough far greater international aid before the outbreak itself is truly cataclysmic, and no longer possible to be mapped locally:



Mother Jones, September 4 2014

Despite the good intent to emphasize the global nature of the epidemic, the graphic removes attention from the on-the-ground story that the same magazine had been tracking so compellingly.  For all the knowing ways of getting the attention of readers of a progressive magazine, the image of the proliferation of Ebola on airplane flights may even minimize the questions of either its spread on the ground or provoke a rhetoric of quarantine.  The map of airplane flights from Senegal’s capital does suggest the huge changes in human connectivity that have emerged in the past decade, as if they stand to change the transmission of the deadly virus into a focus of global attention.   But the alarmist tenor of the map, which colors potentially affected countries in yellow as if to display how much of the globe could be touched by the bodily fluids from infected passengers leaving Dakar, suggests only potential channels of travel–and is not in facet based on actual reporting of disease.

The map almost seems to advocate the need to pursue a logic of quarantine and containment, so terrifying is the scenario of the virus’ potential spread.  Do the flight pathways tracked by Google Flight Search map potentially expanding pathways of Ebola virus’ communication in ways that play upon our fears, and, even as they ostensibly invite us to consider how the disease might be contained, deflect questions from situation on the ground that we are all too likely to see as if it is far removed?  Or are we already there, given the recent mapping of 140 alerts for the hemorrhagic virus that are already evident worldwide on HealthMap?


Alerts--International significance


In the case of West Africa, might it be prudent, as Pigott, Golding et al. suggest, to monitor the presence of disease in fruit bat populations and Great Ape populations to try to contain the outbreak of a disease whose outbreak is commonly associated with hunting and butchering, as much as contact with infected humans’ bodily fluids?  Despite the risks of contagion from the fluids of the dead, the mapping of diseased populations is often the most fearsome–and least preventative–means to track Ebola’s incubation and chart the virus’ spread.  Do such maps effectively perpetuate ungrounded fears of human-to-human transmission by regarding infected local inhabitants to be exclusive vehicles of contagion, since they are the subjects whose mapped distribution minimize the attention we might pay to the transmission of the disease by animals and especially rodents, monkeys, pigs, and widely ranging populations of fruit bats?

Rather than being a purely human-borne disease, despite the huge multiplication of human-to-human transmission, the transmission of Ebola through animals, uncooked bush meats, including apes, fruit bats, rats, porcupines, and non-human vectors has dramatically grown since from August.  The geographic spread of the virus did not follow regions that were geographically contiguous, but spread from multiple epicenters in the region, in ways perhaps dependent on animal hosts and the possible cross-species jumping of the disease from bats to apes and others.  The maps of local health authorities and treatment centers against the spread of reported instances of Ebola offer images of overwhelmed health institutions which surrounded by the virus’ spread, hampered from reaching inland areas affected: major treatment centers in the region appear to be swallowed in a sea of Ebola infections, themselves overwhelmed by risks of infection they are inadequate to handle.  They exploit justified fear of the virus as a source of infection by displaying the paucity of hospitals  field laboratories to study to the incubators of the virus’ spread or be trusted to staunch it, as well as the deep need for international aid to contain the further spread of the virus and care for its victims.




The map charts the spread of a disease as overwhelming medical capacities which are positioned in a far smaller area than the areas where confirmed case of Ebola have been reported.  Its design of placing the few clusters of treatment centers far removed from the expanse of afflicted almost confirms the decreased trust between healers and patients for a virus which not only lacks commensurate medical response:   treatment centers seem lacking in ways that could stave off the dangers of the virus’ inland spread.

The authoritarian images of control over cities by armed forces, or militias that fumigate streets or men in white HazMat suits, recuperating the body of the dead that were formerly attended by family, suggest an imagery of antibiotics and antiviral spray in Monrovia’s Duwala marketplace,  as if to acknowledge the fatalism of the virus’ spread and the only means of stopping it with antibiotics and law and order–notwithstanding the huge potential risks of panic.  (Indeed, the huge risks of decreased harvests and local food supplies, whose prices are poised to spike to levels never seen in West Africa, have already led the UN and FAO to secure and transport masses of foods from rice to maize and cassava.  Even the recent ban on consuming bush meat may further dry up other needed sources of nutrition.)  The promise for the arrival of American soldiers and military–while a needed reinforcement of personnel–cannot but raise fears and questions about the future multiplication of vectors of transmission of the disease, and of their arrival without coordination of the application of best resources to policy of containment.



enhanced-4535-1406913957-10AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh


10.  The unprecedented intensity of this West African outbreak has moved from Guinea in March 2014 and then Liberia and Sierra Leone, onto Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, reveal a potential multiplication of vectors of infection clearly knowing no national bounds and beyond the mandate of any local authority.  But it does little to provide a causation image of the historical necrology of Ebola it mutely registers, and places so suggestively to the apparently geographically broader, if less virulent, outbreak of Ebola in earlier years:


_77398785_ebola_deaths since 1976BBC News; 28 July 2014


The BBC’s info graphic illustrates the intensity and increased risks that the current outbreak of Ebola poses.  But in projecting the data onto a relatively blank base map, it oddly removes attention from the situation on the ground that it fails to map sufficient detail.  The reluctance to encode further information than that disseminated by WHO and CDC creates a limited view of the transmission of Ebola on the ground, despite the impressive use of intense coloring to focus our attention on the expanse of its recent outbreak.  Despite data from such apparently reliable sources as the WHO and CDC, the map offers few guides for reading its mapping the incidence of outbreaks of and fatalities of Ebola virus by proportional nested circles, and presumes that the variants are Ebola are not different from each other, although it does suggest a broadly focussed geographic incidence in a similar region–and apparently similar ecosystems, putting aside the outlying outbreak in South Africa.  The absence of individual or collective narratives that it tells leaves one confronting the sheer numbers of the outbreaks, but hanging in the air.  Might the mute order of the data distribution be more helpfully placed in overlap with other data, in order to foreground its relation to other potential causes of these viral outbreaks?

Even less helpful, of course, are the maps that redden the entire central band of the continent as a source of infectious viral disease.  The maps that are proliferating online and in the news tell us little  of epidemiological value about Ebola virus’ spread, so much as they reveal the chance of infecting the entire continent, reminding viewers of the multiple sites of the outbreak and recent spread of the virus across the expanse of much of the central continent in alarmist fashion, as if to suggest the danger of neglecting the disease that had previously dedicated the Ivory Coast and CAR.



The African, September 14 2014


To be sure, the detailed country by country regional spread of the illness suggests the benefits and needs of clearer tracking, and a unique topography for the pathways viral transmission has so far taken, raising multiple questions about the relation between human and animal vectors that encouraged the unique topography within which it has most rapidly spread, but also the distinct topography among reported victims of the disease.  Are these counts accurate, one wonders–do they rely on accurate door-to-door screening to tabulate the numbers of those afflicted by Ebola-like illnesses, or depend on the counts of health authorities and hospitals?–and can they forecast its future spread?   When the World Health Organization is now predicting some over 20,000 cases of a disease that has no known cure, the limited areas of exposure seem reassuring, but the map of confirmed cases offer little sense of a road-map to its future cure–even if they misleadingly suggested areas of its containment last July.



Jide-Salu, July 31 2014


11.  The difficulty of establishing a clean dataset on the ground in these regions is, in a sense, compounded by the exclusive mapping of human cases of the transmission of the disease–which has, at the same time as displaying particular virulence in humans, been widely reported across populations of great apes across Africa–including the gorilla and chimpanzee–to an extent which has so far not been mapped or not mapped with nearly the same prominence as human cases and deaths.  Hunting and handling of bush meats appear the most likely causes of outbreaks of the virus, although the dangers of human-to-human transmission are particularly high risk during home care and funerary preparation of infected cadavers.  At the same time, they discount the extent to which the increased urbanization of West Africa–and its own expansive rise of urban populations–create a human density where the disease might be difficult or impossible to contain, and the vectors of its transmission uncontrollably spread.

Much of the mapping of the occurrence of Ebola outbreaks past or current occurs without noting Ebola’s presence in apes or fruit-bat population.  As if significant, they somewhat stubbornly retain the boundaries of the modern sovereign states.  In this late-July chart from the Economist, has the cumulative spread of the virus was mapped against the population of fruit bats who are credible vector of transmission across species throughout the continent, to judge band in this case it is based on a rough mapping of the ecosystem where fruit bats live, rather than the number of bats who are themselves hosts for the disease or, say, infected apes.  (And the result seems equally–if not more–alarmist, since not all fruit bats can be said to carry the virus, and the scientificity of the image that it presents undermines the intensity of this localized outbreak on the Western coast.)


Economist mid-July

The Economist


Reading the map, one imagines its spread was a public health crisis reveals the poor quality of public health in Africa, rather than that most western medicine has been particularly ill-equipped to understand the spread or the vectors of its disease.  But the map oddly conceals the different viruses of Ebola that have appeared in the past fifty years in Africa, and the increased virulence of the current disease.  For although the incidence of Ebola in the Central African Republic now seem to be confirmed as a separate, less virulent strain, the overlap in the map of incidence and the bat population suggest the danger that infected animals transmit the disease in ways not constrained by human-to-human contact.

Meanwhile, the map omits the routes of the transmission of the butchery and migration of uncooked meats to cities and slums on rainforest-to-city roads that seem to be a major route for the disease’s transmission.  The difficulties of reaching rural areas where the dependence on bush meats is particularly intense–and distrust of foreign doctors or medicine has the potential to be considerably stronger–might create a distinct map that foreign aid organizations might approach the growing epidemic.  Local insistence against the danger of consuming bush meats that might be uncooked or handling raw meats and widespread refusal to accept the interpretations of medical aid workers in much of the continent poses a serious health risk–and underscore the importance of confronting this resistance in providing aid to West Africa.  The reasons why a base-map of the habitat of infected fruit bats and bush meat consumption have been less prominent in the mapping of the outbreak suggests the limits of relying on base-maps to understand the spread of the disease.


12.  The recent dependence on the recycling of existing geographic and news maps of West Africa have been less informative of the vectors of transmission or incubation of the deadly virus.  They almost indeed seem to generate the illusion we are able to locate and control the disease whose spread we are still at such pains to try to control by effective quarantine–the three-day country-wide “lockdown” that is proposed in Sierra Leone suggest a desperation at confronting the disease, with the rationale of taking an updated count of mortality rates and number of those afflicted, and may well provoke a deeper erosion of trust between the sick and health-care providers, that would encourage many to disguise the symptoms of illness or not seek out care, at the very time that a better understanding of the basis for its spread need to be understood.

Despite the intentionally misleading opinion of the Nigerian government asserted that the haemorrhagic disease in question was in fact not Ebola virus, but Dengue–though this has few grounds for being true–provided an interesting distribution of this insect-transmitted disease across specific latitudinal parameters might lead us to re-dimension our own ways of mapping Ebola against a variety of base-maps, perhaps focussing less exclusively on human victims–even as we mourn their tragic deaths, and see such deaths as a barometer of the global catastrophe of the virus’ spread–by shifting from the counting of the dead that Ebola has claimed than the animal vectors which communicate the deadly virus, or the changes in human populations from urban population density that have increased the transport of meats and butcher shops that have made it more likely for people to come into contact with the deadly virus.




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Filed under Humanitarian Open Street Maps, Mapping Ebola, Mapping Ebola in West Africa, Mapping Ebola's Animal Hosts, mapping the containment of disease, Public Health and Ebola, tracking Ebola

Reading the World as It Is Worn on One’s Shoulders

The recent official prohibition issued in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar against tattooing a map of the country “below the waist” at the risk of carceral punishment suggests an unlikely overlap between mapped geography and bodily topography.  In according symbolic status to tattooed maps is not particularly new–but the degradation of the country by a permanent tattoo inked below the waist has rarely been seen as meriting fines and a sentence of up to three years imprisonment.  The decree reveals a heightened concern for the debasing of a national map in a country riven by some of the longest running ethnic strife and civil wars in the world:  U Ye Aung Mint informed a regional assembly at Mandalay that the government worried that while “this [same] symbol tattooed on the upper part of the body because it might demonstrate the wearer’s pride in their country, but a tattoo on the lower part disgraces the country’s pride,” he sought at a time of civil unrest to prevent “disgrace” of the map when it was transposed to “an inappropriate part of the [human] body” and written on one’s skin as an intentional insult to the nation inscribed on the body.

Perhaps because the art of tattooing has been an import of Americans into Iraq, rather than a local art, that was prohibited by the dictator Saddam Hussein under Islamic law, when it was considered haram and a desecration of God’s creation of the human body, an increasingly adoption of the map-tattoo was more of a conscious imitation of American occupiers, and an import of the American invasion of the country:  indeed, often inspired by the tattoos seen on the skin of foreign soldiers, the rise of tattoo parlors in Baghdad is something of a novelty–as are the mostly angry designs illustrating flaming skulls, razor coils of wire, or heavy metal band logos that were increasingly sought out in tattoo parlors in the war zone–even if Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal used his body to create a map of American and Iraqi casualties, the latter of which were revealed to audiences under uv light.  But the emergence of maps as signs of  bodily resistance to ISIL‘s hopes to redraw a Levantine map–in an eery reworking of the growth of tattooing as a means to identify the bodies of those fearful of dying unclaimed in the Iraqi War–seems a particularly striking oddity as an illustration of patriotism and iconic badge inscribed on the body:




The tattooing of world or national maps on one’s own body is more often less intended as an elevation or degradation than a celebration of a map’s formal elegance–dissociated from a form of spatial orientation.  But the newfound popularity of maps as tattoos reveals an only somewhat unexpected transposition of the virtuosic artisanal craft of map making to one of the most productive areas of inventive printmaking, or perhaps the arena of artisanal production that touches the greatest growing not-that-underground audience of visual consumption and display.  While graphic designers readily transpose any image to any surface, there is something neatly cheeky about transposing the global map to the most local site of the body:  a return of the scriptural forms of mapping in an age of the hand-held, and an assertion of the individual intimacy of reading a map–reducing the inhabited world to a single surface–in the age of the obsolescence of the printed map.

The bodily inscription of maps might be seen as an act of political protest in Myanmar, and tattooing offers a declarative statement not easily removed from one’s body, but the abstract image of the map seems more often cast as a decorative art among groups rapidly searching for engaging (and ultimately visually entrancing) forms of bodily adornment rarely seeking to insult the integrity of the territory by linking it to the lower-regions of the body authorities seem to fear.  Given the proliferation of tattooed maps, we might join a hero in Geoff Nicolson’s crime novel which features the forcible tattooing of territorial maps on the bodies of victims in observing, once again, that “the map is not the territory.”

Despite the relatively recent decline of the printed map, the elegance of the map’s construction makes a widespread migration of the format and symbolism of engraved maps onto human flesh across the world as a decorative form of bodily marking an almost foregone conclusion.  Could the elegance of the delineation of the map’s surface not have migrated to body art sooner or later?  The vogue seems to correspond not to a shifting threshold of pain, but the expansion of tattooers’ repertoire, and the search for increasingly inventive images to be written onto the skin.  Unlike the expansion of tattoos that mark place or origin, or offer bearings of travel, the growing popularity of its most highly symbolic forms recuperate the deeply scriptural origins of cartography, as the stylus of tattooing consciously imitates the elegance of the burin and imitates a lost art of mapmaking whose formally elegant construction is now displayed on one’s skin.  The humiliation implied of degrading the territory by mapping it to the “lower” body parts in Myanmar seems removed, however, from the recent fad of appropriating the map’s design as a form of visual expression.  Historians of cartography, take note of this new surface of cartographical writing.

Seafarers used tattoos to plot their oceanic migrations without regard for territorial bounds, and sites for public reading, as it were, of one’s past travels.  The tattoos of sailors or merchant marines used to be symbols of world travel, by charting oceanic migrations:  tattoos offered self-identifying tools to a seagoing group and evidence of sea-faring experience–the “fully-rigged ship” a sign of rounding Cape Horn; the old standard of the anchor the sign of the Merchant Marine or the sign of Atlantic passage; dragons signified transit to the Far East; a tattoo of Neptune if one crossed the equator–and the ports often noted, in the form of a list, on a sailor’s forearm.  (The icon seems repeated with some popularity in the eight-point compasses often observed on inner wrists among the tattooed crowd in Oakland, CA.)  Only recently did the prevalence of modern tattooing led to the circumscription of permissibility for tattoos as a form of “bodily adornment”:  in January, 2003, Navy personnel were newly prohibited from being inked with “tattoos/body art/brands that are [deemed] excessive, obscene, sexually explicit or advocate or symbolize sex, gender, racial, religious, ethnic or national origin discrimination . . . . [as well as] tattoos/body art/brands that advocate or symbolize gang affiliations, supremacist or extremist groups, or drug use.”  The fear that conspicuous gang-related affiliations would challenge the decorum of membership in the Navy eclipsed the innovation of marking experience of world travel, in an attempt to contain the practice of tattooing that was already widespread among Navy officers.

So popular is the tattoo as an art of self-adornment that the Navy’s explicit proscription was partially rescinded by 2006, suggesting the inseparability from the navy and the tattoo, and the separation of tattoo from travel:  tattooing would from then be permitted, the US Navy ruled, only if the tattoo in question was neither “indecent” or above the neckline, so long as it also remained registered in the tattooed individual’s military file.  In a country of which over one-fifth of whose population possesses at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 national survey, the practice was less easily tarred with accusations of indecorousness, and might even hamper the number of eligible naval recruits.  The diffusion of tattooing as a form of self-adornment has in part made maps particularly popular genres of tattooing, as a way to track mobility and worldliness beyond the seafaring set.  The adoption of the map as a flat declaration has a sort of nostalgic whimsy born of anachronism.  In an age when our locations–and travels–are stored on smartphones that encrypt data of geolocation into KML files, the map is a trusty declaration of intention as much as of orientation, the tattooed map reveals a public form of reading and a fetishization of the map as legible, if coded, space–although cartographical distortion is rarely an issue with the tattooed, who prize the map’s elegance more than debate about its exactitude of the precision of transferring expanse to a flat surface:  what is written on the body seems distorted perforce, given the curvature of body parts as the upper back or its irregular surface.  And for whatever reasons, the difficulty of ordering uniform graticules seems to make them rare in the tattoo art collected below from Pinterest–where the growing popularity of the map as icon seems something like a popular logo of individual worldliness, if not an inscription of something like a personal atlas–or whatever one is to make of the map in the age of digital reproduction.

The proliferation of the map as a form of invention, both as form of generic wonder and a potentially personalized site of self-decoration, might be said to reflect the expanded audiences that emerged for the first printed maps as treasured commodities for public (and personal) display in early modern Europe.  But the popularity of noting space and place personalized tattooing represents one of the best instances in which one can make the map one’s own.   Mr. William Passman, a retired 59 year old financial planner from Louisiana, collects maps of the countries he’s visited in an interesting and highly personal manner as a basis for his own personal travelogue that he has inscribed (or dyed) on his upper back.  Passman’s decision to tattoo a graphic travelogue of his journeys to different continents stands at the intersection between a culture of conspicuous tattooing and the age of the info graphic:   he chose the template of a blank world map, roughly in the iconic corrected Mercator projection, actually inscribed on his back in an unusual way, as a chart or mnemonic device to note countries he visited during his life, treating his skin as the canvass for an atlas for his travels.


map from 59 yr old from Louisiana, William Passman


The backpacker, outdoorsman and blogger treated the tattooing practice as something like a diary–or log of travels written on his own back–that could be readily updated and expanded at tattoo parlors, and ready updated as it was reposted online.  And so when Mr. Passman had time to visit Antarctica, a new favorite tourist destination, he added the country that was omitted from the already expansive tattoo on his back, significantly expanding its coverage and apparently taking up (or taking advantage of) most all the available surface skin that remained–creating a virtual (if also quite physical) travelogue of his experiences:


Passman added Antarctica--retired financial planner


Passman intends to “update” his set of tattoos beyond the 75-80 countries he had visited when last interviewed, and is eager to add countries upon his return, treating his body as a legible diary.   A recent visit to Antigua hence prompted a visit back to the local Tattoo parlor to alter his personal map:




The coloration of the back dispenses with the four-color system of cartography, seeming to use a stylized system of its own.  Passman began to tattoo a blank map on his upper back, delineated carefully to thicken certain coastal shorelines, and a blank slate as if to facilitate their coloration–




–most cartographical tattoos remain monochrome, as if in order to better preserve their graphical design and to recall the aesthetic of early modern map engraving, and push the limits of personal adornment by inscribing something like a cartographical text on one’s own body.  (Tattooing was, in early modern Europe, viewed as distinguishing indigenous peoples who imprinted “finer figures” into their skin, unlike Europeans.)

The deep-skin-dying of maps of global expanse seems to court the macrocosm-microcosm conceit of the Renaissance, locating the whole world on the single body of one resident, condensing expanse to a symbolic form in ways that only maps can do, complete with the visual devices of engravers to signify the spaciousness of the chart and the substantiality of territories by darkening their edges’ interior, in vague imitation of the shading on the coasts of land regions in engraved shaded lines of intaglio maps.




Other maps formats of world map tattoos suggest the format of Old World/New World transposes nicely onto two feet, with an eight-point compass inset:




It is striking that he is not alone, although it seems that Antarctica and Greenland may be absent from the templates of other tattoo artists, and which Fed Jacobs judged to be “the most popular cartographic tattoo”, of the maps on upper backs, usually appearing without the addition of the southernmost continent:




mapnom backTricia Wilson’s Tumblr site




If these images of the generic upper back tattoo–a bodily region not the most painful to be inked, if fairly high on the pain scale, taking longer to tattoo and also to heal–although that compass rose to the right of the spinal column seemed to have hurt given its pink surrounding skin–suggest the map as a form of bourgeois adornment among a Facebook-using set, one can see this map-tattoo catching on as a conscious sign of cosmopolitanism, in this image from Inked magazine, at times revising the conspicuous display of globalism in this Atlas-like image of sustaining the earth on one’s shoulder, for a far less exhibitionist image befitting the pedestrian world-traveller:




Glyphs from maps, like compass roses, are especially treasured forms of adornment, with directional signs or without, like this exquisitely colored compass rose from a nautical chart, designed in Crucial Tattoo in Salisbury, MD by Jonathan Kellogg:


Inked by Jonathan Kellogg, Crucial Tattoo in Salisbury, Maryland


More rare is a map that emphasizes the graticule’s transposition of terrestrial curvature–or a map that is actually antique in its inscription of separate hemispheres:





Henricus Hondius, Nova Todas Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula (1641)

Or, in a widely repinned work by Annie Lloyd of considerable elegance:

Inked Mag by Annie Lloyd?


Is there a sense that the tattoo shows one in morning for the disappearance of the paper map?  Or a devaluation of the actual world, whose form is now effectively incorporated as a form of purely personal adornment?

The pleasure of the world map’s spatial curvature might, however, might be better transposed to the present in one image posted from Miami, Florida, whose contour lines seem inscribed onto the curvature of embodied flesh in ways that invite the experience of map reading more than only celebrate the map as a static symbolic form, as “infinitely entertaining .  .  . to give you pause,” expanding the cartographical canvas to the entire back, arms, and side, as well as the tops of the shoulder, treating the body as the ultimate surface of inscription:




What is the logic of making such maps, not too easily consulted by oneself, for one to carry around, save as providing the extension of making one’s own body a text for others to read?  If, to be sure, this can be achieved in fairly exhibitionist ways, the imaging of the world can literally transform one’s body to texts that recuperate the elegance of the engraved map, replete with the transposition of parallels and meridians to the curves of the back and arms, in ways can’t help but invite the body’s surface to be close read that almost seem a dare or challenge to even a passing observer, expanding the inscribed surface of the body to almost make the body no longer recognizable as flesh:



And the practice of taking the back as the surface for world-mapping may have heavily ironic, as much as celebratory or encomiastic ends.  The encomiastic function of maps lends itself to something like mockery in this retracing of the itinerary of the Red Army’s Long March, here before life-like wax images of two icons of the March, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, which cannot help but evoke the costs that the March wrecked on actual living bodies:



China mapped on one’s back, facing Mao Zedong and Chao En Al


The exhibitionism of cartography can mutate what is an emblem of unity for personal ends, as this image that transforms the surface of a strictly cartographical text, binscribing the map not on shoulders but one’s chest, and rewriting the contours of mapped space as a glyph-like colored design:




More modest in scope, the tattooed map can of course also offer a nice example of locally rootedness, rather than cosmopolitanism, as in this person from the French region of Brittany, hearkening back to something like a sailing chart or the scroll of a treasure map in its cursive toponyms:




Or of a the bathymetric conventions of the precipitous depth of the mountain lake to depict sites even more specific as a place and time, making them somehow more mysteriously compelling by a detailed map than the mere addition of the name could offer:




For those inclined to more literary identifications, and whimsical definitions of provenance in an anti-territory, rather than an actual one, one might express the limitless of one’s affiliation by an image of the map, as if it were a badge of affinity to C.S. Lewis’ secret world, as well as invite acknowledgment of a sign of common readership–in ways that broadcast the scriptural significance of the Narnian map and the domains of the kings and queens of Cair Paravel (and land of Aslan):





Or, in ways that great one’s body as an even more expansive text, the equally mythologized territory of Middle Earth as a way of expressing an alternative orientation to the world, replete with J. R. R. Tolkein’s own cartographical evocation of a neo-medieval scriptural realm, as if to invite viewers to enter into the complexities of its imaginary space of Middle Earth, with a detail that evokes true fandom in apparently obsessive form, if not a battle between good and evil:




These tattoos are particularly difficult to remove, and not particularly legible, but that seems beside the point.

The migration of the map from the paper to the skin seems to treat the map as the ultimate aestheticization of body and the expansion of the treatment of flesh as inscribed surface:  the tattoo is most often an image of transcendence than of pinning one to a location, using the power of maps to escape spatial categorization.

But perhaps the utmost expression of the obsolescence of the map in tattoo remains the simple contrast between tattoo and image, and the apparent revenge, in this photo, of the body against the map, which seems to remind us in the deliberately anachronic juxtaposition of contemporary technologies of travel from the antiquated map:





Filed under digital reproduction and maps, maps as tattoos, maritime tattooing, Navy Tattoos, tattooing, tattooing models, U Ye Aung Mint

Mapping the Quake beneath American Canyon

The ways of mapping the effects of latest 6.1 earthquake–the largest in a quarter of a century–raise questions not only of the damages it left in its wake, or tragic human injuries, and property loss, but the web of services it disturbed.  The expanse across which the quake’s rumbling was felt at 3:20 am endured only twenty seconds but seemed to last several minutes, shaking the sides of buildings and houses, waking panicked residents, and breaking 50 gas lines and 30 water mains, leaving some 10,000 without power.  In ways that oddly echo the interconnectivity of communications, the quake centered in American Canyon was hard to embody or illustrate, if the measurement of the rumbling along the stretch of major faults lying along the San Andreas Fault that lies between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates was exact.




The “shake map” quickly generated by CISM revealed a quite specific concentration of incidence, some 6.7 miles underneath the earth’s surface, whose effects reportedly woke sleepers in the early morning both in San Francisco and Oakland, and as far as the South Bay and Davis.




The distribution of losses created by Napa restaurant closures and damages to buildings or rows of shattered unopened wine bottles might be on some minds–and a multitude of isolated images of individual incidents proliferated on social media, even as maps were created to track its impact.  But for all the many images of local damages and disruptions, from trailer parks to freeway ramps, posted on Twitter and social media, images of the web of outages in PG&E outage maps seemed the most compelling representation of the effects of its wake, even if the most abstract–and in a Google Maps format, that reveals the extent of the energy supplier’s range of gas lines and power lines.


outage map pg&e after quake



legend pge


The comprehensive coverage of the map–and the surprisingly uneven progression of individual outages from the epicenter–make the map a clearer synthesis of the earthquake’s impact than the dramatic footage of fires in trailer parks diffused on news agencies, or the images of damages to unreinforced masonry buildings in downtown Napa.  The distribution that it reveals are both more convincing and readily apprehended descriptions of the cascading effects of the earthquakes in this region than the specific descriptions of injuries and damage paraded on the nightly news.

The range of individual maps generated in response to the event convey a less vivid sense of its disruptions, perhaps as they were less immediately able to register its impact in ways viewers could apprehend.  The USGS generated their own crowd-sourced “Did you feel it?” map, somewhat less scientifically, that tried to measure the dispersion of intensity around northern California, taking the 3:20 am quake–and not its several aftershocks–as its focus:



The geocoded responses provided data for an intensity map over a surprisingly restricted area, using 21,000 unsolicited responses:



Later that morning, service seemed to have been partly restored, but if the range of local disruptions reported at 11 am diminished, their effects also apparently extended far beyond the aftershocks experienced by inhabitants of nearby regions:


Outages, 10-49 am



legend pge



By mid-afternoon, or 2:30, the disruption only slowly diminished.


PG & EOutages 2-30 pm

legend pge


Even though such automatically generated maps lack an author, the data they display organized a collective story for readers by which to understand the scope and scale of the earthquake’s effects.

Yet such maps might also serve as greater sources of information.  The greater engineering superstructure of the Bay Area–including highways, exit and entry ramps, gas mains, airports, public transportation, rail lines, and sewage systems–are all particularly serious potential sites of damage still difficult to be adequately mapped.  Indeed, the parallel expanse of a still relatively poorly mapped network of gas lines in the PG&E system–many of which recently existed only in the very paper forms in which they were originally drafted years ago–makes the final and continued effects of the earthquake difficult to determine.  The web of aftershocks indeed shadow the expanse of a poorly mapped web of gas lines across Northern California that has yet to be fully monitored for leakages in an antiquated system or even comprehensively mapped, whose potential leakages could trigger a disaster more serious than the San Bruno explosion of a natural gas pipeline in 2002, for which PG&E sustains it has no responsibility.


Gas Transmission Pipelines PG&E



Focussing only on the mapped network on natural gas pipelines in northern California that might have experienced breakages or fissures in the American Canyon quake, whose particularly dense network of gas mains around Napa is here mapped at greater scale:


Gas Main Network, larger scale


The questions of liability that would be raised by the inadequate mapping of the state, condition, and quality of existing gas mains around the Bay Area to public safety make it mandatory to release a full and comprehensive mapping of the quality of existing gas main lines and the potential dangers to which they would be exposed in earthquakes, far beyond the documented physical damage to buildings.  As much as counsel customers on its Facebook page “If you smell gas or are experiencing another electric or gas service emergency as a result of this earthquake, please call 1-800-743-5002 immediately,” and caution them that “If you shut off your gas service, do not turn it back on,” the availability of a truly comprehensive map–unlike the above maps provided by PG&E’s GIS system, “as a courtesy and for general information purposes only,” without a disclaimer that the map’s information is accurate without independent verification.


Filed under American Canyon Earthquake, Community Internet Intensity Maps, crowd-sourced maps?, GIS, Interactive Maps, Mapping Earthquake Damages, Mapping Earthquakes, Northern California, USGS

Mapping the Proposed Balkanization of the State California

Timothy C. Draper fondly reminisced that “I grew up in the state that was number one in education, the number one place to do business and the best place to live,” imagining that the division of the state of California into six separate states would return the state–or all of its six new states to be carved from it–to that past by re-mapping it anew.  The promise to return to prosperity is a call designed to formulate mass support, but all too short-sighted in nature.  Draper’s initiative to “divide” California into six California’s–six separate states–picks up the inventive cartographies of division that partition the United States into more “rational” or “reasonable” mega-regions, macro-states, or mini-countries, and betrays what little sense he has of the environmental or ecological status of the state.  His proposal stands at odds to how, back in 1837, the German-American jurist Franz Lieber famously doubted that altering hues of a map’s regions could effect its political economy, or “that the face of our country would change . . .  if the engravers were able to sell their maps less boisterously painted and not as they are now, each county of each state in flaming red, bright yellow, or a flagrant orange dye arrayed, like the cover produced by the united efforts of a quilting match.”  Lieber studied topographic mapping in Dresden before coming to America, and meant to contrast political economy and the coloration of maps–probably contrasting the four-color maps of the United States to those of Prussia with his Berlin-trained mind’s eye; the flagrant color-scheme of a map, however, becomes a device for Draper to urge that we remake the state of California into six “political entities” that most of those living in them would not actually be able to recognize.

By converting California to six cantons, the hope is to remake the state as six more manageable mega-regions to bridge perceived distances between government and Californians.  Draper represents the remapping of the state as a means to reconnect its residents to a model of good government in something of an extension of the argument of states’ rights.  The graphical division of the Golden State into six entities, maxi-regions or mini-states, each emptied of local meaning and purged of cities, provides the rallying cry of the venture capitalist’s movement for the May 2016 ballot, having gained over 1.3 million signatories of in-state residents at the time of its submission in mid-July–and of a charge that Draper hopes would open up the possibility that other states follow the lead of his movement to break into separate states as well.  Perhaps the initiative isn’t motivated by the desire to make one state in charge of border control, or break off West California [to] include much of what most Americans think of as stereotypical California – L.A.’s tangle of freeways, the movie industry, Disneyland and the surfing beaches up to Santa Barbara,” but to distance concerns that seem to address only part of the state from anyone living elsewhere by selective severing of what seem purely regional problems.

Even those who champion local community should be taken aback by the apparent popularity of the proposal to subdivide California as a state.  Despite continued questions as to the proposition’s legality, debate about the benefit of dividing the state–and about doing so by putting the issue up to voters to decide by California’s somewhat awfully anti-democratic proposals–has provoked a small storm in an era of widespread drought.  Despite Draper argument that his success of forecasting is revealed by his skillful investments in Tesla, Intel, LinkedIn, and more, his discernment of the “different issues important to different people in California” might overstate the divides into which he proposes to break the state to help its future growth.  The debate is framed by proponents of the cause on their website, where Draper’s initiative, energy and funds, have animated catchy graphics that animate a cartographical fantasy.



1.  Revising borderlines is certainly a great way to create distance in the name of promoting greater transparency that the initiative promotes.  The declarative finality of the map seems a great way to close debate, rather than advance it, by revealing and promoting fault-lines of which Californians weren’t even aware.  The  finality of the map that is the logo of the proposal that Draper hopes to put before voters in 2016 is, tellingly, both bleached of toponymy and of local knowledge of the regions that it separates by whitespace borders.  In indicating six districts or proto-states in which he imagined the monolith “California” might be good to divide and cantonize, the image is conveniently oblivious of what the “new borders,” for all their alleged objectivity, might in practice mean–assimilating hinterlands to major cities would surely diminish consensus and accentuate new divides; but he argues the divisions reflect the “very different personalities” and economic and political priorities of the residents of each of these regions.  Indeed, the habitual carving of countries by data visualizations lends increased credibility to new parsing of provocative lines of political divisions that effectively work disrupt their symbolic unity, presenting an argument that the size of these six state offer a template to restore the good days of local government, as if that would somehow leave California both more responsive and responsible to state-wide problems.

The proposal seeks to redress the distance at which each region’s interests have come to lie from Sacramento.  For Draper’s movement, the division would respond to the balancing of the different interests of each region, although only those of Silicon Valley seem defined:   Draper has discussed, for example, how a “large group in Sacramento” grew so “very isolated” from the “very different personalities” of each region to find it impossible to prioritize such concerns as Silicon Valley’s prioritizing H-1B_visas, or Southern Californians’ concern with immigration, as if their distance in Sacramento exacerbated the problem of “trying to balance the interests of people all up and down this coast” more than partisan gridlock.  The image of the coast indeed seems central to the canonization his group advocates:  five coastal regions seem the template for the division of the state; names of most coastal regions include “California” as if to remind residents that they only seek to preserve the best interests of the state:  “North California,” “Central California,” and “West California,” remind residents they have the state’s best interest at stake, notwithstanding the peripheral “Jefferson” and the massive new regional”Silicon Valley,” which is expanded to include choice properties around San Francisco, as if spatially linked by the web of private commute buses not only to the Bay Area but also much further north to Mendocino.  (Perhaps this is one of the true agendas of the movement for Six Californias:  not to break up California into regions like “South California” and “Jefferson,” but to make “California” a setting in which Silicon Valley, the place where Draper lives and works, can expand to attain the sort of place on the map that it deserves.)


New Map of California


The notion of repartitioning the state echoes past proposals of splitting off or partitioning of states.  Andrew Shears of Mansfield University has taken the time to collate and synthesize many of these movements in a stunning exercise of an “alternate history”of what might have been, using a list of U.S. State Partition Proposals, that multiplies the familiar fifty states in the union to a whopping 124 proposed states–with a disclaimer about advocating such multiple proposals.


United States that Could Have Been


The similarities between the “Draperized” map of California and collapsed movements of secession that Shears mapped in the state are curious. They probably partly reflect the massive settlement of the California coast and its concentration of capital–the proposal carves “Silicon Valley” out of California’s coastline and adds both West California and North California to it.  Unlike previous calls for downsizing California that predate the announced secession of “Jefferson” in 1941, before the entry of the US into World War II, the argument is to create more responsible government, rather than that distinguishing the region of “Coastal California” would allow an ample conservative voice for denizens of the interior of the state.  The map that demonstrated the splitting of the state has, moreover, itself become a sort of rallying cry:  rather than a grass-roots phenomenon of secession form below, the disbanding of California creates a collage of cantons in which all residents will better recognize themselves.

The divisions mapped above are meant to promise “more direct contact” of the citizens with a government “now ruled by detached and isolated politicians in Sacrament,” which Draper and friends suggest splitting to six legislatures (five more), electing five more governors, and passing six separate budgets, all out of the belief that small, rather than big, is beautiful, and that local problems will be more easily resolved locally, rather than gridlock.  Of course, the habitual carving of countries by data visualizations lends increased credibility to how redrawing six states would provide a better reflection of its political divisions, as if intentionally confusing such electoral divides with the state’s actual topographic landscape. For the notion of divvying up states into red and blue does create a difficulty for California, if one’s been trying to parse the ostensible national divide in the electorate that we’ve seen on news screens from at least 2000, and that now substitute for political debate–in order to create a set of state-like sectors that would reflect voter preferences that would vote reliable, we could benefit from Draper & Co.’s design, which would individuate some new “red states” in California in the electoral mosaic.




But the initiative is not only seeking to parse blue from red.


2.  While data visualizations are great for challenging disrupting inherited symbolic forms too often burned onto the back of our retinas, does Draper’s six-color proposal really open new space for debate?  While abandoning a five-color scheme to display data, the odd choices of hues used in the “Six Californias” logo makes one wonder what is trying to be conveyed–aside from the heat of the Sierras and sandiness of the desert–save the fundamental fact that these districts should be disjoined.  Sick of charges of gerrymandering, the notion is perhaps to take both the revenues produced by Silicon Valley for its local education budget and SoCal tax franchise and keep it for oneself, and leave the Central Valley a distant poor cousin where per capita income would fall below that of the state of Mississippi; now that the reduction of property taxes have dispensed with one of the best ways of reallocating capital in California, just let the tax franchise be divided to create a spectacularly wealthy shore and poorer satellite states with minimal populations, and really big water problems, posed only to accelerate with the growing drought.

What goes on with the aqueducts, rivers, canals and reservoirs is a crucially omitted point to which the end of this post will return.  Putting aside  problems posed for the University of California system, jewel institution of the states not to mention the wide network of community colleges, the budgeting for a far-flung elementary public school system would be immense–if the Regents would have to reconsider the whole question of in-state tuition, as well as the viability of the system.  (Forget about questions of what in-state tuition would mean; would we have not only ten new senators, but six Regents?)  As one who made much money on LinkedIn, does Draper envisage online education replacing the state universities?  Although Draper has insisted that the division of the state into a region with twelve senators and six governors would cut a bloated bureaucracy, what, one might ask, about the work of the California Coastal Commission at a time of increased concern with rising ocean-levels and tsunami?

Or does the imagined legal elevation of the region of Silicon Valley to statehood–the apparent essence of Draper’s imaginary future division of the map, only seek to remove Sacramento’s oversight of its economy?  Since the basic motive behind the division seems to be to allow the newly-forged state “Silicon Valley” to hire cheaper labor from Asia without restriction, it’s probable that he wouldn’t be so interested in cultivating in-state employees, anyways.  The new entity of “South California” (the amalgamated Orange and San Diego Counties, but leaving out most of Los Angeles to create a more homologous demographic) might even work to tip the balance of political representation in the US Senate, with “Central California” (the San Joaquin Valley)–assuming each of these regions would, by constitutional amendment, have two senators.  The ‘proposal’ exemplifies a pretty perverse cartographical wish-fulfillment that seems more distant from reality the more closer that it is considered, or the ways that California works–the website addresses issues such as pension-retention and the future of in-state tuition, barely belying its deep self-interest and suggesting few questions of collective resolution–and little (if any) sense of awareness of the state’s geographic location or the increasing precariousness of its environment.  Is proponents seem to distill all problems of governance to questions of geographic proximity, and prefer to see all resolutions as springing from the fragmenting of the state’s map into six separate sectors.

To be sure, the above parsing of the state reflects the rhetorical reconstruction of the nation into mega-regions or sub-divisions that have become increasingly popular, and play out a deep anxiety that the map has changed in ways that representational government no longer reflects, or no longer does well.  Our political map needs to be redrawn, the argument goes, to better account for how the ground has changed beneath our feet.  Such newly popular maps, perhaps hastened by the eye-grabbing nature of digital web-design and computer-assisted reporting, greatly profit from the ability to convert digitized cartography into a compelling meme, take their spin and part their power from the recent division of the country’s political preferences into “red” and “blue” states in news media–no matter how mutable such divisions might be, and how the division of California into two settled poles might provide a balance–as much as an argument for separatism per se.  In Draper’s initiative, indeed, it has been remarkable how much the image of re-drawing the state has become the story, as if the map, rather than illustrating the situation on the ground, can become the basis for future debate and, even, the infographic the issue itself, now liberated from a purely illustrative function.  It even invites the question if whether the sorts of divisions that infographics have accustomed us to see reveal actual obstacles to civic consensus or debate.

Indeed, the recent re-divisions of our chorographic maps into sharply distinguished choropleths that better distinguish divides in the nation and explicate the imagined oppositions between who’s red and who’s blue in the national news seems to have generated a range of unique solutions to better parse the nation into who watches the World Cup with attention and who doesn’t.  The map provides the basis for a more eye-grabbing news story, as well as a satisfyingly direct–spare me the time to read the paragraphs–model to consume information.  Such divisions of the country into allegedly “more accurate” cartographical parings have come to seem omnipresent signifiers that circulate in the blogosphere, removed from a storyline or caption; in elevating “place” as an object of true meaning, these divisions of demography create ghosts in the machine of the nation:  it’s not so surprising we’ve created alternative demographic divides and performed futurologies of the fragmentation to be brought by impending demographic shifts, or past signs of inevitable unbridgeable differences across regions that have not yet been sufficiently recognized in other maps.

The idea of the initiative is to bring the map into better correspondence with reality, so that the map better reflect the lost idea of an efficient and productive state.  So why not use the five-color scheme that divides the nation to divide the nation in different ways?  Creating a new national architecture for understanding our identity is not only a form of mise-en-abyme of the current rage for dividing the nation into more sensible units than that followed by the electoral college, and projecting the new sorts of urban constellations of paved earth–and the sectors of commuting they allow–that divide the nation in new ways.


Emerging Megaregions


Draper might indeed be seeking to create a similar exercise of cartographical futurology, by improbably linking San Francisco to Silicon Valley, and merging San Diego with Orange County, and then parsing the rest of the current state to most appropriately divide whatever is left over.

Some have argued that such a division already exists–and might be historically back-projected to the country’s origins, perhaps in order to rectify the errors of the founding fathers who fathomed the federation in the first place, noting that several nations in fact exist, based on the research of the reporter Colin Woodward into the eleven nations that now make up our nation:


American Nations


The currency of this notion that we’d do better to just divide the nation into regions seems particularly appealing as an exit-strategy to the toxic arguments of those who continue to advocate the confused concept of “states’ rights” to advocate NIMBY policy or to resist recommendations that society might be profitably adjusted to profit those disenfranchised.  If we partition “Greater Appalachia,” the thought might also run, we get rid of a lot of other problems to affirming the unified policies of “Yankeedom.”  (Of course, it goes unspoken that the notion that such a division of a country into mini-nations seems a way to sanction a set of “just wars” about political differences, which wouldn’t have to be “civil” but just just.)  Once drawn on a chart, and hopefully in straight or straight-ish lines, the divisions of regions seem to make sense–especially if they can all be given logos that approximate new flags or a board game.


GDP map


This is by no means the only means recently advocated or devised to divide the country.  Creative parsing of the country into regions that the demographic of Facebook users seems to map into clusters of “Friendship” might be an alternative division of constituencies, if you posit the idea that regions should possess some inherent coherence or identity, measured that they be more likely to be Facebook “friends”–as if that could create consensus, or that it takes to much time to arrive at consensus by political debate, which in themselves map interestingly onto Woodward’s divides.


United FB regions


The data-visualizers like might also opt to divide the regions of the US into its greatest centers of population, as in this gridded cartogram that exaggerates geomorphology as weighted to number of inhabitants, in ways that reveal the increased political problem posed by the concentration of the population outside of rural regions:  the population-weighted gridded gridded cartogram of the sort that is warped by the energetic cartographer Bejamin D. Hennig posits the question of how to best distribute the political process across the country that might merit a rethinking of the role of the electoral college, to be sure, and to the notion of “super”-senators to augment the voice of specific states.


Cartogram of US popation on grid


Let’s pause to reflect on the specific gridded distribution of population  across the state the proposal would divide to six, and ask where its major centers would be–and reflect on how the distribution of population might inspire libertarian ideas of separatism within the state:


California in Gridded Cartogram


But how to parse populations into greater divisions doesn’t seem to be the most evident answer to problems of arriving at consensus, if that notion of national uniformity is what one really wants.

ESRI mapped the country into ‘eco-regions,’ which might, as much as anything else, prove a manner of dividing the land, if it weren’t already inhabited-and if the divisions didn’t prove so irregular.  The result would be closer to the land, and to its geography, than the divisions the libertarian Draper put on the table–although few at ESRI would surge that these eco-regions provide effective lines of governance or of mapping onto discrete economically viable units, and nor would Jefferson have arrived at such a solution when we still remained an agricultural state.


esri ecoregions USA


3.  But something like this seems to be going on in Draper’s somewhat immodestly self-promoted proposal to divide California voiced as a libertarian solution to the ostensibly increasing distance of current state government in Sacramento from the people’s will.  The notion that this “aims to address a variety of issues the state faces today” begins from the not so imaginative invitation “ever really think about how big California is?” that passes as a form of cartographical reflection, asking how can only one governor even be expected to look after all of its inhabitants, and resolving problems of representing Californians by the illusory simplicity of a DIY cartographical exercise that anyone should be free to weigh in upon:  “you can create your state from the ground up . . . [and] have a say in what your state becomes.”  The graphic indeed seems to drive the argument for how Six Californias can bridge the divides that have grown with governments that have so receded from local issues to become “further distant” from the very folks they represents them–“six smaller states with more local and more responsive government,”as the website has it.  To shift the business plan of the government, as it were, and its “parts” are spun off to spend tax dollars more effectively and responsibly–and, despite the stacked deck of the considerably large economy in California, to compete among one another, rather than be overseen by Sacramento.

Such “draw it yourself” form of libertarian cartography is particularly deceptive as a way to resolve the state’s deep problems–and seem not only create multiple problems for the state’s existing infrastructure and educational systems with the illusion that one has done something to solve them, and argues that more problems are solved by the disaggregation of the state as a powerful means to dismantle governmental control.


New Map of California


The logic underlying the project of dividing the state seems be to allow each “region” to express its own interest in the most transparent ways.

Draper’s idea that remapping six California’s would be a basis to “recreate your state” that may be on the 2016 ballot has been fittingly lampooned by the cartoonist David Horsey of the LA Times in his own revisionary map of the possible divisions of the Golden State into proto-states with their own diffident mottoes, each no doubt phrased with a suitably separatist inflection.  Horsey played much more creatively with the proposed regions’ toponymy to point up the quite interested (and urban) perspectives that animate the venture capitalist’s dismemberment of the state–taking the “more effective” map of “six Californias,” but renaming “Jefferson” as “Weed,” for example, and using the “iState” as a designation of Silicon Valley, whose motto might now become “I’ll Google It” while “Border” has selected the simple declarative “Send ‘Em Back!”  (The mottoes reflect something of the self-interested nature of the initiative Draper sponsored in exempting Silicon Valley from the regulations that surround work-visas, which would allow Silicon Valley industries to hire the technological whizzes that it wants to hire, without inconvenient legal obstructions.)

For Draper has proposed that a belt from Marin to Tahoe as “North California,” as if to endow it with homogeneity, and greater San Diego becomes “South California.” Horsey’s remapping of the state into regions nicely reveals just how much the continuity of such regions derives from one’s perspective.  If Draper’s promise is to put voters back in touch with their representatives and destinies, the funny map into which he wants to carve the region removes the relation of the state to its major sites of agrarian production, but also to the snow packs and aquifers that until recent memory sustained much of the state, streaming down from the Sierra,  or the quandary of whether the dismembered state would be able to better deal with issues of drought.  Hollister farmer Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farms made similar concerns, and asks the deeper question, in a his own nice gloss to the below cartoon, by asking how the planned subdivision of the state remain removed from any awareness of where we are–and muddy regional awareness of even more pressing issues such as “mass transit and traffic congestion, even rental prices and housing supply”–perhaps “all regional concerns,” but ones “that need cooperation across county and city lines.”  Doesn’t the map Draper uses serve to obscure these issues, and reduce the state to the bottom level of questions of local self-interest?




Griffin’s points are hardly demanding of cartographical demonstration, but raises questions of the lack of a tabula rasa from which the division of the state into administrative entities might begin–and the alienation of such a proposal from the lay of the land.  While it looks like it might work in Photoshop, it evokes the specter of multiple desalination plants along the coastline that would presumably provide water to “Western California” and “Northern California” if they weren’t getting such a good deal from the network of reservoirs, aqueducts, Owen River, and canals that currently service not only the economy of the Central Valley, but the large cities that have grown up along the coast, let alone the sites of water storage that keep supplies of water uniform in an increasingly dry state.  (Or the question of where the SoCal amalgam of “South California,” far better named ‘Bling’, might deposit its trash, save in Border or in the Pacific.)


water storage and distribution


Just how connected Los Angeles and San Diego are to this matrix of water-transportation from the Columbia River to the Colorado River becomes apparent if one considers the map, cleansed of toponymy, of where it is that the Southland’s supply of drinking water derives–and the extent to which the SoCal watershed derives from the expanse of the entire state, in ways that would be a potential disaster of litigation to disentangle, if not  a natural disaster in the making, once one imagines the negotiation of water across multiple pseudo-state lines.

Indeed, not only do the Sierras provide over half of the total flow into the Sacramento Delta–the lynchpin of the complex system of irrigation and aqueducts that provides water to 25 million Californians and some three million acres of actively and intensively farmed agricultural land, and create a water structure that provides clean water to the state, but the linked ecosystems of the Delta and Sierras demand an increasingly collaborative policies and oversight that the very idea of division seems particularly shortsighted and would not only blindside but obfuscate.  Look a bit closer at the situation of the linked region of the Sierra-Delta at the center of the network of water that allows inhabitants of the states to live, and drives its land-based economy:





One arrives at an even more strikingly persuasive map, no doubt, by bleaching it of local toponym and topography alike, and foregrounding the web of water transport that reaches out of a thick central vein, and reaches most of the southern state that would ostensibly, in this perverse proposal, hive off as separate units, disconnected from the prime manmade surface aquifer which, albeit artificially, carries water to their residents across the very lines that the Draper-backed proposal mandates the law artificially sever, in ways that betray limited familiarity with the state’s water supplies, let alone the changes that climate change pose for the delicate balance that has historically that formed among the state’s diverse regions:



The historically built web of water supplied down the California Aqueduct and from the watershed that leads to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to the rest of the state is artificial in nature, but a web that animates the ecosystems of the farmlands around where we live.  Indeed, the web of freshwater that we have created links the state as an organism–with some 60% coming from the Sierra.  After the break-up of the region into proto-states, perhaps we can dispense with the diversion of water to the Central California’s valley to San Diego and Orange County?  In those regions, desalination plants could crowd the coastlines, at least in the short term increasing the number of local jobs if at massive cost to those new states.




It’s a good way of forgetting the ways that we are bound to the allocation of resources, and to imagine that by going back to the drawing board with the idea that it can be a tabula rasa, we might be able to better sculpt the future out of the confused state of the present, and find clarification in letting us forget where we are by remapping out sense of the present lay of the land or our responsibility to it–rather than removing us from the land.  And of the future of the state, evident in the selection of a new topographic map, from a futurist press release dated 2072, imagining the new shoreline created due to erosion and the disintegration of the arctic ice cap, created by Burrito Justice, of the remade San Francisco archipelago:




One might as well also think of the remapping of just a detail Los Angeles bay, from a more detailed map drawn by Spatialities that considered the shifts in toponymic place-names that will occur after a rise of water elevation of 260 feet:


Los Angeles Bay


As a consideration of the fragile supply of waters, the shifting of the known shoreline throws a wrench into the forward-looking rhetoric Draper uses.

Making maps that might attend more to natural resources, and less to administrative reorganization, would be a good place to start to think about our relation to the land.  Francis Leiber was particularly concerned to develop administrative solutions that would lead to good government, reflecting his dedication to questions of political economy, and no doubt might stress administration of the land as an individual responsibility:  Nullum jus sine officio, nullum officium sine jure (“No right without its duties, no duty without its rights”).  Libertarians as Draper lose sight of this, and of what responsibilities might be lost in the proposed disaggregation of the state.


California Republic

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Filed under Andy Griffin, Benjamin Hennig, California, Colin Woodward, David Horsey, Francis Leiber, Six Californias, six-state solution, Timothy C. Draper, Timothy Draper

Weed Maps?

While the criminalization of marijuana over the past decades strove to push the stuff literally off the national map, the rethinking of the efficacy of a “war on drugs” has created a new mapping of the legalization of cannabis as a legitimate pursuit.  The rise of legal marijuana dispensaries in many states of the nation have created yet a new manner of mapping our national divides–itself a favorite national past-time.  From the illustration of which states have enacted laws of marijuana legalization–

Marijuana Legalization map


–or, to offer a more updated account of “decriminalization” as well as “legalization”:


Map-of-US-state-cannabis-laws.svg   Legend MariJ Map clean


These broad brush-strokes of cartography demand a finer grain.  And a finer grain has arrived, so to speak, with the entrepreneurial folks at Weed Maps who have collated local dispensaries at a range of scale to which one can zoom to reveal a geography of availability and even openly ranked dispensaries that are perhaps the closest available we have to sanctioned standards.  Users can click on the clickable icons of dispensaries that appear on the screen with precise geolocation, differentiating “laboratory tested” from, presumably, riskier, and delivery services from in-store only.

Google Maps has essentially provided a new iconography of pot, particularly useful when one is addressing customers and taking laws for medical cannabis at their word.  Issues of legibility and economy in a map lies always at the crux of cartographical invention, and we might look at these early models of mapping as a sort of prototype that has sprung up on a website that includes such euphoric messages of encouragement of abundant capitalization as “Congratulations Washington!  Legal Weed Has Arrived!” and ponders “What a long, strange road to legalization it’s been in the Evergreen State.” Consider the local density of outlets in the Bay Area, in a map offering a busily synoptic overview of the rich efflorescence of the weed economy, as a promising point of departure:


Bay Area Weed Map


Hard to read, you may say, and too crowded and complex in its iconography, not to mention for readers with occasionally addled brains?  The interactive map produces its best results by hovering over specific sites, but in the large-scale version just gives an idea of the abundant range of buying options available. But let’s just focus on buying clubs around the East Bay:


East Bay Dispensaries

and take advantage of the range of ratings and select reviews:

Rating and Reviews


This could be of use for the traveller–not many legal dispensaries in Fresno or Reno–or for whittling one’s abundant range of options down to the lab-tested–

Lab Tested


or, to restrict oneself to both recreational AND lab-tested–


Bay Area Recreational, Lab-Tested


or, shifting the geographic terrain a bit to a nearby destination, to explore the rankings of regions closer to the Sacramento foothills:


Sacramento Foothills--review and rank


And you might do a double-take at finding out how quickly demand has driven the rapid growth of dispensaries that have sprouted up around greater Seattle:

Dispensaries in Washington


For this inventive appropriation of the Google Maps API and the ranked range of selectivity that might best suit the searcher of legalized cannabis, we have to thank the folks at “weed maps” for the mash-up, even if one wished they used an OSM base map, whose “open access” options might allow easy mapping of the proliferation of future sights of sale.  Even though recreational use of marijuana is not legal in 48 states of the union, Weed Maps CEO Justin Hartfield, a visionary and a man on a mission, projects annual earnings of upwards of upwards of $30 million, and uses his mashup as something like a crusade to keep marijuana in the hands of user.

The iconography of mapping marijuana’s availability can get curious as an early mashup.  Often, for example, despite the inventive and unconsciously playful iconography, one gets some nice visuals, but most maps are often all too crowded–as one can already see in those of the Bay Area, with information and odd juxtapositions, as in the proverbial New Jersey delivery truck seeming poised to carry cannabis to Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel–


Some of the Iconography is Cool

The API reveals some nice “weed islands” that will be useful to note, even in states where legalization is the norm, as Rhode Island.


Weed Islands?


While quite rudimentary in design, the proliferation of push-pins pointing to places to purchase pot posit a pivot in themselves in the changing topography of cannabis in the new millennium.  More than anything, it just shows the relative rapidity with which marijuana is openly on the map. So, go forth and map?  It’s a lot easier to negotiate the topography.  Hartfield himself boasts at having lit up “almost every day” for fifteen years, as a medical marijuana customer who was impressed with the extreme openness of information about pot options at his local dispensary, which gave him the idea of mapping quality and availability, so that “people can do their own research.”

Mapping such a mashup seems a start for revealing something like a new landscape:  if legalization advances, of course, as advocated quite recently by the New York Times, the newspaper of record, and the ranking of quality reaches mainstream consumers, the WeedMaps ratings system might merge with or be overwhelmed by Yelp–although the data already accumulated, and the audience that they’ve reached, seems to put them a leg up.  “We know more about the plant and love the plant,” Hartfield observed, perhaps with something of a sly smile, “than anybody else.”

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Filed under Google Maps, Google Maps API, mapping cannabis, mapping marijuana legalization, weedmaps

Mapping the Wobbliness of the Polar Vortex

Since we use the conventions of map making to endow solidity, or reify, even the most abstract ideas, it is interesting to examine how the ‘Polar Vortex’ has spread across the mass media as both a meme and icon of the current weather patterns of the new millennium.  Rather than map place by a matrix of fixed locations alone, maps of the Vortex offer a visualization of temperature variants that reveal an anomalous weather conditions that track the Vortex as it moves, intersecting with place, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, tracking not only a “cold front” but, globally, the disruption of the path of the circumpolar winds, or splitting of the vortex from the north pole.  We are most likely to “see” the Vortex as an incursion into our own map, effectively dividing the country (yet again?) this summer into regions of cold and heat.  The currency of visualizations of the Vortex reveals not only a meme, but a model for encoding multi-causational weather maps.  Indeed, the mapping of the divergence from usual temperature range reveals the anomaly of a north-south weather front with the solidity of a national divide, raising deep questions of its forecast of extreme weather throughout the year more than offering something like a “poor man’s vortex.”



As the term has gained wide currency as a challenge within data visualization world for throwing weather systems into legible relief, it set a new bar for producing visualizations that are challenging to fully comprehend.  The Polar Vortex is mapped as it moves, as if on its own, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts, in ways that map onto current quandaries of atmospheric and climactic imbalance.   The animated superimposition of weather patterns condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts themselves map onto concerns about climate change, and conjure narratives of global atmospheric change and climactic imbalance:  the disruption of the usual harmony of the polar jet stream perhaps maps onto both notable rises in polar temperatures or torrential rains off the coast of Japan, but whether due to a spike in northern pacific offshore typhoons or openings in polar ice cover, the markedly increasing waviness of the vortex has allowed increased amounts of cooler air seep south once again, in an eery echo of last January’s mid-winter chill, that has lead weatherpersons to scramble for clarifying narratives about the return of that green blob.  (To be sure, back in January, the naysayers of climate change parsed weather maps as counter-evidence to global warming, allowing them to indulge in alternate meteorological realities, before they were batted down in two minutes by the President’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.)


Weatherman scrambling to gloss




Offering a marvelous array of vowels and pattern of assonance, with a name befitting a Marvel comics super-hero as much as a weather pattern, the Vortex is a touchstone of climate change and a great case of how we have yet to ken the global as intersecting with the local.   But we have unfortunately trended to oscillate, as it were, in our maps between national weather maps, where the Vortex made such a splash as a newsworthy low-pressure pattern, to maps of patterns in global environmental change, that might better direct attention to changing meteorological realities.

Part of the problem is adopting a point of view on the weather that we are tracking–or of viewing the Vortex as a stratospheric phenomenon around the polar regions, or charting a weather pattern forecast as occurring within our nation’s bounds.  The reprise of the spill of northern air into the upper United States returned the Vortex into national news this July has provided a basis of the latter, to judge by this new visualization that projects the cooling temperatures in the northern United States, as a deep wave in the Jet Stream brought colder air to the Northeast.  Even if the cooling air that arrived was not arctic, the pattern of its arrival to the continental US this summer has prompted some significant debate among meteorologists who have glossed the map in alternate ways, almost entirely still focussing, oddly enough, in a reprise of the mid-January news blip on the Vortex, on the unit of weather in the United States in isolation from a global context.  The anomaly of the “Vortex” has become something of shorthand for a southern swing of cold air from north of the Great Lakes, produced by a decreased disparity between polar and sub-polar continental temperatures that lower the latitude of the jet stream, according to some research that has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, and increased its waviness as the Arctic warms.  The maps serve to embody the increasingly newsworthy weather in the Northeast, reaching down to the southern states as if an invading army as much as a meteorological cold front, placing the anomaly of the displacement of cold air against the screen of an iconic national map on which it has been superimposed.


The map recalls a similar dispersion of circumpolar winds from the arctic into the lower forty-eight already called the “most upsetting” data visualization of the winter of 2014.  The drift of circumpolar winds at stratospheric levels offers a compelling means to understand the arrival into the Midwestern states of cold air once more from the north during the mid-summer of 2014.  Rather than only being a meme of the media, or being coined as a manifesto a group of avant-garde modernist meteorologists who found energy in the abstraction of weather forms, the term tracks the dispersion of the circumpolar whirl usually uniformly swirling about the pole offer both a rogue arrival into our national climate and a sort of emblem of an imbalance of circumpolar stratospheric harmony by pushing down the arrival of winds from the Pacific ocean.


The benefits of shifting iconography to the global are immediately apparent if only because they reveal the divergence of the weather system from a meteorological status quo.  The cycle of wind, usually located in the mid- to upper troposphere, has apparently begun to split or splinter from it usual centers above Baffin Island and Siberia as its air warms, and moves below the arctic regions.  The displaced vortex, which migrates below the arctic circle in the stratosphere, reflects the warming of temperatures at the poles, creating currents able to funnel the figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes, even if the air in question this July might more likely be northeast Pacific more than arctic in its provenance.


Displaced Vortex-full color

The local is, however, far more easily digestible for viewers of The Weather Channel, and the Vortex is shown as an intersection of the global with the regional weather map.  Collating data from divergences or temperature anomalies from a database covering local temperatures in 1981-2010, the spectrum of a “heat map” tracks currents of cold across the backdrop of the lower forty-eight in an easily digestible manner that packed so big a punch for folks trying to puzzle over the freezing over of roads, local lakes, or back yards:


Vortex in States


Once more thrown off-balance, it sends cooler air below the lower forty eight and forty-ninth parallel, making it national news as a dramatic aberration that marked the entry of intense cold.  Data visualizations provide new tools of making the meteorological concept legible in ways that gain sudden particular relevance for audiences familiar with weather maps, for whom immediately powerful associations of shifts in the measurements of regional temperatures will pop out at viewers of a forecast or weather map, forcing them to pay attention to the meteorological imbalances they portend.




Recent global maps of the Polar Vortex offer more than an icon of the transcendence of territorial boundary lines systems, by processing and portraying the Vortex as an expansion and  breaking off of cold air outside the restraints of an arctic air system.




The dramatic splitting of the arctic jet, due to atmospheric pressure anomalies, was mapped by NOAA in this data visualization of July 2014, of a splintering of the vortex, in apparent response to the warming of our poles, hastened by the diminishing snowfall and ice-cover that create new chilly islands or microclimates on the ends of a warming pole we often seen as lying so far away:


July Polar Vortex 2014


The disruption that results brings the displacement of arctic winds that most often sit anchored around the polar region.  A “weak” polar vortex, interacting with arctic ice-cover decline and reduced snow cover, was some time go modeled as resulting in a meandering arctic jet stream and occasional detachment of a polar weather systems and consequent decline or weakening of pressure gradients of the vortex, and consequent reconfiguration of the arctic jet stream:




Has something like this occurred?  The dynamic visualization of weather maps in five colors and striking contour lines provide clear tools to visualize its speed and energy, in ways that might even have helped resurrect a term that had languished in meteorological lexicons from at least 1853, when the “continued circular gale” was described as flying “more rapidly and more obliquely . . . carried upward to the regions of the atmosphere above,” as lying in the ambitions of a “great Air Map” but based on the recent 1851 NOAA mapping of “great undulatory beds of the oceans . . . for all practical purposes of navigation.”


great polar vortex


But now we have a recognizable image that can be tracked over a recognizable terrestrial map that concretizes the Vortex in ways that its winds can be understood as extending over a region of truly global expanse.

Tracked in terms of actual temperature anomalies, in the winter of 2014, when newscasters and NOAA (the same agency) mapped the migration of cold air southwards of the pole into our frontiers, far outside the usual path of the jet stream, in a disturbance of the weather systems worthy of national news last January, in a data visualization which tracked a green (or purple) blob whose forced migration of frigid air from the polar regions that disrupted weather patterns with national consequence as it migrated out of Canadian airspace.


500_mb_Mon_night Vortex in States


In the dramatically eye-catching graphics of television’s mass-media, as the bulge of purple and magenta of detached low-pressure systems migrate south, crossing the very same borders to which we are increasingly sensitized in our national news media, albeit at tropospheric altitudes no fence or border guards could ever patrol.  Indeed, the map suddenly suggests the increasing vulnerability of our delicate weather systems, echoed by the language with which the Polar Vortex’s “EXTREME COLD” loops invasively southward across our northern border, cutting off Pacific Air:


650x366_01161627_hd31-1 650x366_01161752_hd30-2AccuWeather


The apparent incursion of its jet stream into the bounds of our national airspace, as in this image of cold air migrating across the northern border, results in the proliferation of metaphors all too often violent in tone:  Climate Central may have only adopted the robust rhetoric of sportscasters when it described high pressure systems in quite athletic terms that “block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team,” allowing the air that circulates around the arctic to start “spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America.”  Less dynamically interpreted and understood once cast in global terms, rising temperatures at the poles–the very sites where, we should note, global warming is occurring at a rate twice the global average–displaces the previously concentrated flow of a jet stream of cold air from its arctic abode.

Of course, few seem ready to tie this to the diminishing ice-cover of the north pole, which still seem a leap too far to be made logically. Oddly, the meteorological mechanics of the expanding split-off of polar winds is modeled as an incursion of weather patterns echo the metaphorics of a military situation map by tracing borders, a hold-over of national weather organizations like the NOAA:  the global image of wind velocities around the pole, depicted below, is oddly absent from what is actually a global phenomenon.



But we are all too used to interpret and read weather maps with both a sense of voyeurism for our friends and relatives, but from a subjective lens.Despite the adoption of globalized images from our friends at National Geographic, who used Mass FX Media’s animation to visualize circumpolar air flows, and despite the continued live monitoring of wind-flows at “Earth,” the isolation of the nation in the maws of the vortex is so readily discussed as the “most upsetting map of the winter,” as if the migration of the pool of arctic air into the northern United States were best understood as a disturbance of national temperatures.

The similar narrative about the Vortex in national forecasts stands in contrast to the maps of rising temperatures, but create a visual modeling of a meteorological distribution that almost resembles an invasion.  Even though the distribution and speed of the Vortex in summer is usually slow, the polar air however seems to be arriving from across the border with unstoppable velocity, the below global visualization, also based on a similar distribution of deviations from average temperatures craft a similarly compelling large-scale weather pattern–albeit one occurring some 3,000 feet above the earth’s surface–in which, rather than reveal a lack of equilibrium, arctic air dips south across the forty-ninth parallel and past the Mason-Dixon line, confirming its occurrence as a shift of national consequence.




Because the “most upsetting map of the winter” tracks the pooling of arctic air into the northern United States created a disturbance of national temperatures into the Eastern United States and much of the central region of the country.

Wasn’t it once more reassuring to understand the polar regions, its topography unknown, as somehow removed from the atmospheric currents than being mapped around the world?




The wonderfully protean animated map of disequilibria in the harmony of stratospheric currents of cold polar air within the jet stream opens breaches across national boundaries, albeit at considerable elevation, and also offers a way of tugging at one atmospheric phenomenon to unpack a web of inter-related phenomena.  Unlike maps of habitation or land-surface, the map traces a low-pressure system at high altitudes far above the settled or occupied land, but intersecting with it in ways that conjure a failed ability to contain colder air over the polar regions.  (Taking the iconography of weather maps as transparent, the blogosphere has suggested the adoption of charges of circumpolar intoxication.)

The distribution of stratospheric air whose flow is charted in global map as an irregular anomaly of temperatures’ spread, is perhaps most concretely rendered by the iced-over bodies of water it left in our own upper latitudes.  The striking freezing over of the Great Lakes, covering some 88% of the lakes’ surface area by mid-February, a greater proportion of seasonal ice-cover than ever registered, and surpassing the 82% record of 1996, according to Caitlin Kennedy of NOAA, which render the striking concentration of ice in frozen lakes a concrete map of the local effects of truly polar weather.





The material manifestation of the cold on the surfaces of those five lakes–all frozen solid, to appearances, save Lake Ontario, seem as concrete a result of the consequences of climactic change one might have in a chart, by placing the ice-covered lakes in a local landscape.

What seemed the displacement of the frigid polar air to the Great Lakes became something like a confusion of the local and the global in the news media that was played out in weather maps.  Of course, the meteorological mapping of this winter’s Polar Vortex in Canadian outlets seemed more the status quo, with most of the country facing sub-zero temperatures:




The US “low temperature map” used a slightly different temperature spectrum, but preserved a more alarmist image of anomalous weather conditions even in the National Digital Forecast:


temperature spectrum us vortex

The striking visual by far was from a site located exactly on the US-Canada border, an  eye-catching a frozen Niagara Falls, that icon of liminality:




The distributions that charting the mid-July summer chill newly arrived in the Midwest and much of the East coast of the United States from Canada is less striking, even if it will bring dips of twenty to thirty degrees form the normal.  NOAA omits Canada completely from its prognostications of the arrival of the coming cold, as befits its role as a national agency, and restricts its purview to United States coastal territories, even though it would make the graphic far more credible to offer a greater coverage.  It provides something of a summertime counterpart, however, in which the probability of lower temperatures than usual seem to create a ring about the same lakes, radiating almost to the Atlantic coast:




Where is the center of this new system of cold air? With roots in Hudson Bay–where else?–the polar air will be spinning southwards at the upper levels of the atmosphere, spinning southwards toward the United States. There were past migrations of arctic air over Quebec and Maine, back in late January, 1985:




The Detroit Free Press even seized on a recent NOAA projection of a similar displacement of arctic air, that locates the center of cool air migrated toward Michigan, forming a pool of air that had descended into the central United States, as if to cast the event as something like local news, even as it suggests the rise of two weather systems:




The occurrence isn’t strictly polar, or arctic, in its origin.

But the results are the consequence of a sort of distorting decentralization of the polar cold air outbreak that hovers around the arctic circle, running around the pole and allowing or protecting cold air from drifting south, containing cold air or not it its high altitude low-pressure system.  (Of course, the west coast is poised for a dryer and hotter-than-normal week.)  The decline of snow and ice around the Pole, combined with the warming of the wobbly gulf stream, will allow the chilly polar air to spill southwards to the plain states, covering not only Canada but spilling outside the low-pressure system and over to the seaboard, in a sort of nervous breakdown of meteorological model behaviors.

The disturbances of equilibria in our weather maps makes it worthy of more than symbolic note. The increasing variability that the waviness of the outer line of the low-pressure system, or jet stream, related to the declining snow cover in the far north, in the a “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern, where the compact containment of colder airs was broadly breached.




The lack of equilibrium in the stream of polar winds–distinct from the widening polar ozone hole–opens up more of the terrestrial surface to chilling shifts in temperature. As much as the embodying a low-pressure system, the map is a narrative of the disruption of climactic harmony, and view toward the future of weather systems world-wide.  The results of the wavy polar vortex, joined with rising world temperatures, create a map of bizarre spottiness in average world temperatures that is difficult to conceive or map, precisely because its high-altitude distribution is difficult to transfer from a spherical to a flat surface, and because its distribution unfairly privileges the tracking of cold air in ways that seem, misleadingly, to fly in the face of the maps of our overheating world.  This past January, NOAA crafted a digital globe that displayed the distortion of local temperatures distorted beyond the norm, with cold displaced from its polar resting place, resulting in a cognitively useful modeling of a disjointed jigsaw of cold and warm air, where the warmer deviations of global temperatures spick not only over western Russia and Alaska, but at the polar regions itself.





The result is a jigsaw reveals the breaching of cold air from the cap of winds that encircle the polar cap has a enough of touch of biomomorphism to echo ecofeminism; the forcing of warmer air patterns resembles a blurry sonar image of curled-up embryonic twins resting in a womb as if evoking the shape of future weather systems, offering a biomorphic visual metaphor for something like an eery augur of a future holding limited possibilities for an afterlife–and of the unknown future of our planet’s atmosphere.




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Filed under climatology, ecofeminsim, Great Lakes, meteorological maps, Niagara Falls, NOAA, polar vortex, weather maps

The Betrayal of Sykes-Picot? Mapping the Expansion of Violence in Syria’s Civil War

In the shadow of two large, formerly centralized states–Iraq and Syria–the “Islamic State” has spread across their common confines in ways that seem to re-write the map of the Middle East.  The surprising success of the ISIS in Syria has been striking in the face of fatigued fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who, exhausted by fighting three years after the uprising began, have enjoyed considerable success in the face of the attrition of rebel fighters.  Even as the Assad government worked to retake significant ground in the country’s center and north, the new stability of ISIL has drawn on Sunni ties and allegiances deeper than national ties, and promised greater regularity in food supplies that have enjoyed wide appeal in a worn-torn country.  How to map the bases of this appeal, and how to chart the entity of the Islamic State has frustrated western cartographers and news maps alike.

The boundaries between Syria and Iraq drawn for the interests of occupying British and French powers at the end of World War I and fall of the Ottoman Empire at the Sykes-Picot Accord of in 1916, is being altered in the region’s current map:  yet the deep destabilization created across the former provincial regions of the Ottoman empire reflect problems in defining allegiances in a map.  The increasingly tenuous ties across the region are tied as often to the provision of bread or the guarantee of temporary security in regions which have suffered ongoing lack of stability in past years–or any ties of food or health security–as they are to the effective tolerance of an ongoing civil war that has destroyed national infrastructures.  The severe instability across Syria that has ramped up support of ISIL, making the Islamic State a credible opposition to Bashar al-Assad, that reflect less the undue carving of the Ottoman Empire’s expanse than continued juggling of a system of alliances to secure oil, with little attention to the country’s inhabitants, that have allowed us to tolerate or suspend attention to the deep instabilities revealed in Syria’s civil war, and to the effective implosion of its state.

The newly centralized state that has emerged after the truncation of its name from the “Islamic State of Syria and the Levant” to “ISIS” transcends the notion of national boundaries.  As much as reject the reconfiguration about the littoral region of the Levant, in pivoting from the Mediterranean region of the Levant, ISIS has tried to assume the status of a state that is able to recuperate the notion of a mythic caliphate as a point of resistance.  But it is deeply rooted in the Syrian revolution, and a good portion of ISIS fighters have not only come from Syria, but have left the Syrian Free Army for ISIS, a more credible opposition to Assad’s regime, dissatisfied with their own leaders, and attracted by the clear vision of a state that the Islamic State provides.  The declaration of a New Caliphate not only “seeks to redraw the map of the Middle East, but dismantle the shortcomings and misadministration that is associated by earlier mappings of the region, and with the corruption of the Syrian state.

Its future survival however raises questions what sort of unity and coherence exists within a region out of the deep instability of Syria’s civil wars.  There is a clear tension in articulating a “State” in dialogue with extant maps, including the many maps drawn and redrawn across the region since World War I, in the hope of securing more fixed territorial bounds than existed in the Ottoman Empire, and a rejection of the territorial entities that seem to have been created in a colonial past for the ends of replicating a Eurocentric balance of powers, as much as the needs or allegiance of local residents.  Although ISIS promises to promote “justice and human dignity” for Muslims everywhere, the creation of such universal claims to over-write existing formerly centralized states in the region–dismantling any pretense of unity or national centralization that used to exist in Iraq, or of the imploded state of Syria–only mask a deep fracturing as individual oil companies back the break-up of oil-rich northern regions of the former Iraq in ways that may yet happen in other regions of the Middle East.

Regional stability seems likely determined less by either e arrogant declarations of territorial rights or local self-determination, sadly, than the outside support that new regions can muster to support their coherence in a badly destabilized region.  It is impossible to map as a political entity, or without taking account of the recent destabilization across the Middle East, and the implosion of Syria’s civil society as its leader, Bashar al-Assad, has clung to his role as titular leader.  Indeed, it was within the Syrian civil war’s destabilization that the organization of ISIL first emerged as a way to reject Assad, first in the far northern city of Aleppo and Raqqa, among other rebel groups, but that has grown into the Islamic State.  The foundation of an Islamic state was far removed from the goal of the Syrian Free Army or other rebel groups:  after being ejected from the Free Army this past January 2014, the group moved east along Syrian’s borders, seizing towns and capturing money and munitions with the aim of remapping the former state of Syria and crossing the Iraq-Syria border, to achieve a new Islamic state, and expanding into the Anbar province and oil-rich zones of northern Iraq, the region controlled by the “Islamic State” has created a conundrum for cartographers as it breaks from existing national boundary lines, and depends on decidedly post-national allegiance.  Even as the current fracturing of Iraq into sectarian regions backed by different sources, post-national maps of the region depend on the reconciliation of the arrogance of ISIS in staking claim to possess the region by natural right in near-Iliadic violence with attempts to meet the limited resources or scarcity and deep destabilization on the ground that has been increasingly attempted to be mapped–but whose deep underlying causes remain difficult to represent adequately.


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What the territorial constellation of an Islamic State would be is difficult to map–as is the cartographical basis to map such a “state”, now expanding  along the Euphrates toward areas around Baghdad, which has destabilized any sense of the centralized nation that once existed in the region.  At the same time as selling formerly Iraqi oil to the Syrian government, and growing its command from former Iraqi prisons like Abu Ghraib, ISIS seems to rewrite the bounds of a “mappable” state, as much as to rewrite the boundaries of states in the Middle East, in ways that raise deep questions of the meaning of territoriality and territorial coherence across the region.  While boundaries of an Islamic State seem destined to remain unclear for some time, the rhetoric of purification and restoration that is animating the logic of a “New Caliphate” strongly draws on rewriting on wrongly imposed boundary lines that are the vestiges of imperialism.  Indeed, the new divisions forged in the landscape of a civil wars in Iraq as in Syria, whose claims for legitimacy increasingly derive not from a civil solution to a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan state, but from the invocation of a Sunni successor to Mohammed respond to a longstanding destabilization of the map across both countries which deserves to be mapped.  Invoking a Sunni heritage of transcendent harmony that would void the authority of all civil states, erasing divisions in an area extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, responds to ongoing destabilization brought by ongoing and mutating civil war.  Rarely has a state conjured up a map both with such rapidly shifting and somewhat hypothetical frontiers, and so clearly both engaged with multiple traditions of mapping, even as it rejects the notion of fixed frontiers to define its own unity across two states.

The apparent endgame or sectarian standstill have made it particularly difficult to map either the boundaries, continuity or coherence of Syria as a region.  Maps of the region’s destabilization offer a point to engage with the newly announced Islamic State than any maps we might devise, for the expansion of this new Caliphate seems to lack clear frontiers as it lacks clear models of civic engagement and indeed the execution of Christians and members of other religions to an extent unimaginable in western civil society.  From having seized the rebel-held city of Raqqa, now its capital, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) transcends the category of “Syria” in the struggle against the Assad regime–or threatens to usurp it, based on the reconstruction of a different map than has ever existed in the region.  Despite the attempt to create a sense of mythic unity through their own media organization, producing compelling dramatic videos for viewing on YouTube, and calling for an Islamic State purified of other religions, and cleansed of colonial legacies, by demanding obedience to a region without bounds, the group appeals to an imagined map of the region’s unity, and indeed an imagined collectivity–unlike the Free Syrian Army or existing Syrian state–and the dismantling of the civic structure of Syria or Iraq as a nation-state.  The appeal of a broadly defined religious unity so powerful among foreigners rejects civic participation, but follows a notion of purification of an imagined state, detached from the very historical events and influences tied to threats of destabilization.

It can perhaps be best mapped, indeed, by the results of destabilization in the region, as much as imagined as a continuous or uniform entity.  Indeed, such a program of mapping would need to take as its primary scope the inverse of the usual objectives of maps–uniform coherence, continuity, and stability–and might do well to track instability (and acknowledge its causes) as the focus of future informational situation maps.


1.  The Challenges and Limits of Recent Regional Maps

The problem seems to map “Syria” onto borders in which its citizens can believe is quite urgent.  Recent American commentators tie the implosion of the Syrian government to the imposition of “false” colonial boundaries uniting multiple linguistic and ethnic groups.  But such mapping of ethnic divides fails to reveal the fragility created by recent destabilization of the nation.  For while Syria’s cosmopolitanism lay in its diversity, mapping “divides”  of religion, language, and ethnicity only start to imagine the failure of Syria as a state.  Indeed, the failure to examine the true contest on the ground in Syria continues with the sectorization of Syria as if uniting disparately fragmented ethnicities and linguistic groups, in maps that openly seem to undermine the coherence of what was long a fairly cosmopolitan collection of urban metropolises, towns, and more rural regions.


Levant Map of EthnicitiesWashington PostAugust 27, 2013

The  static nature of such splintered maps provide little basis to understand local or regional unrest.  Recent data visualizations better excavate the levels of instability on the ground.  Given the depths of instability that continued civil war has created across Syria, maps of the Syrian conflict suggest the fragility of the region’s future as a state in ways that the “Islamic State” would undermine.  This is not to say that the state is destined for dismemberment or decline, but that its unity has been systematically undermined.  While the ISIL forces seek to erase the border between Syria and Iraq reached at the Sykes-Picot Accord that divided the countries’ borders to benefit European interests in securing allies in the region, the continued destabilization of the Syrian civil wars increasingly evident in recent news maps.  The continued breaching of Syria’s own boundaries, and the displacement of populations within its failed state, provides tinder for the illusory harmony of the Caliphate as ending the level of violence that has already become endemic across the land.

The mapping of divisions within Syria and on its borders suggest the deep failure of the Syrian state.  The Islamic Caliphate’s stated aim of undoing “the partitioning of Muslim lands by Crusader powers” resurrects a largely theocratic inheritance removed from the divisions of civil life.  To be sure, the region has been multiply re-mapped since ancient Roman times.  But calls for an “Islamic Caliphate” that would incarnate a unity of values and principles parallel the disintegration of Syria as a nation–which, notwithstanding the continued tenacity of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, has more imploded s failed state since Assad’s deadly crackdown on the Revolution from 2011.  Despite promises to step down “in a civilized manner” back in 2012, the Assad regime has only been perpetuated by an open “shadow” war between the Syrian Free Army, a government supported by Teheran, and the ISIL:  the extremity of his government’s violations of civil and human rights have made him one of the most wanted men in the region.  Indeed, calls for Sunni unity respond to the destabilization across a region that created through the radical exacerbation (or fabrication) of increasing sectarian divides. We’re apt to see the region through the coherence it had in the Ottoman Empire–an administration undone after the close of World War One at the secretly concluded 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord that transformed three administrative regions to zones of European influence.  But the resurrection of an imagined region extending from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates in the Caliphate respond to the destabilization of its coherence on multiple fronts, and seek to conjure an imagined unity across divides increasingly evident in maps.

Indeed, the results of the failure of Syria as a state from 2011 are themselves quite terrifying to map, given the huge displacement of civilians into neighboring states.  The internal displacement of some 1.2 million Syrians and refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey has created a humanitarian crisis of incalculable proportions and duration.  In fact, charting maps of instability across the region would offer a better basis to track its emergence than define its boundaries in the situation maps and news maps we produce. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seems an impossible cartographical construction in an ongoing stalemate across Syria that is already difficult to grasp.  Even as we finally have more accurate maps of the civil war’s spread across that arc around the desert lands at the Syrian interior–many of which exist thanks to the courageous Cédric Labrousse, any resolution of its divides seems only more far away.  We remain unclear about the strength of the rebel forces as relations between Islamist groups and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, not to mention the coherence and ambitions of an entity of an “Islamic State,” but feel their presence in the creation of a new Syrian and Iraqi geography.

The imperative of mapping provides one of the few ways to retain coherence of an increasingly contentious, bitterly divided, and fragmented region.  The divisions between areas held by Syria’s failed regime and the forces of rebels and ISIS troops have been as difficult to grasp, given many covert divisions.  The destabilization of the region is evident in an aggregate map of civil disturbances in the Syrian conflict from 2011 to 2013, most concentrated inland of the country’s more heavily settled western coast, which presents a difficult picture of a land long divided; the useful interactive visualization from the New Scientist, which effectively illustrates widespread civil conflicts across the country as a heat-map of ongoing unrest to suggest the difficulty of mapping local allegiances or consensus–in a suitably (if rare) black base-map of the region designed to foreground such disruptions, particularly useful since it is able to be searched from 2011-13.


Aggregate Civil Conflict mapped in Syria


On the one hand, the invocation of the mythic promise of restoring a “new Caliphate” suggests an illusory harmony that would be more present on a map than on the ground.  Its invocation no doubt reflects a desperate search for a “more just world” by a symbol of sacred unity, it is a hope for a more just path to modernity.  How can we understand the solutions that such an invocation of a mythic state allows?  When we continue to project deep ethnic divisions at the base of this strife into maps, we make it harder to stock both of the political vacuum in the region, made all the more evident with the demand to transport gas and petroleum through a region which has already been deeply destabilized. Indeed, despite attempts to discuss the lay of the land only by noting its sectarian divides as battle lines, or the revival of sectarian hostilities in the region that are nearly as old as Islam,” the implosion of the political map of the region seems a redrawing of the territorial tensions assuaged within the former Ottoman Empire.  The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, once relegated to the history books, has however begun to haunt the endgame of Syria’s civil war with the dismantling of the boundaries defined only at the Sykes-Picot Accord that in 1916 constructed Iraq and Syria as national states from the  former Ottoman Empire.  The below reverse-visualization reveals a sort of ‘cartographical archeology” of the Empire’s former administrative regions, imposed on the region’s current map: and if the  spectre of the “militant group currently marching across Iraq” trying to seize the territory to create an Islamic state” suggests territorial ambitions, we might better map its progress in terms of the destabilization across the area.


Rand McN CompositeNew York Times; using drawing based on Rand McNally 1911 world atlas’ map of administrative districts of Ottoman Empire


It has become increasingly difficult to ask what sort of map might relate to a political resolution of the deep divisions that have spun out in an ongoing conflict that claimed over 150,000 lives and promises to claim many more–or, more importantly, imagine what sort of map better serve its residents.  Yet it is clear that we can map the depth of the sources of instability across the regions of Syria and Iraq.  The nation-states clearly don’t correspond to a tapestry of the faiths of believers, nor do  divisions across the regions only respond–or constitute the precarious endgame–of timeless animosities western media read into the deep-set conflicts across the region and have often invited us to use to interpret them–and read the maps of sectarian violence.


Area map of mid-east ethnicity



We have only begun to be provided with accurate maps of the Syrian conflict, perhaps now made more imperative with the declaration of the “Islamic State” by ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levantine.  The truly terrible and horrific costs of such sectarian strife were long either difficult to note or absent from most maps of the region, even as lines of the ongoing civil war are contested, difficult to define, and hard to mark by clear lines:  boundaries are blurred in even the best  maps of mid-2012 and mid-2013, tagged as if by an air-brush or graffiti spray paint, reflecting an ongoing problematic mapping of a state for at least four years, as westerners puzzled at what the boundaries of that state might be. Rather than mapping the unity or continuity within Syria in a uniform manner–for that uniformity has been lost–the mapping of Syria poses problem of representing the nation’s future identity and unity, as well as the continued costs of ongoing statement of its civil war.  The declaration of the “restoration of the caliphate” by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levantine runs in the face of how we are apt to create states on maps and use maps to frame questions of state-formation.  Indeed, the troubles of mapping Syria–and the destruction the unity of Syria in the revolution make it increasingly difficult to envision the extent of the destabilization of its ongoing civil war to a potential resolution.




2.  ISIL’s Rise and the Fragmentation of Syria’s Civil Wars

The multiple situation maps devised to depict the contested region over the past year implicitly respond to the deep question of what pathways American or foreign assistance or intervention in the region might take, at the same time as what a potential exit strategy would look like, rather than embody the group that still possesses no clearly recognized boundaries, even if it has retained its Facebook page as a terrorist group (ISIS) until June 16. The very difficulty of mapping contested boundaries now seems a sort of inevitable prelude to the declaration of an “Islamic State.”   Even though the evocation of that entity has made great claims to represent all Islam, and the leader of the Caliphate of all Muslims is only rumored to have appeared in a video, filmed in Mosul’s largest mosque, with the declaration that all nearby Shia shrines had been destroyed.  The raging of war has been mapped til recently as a “civil” war, within the confines of the Syrian state–whose shifting divisions are not often clear, or so clearly able to be mapped onto ethnic and spiritual divides, but are focussed on Syria’s most settled regions in the north and along the Euphrates river, although this seems to be ceasing now with the arrival of ISIL troops.  Beyond Syria’s own boundaries, the illusory harmony of the Caliphate as a restoration of a lost harmony responds to the cultural and religious diversity that has been long characteristic of Syria’s cities.

The broadening of areas of military contestation, particularly along the Euphrates, is suggested in the below maps, as well as along the border with Iraq, in northern areas with Kurdish militias, and to a lesser extent on the border with Jordan, as the cities have emerged as battlefields.




Map by Evan Centanni, August 2013

Can one map destabilization by its effects?  Despite the absence of horrific violence in these maps, there is a desperate attempt to register the cumulative effects of war in the synoptic maps that tally displaced persons created in the civil war in offset boxes, although they only skim the surface of the war’s disastrous effects on the regions of a divided Syria:


Costs of Syria's War US Department of State, Jan 14, 2014 (Congressional Research Service report: Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response)

Or this declassified map of the numbers of Syrians fleeing violence of 2012:


People Fleeing Internal ViolenceUS Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit 13, June 13 2012

An expanded detail of the unclassified 2012 map for the US Department of State reveals the strong concentrations of refugees and displaced Syrians on the recognized borders of the country, both along and near recognized crossing of international boundaries with Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, which is particularly telling, but which notes the far greater number of displaced within the Syrian “state”:


Borders and Refugees-  Syria and Surroundings


The far greater regions of contention reveal a country that was, as of December 2013, not only sharply divided but some of whose largest cities–Homs and Aleppo–remained divided within themselves:


contested areas

Map by Evan Centanni, December 2013

(More current maps of the region, that include the spread of the ISIS in the north of Syria and along the Euphrates, are accessible from Political Geography Now, who have tried to provide current maps of events in the region.)

A similarly striking interactive map of the deep and ongoing costs of civil war has been constructed in ongoing fashion each day, collated daily on the website Women Under Siege, in an effective depiction of endemic violence for many of Syria’s inhabitants–in live crowd-sourced mapping of violence against women and children, where all sexualized individual or group attacks committed by Syrian military against men, women, and children in the region, localized in a Google Map format, as soon as they are reported:


Women under siege


These costs are absent on other maps of regional division that suggest the region’s destabilization.  The tactical “situation maps” that we consult condense information in easily legible formats to parse varieties of assaults and strategic battles–but omit all those attacks not so far confirmed–but presents a contemporary up-to-the-minute image of the high costs of the violence of sustained civil war.  Much is always, of course, omitted from these attempts to chart the results of a terrifying civil war that has claimed untold lives and created refugee crises across the region.  Even as the Syrian government seemed to have won control over a large area of the coast from Damascus to Homs, a situation map released by the BBC this March 2014, using five colors with two different shades to suggest the varied limits in government’s increased control of regions save in its East and North.   (The BBC map met be a bit misleading, given the town-by-town nature of the current conflict, but suggests the difficulty of establishing any boundaries or clear frontiers in the regions.)


BBC Situation Map March 2014


The divisions are often mapped in more shorthand ways.  Just a bit more recently, this far more simplified map, less credibly dividing the region in coherent blocks, remind us of the remove of our own attitudes to the area, even as we discuss sending munitions to the “rebels” with greater ease–and indeed as we want to make that prospect seem credible, firm divisions between “Opposition rebels” and “Government forces” more clear, and Kurdish forces more consolidated–the “Government-held lands” in this 5-color visualization which omits the fact that most of the Syrian “Government’s” territory consists of desert land:


Syrian Civil War March 14

Such empyrean maps of course betray the more complicated situation of affiliations on the ground, if they indicate the major players involved. The eagerness to declare some sort of entity joining Anbar province with ISIL-occupied areas of Syria, recently hoisted up for public view on Wikipedia as if it were a flag, since deleted, as if it offered confirmation of a state along the regions of the Euphrates; the vision of territorial unity was far more imagined and displayed online than every existing in fact as a set of boundary lines.


Bad Wikipedia %22ISIS%22 MapWikipedia


The newly invented unity has now been expanded so that it fits far greater imagined parameters, as if it constituted a nation-spanning-two-borders, despite the hypothetical bounding a block of solid color; such cartographical conjuring covers over the continuing conflicts on the ground, and belies the attempt to expand across frontiers at a greater rate than ISIL seems able to sustain:  the appearance of a bridging of a unity of parts of Syria and Iraq, linking the Tigris and Euphrates, risks gaining an exaggerated coherence in many on-line maps that all but obliterate sovereign distinctions by rather ineffectively superimposing it on a generic Google Maps template with absolutely no sense of local opposition or ongoing struggle:


July 7 BBC


Such cartographical sleight of hands of erasure belie the far more limited web or skein of points of revolutionary resistance, and reflects, in the bounds of this amorphous identity, the seizing of individual villages as much as a growing state-within-two-states.  The danger of truncating the designation of the region to the “Islamic State”–and linking it to a new Caliphate–not only runs against the recommendations of Osama bin Laden, but concretizes the materiality of the territory in misleading ways, inflating both its stability and permanence in ways that seem misleading.

Indeed, the continuity within the surrogate “government” belies the fragmentary control over individual townships that characterize the newly proclaimed state.  So much is made more evident in a map of the strongholds on July 7 2014, which suggests the limits of its occupation or territory in Syria or Iraq, although they really depend on the local allegiances of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Qaim to Abu Kamal, along the Euphrates to ISIL, as much as to rebel forces, but seems to unnecessarily conflate the two, as much as the emergence of ISIL from the Rebel forces:


BBC July 7


The most recent–and compelling–New York Times map of the anti-state of local allegiance to ISIL casts the spread of its holdings along the Euphrates as an anti-territory, creating a conglomerate both of funding from oil monies and revenues that provide the basis for and the grounds for recent attacks and for the displacement of Kurdish and other residents in ways that have only begun to be mapped.  It is far more circumscribed than the airbrushed blobs of rebel resistance of earlier situation maps, or the sectorization of the region.  (And it is reflected in the strategic airstrikes and deliveries of food and supplies that the Obama administration now advocates.


from Caerus Associates, Long War Journal Aug 7 2014from Caerus Associates/NY Times (August 7 2014)


The aim of “remaking a Caliphate” ISIL promotes is less directed to the merging of Syria and Iraq, or the uniting of these states, as if to hearken back to a Caliphate of worldly dimensions.  In a bogusly attributed map widely circulated online, if far less precise in measurement, placing the enlarged states of “Sham” and “Iraq” at the heart of a worldly empire in this bogus map, an image of territorial expansion deriving from earlier fabrication of fascist parties is falsely credited to ISIL.

Part of the shock value of this map, which has occasioned comment as it circulated in western news media, for its erasure of the names of places we knew, as it entirely erases Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, not to mention Israel, and in reclaiming the Andalus seems to impose its own world-vision or Weltanschauung on our maps, in an image far more evocative and ideological than objectively construed, and widely circulated some time ago by neo-fascist parties:


Isis Rempas Middle East


Yet the projection of such propaganda suggests the deeply embedded cartographic stakes of the newly expanding Syrian civil war and ongoing instability in Iraq, by expanding the region of Khurasan as a new spectra that encroaches on all North Africa and Europe–or at least the odd intersection between the claims of the neo-fascist groups who have distributed this map, including the Syrian National Socialist Party, which rather than providing insight into “the goad of a unified #Islamic #Caliphate” respond, and the quite confused apprehension of the territory of “Islamic countries” and the demands of ISIL–which openly disdains all varieties of Islam that call for religious coexistence–within the destabilized situation on the ground in much of the “greater” Middle East.  Indeed, if the declaration by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi goes beyond the cautionary warnings bin Laden left against rushing to the establishment of a caliphate lest one raise the specter of looming adversary for enemies, the specter of the expansive map, menacingly filled with swirling Arabic abjad seems to have circulated to stoke fear of an expanding other, in ways that may have indeed encouraged military involvement in a destabilized region, as it evoked the specter of an Islamic crusade.




The map attributes a misleading monolithic shadow-figure of the total otherness of Islam that hardly exists, and masks the fragmentation that US-backied intervention has largely created on the ground, and which now finds the religious diversity in Syria so abhorrent, and seeks to enforce a new vision of religious uniformity as its foundation, purifying a previously heterogeneous land, but less able to be mapped as a uniform color.


3.  What about the Map Devised at the Sykes-Picot Accord?

At the same time that we adopt such situation maps to try to grapple with the military situation that has unfolded on the ground, the Anglo-Irish scholar Malise Ruthven recently glossed the quite prominent role one map has played in the social media of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant–a significance Ruthann went to considerable lengths to unpack.  He traced a compelling genealogy of the concerted engagement of Syria’s boundary line in a quite provocative short article some have found to give greater weight than necessary to the role of Europeans in shaping the region after World War I, based on the prominence given to the destruction of the old line of territorial division in ISIL’s social media. To be sure, ISIL  has prominently celebrated the bull-dozing of the Syria-Iraq border by troops, redrawing the map imposed on the region as a way of purging the region of its colonial past, or to destroy the memory of the line established with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord, secretly concluded between British and French governments by the French diplomat François Georges-Picot with his British counterpart Mark Sykes after World War I:




Yet does one deny some of the autonomy of the demands to emerge as a state not existing on a map by increasing the proportions of the significance of the Sykes-Picot Accord in most jihadists’ minds?  Does this vehemence really rest on the redrawing of the Eurocentric boundaries determined at the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord? It is something of a striking conundrum that at the same time as our news outlets increasingly rely on a profusion of detailed logistical maps to grapple with the shifting role of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–or, in a more mysteriously evocative acronym, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–we might be missing how Sunni forces have seized upon the symbolic destruction of a map of artificial and utopian social division by which Europeans carved up oil-rich lands along divides which never existed as abstractly neatly surveyed lines that cut across the rivers running through each region into the parsing of a near-perfect polygon. The image of the tweeted image featuring the destruction of the boundary line is something of an advertisement of the ISIS forces to redraw the map of the Middle East, affirming, no doubt, a less secular model of the state that approximated a theocratic order in place of the abstract line that the two early twentieth-century diplomats arrived at in an attempt to paper over anxieties about the fall of the Ottoman state, and what could take its place of administering what were already recognized as oil-rich lands.




The historical Accord of 1916 was, of course, primarily intended to imagine a similarly viable construction of “buffer zones” and “spheres of influence” to replace the Ottoman regime and secure British authority, rather than to frame a national identity in ways that reflected the situation on the ground.  The idea was to project a balance of power, rather than build a state, and maintain a viable status quo as seen from the eye of European powers–without much regard, in other words, for local inhabitants or populations, by carving clearly divided colored blocks:


sykes-picot-19164.  Re-Examining how ISIL Re-Maps Syria

The region of Syria was, as a province, divided and re-divided by colonizing powers since the Roman Empire, for whom it was an important entrepôt and shipping center, but the recent ISIL denunciation of “crusader partitions” is a response to the difficulties of imposing divisions on the territory but the increased intervention in a region whose governments don’t respond, propped up as they are by the West, to local needs.  As images displayed on social media, the invocation of old maps also response to a search for newly powerful symbols to inaugurate a new era.  To be sure, guilt about the Sykes-Picot Accord may be haunting the West, in ways akin a return of the repressed–and of the forgotten figures of state who negotiated these territorial divisions in the wake of World War I, short-changing their inhabitants–but also provide tools of inciting opposition and to search for new forms of government.

ISIL leaders assert they are in the process of dismantling and destroying the imposition of a false map on the region that fighters are poised to destroy. Such demonization of the colonial may in itself be a bit of a smokescreen for a call designed to mask or suppress sectarianism in the name of fighting against and repulsing a common enemy:  deep tensions within competing parties are choosing a foil to rally around, it seems likely, and a lingua franca of resistance to imposed categories evident in an old map of the same region:  rather than protect clearly ethnic enclaves or promise a more stable social map of the region, given the pronounced hostility that has been shown to Shia shrines and mosques, and extended to the desecration of graves, in what seems a new form of terrorism: “desecrating [the] graves of saints.”  The increasing news reports of the destruction of dozens of ancient shrines of prophets revered in Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions in but one region controlled by ISIS and Shiite militants are an extension of its return to theocratic rule, and a deep rewriting of Iraq’s and Syria’s cultural geography, as historical cultural monuments now deemed heretical have targeted in ways that seek to rewrite the region’s landscape, from tombs to minarets.


banknote 10000 iraqi dinar reverse


Such widespread destruction of a historical sacred space in the region promises a clear disorientation in and usurpation of the region.   In Syria alone, both the Syrian government’s forces and those of revolutionaries have engaged in the desecration or near-demolition of shrines in Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, Tal Maruf in northern Syria near Tel Hamis and elsewhere in the country, vandalizing Sufi shrines that Sunni scholars have long recognized as worthy of reverence, mirroring how Wahabi groups responded to the power vacuum of the Arab Spring. The destruction of graves has gained a new outlet, to be sure, on social media, as Nusra front rebels polemically displayed on YouTube the exhumation of the thousand-year old grave of Hujr ibn Adi, a revered Shiite figure, and an attack on the shrine of Muhammad’s granddaughter, in ways that have radically further destabilized the region and its inhabitants, as has ISIL’s attack on shrines of Owais al-Qami and Ammar bin Yasser, an early companion of Muhammad revered both by Shia and Sunni muslims alike. Can we get some data journalists to map the destruction of such a topography of centuries-old sites of reverence, if only as a destruction of historical memory?   Such long-revered holy sites are destroyed after being attacked by Wahabi groups who week to expunge them their memory as a pagan legacy, and widely displayed to audiences on social media with destabilizing intent.  The broad expansion of violence appears less the manifestation seventh-century theological debates than of how representatives of different theological sectarian stripes have been demonized by their association with foreign powers and political parties.


protest   ISIS Shrines   Execution squads Destroyed Sufi Shrine


Calls for religious, ethnic, and national purity are in short aimed at destroying the civic space that the civil war and Syrian Free Army are fighting to preserve.


5.  The Perils of Re-Mapping Syria’s Changing Space

Something closer to the destruction of the very stability of the map as a flat surface bound by clear lines seems to be occurring with the rejection of political parties and existing systems of political representation.  Longstanding cross-border raids on shrines have been mobilized and ramped up both with calls to arms are relayed by social media.  The desecration of Islamic shrines has blossomed to the denigration of human life. We are faced with huge problems of mapping the divisions within the region, but might do better to look at the situation on the ground. The problems of mapping what the Economist in April 2014 termed the “ebb and flow of horror” tried to capture the complexly contested struggle on the ground that approaches pitched battles of resistance between fracturing rebel forces and mutual restarts to torture and kidnap, in this complexly delineated mid-April 2014 map of the contested territory that still lies between Aleppo and Damascus, and the Golan Heights, reflecting the odd geographical situation of Syria and the plagued nature of its status quo, and suggesting little sense of potential resolution, and reminding us of the low density of population outside the Western cities and the Euphrates:


Syria divided in Economist April 19 2014


The division of Syria into an ongoing endgame only broadly maps onto the divisions between Shia and Sunni groups that have consumed the region.  For Syria has become a battleground of the different political possibilities that started to play out in the “Arab Spring,” when Assad first demonized protestors as Sunni terrorists.  (Assad’s inflamed rhetorical posturing no doubt led to a tabled plan to invade the Syrian state.)



The pitched positions held by opposition rebels along the Euphrates and select pockets of the country’s north, suggesting the huge cost of contested lands, and defining the distribution of the Islamic State along the rebel-held areas on the banks of the Euphrates:


Rebel Strength along Rivers


But the political divisions suggest the broad manipulation of sectarian groups for political interests, exacerbated by the reliance on religious networks to create state entities not only in Shiite Iran, but the US ally Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, in ways that have given new vitality to the ISIS or ISIL as an opposition group. The more current conventions adopted within the New York Times to rewrite blocks of regions as if securing enclosed fortified redoubts might be more accurate representations of the piecemeal back-and-forth that we now think of as the advance of the ISIL, and a situation on the ground where lines of control are less clearly understood as blocks of territorial administration, but as villages that either accept–or came to doubt as occupiers, in a negotiation of apparent lesser evils.  Indeed, the ongoing civil war has come down to a battle over individual villages and cities, it is clear, that have threatened to implode the very nature of Syria’s future unity:




Invoking the imposition of th e Sykes-Picot as an explanation of current events–for all the appeal of its cartographical neatness and cross-cultural misunderstandings that underpinned the deal which gave the Arabs less say over the determination of their boundary-lines–may be beside the point.  It casts Syrians as actors who react to European cartographers.

What effect was there in Sykes-Picot than the inscription of false boundaries of territoriality among new nation states?  Previously to when Sykes-Picot inscribed these boundaries so optimistically in the land, a clear organization of the provinces that make up the current Iraq existed, but which offered greater respect to divisions of settlement as well as religious and ethnic bodies:




Indeed, calls for a “New Caliphate” on Sunni grounds conjure an illusory harmony that would be more present on a map than on the ground in somewhat romantic and somewhat desperate ways that would be a legitimate representative of the Islamic faith. The expansion of the unity of administration of the region was understood less in terms of notions of territorial possession and coherence, in this 1873 pre-WWI Arab world as a province of Syrian possession in this Arabic map, which labels the Palestinian area as the “Province of Syria” and cast the current region we associate with “Israel” as part of that Province.  But the map is not an equivalent to the expansionist hopes of the current Syrian National Socialist Party:  it rather uses mapping formats to create an undifferentiated waqf that freezes property rights of a privileged few in an administrative region, with only superficial resemblance to the notions of territoriality–which we are tempted (wrongly) interpret as if it possessed territorial boundaries:




But it didn’t have such territorial divisions as a waqf.  Maps of course quite capably conjure imagined social bonds of unity for the West, even across a region where boundaries were perhaps far more fluidly understood, and the attribution and imposition of coherence is particularly difficult at a time when the declaration of a New Caliphate has prompted some soul-searching in social media, and not only among Middle-Eastern intellectuals and religious scholars about how and why this new entity has materialized.  Regional coherence is something more akin to a speculative creation in this 1895 Rand McNally atlas, where “Syria” is prominently noted, but seems to lack clear administrative boundaries, as well as extending to the East Bank of the Dead Sea, abutting Aleppo, Palestine and Lebanon, and the cross-cultural Mesopotamia of particularly fluid bounds.  But to call this administrative map a model or precedent for a divided set of sectarian regions seems too easy an alternative.




This slightly subsequent 1911 Rand McNally map of administrative divisions is difficult to read as a guideline or model for what might emerge, especially because of the sustained violence that has emerged in the region. But what, for that matter, is Syria?  Although the costs of war always resist mapping, the involvement of foreigners on sectarian grounds in the country’s civil strife that make boundaries and territoriality subvert any clear mapping of the war.  The hidden motion of military materiel across boundaries have  as Ban ki-Moon has recently astutely observed, escalate the military violence in the region in ways that upend any narrative of victory:  as aerial bombardment of civilians continue, while others are starved, and flows of refugees grow, the massive costs of war are pushed down the road. Is this search for a map in any way able to be compared to the impact of the destruction of sovereignty or territory and regional destabilization that was accomplished in the Iraq war? Of course, a scrabble to inscribe such divisions in order to administer or effectively organize the region for exploitation and commerce emerged after World War I, with the Ottoman Empire’s demise. The image of the area could have, of course, been quite different, and were actively proposed on repeated occasions, with the promise from the English that Arabs were worthy of greater territory for joining combat against the Ottoman Empire.  Multiple acts of cartographical conjuring exist:




For boundary lines know no inherent bounds in the region, and are not themselves the basis to generate its unity.  As recently as 2011, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party evoked the expanse of Syrian lebensraum, appealing to the unity of a catalogue of ancient semitic tribes of Mesopotamia, addressing linguistic and cultural divisions in the region by defending the “organic unity” of a “greater Syria” that occupied the Fertile Crescent as one region that “blended Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hiffites [sic], Metanni and Akkadians.”   This oddly erudite neoclassical spin on the ancient world as bound by the Taurus and Zagros mountains around Mesopotamia is pictured below.   The recent map of Syria’s Social Nationalist Party indeed enacts its own cartographical fantasia, by encompassing modern Israel in its bounds, and renaming the Mediterranean as the “Syrian Sea” that adopts a vision of the region from Damascus which oddly perpetuates the Sykes-Picot myth that all sovereign bodies are to take more modern form as territorialized nation states by mapping their frontiers on clear lines, yet also to try to reconfigure the map of the Mid-East around a mythical-historical image of “Syria”–and treating the map as an explicit vehicle for national propaganda.




6.  Remapping Syria?

How to even consider boundaries based on the return to a potentially endless redrawing of lines? There is currently much talk of the necessity of partition and even support for partition from Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, since the geopolitical world of post-WWI Europe is not alive, nor the Cold War détente that inherited it after WWII, in hindsight it is incredible that spheres of influence weren’t seen as perhaps just the wrong way to continue to conceptualize the region, and even buffer-zones, which tend to misunderstand the on-the-ground divisions in terms of a jigsaw puzzle of a map that isolates what we define as potential radicalism.  

Especially as the considerable stakes for geopolitical control of regions of oil and gas supplies become obscured in the very mapping of ethnic or religious diversity. With increasing atrocities on the rise in Iraq, any prospects for a peaceful resolution more distant, subverted by regional violence across Iraq, the needs of refugees and people have been obfuscated–as have the different divisions of faith.  And ISIL has emerged as a uniquely border-crossing state, linking both Syrian and Iraqi sides of the Euphrates and using border crossings as sites to exchange personnel, war materiel, and munitions, linking two nations separated for a century by a border line as a new entity, as well as to hold potential energy sources–like the Haditha Dam or Falluja Dam–on which so many Iraqis depend. How can one map destabilization without reverting to a map dismembered by ethnic divisions?

The re-writing of the border between two states once were constructed by Europeans is an active re-writing of the political topography of the region, to be sure, although it is difficult at this point to know how it would translate into a map, or be translated into a pragmatics of mapping.  The discussion of remapping the region in ways that would respond to the tensions between groups’ relation to Islamic religion don’t bode all that well. In Iraq, it increasingly seems that the potential canonization among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions, the disintegration of the territoriality of a bounded state provides a poor analogy for the sorts of sectarian division that we are likely to see:  while it might be opportune for the West to imagine an oil-rich Shiite stronghold in the heart of Southern Iraq, would the concentration of wealth or resources in any way benefit the society as a whole or at large? If, as Robert Worth has suggested in the New York Times, “greater power . . .  ultimately . . . devolve to provinces and cities — a process that has already been underway since the Arab uprisings,” is the sort of de facto partition of Iraq, a nation that has existed some ninety years, into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish districts.  This is the same sort of sectarian war that ISIL–or ISIS–seeks to incite. Such increased parcellization of regions not only risks the stoking of ethnic animosities, but if analogous to the sort of “controlled burnings” of forest fires, to destabilize the region rather than serve the interests of its inhabitants.  We surely seem to impute a oppositional divisions among Shia militias and Sunni groups than may in fact exist.

These divisions are not at all so clear on the ground, or perhaps so clearly beneficial to anyone in the long- or short-term:  there seems to be a fomenting of religious divisions among a region, but perhaps the continued resort to a drawing and redrawing of lines to create a sense of unity offers the least chance of clarity or resolution. We have, in the West, perhaps performed something of a sense of collective amnesia, in our evocation of Sunni and Shia animosities, and Kurdish separatism, of the huge divisions of destabilization that we have so readily performed on the same territory in the more immediate past. Even the most recent invaders of the region appear unlikely to remember the instability and geopolitical disruptions that have so deeply undermined the region’s political coherence.  One might more meaningfully and profitably look at far more recent maps to begin to map the continued destabilization that has recently played out across the region as a whole.  For these divisions not only re-wrote the administrative divisions between the regions in the Ottoman state’s provincial borders–although it recalls the division between Mosul, Zor, Basra, and Baghdad, now redesigned to encompass the desert regions west of the Euphrates around Baghdad as if it were Berlin–but failed to respect the differences on the ground that Iraqis faced in seeking to act as administrators of a “new” land of ancient divides.


Division of Irq 2004 by forces


The above map of the occupying forces of Iraq were not explicitly directed toward Syrian territory or sovereignty, but created a site of desirability and destabilization from which future divisions of the region–and the relative success and difficulty of ISIL (or ISIS) must be mapped, as well as the hunger for a New Caliphate.  For what is a New Caliphate, but a recuperation of an ancient dream of peaceful unity?  Some years ago, Syria’s 92-year-old mufti quickly issued religious edicts that called for Syrians to fight in Iraq and sanction suicide operations against the Americans and their allies even though he was a renowned man of peace, as his words, with those of other clerics, inspired men from Aleppo, Damascus, and elsewhere in Syria who became the prime exponents of a jihadist movement.  Their maps of regional organization, as much as the maps of military control, are worth our attention and investigation.


Coda for Syria?


Filed under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bashar al-Assad, ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Malise Ruthven, Mapping Syrian Civil War

Cabstopping: Data Visualization and the Re-Mapping of Urban Space

Data visualizations often employ maps to make their point, and organize an effective argument that will engage their audience:  when we see data embodied in a map, and are best engaged in its interpretation.  The alchemy of the data visualization is a magic way to throw the map’s content into multiple dimensions:  data visualizations offer plastic forms of mapping to illustrate the way we fill and occupy space, transforming the mechanics of mapping specifically intended to track the stability (and meaning) of constructions of place, and orient us to different perspectives on how we move through space.  We can better understand the ways links can be drawn about data in clear synoptic terms, and reassured by the act of discovering new patterns in a readily recognizable form.  In describing the spatial distribution of an attitude or affinity, maps are readily consumed.  But they are also cognitive tools to process shifting notions of place:  the sleek tapering negative lines in the above visualization of San Francisco’s cab traffic offers a dynamic model to define the inhabitation of urban space and how relations between cities’ center and margins might be best mapped.

Data visualizations are not present in the recently published primer “Make Map Art” invites us to adopt traditional cartographical tools as helpful strategies to “creatively illustrate your world.”  Mapping has long been rooted in the world of graphic design, and the siblings Sue Swindell and Nate Padavickake Map Art invite readers to embrace the diffusion of mapping as a form of making in the service of self-expression in this lovely book, whose championing of the hand-made map seems a counter-strategy to the near-ubiquity of Google Maps on hand-held screens and maps in evites, embedded in social media, that direct us to a destination.   The toolkit in Make Map Art invites us to adopt tools and forms of maps not only as orienting tools but instruments of “creative illustration” that suggest we rehabilitate forms of mapping as our own tools.  These maps are marketed more as a hobby than a strategy of resistance:  but in their romanticized vision of the self-made map, a sort of trickle-down of the popular resurgence of hand-drawn maps, they neglect the diversity of spatial knowledges in their “creative toolkit” of easily mastered tools of design.  The handsome how-to book offers some twenty projects by which to frame  cartographical interventions in a world already abuzz with maps:  but the forms of mapping 2-D toolkit primarily marketed in stationery shops and bookstores neglect the most interesting ways cartographical design has caught up with how increasingly stark social divides have come to structure quite divergent perceptions of space.

Web-based maps are not included among the toolkit for map-your-life/make-meaning-from-maps they present, since their medium doesn’t fit the niche audience or the Luddite inflection of the book–or the sense that the map, once considered a tool of government, can be a relaxing way to order space in a world where we are all too often confronted or running to consult a handheld screen.  But this might be unfortunate.  For in a culture where we are consulting or faced by screens in  the forms of attentiveness data-driven maps create compelling models for charting our occupation of space and indeed processing our own relation to space in particularly creative ways.  If the screen often provides compelling tools to grasp our increasingly uneven occupation of space to a degree of visual attention unlike–although not foreign to–static maps.  They can show us how we fill space, and how our experience of place is redefined with a rapidity that the static design of a local or regional map has difficulty continuing to fulfill its orienting functions.  We are impoverished by circumscribing our access to a full range of mapping forms.



SF Traffic


In their engaging how-to book of personalized map design, Swindell and Padavick offer a something like a basic toolkit for those eager to respond to fears of being dominated by data.  In designing customized maps, one might resist widespread concern for being regularly mapped by unwanted forms of surveillance, and indeed dominated by the ways in which our lives are regularly mapped.  But Padavick and Swindell don’t push back that hard: they dwell in the cozily utopian idealized spaces that any map invites viewers to inhabit. It’s cool to play with our sense of space and abilities to create forms of personal orientation for ourselves or indulge in returning to cut-and-paste type of social media of material design in a DIY guide for fashioning personalized geographies ready “to be framed and displayed as artwork” to gain new decorative status as personalized cartographies.

Data visualizations, unlike static maps, define the networks of interaction in which we have increasingly become enmeshed, tracing forms of  inhabiting place that are often illuminating of the complexity of navigating place than they are comfortably reassuring.  Map-based data visualizations orient us to the shifting ways we fill space and inhabit our streets, and make interpretive demands on their viewers about how we actually have come to use our space.  For while the formats of maps offer cool tools of spatial orientation that remind us of the favorite streets we love–and how we walk across them–if the alchemy of data visualizations remake maps as especially creative tools of engaging with one’s environment, they process our own relation to a built space in dynamic ways, effectively organizing our orientation to space by revealing contours of divergent perceptions of and access to space in cities–spaces that are now no longer easily mapped by public transport maps, grids of streets, or even schools and social services.  The patterns that data aggregates are particularly valuable as a tool to unpack the changing occupation of urban spaces, from public parks to freeways to avenues, and to interrogate the practical and real boundaries of known space.


1.  Maps that derive from big data offer particularly versatile tools, in contrast, to visualize the ways that we inhabit space and, by extension, how we travel through it and make it our own:  much as flows of information or currency or patterns of immigration, data maps show patterns of collective action that is rarely otherwise aggregated, and help us visualize how we inhabit space in dynamic ways.   They present the ability to map a network around both space and place as, indeed, constitutive of both, dispensing with and not adopting a static cartographical frame of reference to describe our relationship to space.  The alchemy of data visualizations allows us to  illustrate shifting relations between urban centers and peripheries in a map, tracking shifts in the nature of mobility in urban space, beyond a physical plant, but embodying how GPS readings tracked each cab across urban space as they move on major arteries, noting not only their positions over time, but indicating patterns of traffic, shifts in density at different times, relative rates of acceleration and different speeds of travel–all to chart how different dynamics by which the aggregate of cab riders’ experiences across urban space, the access to urban space that the self-selected demographic of cab-riders share, and the areas of cities that remain off their maps.

The dynamic results of such data visualizations provide compelling ways to understand the organization of urban space.  And in such lies their attraction for puzzling the existence and resilience of place.  “Cabspotting” at San Francisco’s Exploratorium invites us to track cabs as they carry fares at different rates of speed and acceleration across that city’s thoroughfares.  The data visualization is designed after the pioneering aggregate mapping of cabs in San Francisco’s streets by stamen design’s Shawn Allen and Eric Rodenbeck, displayed in a gallery setting in 2008 at MoMA, and first designed in 2005 by Scott Snibbe, Amy Ballin, and Stamen design.  This “high art” of data visualization was devised as a tool to reveal social, economic, and cultural data about the city in a variety of video platforms, exploiting the ability to download massive amounts of data about city cabs in aggregate that could be graphically condensed to a single image of apparent simplicity that spoke volumes on space use.  “Cabspotting” (2005) created an innovative alternative model of revisiting the city as a permeable and open space that was at the same time structured by economic patterns and social divisions in urban space:  the famous visualization of how people use cabs to inhabit urban space re-envisioned the city’s physical plant in a dynamic data-driven pattern varying trail length in response to cab speed.  Its particular power as a data visualization lies in its tracing of a collective iteration of individual itineraries, whose line thickens as they accelerate, creating an image that asks viewers to cathect to real routes through and across the city–either in an aggregate view as below, or in a real-time film of the routes and speeds on which cabs move.




We are able to enter into the pathways along which the city plan is traversed and experienced, as well as occupying an Olympian point of view.

The sinuous traces left by the aggregate of cab-fares allow us to watch cabs moving at different velocity and acceleration across the city, to reveal a haunting socioeconomic X-Ray of the city’s space, and pathways within in its streets.  While omitting large areas of poorer regions, from Hunters Point, Bayshore, or Daly City, it illuminates areas in the financial district arrived at with disposable income:  thick lines of rides near the shores show a general acceleration, especially on the Central Freeway, Market St., the James Lick Freeway or the 101 and 280, as well as along the Bay Bridge and out to the Airport, reveal a dense distribution of cab lines filling the city plan that hinges on Market Street.  The absence of a network of freeways built within the city seems to have helped cabs’ circulation, but cabs are limited to a dense occupation of downtown streets.  Indeed, if the sort of freeways and highways were built over and across the space of San Francisco in the way that they were in other cities, perhaps the illumination of that gridded downtown would be less prominent in the Stamen visualization–although one can still discern the 101 or James Lick Freeway and Marina Boulevard leading to Ghirardelli Square in the Stamen map, imagine the shifting spatial spread in a city defined by the proposed arterials which would have rendered the city more navigable, but faced such intense local opposition that they were never built.




The animation of traffic around San Francisco Cabspotting celebrated the unique space of San Francisco’s streets, removed from a world fearing surveillance.  It also provided a model for processing data from taxis to illustrate the ways we use cabs to inhabit and navigate a city’s streets, emphasizing what routes cabs take and how San Francisco’s urban space is navigated, by taking up the perhaps oxymoronic proposition of surveillance technology as truly inspirational, in Scott Snibbe’s phrase.  The resulting graphic illuminates a hidden geography of how San Francisco is experienced across time in cabs, whose tracks trace a socioeconomically differentiated space in ways that cast the city’s physical plant in a dramatically new lens, where the density of downtown peters out to wisps along those avenues where fewer cabs run their fares:  Cabspotting set a compellingly high bar for data art.

The compelling portrait that emerges from the Stamen visualization offers of primary routes of cab entry generated considerable excitement for a virtual palimpsest of how urban space is navigated by paying customers in a city on a single day.  In ways that privilege specific areas of the downtown, and the larger streets–around the bay near the Embarcadero, down Geary Street, along Mission Ave. or nearby Civic Center, it suggests a living template of the city, noting each cabbie’s trajectory of driving by a white line, and increasing the size of its ghostly white lines by velocity and frequency of cabs.   As a form of GPS-based art, the ghostly image of the city may have shaped Jeremy Wood’s use of GPS in 2009 to track his personal cartography in the Gliclée print “My Ghost”, imaging an overlay of his own itineraries over the span of a year, but Wood’s image lacked the richness of wealth implicit in Stamen design’s data overlay.  Even if it suggested the lack of access of certain areas of London to Wood’s experience of the city, and a wide wandering over a hairy looping of space, the individual migrations through London streets suggests restless  iteration of an individual across city streets, unlike the densely packed social clustering of cabs  concentrated in the downtown San Francisco and accelerating along freeway lines.



The image of Snibbe and Rodenbeck offered a memorable real-time contours for a city’s urban space that show a far less dispersive wandering around the vagaries of urban byways, and a focussed repetition of routes around a relatively restricted urban grid.  In each of its successive animated time-lapse iterations and real-time rehearsals, the Stamen’s “Cabspotting” re-mapped urban space by tracking the collective aggregate of motion across urban space, using data from embedded GPS data of position, speed and acceleration to remap a strikingly plastic living urban landscape in dynamic–if haunting–ways:  pay-per-fare riders sculpt streams of traffic across its major streets and thoroughfares, rife with cab rides, appear illuminated by the aggregated overlay of rides over time, showing the different rides of the city that were being performed as if to condense a residue of the collective transit through the city around select hubs and thoroughfares of increasing or diminishing traffic.


Stamen Cabs


2.  The wealth of data that the GPS measurements record allows one “map” space around each of the “lines” that designate cab-rides by relative speed, using red to highlight moments of acceleration at a fixed period, in a time-lapse moving image that traced the matrix of the city’s streets.  In ways that predate but prefigure the current rise of on-demand  smartphone-based apps as Umber or Hailo which aim to displace the local cab economies in most metropoles, the pulsing traffic of animated  tracking of taxi-cabs renders the city’s grid in a wonderfully dynamic way:  Cabspotting serves to delineate clear economic patterns and socioeconomic points about how different folks perceive the same space of the city.  The dense glow of traffic around Union Square of cabs parked, circling, or just stationary reveals a center of commercial congregation.


colored map cabs' speeds


Such tracking of cab-traffic of course may sharply differ in other urban spaces, where centers or commercial districts are more concentrated or differently distributed, and access to space less clearly privilege distinct thoroughfares.   The real-time tracking features of Cabspotting liberated static models of mapping by using GPS to amass data in ways Rodenbeck and Allen could readily visualize in clean lines.  But the “snapshot”-like nature of the Stamen graphic led to some early envy in data visualization, as Kottke and folks on the East coast imagined what a similar data vis of taxi flow for midtown New York would look like, and first obtained the GPS data from taxi trips to create an image of the “vital signs” of where cabbies picked up their fares in the first half of 2009.

The resulting temporal condensation of an animated sequence of cab traffic between January to March, once sped up to suggest something of a regular flow over time  is clearly made to appear synchronized with human cycle of breath, as if to suggest its record of the vitality of the city’s traffic, with fares increasing from 7 am to 8 am, expanding to their highest density in midtown every morning, pausing, and rising again, only to decline in their yellow-hued intensity by nighttime, and leave the city blanched in the early a.m. hours.  (The maps should be looked at by anyone interested in hailing a cab, and as a companion piece to the guide of NYC cab etiquette–asking cabbies “What route do you think fastest?” “instills trust in the driver”, rather than giving directions on where to go–although it is unable to be accessed in real time.)


Densest at midtown #4


This apparently anthropomorphic time-lapsed image created suggests the inexorable daily constriction and dilation of the city’s vascular system, in tempo with the gorging of taxi fares that slowly dissipate, as if in a forced analogy for urban vitality:  the density of fares in midtown suggest clots more than flow, but provided a neat heat-map of city traffic’s frenetic pace. The distinct flow of cab traffic responds to the dense layout of Manhattan, and the saturation of the midtown and lower Manhattan with cab rides that fan up and down its major avenues.  Unlike the smooth flows out of arterials and to the outer edges of San Francisco, the knotted nature of the New York City visualization suggested a rigorous diurnal rhythm of relatively small trips of privatized transport, densest at the city’s midtown hubs, and reaching over to its wealthier east-side avenues.  But while its anthropomorphic form may be stretched as a bridge fusing nature and culture, the map reveals in important ways the individual specificity of taxi patterns within an urban topography, and indeed the specific diurnal fluctuations that define the demand of taxis–fading as we approach uptown above the blip of the 79th street subway lines–and suggest distinct rhythms of distributions and concentrations of demand for cabs that appear across each urban space, focused in midtown below Central Park, along Broadway and Third Avenue, and specific spots in lower Manhattan.


Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM Screen shot 2010-04-05 at 9.05.50 AM taxi-flow-nyc   taxi-flow-nyc

The specific density of midday midtown reveals a complicated geographical picture a city served by experienced drivers doubtless working in tandem with a sense of its rhythm, best able to gauge the shifting traffic contours of urban avenues.


Densest at Midtown #2

This image, if interesting, has been recently refined in a two-color data visualization that refine the image of how New Yorkers enter and exit from taxis to navigate New York’s urban space.



3.  The more recent visualization of Eric Fischer has re-mapped a specific topography of ‘cabstopping’ by aggregating the range of cab hailings (blue) and destinations (orange) across the city for 2013.  An even more massive amount of cab data was recently declassified after Chris Whong and Andrés Monroy used New York City’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain a copy of the taxi records from 2013 they soon published on the web.  The big data of some 187 million geo-located cab-rides inspired transportation visualization guru Eric Fischer to map the aggregate of total rides taxi drivers gave passengers across Manhattan’s particularly packed automotive space, now on Map Box, in a striking visualization of the collective use of cabs across Manhattan.  The map’s strikingly clear block-by-block topography is of striking precision; it illuminates how densely cabs are concentrated in midtown Manhattan and how specifically the vast majority of pick-ups and drop-offs center in specified regions–and how omnipresent are cabs up to Columbia University and 96th on the East:  cab-density, unsurprisingly, is a measure of socio-economic wealth and property value.


Big Mapping NYC Taxi Trips from Open Data


The social topography of the city is balanced by the white skein of veins in midtown that define a special density of cab-use along major traffic arteries.  And it presents one way of mapping a changing configuration of center and periphery across the city. For Fischer, a fan of both crowd-sourced mapping and urban transport system, dissected the data in visually compelling ways by highlighting the starts of taxi rides in blue and the end-points of destinations in orange, a spectrum that allows us to map the topography of collective cab-use around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The demand for local usage of cabs isn’t divided into analytics, but provides an image of the density of cab-use in an actual topography before folks like Uber or Hailo threaten change its face–and seem to use their own GPS tracking to exploit by a smartphone app to connect passengers with vehicles of hire, provoking some concern about using GPS to charge fares, and adjusting fare rates in relation to the density of traffic flows:  indeed, the apparently clear preference of New Yorkers to use Uber in off-peak hours and geographically removed and less-served locations suggest that Uber might, in New York, be better conceived as complimentary to the apparently engrained services of other cabs.


Uber hand


The data that maps coordinates for the start and end of cab rides provided a way to “map” what places New Yorkers are most likely to hail a cab–perhaps the most difficult places to get a cab, but also no doubt those areas where cab-drivers aware of an increased demand–as local knowledge of cab-riding more informational of urban space than even the most comprehensive transit map–and perhaps augur the life-span of cabs in the age of Uber.  It also offers a readily accessible instance of open data which provides a nice counterpoint to the banality of the Google-Maps-based cityscapes that feature on demand cab-hailing apps:  or the difficulties for the sophisticated software that sets its rates in relation to the hours of increased intensity to offer what an actually accurate image of the urban space in which it promises travel.




But lets return to the subtlety Fischer’s coding of end points in orange and sites of hailing in blue allows.  The aggregation is so dense that it defines the entire street grid.  Most superficially, a scan of the data visualization he posted shows the hailing of cabs to be clustered on avenues where cabs congregate and course North or South–joins legibility with aesthetics, charting where New Yorkers access and stop cabs to tell us a lot about the navigation of the city’s grid in its crowd-sourcing of automotive itineraries.  It deserves plaudits for elegantly synthesizing an exact visualization of the unique ways that folks use urban space:  of the over a million and a half taxi-rides that were taken in 2013, most concentrated in the cab-mecca of Manhattan, most seem to be taken along the North-South axes of the avenues, somewhat predictably, with a striking density of destinations on almost all of the major streets, often ending along North-South avenues.  Fischer’s map almost illuminates the grid of city streets in ways that tell us considerably amount the range of disposable income available to Manhattanites as well as to most visitors to New York.  The intense activity that the cab occupies as a sort of “second car” and mode of transit suggest a fully served community, if it sacrifices data on speed, acceleration, and delays that might be necessary to really measure effectiveness.


187 mill Taxi Trips in NYC


4.  Access to this huge data offered a rich vein of data for Fischer, a data artist who often sources huge amounts of information off Twitter, to work characteristic visualization alchemy in a static spectrum to conveys the dynamics of how people move in patterns to organize urban space.  While the image is 2-D, the fading and clustering of its range of illumination invest the Manhattan grid with an illusion of three-dimensionality by using a simple set of primary hues.  Indeed, the phosphorescent blue taxi pick-ups create indelible records of where the cabs were “spotted” and used, although something of a patina in this digital visualization is created by shimmering “GPS-static” in the more densely built skyscrapers of the city, which are odd artifacts of the mechanics of data collection:  as Fischer notes, in certain spots, GPS signals have reflected off buildings’ windows, in ways that add an other (if not welcome) layer of legibility to the map of the city’s space.  (Far crisper contours of cabs’ signals arrive from streets that service the much lower-lying buildings of Brooklyn or other boroughs, even if cab-traffic there is far less intense.) We can read the data visualization to detect the conscious choices of cab drivers to negotiate the flows of urban traffic, even though the image is static, based on the similar clustering of overlays in data.    Although midtown is somewhat filtered beneath  a gauzy layer of interference or blur of GPS-signals’ distortion, as is much of lower Manhattan, reflecting the interference created by urban canyons of clustered skyscrapers that render GPS reception less precise–though we can see the white heat of cabs hailed or congregated at businesses and hotels that serve as sites of conferences and conventions, and detect a temptation to leave rides on East-West streets,as on Central Park South and 57th Street:


Blur of Midtown's White Heat


The data visualization charts the tacit mechanics of the topography of cab use, by using a orange-blue color differentiation to set of regions where destinations dominate cabs hailed or flagged and journeys begun, and where they leave passengers.  We can see a sharp preference to take cabs to destinations on East-West streets, negotiating a topography of traffic that taxi drivers’ familiarities with the different velocity in the white-lit larger avenues control.  In contrast, the specificity of red bulbings of destinations at various crosstown blocks where passengers stopped cabs suggests a specifically situated transportation midtown, even with clear evidence of the blurriness of GPS-interference.  (GPS fixes are also less easily held near LaGuardia airport, as bright red “worms” approach the access roads of terminals, as if to indicate “premature” arrival of a cab stopping before where they were surely headed; a pattern of blue blurs result that seem air-brushed, in comparison to the crisp lines in Cabspotting.)


GPS Fixes near LaGuardia Airport

If the Bay Bridge stood as a beacon of taxi density in the Stamen visualization of San Francisco, La Guardia seems a brightly burning beacon off Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge provides a lighter but indelible tie recording of inter-borough taxi traffic.

The traffic patterns recorded in the visualization reveal a palimpsest that demand interpretation of denser lines of red (where cabs leave folks in the city) and a tool to investigate how city space is used and what neighborhoods visited per annum:


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


Red lines are veins across New York City’s Central Park, where one can’t imagine the destinations are actually along the crosstown lanes of traffic that run on paved roads across the park, where tunnels that cabs run through seem to have interrupted the GPS signals as well at 86th street, 81st Street, and 66th:


Veins around park and Mysterious Red Dots

Brightly lit blue lines illuminate 5th Avenue, a street almost always crowded with cabs, and light up both lanes of Broadway, in ways that offer a beautiful visualization of the way we demand to be driven in Manhattan’s urban space and across its street plan that demand to be pored over with a magnifying glass in hand to best interpret its elegant aggregation.  The map can help us create a better navigable urban space–and perhaps respond to the needs for taking cabs in the city–by mapping needs of public transit, and the readiness of customers to use cabs to navigate urban space.  The street plan provides tons of neat points about the nature of collective behavior, as all aggregated data, nicely foregrounded in Fischer’s color scheme:  just as we detect bright blue sites of starting cab-rides near the Brooklyn Bridge, if considerably brighter in Manhattan, and notice bulb-like orange clumps of drop-offs in Dumbo–the downtown municipal buildings are the looming black blocks.


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2

The blue bulbs at street corners give a more likely (more convenient and better) place to start one’s cab-rides in Manhattan, as our GPS lines bulb out at centers of cab-hailing at intersection in the form of a Q-Tip, suggesting considerable refinement of the data, in spite of the occasional blurred reception of GPS signals:  some corners burn an incandescent blue.


Corners are often Bulbs


5.  The specific transportation needs that taxi cab services supply suggest a distinct manner for negotiating urban space at a pace that public transport can’t provide, and a particularly resilient form of a local economy.  How might this relate to the specifics of the survival of the cab as a viable vehicle and model of transportation (and the regulation under which cabs function)? In an era when GPS’ing pickup locations in the crowded downtown by Uber threatens the cab-drivers who have so long made their livelihood in the city’s streets.  It awaits to see how the density of cab traffic already available in the city will react to the influx of passengers with handhelds.




Indeed, despite the universalizing nature of Umber’s intentions, the app they offer may best function  precisely in those cities and urban areas which fit the traffic patterns specific to San Francisco most closely.  San Francisco, the city where the app was first devised, offers a unique problem of navigation for taxis:  pedestrians and inhabitants both face a scarcity of free cabs and often face the need for long trips from downtown to, say, the Inner or Outer Richmond or Pacific Heights, call cabs over to the East Bay, and are often located at a distance from taxi stands, and where fares might have too much difficulty hailing a cab at later hours.  And where single women who want a secure ride door-to-door make up, it’s been suggested, a major portion of the fares.

As Bradley Voytek has noted in a neat on the Uber Blog, in a neat weighted diagraph visualizing the flow of rides from one of San Francisco’s neighborhoods to another, noting the aggregates of rides leaving a neighborhood by a circle of varying size and drawing weighted arcs in the color of the neighborhood of a destination, the flow of Uber rides predominantly originate from South of Market or downtown–the largest point of departure of Uber clients by far.  Almost all the rides originate from the downtown.  This clustering of rides around a single region of the city suggest a restricted range of sites of departure for on-demand rides, and a marked clustering among three neighborhoods from which users predominantly originate–although it should be noted that Voytek used dated data rather than the data Uber now possesses–and offers a larger visualization here.


Rides into neighborhoods Bradley Voytek


Might one decide to map the different topographies of traffic flow across different cities in the hopes of predicting how well Uber offers a fit for the navigation of a distinct urban space?  Even with the increased homogenization of cities, the underlying plans and patterns of local traffic provide some guide to its potential “fit” with local traffic and cab-use. It demands investigation how the market would adjust for Uber to be most complimentary to local needs.  The integration of GPS with a local taxi economy has been recently argued to create an artificial scarcity of taxis squelching competition, but to champion the free market approach runs the risk of setting off shocks in the local economy of providing short-term rides that has developed in the city’s somewhat fragile transportation economy.  For as well as reveal the pathways of negotiating urban canyons of New York, the visualization reveals a delicate local economy in which car-users navigate the available calculus of transportation–a city where few drive the cars they own every day, and despite a relative density of car-ownership in Manhattan and New York City as a whole.  Indeed, many don’t even rely upon cars–despite the incredible density of cars per square mile in the relatively affluent region, according to the data mapped in StreetsBlog LA.


Vehicles:Sq Mile NYC   Vehicles:Sq MileStreetsBlog LA


Viewed another way–vehicles/person–New York City seems relatively low-density, indeed, because of the sharp contrast to outlying “suburban” areas or peripheries:   few cars are used for commutes, and multiple car ownership is quite rare.  Reasons for owning vehicles shift in different social topographies.


Car Ownership in NYC and environs Vehicles:Person StreetsBlog LA


The stark contrast in the regional distribution of statistics of car ownership are striking on the micro-level of Manhattan are indeed evidence of a large commuting culture, where many cars belong to commuters who live in more car-friendly lands outside the five boroughs:


NY-Vehicles-Per-Person   Car Ownership in ManhattanStreetsBlog LA


While the bulk of cab-rides are based clearly in Manhattan’s metropolitan traffic, where garages are costly and urban street space at a premium, the data visualization reminds us of the continued importance of cab services to negotiate local space.  The relatively subtle tool for moving in a narrow time-window that cabs provide offer an increasingly needed medium to move through and use space that seems unwise to disrupt not only as a way to move the city’s economy, but for the very reason that it is so deeply established of negotiating specific constants of its traffic patterns and laws.  

If Uber is able to navigate it, best of luck.

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Filed under Amy Ballin, cabspotting, data visualizations, Eric Fischer, Eric Rodenbeck, GPS, Kottke, mapping city cabs, maps and surveillance, Scott snibbe, Shawn Allen, Uber, unwanted surveillance

Are We There Yet? The Plane in the Map

New markets of maps are always emerging, and we seem to have our own interest in making maps for an growingly de-centered globalized world.  But perhaps one of the oddest markets is for the rehabilitation of the itinerary in a globalized age, a rehabilitation that seems not only against the grain but designed to bequeath greater familiarity to a space often felt to shift beneath one’s feet.  While airline-produced in-flight tracking maps are generated for paying passengers for utilitarian ends, the fairly antiquated medium of spatial representation is compellingly abstract.  Among the most familiar insistence of the maps we encounter while strapped behind waist-high restraining seat belts, they have been recently marketed as  interesting items for home display.  We’re far more used to watch them in airports, pondering the possible times of delay or the weather patterns that could scotch a trip or one’s best hopes for one of those multi-airport itineraries.   But since 2013–almost an oxymoron–one can not only access on a handheld a worldwide map of all flight delays, or a Flight Aware Misery Map of weather, flight delays, and cancellations across the continental United States, but purchase a personalized printed and beautifully framed 26″ x 29″ one-of-a-kind map of flight itineraries, through a partnership with Sporty’s Pilot Shop, “ideal for office or hangar,” to relive the flights by a sort of symbolic retracing from above of flight paths once taken:

Flight Aware Framed Map


The translation of the iconography of in-flight panels to the framed pictures addresses a select audience.  It suggests a new permutation in the work of art in the age of digital reproduction.  Its very online availability suggests the expansion of in-flight diagrams and FlightTracker programs as acknowledged areas of graphic design and data visualization, as much as a search for new outlets for our augmented abilities of cartographical transcription.  (Perhaps the prime market for such framed mementoes would be airplane pilots, but they are available for the general public.)

The marketing gambit should not be so surprising, given that FlightAware now boasts, as of June 2014, some 4 million registered members, and with its own real-time FlightAware TV, features live maps for HDTV that have inscribed the routes of airplanes onto one’s central nervous system, if not one’s spatial imagination.  Indeed, the purchase of the elegantly framed map is perhaps a memento of the in-flight monitor one watched on the trip, or, better yet, of a spree of business trips between January and June of 2013, say, associated with the marketing of a special new product or an investigation of potential shooting locations or trips of birdwatching, in either case providing a neat memento of the miles one clocked that allowed one to gain enough points for that trip to Java.  One wonders how many of these maps are sold, or where they are displayed.  But the flight-path map is wonderful rehabilitation of that pre-Ptolemaic genre, the itinerary, despite the illusion of the global coverage of in-flight maps:  for these maps are charts of an itinerary, that are meant to be read without any needed consultation of the superfluity of accompanying detail they offer.  What, if any, is their metageography, save the recursive itineraries across a geographic imaginary?  It is hard to say, but it seems to erase or suspend knowledge of learned geography.  True, the AirShow maps used by Air Canada include a degree of topographic detail and bathymetric outlines that suggest the importance of geography in school and university curriculum.  But the chief end of the mapping is to erase the sort of first-hand knowledge characteristic of classical itineraries, and rehabilitate the itinerary in an abstractly Olympian form that fits the sense-deprived medium of air-travel.  One is traveling over, not through, across, around, or beside–not an to show an itinerary of known way posts or recognized landscape markers.


Peutinger chart


In-flight maps are best responding to the anxiety of “are we there yet?” in an knowingly globalized world, however, and marking a known geography while making little demand for geographic familiarity.  The tracking of flights has been greatly improved by Garmin GPS systems, which allow a readily calculated position of the airplane in which one travels above the land.  Rather than trace the motion of the plane across a map, however, as one might by reading such framed mementos of flight-paths, the in-flight map on one’s personal monitor.  Needless to say, the template of the map most often shifts below the plane–itself stationary as a projected map moves beneath the symbolic glyph–in these maps, which allows the plane to be centered in the visual field of the displayed map, simulating a purely schematic but sufficiently convincing view of the plane’s progress:  moving map devices were widely employed before the advent of GPS, based on other methods of determining location; they allowed the option of showing the plane in motion to represent its distance traversed and even elevation.  But as the intersecting position lines of a hyperbolic navigation system, GPS allows greater determination of location to represent simulated overhead views of a slew of planes over stationary or moving maps.

But the expansion of versatile in-flight itineraries clearly seems to be in part technologically driven–as, indeed, are much of the return of GPS-based way finding systems–to counter a sense of disorientation with a graphic based on instrumentally measured knowledge.  The very certitude of tracking a flight path runs in the face of, and replaces, the maps we hold in our heads of global flows or economic and demographic instability, or social unrest.  The expansion of backgrounds to “read” flight itineraries have made huge progress in their relative truth-claims, in a way that often keeps up with the options allowed to be selected on Google Earth, to mimic the LandSat images that provide an illusion of real-time photography of the arcs of flight paths of Air Canada jets, each posed in individual itineraries, like schools of migrating birds or skeins of migrating northern geese, whose routes are readily removed from the terrain, as they in fact positioned in the airspace above it.  We are mapping relations not of proximity, indeed, but relations to a fixed destination–at an abstract remove from geography, but reliant on the map to augment its reality effect.  We are mapping the reassurance of proximity, and the triumph of aircraft technologies over space, rather than mapping lived space.


Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 6.19.17 AM


Flight Aware’s software designers recognize that there are folks who will continue to appreciate the “Classic” viewing mode to picture flight paths within weather systems, for those habituated to a stark background of aerial flights that recall the rather static monochrome monitors or preferring their stark selectivity, as removed from reality as an airline cabin–this is the very mode illustrated in the map featured as a framed keepsake.  There is an undeniable allure o the simplicity and the Olympian supremacy of the in-flight tracing map, if it is not easily understood as an aesthetic marvel.


Flight Aare Classic


For a company like Air Canada caters to a flight belt between the larger cities above the northern 48, illustrated by the dense trajectories headed to and from Toronto of pixellated air craft so wildly out of scale to the point  individual airplanes overlap with each other–but seem convincing to the viewer as an image of individually tracked flights, whose specific itineraries suddenly become apparent as one hovers over each individual aircraft:


Canada Fligths


Canadia latitudes


The web of these itineraries are the true subjects beneath the cartographical field–or scrim–on which the planes’ georeferenced global position is projected, and is given the sense of tangible reality that it would otherwise lack.  Despite the availability of two viewing modes, the optative mode of viewing in Earth Mode, transcribed in real time, placed against a glorious Google Earth-type view, features a superfluity of cartographical detail in its suggestion of oceanic depths and the mapping the fastly receding polar ice-sheets, saturated with far more detail than their users would need, complete with weather conditions and cloud fronts:


Real Time AC


real time AC flightpaths mapped

More AC fligths mapped


There is a clear attempt to create a more meaningful connection to the image in the map by increasing the amount of local detail in its surface.  What else can explain the pleasure afforded by the super-abundance of cartographical data included in the in-flight map one sees on a flight over Thunder Bay, beyond the increased geographical literacy of many Canadian passengers?  There is something suspect in the bucolic view of the landscape over which we travel.


Flying over Thunder Bay to Toronto


What can explain the huge interest in innovating new coverage in this genre of map, if not the ubiquity of charting locations on a smart phone, that pocket-sized pathfinder that seems designed to purify our personal relations to the messy processes of globalization, and the need to offer an even more detailed and compelling view of one’s flight en route to one’s destination?  With the increased ease of creating and tracking global positions in such maps of airplane flights, some “moving map” devices even include an option for allowing the chart to remain stationary, and position the progress of the individual airplane within the map, and even, in some versions, note specific changes in altitude.  When hovering over the tracking map, estimated times of arrival materialize beside each flight path.  When viewing the in-flight map en route, there is even a greater abundance of landscape, detailed as if to convey a sense of awe at the arcing over the continental in a truly transcendent voyage:


Continental View of AIr Canada


The wildly out-of-scale iconography can sometimes get messy in flight-tracking maps:  the problems of overcrowding of flights that may result from the software–or reduced screen size of the monitor–are slightly absurd, due to the density of the sine curve of flight paths used by Air Canada.


Canadia latitudes


oir the density of Boeing 737-800s in one part of the world, where they seemed parked for refueling–all rendered all the more meaningless given the lack of their individual flight paths:


Boeing 737-800


But they also can suggest a map of something like a counter-map of global interconnectivity, if we look at the FlightAware map of flying Airbus 340-300’s across the globe, weaving a web of the virtual trajectories of the Airbus flight paths that link (or wrap) the pristine world below, one that triumphantly heralds the achievement and onward march of globalization in its not-so hidden narrative:


Global interconnectivity of Fligths on Airbus


Surely part of the pleasure of these maps from imagined high altitudes is how they take our eyes off the divisions on the ground below, and ask us to focus on the itineraries in the skies and on the airborne destinations to which they carry us.  Part of their pleasure lies in how decontextualized and how stripped of specific meanings they actually are.  Part of the personal appeal that these maps have lies in how their infinite itineraries run against (or cut across) the notions of embodiment we associate with maps.

In so doing, they take our eyes off of the costs of gas consumption or air pollution of multiple flights, tracing a course above the surface of the map itself, somewhat in the manner of an eighteenth-century chart of navigational routes noted the timetables of Pacific and Atlantic travel–where courses of the instances of known travel of remembered expeditions were rendered and recounted in short textual vignettes beside frigates’ courses.


North America with the Opposite Coasts 1775 London


supposed courses


Unlike this 1775 sailing chart, engraved in London just prior to the Declaration of Independence, privileging paths of nautical navigation to the Americas far above the landmass’ interior, as if for future speculators, the in-flight maps made for airline corporations bear analogous traces of their commercial provenance by what they shift our attention from:  we almost forget that these flight-tracking maps, if admittedly made for one demonstrative or persuasive end of showing time to arrival, omit and mask the continued atmospheric costs of continuing such an access of multiple destinations by air travel–or the gasses and pollution emitted from said flights.   The Institute of Public Policy Research has found that airplane flights–including military and commercial travel–are not only “the least environmentally sustainable way to travel and transport goods” but one of the most dangerous, given.  Our airports are the largest polluters of nitrous oxide of whatever city in which they are located, and, more to the point, flights deposit dangerously concentrate greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere–and air traffic is predicted to grow ten times by 2050.

For the aircraft that travel on these itineraries pump out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, of which they already constitute some 4% of global greenhouse gasses, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and emit toxic gases deposited at the highest elevations in the stratosphere, leaving greatest damage because they will remain twice as long in the atmosphere, and be far more destructive of the earth’s ozone layer.  What isn’t mapped in the itineraries, oddly, is precisely the known costs of making the flights, or the deeper impact the proliferation of apparently innocent lines of air travel on our planet’s atmosphere–revealed in part in the map of NO2 tropospheric density pictured below.


Air Travel Map 2



As of only 2011, the global traffic of planes both parked, taxiing and in flight appears as numerous flies crowding around our centers of population, almost as if to crowd out the idea of embodying a record of inhabited land.  Is this a metaphor to the international fostering of a proliferation of airports on the ground that define our new sense of destinations (and networks) and the crowded color-coded traffic of airplanes in the skies, shown one mid-afternoon, as if buzzing over the prime points of arrival and departure in our new “known” world:


Setp 2 Flights over world


Felix Pharand Duchesnes, director of Globaia, more recently used his desktop computer to map a global web of flight data available online by links  hubs of air travel.  Duchesnes sought to market a clear graphic of the shifting knowledge about the world, and one of the most striking of his dozen “maps” of how humans have changed or created new knowledge about the world  was to map the density of air travel in order better to visualize the extent to which we are impacting our planet on a global scale.  The abstractly rendered lines of air travel traced between illuminated dots not only connect destinations and points of arrival, but offer a purified sort of spatial imaginary:  they are an icon of a process of globalization that denies borders or boundary lines, tariffs, and other impediments to interconnectedness such s economic zones of protection.  The image performs the reverse operation of embodiment that one is habituated to gain from a map:  rather than embodying regions, crisscrossed routes disembody knowledge from an embodied ecumene:  one sees only destinations and starting points and entrepôt, rather than territorial or terrestrial continuity.

Technology That Is Taking Over Our Crowded Planet

Technology That Is Taking Over Our Crowded Planet
Is this model of inscription the sort of mapping that an increasingly airborne economy has come to deserve?


Technology That Is Taking Over Our Crowded Planet

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Filed under Felix Pharand Duchesnes, flght maps, FlightAware, GPS, GPS way-finding systems, in-flight diagrams, mapping flight paths