Archive for the 'News Media' Category


Beautiful Errors

This morning, a friend emailed me a link to this story at the Daily Mail, which contains a number of beautiful maps on America’s infrastructure networks. Go check it out; I’ll wait here while you spend fifteen minutes going “ooh!” and “ahh!” at all the images.

While they are beautiful, they are not without problems. Lovely visuals, deep conceptual errors. Let’s start with the one that stuck out to me, the visualization of job losses. At least, I assume it’s job losses. The caption at the Daily Mail reads, “Unemployment: The number of job losses in the U.S. chronicled in this stunning image.” Unemployment is different than job losses, so I’m not sure which is being mapped, but I suspect the latter.
(EDIT: I’ve lately found the video that these maps come from. This is actually a map showing the distribution of manufacturing jobs in the 1990s. In the video, the dots wink out — turn black — to show the decline of the manufacturing sector. Seen at about 12 min, 50 sec in the video here:

A dot density map is approximately the worst way to look at a data set like this. The author(s) took the number of jobs lost in each state, converted that to a certain number of dots, and then scattered those dots all throughout the state. The result is misleading in several ways. First off, this is really a map of job loss density. The brightest areas are where the dots are clustered, which means a lot of jobs were lost in a tight space. Texas lost a lot of jobs, probably as many as Ohio or Illinois (I’m not going to count every dot, but they probably have similar numbers). But the latter two states look worse off, because they have about the same number of dots crammed into a smaller physical area. Actually, it’s not even a map of job loss density, because the areas of the states are distorted due to curvature of the Earth in this view. Washington, for example, is a lot smaller than if we were looking at it from directly above, and its unemployment picture therefore looks worse. So, this isn’t really a map of “job losses” so much as it’s a map of “job losses divided by the size of each state, if you distort the sizes of the states a lot.”

So, reading the dot concentrations will simply mislead us. But what about the number of dots? If we painstakingly counted them, we could certainly find out at least how many jobs were lost in a state without having to worry about this density issue. Well, the second big problem is that these data aren’t normalized to population. There are a lot more dots in Illinois than in Wyoming. This is because Illinois is a very populous state, whereas no one lives in Wyoming. No account was taken, seemingly, of population differences. Some states are being hit harder by the recession than others, but all you can tell from this map is that places that had more people lost more jobs. I quickly found this table prepared last year and it points out that Nevada has been hammered by the downturn, losing 8% of its jobs. Ohio, on the other hand, lost only 2.6%. But when you look at the map, which state looks worse off?

Lastly, jobs weren’t lost evenly throughout each state, so why scatter the dots evenly? Probably because the author(s) only had state-based data, but making some account for population locations would be nice. Why show a sea of lost jobs in eastern California, which is mostly desert, mountains, and unpopulated forests? The exact locations of the dots are meaningless anyway, since they’ve been distributed randomly in each state.

This map should have been a choropleth of job losses per state divided by population. It’s not nearly as sexy, but it’s also not seriously misleading.

(EDIT: As said, this critique was based on an inaccurate description of what this map is about, and I apologize for not doing my research. Much of the critique still stands — showing dots still seems odd for this data set. It’s a map of “manufacturing jobs divided by the size of each state, if you distort the sizes of the states.” The need for normalization is probably less, as well, though it couldn’t hurt.)

The dot density map was what galled me. On the other hand, my friend Chris, who sent me the link, was bothered by the map of wireless access towers:

I can’t say for certain without hearing the accompanying narration (EDIT — see below), but the author(s) very likely received a data set which had point locations for towers and broadcast power, and simply made circles proportional to the power. That’s all quite reasonable, but the map very much looks like it’s trying to portray the actual signal coverage areas, and that’s a very different thing. Most any electromagnetic signal coming from a tower is not going to move in a perfect, even circle away from the transmission point. It gets distorted by a lot of things — buildings get in the way, so do mountains and other terrain features, and the Earth’s magnetic field also affects it. And if it’s been broadcast by a directional antenna, the signal starts out stronger in some directions than others. Presenting these transmissions as circles is an overly idealized view of how they work. Even if the authors were only using circles as a symbol for power, rather than suggesting these are areas of coverage, a lot of people are going to misunderstand this as the latter. Every reader brings their own interpretations to the map, and it’s not always the one the author wants. The best you can do is try and head them off.

(EDIT: Again, I’ve now looked up the relevant section in the video to figure out what they map is actually of. It’s found at 40:20 in this video: — the narrator doesn’t actually say what the map is of; it just shows while he talks about how your wireless signal is bounced between towers, so I’d say the critique above stands as is. If anything, I’d say my point about misunderstanding the map is even stronger, because the program really does leave it up to you to figure out what’s going on.).

All the maps on this site have a pseudo-realistic appearance, and they’re even discussed as though you’re “seeing what the nation looks like from the skies.” My colleague Marty Elmer pointed out to me that this realism means an increased expectation of accuracy. If you’re telling me that I’m floating above the US, really seeing the job losses or broadcast signals, I’m likely to believe that this is really how things are distributed on the ground. That the signals really are circles, or the jobs really were lost in the woods of northern Michigan. I’m less likely to take the thematic data as an abstraction because the base map, with its fancy lighting effects and clouds, doesn’t look very abstracted. Generalization is not just about redrawing your linework to the right scale; it’s about credulity. This was one of the biggest points I would emphasize to my students back when I lectured on the subject. Visual abstraction needs to match data abstraction. Readers seeing a highly simplified visualization will assume the data are likewise telling a highly simplified story. If they see a very realistic and detailed basemap, they’re likely to assume that the data have been treated similarly.

In the end, we’re left with beautiful, but potentially (or sometimes outright) misleading images, and that’s a travesty. These are for a television special, and besides going in front of millions of eyes on PBS, these works will very likely go around the Internet to millions more. The maps are lovely to look at, and this means they’ll get a chance to misinform many, many more people. It’s a shame, because it’s a squandered opportunity to inform people about actual facts. Imagine pairing quality visuals with well-thought-out data treatment and map concepts, and how far that would go. But infotainment isn’t about the substance, just the style. See the headline to that Daily Mail link, for example — “Secret corpse flights,” as though this transport of bodies were illicit, rather than a routine movement of your loved ones to their desired resting place. It makes a good story, even if it’s not true.

Also: poor Alaska and Hawaii. They remain, as ever, second-class states.

One Nice Thing: I could go on for a long time about how excellent these look. Maps need to be beautiful if you want people to look at them and spend the time to learn something off them. I’d love to see the author(s) continue to do this great work, just with better data and ideas for portraying it.


Texas Grows 70% Each Year

Welcome back, everyone, to Cartastrophe: The Blog with First-World Problems (as a reader rightly pointed out recently). Today’s effort comes to us from the folks at the Associated Press:

This choropleth appeared this morning accompanying a story I was reading online about the new population numbers out of the Census Bureau. Most of the map is unremarkable, but the legend is worth noting. According to the title on the legend, the colors indicate population growth, in thousands. But, the actual numbers in the legend are marked as percentages. It is probably unreasonable of me to believe that the population of Texas increased 20,000%, as that would put their current population somewhere above 4 billion people. I believe that these numbers are intended to be percentages, and that the title on the legend is simply incorrect. Perhaps this map was made by altering an existing product, and the author forgot to make some necessary changes.

The more subtle, and much more common, problem with the legend is the arrangement of the numbers. There’s an overlap to the data classes. If a state had 10% growth, does it go in the third class or the fourth? Better, I think, to add a decimal place to these numbers so that the separation is clear: 5.0-9.9, 10.0-14.9, etc. Gaps between classes make it plain which numbers go in which class. Alternately, a more complex solution is a redesign of the legend. It may be possible to visually clarify that the 5-10 class includes all numbers from 5 up until, but not including, 10. Here’s a mockup of something that comes to mind as a potential design solution:

That may or may not be too difficult for the average reader to interpret. It’s off the cuff, so I’m not entirely certain about its merits, but I do believe there are visual solutions to this problem as well as ones which rely on changing the numbers. The latter may be more clear, ultimately.

The colors for the choropleth are largely fine, but I think the various shades of blue are a bit too close to each other to easily match back to the legend. Reducing the classes by one, or by making the darkest blue even darker and stretching the color ramp out would help ease this.

One Nice Thing: I appreciate the author’s use of small boxes of color next to the state names in the northeast. The states get pretty small up there, and figuring out the color of Delaware can be challenging. With this solution, there are always legible swatches of color associated with each state.


Tectonic Junction, What’s Your Function?

My last post generated a few comments from readers out there who disagreed with some of my assessments, and I wanted to start off today by mentioning that I appreciate hearing other people’s opinions on these things, and that I hope you will all continue to weigh in whether you agree with me or not. On further reflection, I think I was perhaps unfair in some elements of my critique last week. But, I have been ill for the past while, and so I’ll just pretend that my condition impaired my judgment. Of course, I’m still a bit ill now, but we’ll try to avoid a repeat.

Today’s map was submitted by my colleague Tim Wallace, who is responsible for naming this blog. We work in a building that also houses the Arthur Robinson Map Library, which occasionally gives away unwanted materials. Tim found this one on the free map table:


Detail - click for full size. Provenance unknown - obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009

Detail. Obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009.

The provenance is unknown – it’s printed on thin magazine paper with a torn edge, and the reverse side contains portions of two articles which don’t identify the publication, though the corner reads “September 1979.” On the off chance you happen to know where it comes from, please write to me at

I found the logic behind the legend confusing for a good while until I noticed the numbers. It appears that we have a map here which shows seismic risk for various tectonic plate boundaries. Red is the highest seismic potential. A fine-grain black-and-white checkered pattern is the lowest. Peach and yellow are in-between. This seems to come up every week on this blog, but I’ll say it again: if you’re showing ordered data, like high-to-low seismic potential, use an ordered set of symbols (colors, in this case). This is one reason why the legend threw me. Areas marked “Plate motion subparallel to arc” are apparently of a moderate-to-low seismic potential. But, because of the fact that they use a checkerboard pattern, and because I hadn’t the damnedest what that phrase meant, I couldn’t tell that item #4 on the legend was part of a larger scheme. This is worse than just misuse of colors; patterns are being thrown in needlessly now, too.

I could, in fact, still be reading this whole legend wrong, and reflecting poorly on the institution that agreed to award me a bachelor’s degree a few years ago. Feel free to comment if you think you’ve got a more sensible interpretation than my idea of items 1-6 being part of an ordered scheme of seismic potential.

One final note on the colors/patterns: The legend does not explain what the white bands are.

On to the point features. The symbols for successful forecast (presumably explained in the article) and active volcano are overprinted directly on top of the other colors. Look again at the colored bands. The red or yellow appear no different when they are on land vs. on water. The printer simply put these colors directly onto the white paper. But look now at those two point symbols – notice how their color changes based on whether they’re sitting on land or water or on top of something else. The printer put purple ink on top of green or blue or whatever was already there, instead of leaving a white space, as they did for the bands. Not sure what happened there, though there may be a reasonable explanation that someone more familiar with late 1970s printing technology can give. It does make the points very hard to see in some areas – I originally counted four stars, but now I can find eight. It also means that the point features shown in the legend do not match the color found on the map.

I’m hoping the magazine article makes the meaning of the Tsunami symbol clearer. Is this map showing Tsunamis that happened in the last decade? Ones happening right now? Not sure.

Note that the legend refers to various filled areas as being “sites” of earthquakes. Why are these not point features? Earthquakes have an epicenter, and move more in a circular outward fashion than a wide lateral band fashion. There may be more going on, as far as data processing goes (and, again, I wish I had the article that accompanies this), but it’s perplexing. Maybe the author(s) went with bands because it’s easier to see the bands than to dig out information out of scattered points? I’ll not be too hard on this, because it’s more mysterious than bad, without information to help understand why the map author(s) may have done this.

There are exactly two labels on the main map: Oaxaca, and Gulf of Alaska. Maybe those are both significant in the article, but it seems very strange to see just those two. They should probably be set in different type, at least, so that Oaxaca doesn’t look like the name of a sea off the Mexican coast. As a general guideline, cities and bodies of water ought to look different. One of the reasons for labeling things is to help readers who don’t already know what or where these features are. It’s entirely possible that a reader out there actually did look at this and, never having heard of Oaxaca, thought it was a water feature.

A similar problem comes up in the inset. Mexico is set in the same type as Central America. Central America is not (and was not), last I knew, a country. I’m reasonably sure Mexico is, however. But look at how they’re labeled – as though the text symbols mean the same thing in each case: country. And, of course, the tectonic plates are also set in the same type as everything else. Perhaps the mapmaker had a sponsorship deal from the makers of the typeface (I am having trouble identifying exactly which it is, on account of the scan resolution looking at the actual physical document, it appears to be Helvetica). If you are a typeface designer and want to pay me more than I deserve to use your glyphs on my maps, please contact me.

The inset would be better off having some kind of marker to show where exactly it corresponds to on the main map. Perhaps this might explain why Mexico was labeled: to help the reader locate the inset.

The water on the inset is jarring -the white makes it stand out far too much, calling your eye away from the main map. Best make it blue.

Boy, sure would be nice to have a legend to explain what’s going on with the inset. Are those blue triangles historical volcanic eruptions, or maybe earthquakes? Maybe they’re places less interesting than the Cheese Factory. And what are the little round-ish zones drawn in blue, which makes them hard to notice?

If you run this map through a filter which simulates how it might look to a person with the common red-green color vision impairment, you may notice that the green for the land and the orange for seismic potential level 2 end up looking very similar, which is rather problematic if you want to know which areas are plain land, and which areas might kill you in an earthquake.

A final reiteration of the main caveat to these criticisms – the original context for the map is missing, and the magazine article which I hope accompanied it may have helped this whole thing make more sense, and explained some things which seem out of place.

One Nice Thing: Some may disagree with me and say it’s overgeneralized, but I kind of like the simplicity of the linework. I think it works here, giving it an accessible, non-technical aesthetic. Michigan is misshapen, but I’ll live.

Another Nice Thing: Tim thinks it has a nice Schoolhouse Rock sort of feeling to it. Which is another way of getting at what I was saying above.


Misplacing Egypt

A quick post today for the 1 month anniversiary of Cartastrophe. Most of you have probably already seen this map make the rounds of the cartography blogs during the last couple of days, but it’s worth reposting.

Issues of accuracy aside, my question is why do they use that satellite photomosaic as the background? There’s no call for it – a simple solid fill would work better, and would be less distracting to the eye for a map that’s likely being flashed on the screen for a handful of seconds. It’s needlessly cool and fancy.

Also, Iran is set in much larger type than everything else. I think Israel might actually also be a bit larger than the other countries, despite being the smallest one marked on the map.

One Nice Thing: They did highlight countries of interest to the news story.

Hat tip to Daniel Reynolds for pointing this one out to me.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers