Green Cities: Nature in the City?

The West begins where the pavement ends” might have once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the western United States.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, the ubiquity of paved ground makes it impossible to see such land cover as antithetical to nature, there is an urgency of mapping the relations between open spaces and paved lands, even if only to gain some bearings of where we stand:  is the absence of assessing the impact of paving is to some extent hampered by the training of our eyes to look at paved space on maps?

The selective foregrounding of the relations between an increasingly ever-present ground surface impermeability, covering not only the 4.1 million miles of paved highways in the United States, and 8.3 million lane miles, affecting corridors within miles of the roads, but an expansion of impervious surfaces and land cover change that suggest a massive expansion–just under 65,000 square miles of coastal regions between 2996-2010, or an area the size of the state of Florida, including 13% of the Gulf of Mexico and 15% of the southeastern United States, based on the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).

The question of local landcover that has restricted increasing islands of green is even apparent in the city of San Francisco, surrounded by more vital habitat most other American cities, if not nearly as green as Vancouver BC.    The massive effects of overpaving has created a habitat for cars, and its greyed out urban growth makes the land cover shifts over the century of the city’s once largely sandy terrain even if most of the development is only at low or medium intensity, save the downtow–

 

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forest:high intensity:med intensiy.pngNOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI

 

The complex constellation reveals a mosaic of high intensity and medium intensity development, where developed open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development.  If paved and cover in cities is estimated at 30-40%–35% on average for California’s capital; 30% in Portland and 24% of New York City– the increasing availability of open data and urban orthoimagery allow us to drill into the local data, and resolve questions of our relation to the built environment.  And even as impervious pavement covers a growing portion of the country, providing what the Center for Watershed Protection coyly calls a “habitat for cars,” the illustration of the survival of habitat is ethically important.

The increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, including an exhaustive array of different sorts of landcover, or allowing one to pan, zoom out, and zoom in across landcover, relaying satellite imagery to local servers, seem in fact startlingly limited to assess the level of land cover change, and not only because of the single and uniform sort of cartographical literacy they encourage:  the illusion of a complete record from map tiles that arrive on our devices suggest a false comprehensiveness that may restrain us from interacting with th every environments that they describe.  Only by combining LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground can we ask how a “habitat for cars” continues to dominate the landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data to open up the spaces of the built city, and move beyond the limits of apparently limitless data, to drill beneath its overlays.

Indeed, the point of shaping big data not only in overlays, but in an integrated mosaic that reveals relations that we can explore by making our own ties within the maps, using them as instruments to think about place, as much as tools for navigating the grey uniformity of space, are especially appealing as a way of shifting our relation to place in an age where overdevelopment threatens increasing homogeneity.   Can we make a map that will allow us to be our own Thoreau, to wander on the shores and open spaces of the city, as opposed to follow its roads in enclosed vehicles, and excavate the landscapes where we still live?  For the Nature in the City map of San Francisco is an effort begun by Joel Barstow and now in its third edition, it suggests more than anything that we adopt a position like Thoreau, despite the level of intense local development, by using a deep dive into spatial data,  to direct attention not to its built environment, but spiders, sea birds, migrating whales, blossoming plants, sand dollars and even sea lions along its coasts–investing the map with a new sense of tactile bounty and direct consciousness not only to its present, but to the remaining, past, and future habitats in the built city, finding a resilient nature in its construction.

The two maps that were released of the city in April 2018 react to the increased availability of open data, but offer an invitation to the new ways maps might make cognitive claims in fun ways–as if to escape the hegemony of our our dependence on the tyranny of navigating by hand-held screens.  Claims about “where the pavement ends” today seem foreign to overbuilt landscapes, but call for orienting us to the huge changes in the overbuilt areas of urban space and environments:   indeed, maps of open data struggle to create an ethical relation to place, as the growth of over 43,000 square miles of impervious ground cover that existed in the United States compels a different relation to nature.  And if encomiastic views of cities created a visual relation to bird’s-eye views of place–that most our maps of location and navigation fail to provide–we are using maps to excavate a lost local deep history that the superficial rendering of much open data neglects, recreating a relation to space and anew view of the urban community that recall the tactile nature of bird’s-eye views that invite us to explore their space by the position of hilltop observers who at leisure survey the town to learn about their surroundings.

 

San Francisco 1862

 

This post examines–and, yes, celebrates–how two maps of San Francisco incorporate open data to orient viewers to San Francisco as a place through mashed up maps–on the screen, and the superimposition of older photographic images and new maps to collapse time that the screen-experience creates, in the recent image of at-risk buildings in the growing skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco that have come to transcend 650 feet in height, or by rehabilitating the paper map in how Nature in the City used data-rich detail to invite us to explore the vitality of the biotic niches of San Francisco in deeply biophilic ways.  In an age of big data and data flows, both seem to recoup the cognitive benefits of orientation to place that is particularly gripping and meaningful, for how they force us to engage selective content that reflects the frustrating superficial nature of maps that privilege geolocation on the virtual–and increasingly pixellated–space of a grid, and recuperate a new relation to place by offering new abilities to read place.

At the same time as we lose a sense of place in many regions of the west–and not only there–not due to a surplus of data, but due to the difficulty of mapping data onto place in a way that we can process, we need to attend to how we give concrete rendering to an urban ecology not focussed on built space.  Indeed, both he retrospective view of the rebuilding of downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and the fostering of spaces for habitat alongside the built environment offer new tools of engaging landscape, moving within place, and using cartographical tools to reevaluate our relation to urban space.  By inviting us into the city if one map produced on Earth Day invited us to explore–albeit in a static format–local nature in the urban space, as if to find the remaining encouragement of vibrant natural ecosystems in an unknown landscape, to reveal a hidden habitat lying before us at all time, the other map, produced on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, used data to question if towers are compatible with the history of place by invoking a landscape of earthquakes known too well.  The maps use data to incarnate two distinct views of urban memory–one celebrating habitats revealed in the seas, land, and fossil record; one the memory of nature’s destruction at the edge of a continental plate–and two versions of encomiastic views–one praising not the built but unbuilt spaces of the city; the other, inverting an iconographic tradition that celebrated feats of human building. Indeed, if the Nature in the City map inverts an elegant if simple terrain map to show the green spaces–from parks, urban forests, and street trees to shores–in which thirteen species dwell, rather than the street plan and built environment, buildings dominate the view of the city as mapped on the anniversary of the earthquake as a built environment confronted by imminent collapse.

There is almost the sense that the map of open spaces and ecosystems beckon us to look at the urban ground plan we know so well from the point of view of the animals that live there, and inhabit its open corridors, while the datasets that the Times collected is used to orient us to the professional view of the urban engineer through the return of the repressed, in which forces of nature that have so recently shocked us–in hurricanes, tsunami, lava-spewing earthquakes, flash coastal flooding, fires and extreme weather events–are implicitly juxtaposed with the impending disaster of an earthquake on what we had imagined was a stable built environment.  Each map presents a different nature-culture hybrid, but reveals how our notions of nature are not located only where pavement ends, but are now necessarily increasingly hybridized, if coexisting–despite the contrast between the warm palette of the first map and the harsh danger signs of impending disaster of its built environment, which recede in the warm inviting hues of the Nature in the City.  (The map also suggests how seismic activity shaped the environment, but is  far less apocalyptic.)

 

hidden habitat.pngNature in the City

imageThe New York Times, April 17 (2018)

 

We are perhaps starting to learn, in an age of increased data availability, how to attend to the importance of graphic tools to record place, and get a better orientation on the dynamics of place.  As we have an overabundance of mapped data and mapped cities now, each one of his holding our own multi-scale urban map in our pockets, the scalable urban streetscapes we are addicted to mapping our locations may only serve to distract us from the deeper relation to the environment–and indeed, the ecosystem–that is not included in so many of the maps we use to gain bearings.  As we use maps that we find only limit our sense of place, and constrain it in ways that increasingly correspond to the limits of the data used to create our maps, the importance of turning to maps to gain orientation to the built environment–in a time when “the west is where the pavement ends” is .drained of any inspirational value–even in a bar in the open spaces of the Black Rock Desert, after a long, sweaty highway drive, when it still seems ironic.  For if most of the west is not only paved, but increasingly standing to lose lose even the memory of open lands, as increasing extra-urban areas are paved and accelerated land cover shifts proceed at a greater rate than ever before.

The growth of open urban data provides a new way to look at the survival of open spaces and the engagement with paved space in American cities.  The range of dynamic maps like that of Nature in the City in the header to this post.  The map that the local non-profit assembled suggests the excitement of the ground cover combination in the city by drawing our eyes to the remaining spaces of habitat within paved land cover.  The question of a need for orienting ourselves to greater landcover change only grows as we see the difficulty of gaining purchase on the built environment and as our confidence in our mapping skills grows.  And as we are increasingly sensitive–and compelled to react to if not search for meaning in data on new environmental disasters and environmental change–the ability to take stock of place and our relation to it is ever more pressing in what might be called the growing ethics of data visualizations and the compelling ways that open data can be rendered to define and refine our spatial relation to place.

 

1.   My own intensely reactive confrontation with two visualizations of San Francisco that appeared within one week created.  Both created a new assemblage of the city’s surroundings, that seek to orient us as viewers to its nature:  one pointing to the ecosystem of signs of nature–animals, flowers, fossils, birds, and insects–in the city we think of as built by humans, the other one pointing to the complexities of building with abandon on its shaky ground, hidden liquefaction zones, and proximity to fault lines.  If one is mapped against historical habitats still present in the city, the other is mapped against the ruinous earthquake of 1906.  Rather than being only a passive register of data, however, both maps use their data-richness to orient viewers to the city’s space, either by involving viewers in its ecosystem or the image of expanding buildings in a landscape permeated by risk, by inviting us to drill, as it were, underground, into the open data on the urban foundations of the downtown.

Both orient us to a landscape that we are not well served by onscreen maps that locate us primarily within a built environment.  The map by Nature in the City featured in the header to this post aspires to the power of an activist mapping, through a deep familiarity with place, to surprise residents who often use maps and apps to navigate San Francisco to enjoy a new relation to place–in the direct manner of stating that the pavement ends.  Its ethics are to compel us to look outside the over-mapped space of the built city. Indeed, the rich surface–counterintuitively dotted in a pointillist array of light green with larger multicolored puddlings of darker green, suggests the limits of paved surfaces in San Francisco, and creates a wonderfully textured image to investigate the relations between local and dispersed ecosystems.

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Filed under eco literacy, land cover change, landcover change, mapping fault lines, mapping nature, Mapping the Bay Area, San Francisco

Russian Blues

The projected map was a subliminal reminder of the stakes of the speech Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly.

For all its modern appearance, the glowing map of the Russian Federation that recalling a backlit screen, seemed an updating  of Soviet-style theatricality and state spectacles.  As if in a new theater of state, the map of a magnified Russia seemed to cascade over a series of scrims that framed Putin’s head during the annual State of the Nation address, which he had moved to weeks before he stood for reelection to a fourth term from its traditional date.  Putin was projected to win the election, but projecting the map under which he stood identified him as a spokesman for Russia, and identified his plans with the future of Russia–

 

Map crisper curved

 

–and allowed him to present a “State of the Nation” that projected the future global dominance he foresaw of Russia within the world, and allowed him to present an argument of protecting the boundaries of Russia, and the Russian Federation, even in an era when boundaries and the mapping of boundary lines are not only contested but increasingly without clear meaning.  Putin’s involvement in aggressive actions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation–whether in the American elections, as all but certain, if of unclear scope; the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine; or in the elections of Brexit and Hungary, or poisoning of Russians in other countries, all distracted national bounds.  But all were presented, in a cartographic sleight of hand, as a vision of Russia as a state of the twenty-first century.  If our current maps no longer follow the “jigsaw puzzle” of the map that the icon of the luminescent map recalled, and the global reach of Russia’s missiles that he claimed could not be intercepted.

 

Russian Missiles

 

Remapping the Russian Federation was the central take-away from Putin’s speech to the Duma–even while allowing that “we have many problems in Russia” with twenty million Russians living below the poverty line, described the need to “transform infrastructure” and claimed that Russia faced a significant turning point in its history, which would alter its relation to space.  Indeed, the argument that Russia “had caught up” with the mapping systems that were used by the American military since the 2003 Iraq War–one of the first international conflicts that Putin had encountered as President of the Russian Federation–and suggested the lack of clear limits to frontiers, or anti-missile rockets to the global scope of a new generation of nuclear-power Russian ICBM’s.  A statement of the resurgence of Russia–and a renewed defense of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation–all but erased or whitewashed Russian military presence in Georgia, Ukraine, and Crimea, presenting the arrival of Russia on a global stage through an awesome holographic map.

The map offered something of a “warrant” or guarantee of the arrival of the Russian Federation on a global stage, and provided viewers a reassuring image of Russia’s prominence on the global map, despite the fairly dire state of domestic affairs and the limited plans for expanding national employment or social welfare.  The value of the map, mesmerizing in its illustration of the entirety of the Russian Federation, provided an illustration of foreign policy and argument of expanded powers of global intervention, by which Putin, former head of state security, sought to suggest its arrival as a ‘strong state’ despite the historical challenges and setbacks of earlier regimes, and what Putin has long seen as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” the break-up of the Soviet Union.  The map met the need to bolster Russian self-esteem, and indeed identifying esteem with the territorial protection of “Russian rights,” irrespective of the boundaries that were drawn or existed on other maps.  For while erasing Russian intervention in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, the map sought to project an image of the consolidation of Russian abilities for “global governance” as an extension of Russian sovereignty.

It is striking that the map was a reflection of the manner in which Putin had long understood or seen the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an extension of American claims to sovereignty, in violation of international law, and the new image he wanted to create of Russia’s similar abilities to ignore national boundaries and boundary lines.

 

Putin weapon launchVideo grab from RU-RTR Russian television (via AP), Thursday, March 1, 2018, allegedly portraying Russia’s firing of a nuclear-powered intercontinental missile

The map affirmed the arrival of a new consensus in the Russian states and ethnic republics–members of which were assembled before him–to recognize the arrival of a new role that Russia could occupy and would occupy in the global map.  Indeed, the made-for-television map of the Russian Federation suggested the new relation between local and global–and of Russian sovereignty and international abilities for “global governance” that would be guaranteed by an expanded arsenal of nuclear weapons, in ways that demonstrated the expansive reach of Putin’s Russia far beyond its boundaries, in ways that would upstage the American use of GPS in the Iraq War, and the precedent that that war set, in Putin’s mind, for flouting international law in the assertion of American sovereignty–despite the multiple logical problems that were avoided in making such a claim.  But it seems that much as George W. Bush’s headstrong rhetoric of fighting “terrorism” was adopted wholesale by Putin in subsequent violations of the sovereign rights of Ukraine, Crimea, or Syria–and the justifications for defense of Russian interests as the same as sovereign grounds.
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The broadcasting of Russia’s possession of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, unable to be intercepted, as well as designed to frighten the United States or a feign to enter into an arms race, were presented as the basis for illustrating the lack of Russia’s need to respect any cartographic lines or continental divides.

1.  The pre-election State of the Union address, as if a continuation of the diatribe Putin launched against the West for “trying to remake the whole world” unilaterally and in accord with its own interests, provided a broadside of the determination of Russia to defend its own interests, rather than seeking through military invasion or moving of its troops across borders to “reinstate some sort of empire.”  But his discussion of how “turning points” in history determined the foundation of cities in Russia and its relation to “space” seem on the point–and a bit of pointed positioning in regard to Russia’s future positioning on a geopolitical map.

As if to respond to the ion, Putin focussed most theatrically on its development of “invincible missiles” and nuclear-powered arms as defensive weapons in a two-hour address before a packed hall that was punctuated by repeated ovations and applause.  He  omitted any mention of Russian presence abroad, but focussed attention on the Russian nation as able to protect its allies adequately and preserve its place in a “rapidly changing” world where some states were bound to decay if they did not keep up with the pace of change.  As an almost entirely male audience uneasily awaited Putin, turning in their seats, greeting each other, staring ahead stonily or smirking and nervously straightening blue ties.  All faced the glowing blue map projected above an empty stage in the new venue, as if into their minds, as if in preparation for how Putin would remind them of the problems of charting Russia’s future course, even as they may have been most satisfied with the unprecedented foreign influence Putin had achieved in much of Europe, Hungary, England, and the United States.  When Putin took stage with triumphal music, describing how the “significance of our choices, and the significance of every step we take . . . [will] define the future of our country for decades,” and a new time for Russia to “develop new cities and conquer space” after maintaining the unity of the federated nation and its stability in the face of great social and economic difficulties but still faces the danger of “undermining [its] sovereignty.”

 

Map crisper curved

 

Projected onto multiple scrims, the glowing image of the Russian Federation lit by glowing centers of population echoed Putin’s discussion of stability, and the need to affirm the “self-fulfillment” of all Russians and their welfare through new economic policies, which he assured them had nothing to do with the upcoming elections, but cautioned that the failure to create technological changes would lead to potential erosion of its sovereignty despite its huge potential.

The glowing national map dominated the room overwhelmingly in which the three-term President spoke, describing the as he aimed to win an election to continue his Presidency through 2024, and convince all Russians of his leadership of the nation.  Below the map, unsmiling, Putin solemnly addressed the nation as if he were its architect and the protector of its bounds; indeed, the projection of the fixed bounds of the Russian Federation onto a set of screens behind him seemed to celebrate its continued power vitality after three terms of Putin’s presidency, even as he recited fairly grim statistics about the state of the national economy.  Describing the need to enhance its civil society and democratic traditions, Putin raised the prospect of once again “lagging behind” other nations, its body politic undermined by a chronic disease, and define Russia’s future, if its modernization was not affirmed in the face of .  The continued coherence of the nation reminded viewers that, notwithstanding threats of dissolution after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, and a reduced GDP and natural resources, the Russian state was back.

The map of Russia was projected in isolation from the world, but the image that resembled a back-lit glowing screen became a basis for projecting the power Russia had regained on a global stage.  Rather than imitating the graphics of a paper map, the iridescent blues, splotched with centers of population, called attention to the permanence of the Russian Federation’s borders and affirmed its new place in the world.  The bounds of Russia were protected, the triumphalist image implied, but the place of Russia on the world stage was implicitly affirmed even if it was shown in isolation:  rather than showing people, or including any place-names, the map magnified the idea of Russia, and its futuristic projection suggested the continued power of Putin to transport the nation to modernity, its boundaries protected and affirmed and its defense of allies acknowledged.  While Putin had recently accused the United States of triumphalism, insisting that Russia was indeed “self-sufficient” and denying Russia was “encroaching on its neighbors” as “groundless,” he seems to have relished a new triumphalism, and famously continued to present the invincible military weapons Russia had developed–lasers, ICBM’s, which, nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles–which, while not revealed “for obvious reasons” would definitively displaced the United States from a position of global power and could penetrate US Defense Systems with ease..

 

Video in State of Union address.png

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The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before Barack Obama was a candidate for President of the United States, he took time to chastise the nation about the tyranny of the infographic that divided the nation.  Obama used the occasion of his endorsement of John Kerry’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago to remind the nation of the danger of presuming the divide red states from blue states by the clear chromatic fashion that already increasingly increasingly filtered electoral maps of the United States, and has since come to haunt us in the Trump victory of 2016.  And if we were energized by the notion of “swing states” that might be shifted to the Democratic column back in 2012 and 2008 that increased the involvement and political participation of many in the electoral grid, the resurgent immobility of the electoral map divided between what seem to be continuous regions parsed into “red states” and “blue states”–

 

electoral-trump

 

–as if it were permanent divide as well as a fluid choropleth that refracted the spectrum of the American flag.  Indeed, the stability of the fractured electoral divide invest a sense of permanence as an electoral landscape, as the two-color infographic seems to have crept into our unconscious:  while it may be a proxy for an urban-rural distinction that has been championed both by the Trump campaign and as a dominant gloss of the infographic, has the divide invaded our consciousness in ways we are able to gain little distance?

America was, after all, once collectively energized at the prospect of tilting against the inevitability of a red-blue divide in the nation.  If Barack Obama sought to chasten readers of infographics in order to breath life into Kerry’s 2004 nomination as Democratic candidate for the United States presidency, his words were not only energizing, but prophetic of his own candidacy.  For they articulated the possibility of transcending electoral divides as a touchstone of his campaign strategy, foreshadowing Obama’s later electoral success.  And when we hear Donald Trump’s celebration of the “heartland” as the ‘Real America’ as if it might be searched for and found on the map, somewhere far away from “coastal elites” or intellectuals, it serves to conceal Trump’s truly narrow electoral victory by articulating a “real America” with which we on the coasts lost touch.  The spate of much-publicized post-election pilgrimages into the “heartland” by Mark Zuckerberg as self-defined coastal elites sought to find”normal america” needs to be rethought:  it seems to project a creation of the very infographics we’ve long consumed to understand democracy, or as a surrogate for democratic elections, more than a real place.  For where we find “the real America” alleged in so many maps in the contiguous sea of red–

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

–we have recently found that the red is both far more fractured, and even often echoes the very sort of “news deserts” that are associated with the dominance of local news in media markets dominated by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose dissemination of a right-wing agenda to the televisions of 40% of Americans seems to have increased polarization in the last election.  The decline of local press–and the absence of paper newspapers–seem in another reminder of how the end of the local reporting poses deep dangers to our democracy–and invites unpredicted sorts of vulnerabilities.

 

Pearson Brodcast.png

Vox, using dSinclair Broadcasting Group data cross-checked with Nielsen; darker areas denote where Sinclair runs more than one station

 

The divide between red and blue masks the dominant place of far more determining sites of constituencies that are more up for grabs–and my determine the election as extra-urban areas that are demographically distinct, and difficult to cast as blue or red.  The refusal to divide the nation into red and blue states, an increasingly meaningless unit, opened the possibility for change that the dominance of infographics in mediating and reframing our democracy has militated against.

Back when Obama energized the convention by reassuring the nation as well as delegates who had assembled in Chicago that, despite the evidence of infographics, the fissures of a fractured body politic that many maps continued to project were not destined to divide the nation:  “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans,” Obama urged, “standing up together for the red, white and blue,” even if we were powerfully represented as contentious factions on electoral maps.  The reservations that Obama expressed was compelling as an alternative vision of national unity; it in a sense under-wrote the mantra of “Hope” for a new way of seeing the nation, although this division seemed to return with a vengeance in 2016, as if it haunts the nation.

 

348px-ElectoralCollege2016.svg

 

The divide was, perversely, as powerful back in 2004, back when Obama first chastised the nation so firmly for having adopted the divide as inevitable.  So rhetorically powerful was the visual image of national unity as a rebuke to the fracturing of the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  It seemed a healing balm for a riven republic, even as the 2004 election, despite its clarity of divisions by state, trumpeted in a powerful infographic that suggested isolated bodies of blue set apart form an apparently alienated flyover country that blared bright red indignantly–

 

6a00d834515edc69e200e54f4593618834-800wi

USA Today/BeldarBlog

–in ways that were echoed if not accentuated in the county-by-county breakdown that USA Today issued the day after, and the way Bush dominated what have been called the “battle-ground” states–then Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania–as he did nationwide, even if the distribution didn’t break down at all so smoothly along state “lines”–

 

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma2004countymap-final2.png

 

–to muster the bulk of electoral votes out of the hands of California, Illinois and New York and served to create a solid electoral alliance all the better able to isolate Texas.

The “real America” might well lie in the edges of the blue and red, or the “purple” counties where political debate needs to be foster and occur.  Indeed, the image of divisiveness haunted the political imaginary of the nation so much the nation may have yearned for imagining a new collectivity by 2008.  Despite the fragmenting of the electoral map that occurred in 2004, where states seemed to vote red in their entirety, it might be noted that the same map could be resolved, in a district-by-district image of magnitudes, in a far more complex picture of the deeper red areas perhaps aligning more clearly with states than the more selective distribution of the strongest Democratic voters concentrated in regions voting Democratic–the “blue”–

 

The_2004_Presidential_Election_in_the_United_States,_Results_by_Congressional_District

 

–that is echoed in the far more complex county-by-county picture of 2016, whose shadings are much more telling of political truths:  despite the image of a “heartland” or a true America that is red, many of the areas that seem deep red on the electoral map are indeed light pink or shaded, and suggest that these areas–the less polarized–might be the “real” America much more than the deep red areas, which seem in fact the most remote.

 

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The fracturing of the electoral map by manipulating media was not new to such outlets as Sinclair Broadcasting Group:  Trump turned to the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, noted Media Matters, for interviews to reach a broader demographic, using a group notorious for revealing their boosterism for conservative causes, from ordering stations in 2004 to run anti-John Kerry segments over normal programming over the country–

 

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–using 173 television stations in 81 markets along “180 program streams” in 51 markets:

image.pngGray Television Group Station Map

–as Trump sought to eat into Hillary Clinton’s midsummer lead in national polls, by speaking to voting markets in newly “purple” regions as Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, and West Virginia, to circumnavigate traditional media outlets.  We would do well to remember that, in ways that raised raised eyebrows for some, that by November 8, 2016, areas like Iowa, Ohio, North Dakota and Arizona were suddenly shifting pink–as would Florida and North Carolina, suddenly an increasingly light blue.

 

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1. There was a time when the red state/blue state divide was not so powerful in our minds.  The power of such an image of electoral unity was already so ingrained in 2004 that its rejection provided more than a powerful rhetorical image for the man who would be elected President in 2008.  The image of a nation that departed from a fractured infographic became central, in many ways, to Obama’s campaign, and a powerful image of a new political future.  Obama recalled the problematic nature of the chromatic division in his own campaigns several times, most famously, perhaps, to rebuke the danger of returning to a chromatic divide in 2012.  In the heat of the Presidential campaign for his second term, President Obama redeployed the refrain in a tweet simply asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States,” as if to dispatch or denaturalize the splintered red state-blue geography that haunted our diet of infographics in Presidential campaigns.   When Obama penned the figure of speech in 2004, before addressing the Democratic Convention in Chicago, John Kerry so quickly recognized its rhetorical power that he asked to adopt the image in delivering his acceptance of the 2004 nomination, although we’ll always remember it as Obama’s.

State Senator Obama warned somewhat prophetically of the difficulties implicit in any national mapping that ran against national interests; the junior Senator from Illinois took pundits to task for presenting a picture of the nation that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  Obama called out the two-color maps as perpetuating a harmful vision, apt to diminish voters’ sense of their ability to effect political change, and diminishing voters’ agency, by inscribing the voting patterns in a static map that fractured the nation into blocks of like-mindedness as if to portray electoral results as predetermined and not contingent.  (The notion of “swing-states” would only emerge as a way to challenge the authority of this two-color map, of course, during Obama’s own 2008 candidacy.)

But the divides that we have come to perpetuate again in the 2016 Presidential election may suggest that the divides were less starkly drawn between red and blue district than Daily Kos Elections calculations suggest, which shows the dissonance between the map of congressional districts were poor vehicles to mediate the popular vote:  for a map of districts distorts geography; the increased crowding of the population in districts that vote “blue.”  Yet can the divide in the nation in fact be best understood by continuing to contemplate this fracturing, and not attending to the sites of smaller electoral margins–where the decision occurs, or at least which create a sense of tipping points, where the truly consequential electoral decisions seem to be increasingly made?  Obama’s caution not to be seduced by slicing and dicing the country seems particularly perceptive, and suggests the danger of trusting a chromatic divide of the country.

 

districts 2014.png

Xenocrypt

 

2.  Obama’s phrase has gained a quite surprising second life in the recent unpacking of how the electoral outcome of the election was sought to be strategically manipulated through the manufacture of a clearer red-blue divide through the voting patterns of purple states.  What were words of caution have gained a new concrete sense after the indictments released by Robert S. Mueller III have revealed outside interest in sharpening contrasts in the electoral map in the 2016 Presidential race, that suggests that the infographic has indeed gained an upper hand in the electoral process in even more dangerous ways than Obama had described.

It’s indeed pretty hard to see the United States divided into “red” and “blue” states, isolated from the world, in the same way again, as if each state shaded pink, light blue or strong red and dark blue in complete autonomy, showing their political temperatures in isolation of from the outside world.  Indeed, although the 2014 House of Representative race was striking for its salmon pinkness–and the deep red of the US-Mexico border, as well as Iowa, such colors are increasingly difficult to be seen as self-contained or removed from the larger world.

 

 

2014 House of Representatives Mid-Term Election 

 

Back when Senator Barack Obama so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, his admonition–or quite gentle–scolding struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity, and not a reality check.  But the powerful phrasing became a theme of his campaign, and it was unsurprising when Obama returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency that Bascom Guffin worked to create, using the concept that political scientist Robert Vanderbei had in fact developed for the 2004 Presidential race.  For the map suggested the actuality of the more complicated chromatic divides that Obama had then recently described.

 

purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”

 

Yet the dynamic of the purple regions seems to have been increasingly changed by the emergence in many places of “news deserts”–sites of no or only one local newspaper–in a phenomenon that is increasingly internet-driven, and reinforced by the growing number of news deserts across the nation.  As mapped in interactive form on Carto to reveal the spaces afflicted by the least local news sources–counties with no or one local newspaper, zero suggested by the lightest pink or one by salmon–

 

News Deserts--light pink = zero newpapers; salmon = 1.pngColumbia Journalism review/C. Chisolm

 

–the holes within the information network of much of the nation can be observed that intersect with once purple areas in striking ways, and the hollowing out of a news community in both rural and some urban areas.  The growth of “media deserts” up to 2014 mirror the end of Obama’s second term, and the growth of an alt right movement that has gained an increasingly dominant voice in the American political landscape, where the diminution of local news sources has altered the nature of public opinion have left increasing swaths of the nation dependent on online news sources, altering the information economy in decisive ways that helped allow red/blue cleavages to grow, and polarizing news agencies to reach a larger and more decisive constituency.

 

420005_1_En_14_Fig2_HTML

 

 

Even more compellingly, it suggests the end of an economy of local news over much of the nation.  huge gaping holes have widened to leave the nation like a hunk of swiss cheese, in the southwest, modest, and northwest, as the outbreak of three wobbly but hovering blobs over the nation–including the southwestern border, whose hollowing has left them increasingly susceptible and open to both greater malleability and less reporting of the local consequences of issues of national debate.  In this setting, it is no surprise, perhaps, that internet-driven concerns about immigration, crime, and terrorist threats have been stoked and enflamed with greater ease–and populations most easily subject to outside interference because they lacked the resilience of local news.  In what almost seems a free speech violation, and a difficulty of generating public debate, the growing holes of such news deserts–which, much as it would deprive epidemiologists of needed tools to measure local rates of the growth of infectious disease or influenza–create barriers to assess the local impact of issues exclusively cast in national terms?  Is a decline of local reporting indicative of a qualitative change in the nature of communities, now more likely to adopt oppositional agendas rather than articulate their own?  Or is the rise of “news deserts” congruent with the increase in broadcast news that casts both global policy and national politics in increasingly oppositional terms?

 

Public-health-and-local-media-1024x576.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The expansion of such “news deserts” where no or only one source of news exists, according to the American Alliance for Audited Media.  AAUM measured the number of papers that reached at least 1% of each county, and haven’t converted to an exclusively digital form, as a proxy for the decline of news publications, and the increasing reliance on non-local media; while a focus on newspapers is questionable in an era of the dominance of television and on-line news, the hope to measure and map the reduction of local media within issues about issues of national consequence suggested the distinct shift in public debate.  Indeed, shuttering many smaller news publications, both urban and suburban, deprive communities of a local voice in events that seem to spin far beyond the local in increasingly challenging ways, and place global issues–undocumented immigrants; terrorist threats; refugees–in relation to local concerns in ways both challenging and difficult to grasp.

 

one to two souresColumbia Journalism Review–light pink without local news sources; salmon with one

 

Considered another ways, the near-absnence of non-profit news sources outside of metro areas, and few sources of information were available in small towns, and indeed outside the coasts–understanding the “news desert” as an absence of non-profit news, a dearth felt nationwide save in several cities as Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Madison, and Minneapolis–and to consider the different information markets that exist in much of the nation where Trump performed so stunningly.

 

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Each graphic invites us to examine the category and meaning of the ‘news desert,’ a term by no means clearly defined in an era of online news.  Is the fear that a common concern of news media that may itself loose analytic force?   Thomas Jefferson insisted that “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” but the expansion of areas without local news venues or voices, or meaningful political endorsements, suggests not only a dangerous remove from national issues, but a vulnerability to external threats in an age where most get their news online and through Facebook feeds–and the expansion of online news threatens to make it impossible for all to feel themselves able to stay informed.

 

news deserts.pngDom Smith/Stat News

 

The gaping holes in the above GIF suggests a growing eating out of public opinion.  The hugely successful appeal of Trump’s candidacy in areas of relatively low news presence is not a surprise.  Trump was himself quite acutely aware “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” as he told FOX Business Network as the election approached.  Trump’s avoidance of the mainstream media was notorious, although the success with which this became a strategy blindsided many.  But the sectarian–if not almost Manichean–divisions between red states and blue have been fostered and promoted by a decline in non-partisan or non-profit news sources.  And in a new range of articles on the increasingly partisan news offices at FOX or Sinclair Broadcasting, which reaches 39 percent of households in the country before its pending merger with Tribune Media.  Sinclair’s strategy of integrating national messages with local news suggests particularly dangerous ways of masquerading as local news–and driving fear in increasingly oppositional ways, accentuating the blue/red infographic in ways that were not even on Obama’s radar, although he perceptively sensed the divide emanated from screens more than it existed on the ground.

 

3.  The increasingly oppositional divisions are not evident in a stark division of political preference and allegiance within the current national map, and enabled a targeting of the parsing of populations and festering of divides.  Indeed, the success of the Trump team may lie in the address of the purplest populations of the nation, in which the success of the Trump vote can be mapped in what seems an inverse relation to printed news subscriptions:  ‘news deserts’ provided a crucial core constituency for Trump’s success, or at least correlate strongly, if one takes the shaky database of newspaper subscriptions that has been provided by the Alliance for Audited Media–an admittedly incomplete dataset whose questionable focus on subscriptions to local newspapers–not really adequate as a proxy for “news deserts” in an age of television and national news, but perhaps suggestive of the power of the local editorial endorsement–even if the description of “traditional news outlets” remains a questionable metric for access to news information.

 

Politico Deserts.pngLimited Subscriptions to Local Newspapers in America 

 

The growth of online news seems to have removed regions of the south and northwest from the figure of the local newspaper reporter.  Such a divide echoes the rural/urban divide, and may indicate the remove of much of the polity from public opinion, and a deep-set resistance to opinions broadcast from both coasts during the election seems rooted in the erosion of news communities in ways that demand to be mapped.  The growth of venues such as Sinclair Broadcasting provided ways of growing this divide–or fissure–through a virtual stranglehold on news sources in many sites.

 

4.  Obama successfully downplayed deep differences between red states and blue states by more than powerful and affecting rhetorical device.  His bridging of a chromatic divide was not only stirring not only to those in cities, but comforting in small towns.  By 2008, Obama’s audience were happy to accept as an invitation as his own coinage, and take it as an invitation to put aside animosity across electoral divides.  But the very notion of such a blue state-red state divide–and the prominence in such a divide of the purple–has recently gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election.  For the Russians who were identified as arriving from 2014 aimed to splinter existing political divides by fostering increased dissensus and distrust in the political system in the “purple” states as those where the election of 2016 could be most effectively swung.  Indeed, the very vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as sites to increase and exploit existing political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.

Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by political scientist Robert J. Vanderbei .  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.   Indeed, “purple America” provided not only a target for winning over the electorate for both political parties, but a target for disrupting consensus evident as much from outside of the United States as from within.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.

 

PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”

 

Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforeseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.

 

5.  If it’s the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.  The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of “red America” is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3-D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?

 

clintontrump

County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift

 

Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much twitter shaped the election in the valleys of areas colored red, where a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation–as if to protect the greenness of its grass.  (The creepy smile and richly solid comb over look so little like our supposed President, it is quite oddly designed, if replete with visual triggers, and its hortatory text lacking a comma, its limited punctuation seeming poorly proofread.)

 

 

Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?

 

Vermin.png

 

 

6.  Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder expanses. Even after refining the flat electoral map, by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The issue is not only, moreover, the troll accounts that were tied to a Russian “troll factory” outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  For the so-called ‘factories’ that mined images designed to provoke visceral responses that would trump reflection released a steady feed of fake news, based on innuendo and insinuation as well as outright slander and attack, that polluted the global media, as they were actively retweeted by the Washington Post, Jack Dorsey, CNN’s Jake Tapper, to fed an information ecosystem that was waiting to be poisoned, as some 3,000 global news outlets inadvertently included tweets originating from confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in upwards of 11,000 “news” articles as the 2016 Presidential election approached, based on an analysis of over 2,700 Twitter handles confirmed to be linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency, a group tied to Russian intelligence–including David Duke (@DrDavidDuke), Sen. John Coryn (@JohnCornyn), Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls), FOX News host Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), Brad Parscale (@parscale), Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci), former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (@seanspicer), and Sen. Ted Cruz (@tedcruz)–in ways that transformed Twitter into a tool of information war.  By targeting audiences by zip-code, education, and wealth, raising the specter of those who “come to our country to change our traditions,” and increasing the fear and specter of unwanted refugees.

 

Meltwater

 

Tweets on new issues of 2016, from illegal immigration to voter fraud, circulated from Russian plants–in cringe-inducing claims such as “If Hillary wins, she will amnesty 30+ million illegal aliens and Republicans will never win an election again”, or “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands ineligible mail-ins for Hillary votes being reported in Broward County FL”–mirrored the fears of a “rigged” system and election that Trump had repeatedly conjured, and created a new meme in American political discourse that increased skepticism about the political process.

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet incited a sort of collective resistance, issued hours after Scalia expired in Texas, and lent broad currency to the numerous questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed as dead, and generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.  (Was it a surprise that McConnell, the senior senator from deep red Kentucky, playing the part of a disruptor, in late August single-handedly blocked bipartisan decisions to alert the American public to FBI reports of Russia’s unwanted involvement in the presidential election, from staging cyberattacks to ties to the campaign of Donald J. Trump?)

The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.

 

7.  When Jared Kushner openly boasted that his father-in-law Donald was able to secure a deal with one of the largest media broadcasters in the United States–the Sinclair Broadcasting Group to ensure superior media coverage, and presumably promote attack ads, he suggested that the Trump team was on board in broadcasting their message to purple states within the political map–targeting a similar audience than that reflected in the yellow expanse below of states that were the most apt to share news stories in 2013–areas that already ran pretty red.

 

print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)

 

tumblr_inline_mu3vemRap61r62coc

 

The metaphorical trolling of the country that foreground the imminent threat terrorists pose to the nation, raise suspicions about Barack Obama’s or Hilary Clinton’s motivations for being President and ties to suspicious organizations, by the same Sinclair Broadcasting Group.  In ways that recall the media attack ads manufactured abroad, news segments ran on the dangers that immigration poses across the nation’s southern border from anchors of chains of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media conglomerate which regularly issues “must-run” segments of news to its 173 affiliates, whose involvement in local news markets is now posed to enter urban areas–and making the news corporation the largest in the nation, with 233 stations.  Did the news group offer a disinformation of its own, now seemingly only poised to grow into an urban market with its acquisition of Tribune media?

Would this expand the map’s red?

 

KXQuekP.png

The splitting of news constituencies reached by the Sinclair Group along an urban/rural divide that reflects the Trump’s “heartland” has been noted, and since 2013 offered a basis for “managing” a constellation of stations that worked around FCC regulations on media consolidation that are intended to promote local news diversity.  The lack of diversity in the 38% of households that they reached–now posed to reach 72%–already offered a powerful megaphone for addressing residents in “purple” states–in the Midwest, West, and Southwest–and mirror the “gaping holes” of news deserts, where local news sources are increasingly absent.

 

sinclair1Technical.ly

 

It is not surprising to see Trump’s FCC to take steps that actively aided the expansion of Sinclair media into American households by merging with Tribune Media, by adopting a loophole that once pertains to UHF broadcasting–and is long technologically obsolete–to allow low-budget stations to grow, thereby allowing it to grow beyond the ceiling of 39% of a national audience to diffuse a fairly reactionary message if one maps its media footprint in ways that would allow it to address more than 39% of its existing market.

 

sinclair_area-Artboard_4_copy

 

Politico mapped existing Sinclair stations against their media footprint

 

8.  Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they

 

should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.

 

–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?

Such images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.  If Trump didn’t detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds incriminated his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like an inadequate surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.

 

world-map-social-networks-dec-2014

 

The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,

 

atomization.png

 

the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged were orchestrated from abroad are described as being planned after reconnaissance in the United States.  The same divides, it is important to remember, could have been as easily gleaned online.  And even if trips to the United States are described as developed by operatives traveling to the United States to discover, much the same sort of prejudice pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election based on a fractured public politics could have been gleaned form an infographic.  The disruptiveness of disinformation created feedback loops that only mimicked oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.

Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether they were suitable for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the “Blacktivist” page that urged that voting for Jill Stein–a candidate with close ties to Russia–was “not a wasted vote,” clearly recycled historical images of African-American nationalism and solidarity, in hopes to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland.  The use of the emblem may seek to re-engineer the energy of black voters for past Democratic Presidential victories, and to scare others who might see it.  With other accounts openly urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, the goal was to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sowing distrust–and indeed, to exploit social media by triggering a clear emotional response, more than making an argument.

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The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.

 

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National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red

 

9.  The proliferation of robo-posts seeking to foster divisiveness upped the ante far more than Sinclair Broadcasting, but the two seem to have mutually reinforced one another–if not using strikingly similar tactics.  The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The offensive cartoonish images promoted by the IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” borders account, designed to appeal to Trump’s supporters and introducing an icon of his campaign, resembled the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–

 

 

 

–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism in extreme ways, celebrating the at of rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and increasing border protection as a need for national protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.  (The conceit of “liking” advocating political isolationism is a bizarre mashup of Facebook’s prescriptive language of immediate unconsidered emotional reaction and a political position with all too dangerous political consequences.  Was the irony of using social media to raise questions of border protection not ever perceived?  or was the idea to root the image of a tough border so deeply in one’s mind, that one didn’t think that clearly about its politics, consequences or implications?)

 

 

 

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Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

 

10.  The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.

But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a far starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.

 

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New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 

 

The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in future elections.

 

11.  The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to grow division and craft heightened political dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to a varied range of political opinions in most states.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.

 

 

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Purple America (2000)

 

But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

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–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–

 

votes- red v blue, by county and interest level

 

–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.

 

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The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as French cartographer Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.

 

 

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But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–

 

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–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

 

12.  Widespread exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subverted the democratic process by a vision of polarization that maps reinforced.   And by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation, local consensus was ready to be flipped, and precedents of civility overturned.  By stoking an an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)

If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.  The flipping of purple and pink states upset the predictive power of a map, but did so in ways that seem only to have reinstated the logic of the divided nation we have created in our infographics which may, in the end run, do far less to inform.

 

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The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.  But we clearly can’t go back again to seeing the national shores as creating a red/blue divide that is taking the current temperature of public opinion in each state, in isolation from the rest of the world.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, electoral maps, News Maps, Presidential Elections

Fruitvale Station

When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this January, I had a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction or anticipated a legal confrontation with my landlord.  While the visualizations of massive displacement in the Bay Area have charted the escalation of evictions in a changing real estate markets that long suggested the change in notions of public space in the city over the past decade, as Oakland emerged as a prime site of private residence and rapacious landlords, so that the point data map of unlawful detainers issued across the city suggest a swarm of ladybugs, not on a march, but feeding on the city’s neighborhoods, which seem to be nourishing a form of master-slave relations across neighborhoods of radically different income levels.  Even in the cordoned off area of North Oakland where I lived, the invasion of unlawful detainers issued across so much of the city was felt not only from afar.

 

 

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The extraordinary density appeared to track the outbreak of an epidemic or urban virus, the embodiment of the affliction of the city by landlord evictions mapped from 2005-15 seeming to be spread in strikingly uniform manner from North Oakland, where I lived, to Fruitvale in an evil effervescence or infestation of increasing gentrification and urban displacement.

 

Alameda Evictionswere a maps of the

 

Over the previous years, I had only watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large.  But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years.

 

Unlawful Detainer Notices Filed, 2005-15

 

The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay.  And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress.  And the remapping of that station–where I headed on public transit–by renaming the station in gesture to a decade-old event piercingly revealed the unstable ground of social justice in Oakland, and made me feel better than since we were first served notice.  The alternate embodiment of that map, created by a decal, seemed a powerful gesture of resistance as BART approached Fruitvale Station, and I reflexively looked from the map to the panel that hung above the BART platform a few times.

 

east bay

 

Although my dispute with my landlord was resolved, if quite contentiously, the sixty-day move-out notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities, and the deep disparities between landlords and renters–and the increasingly adversarial roles of landlords and predatory buyers of buildings in the face of the promise of greater rents– reminded one of the possibilities of legal contestation or assertion of renters’ rights for many in a city where I’d been tensely aware how rents had increased immensely and property revaluations was actively pressing populations on something of forced migration to far flung suburbia from Modesto to Visalia to Fresno to southern California.  Arriving at Fruitvale Station to avail myself of public services was entering, if temporarily, into the landscape of the disenfranchised.

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Filed under Bay Area, counter-map, mapping BART, mapping place, representing Oakland

National Security and Personal Bests

Was it only a coincidence that on the eve President Donald Trump boasted in his State of the Union address of an era “we no longer tell our enemies our plans” that the release of a live global heatmap pinpointed the location of U.S. military installations?  The release by Strava Labs of a spectacular heatmap that celebrated the routes where folks exercise worldwide suggested the flows of itineraries of physical exercise by running, biking, or skiing in stunning lines to reflect increased intensity, that appeared as if engraved on a dark OSM base map.  Indeed, the open nature of the data on military positions offered to any viewer of the heatmap seems as pernicious as culling of internet use long engaged in by the NSA, but for the state–as well as for the safety of soldiers who share their location, or fail to use security settings, as they exercise while completing military service abroad. Is this approaching a new level not only of broadcasting plans to an enemy, but failing to protect military positions in internationally sensitive zones?

While the map had been around for several years, its detailed update was so much more comprehensive than the 2015 version included–and was released in a time when internet observers scrutinize data visualizations.  The updated heatmap was a big deal for how it illuminated the world in a ways that few had seen, both in its own architecture of a spectacular network of athletes that reflected its expanded use, and the huge data included in aggregated routes for training, but illuminating clear divides between its users; but it gained even more attention foregrounding the presence of isolated groups of athletic performance abroad with an eery precision and legibility that quickly raised concerns reminiscent of the scale of unwanted intruding or monitoring of physical actives, even in an app that based its appeal in the data density of tracking it provided.  While promising individual privacy or anonymity, the benefits promised by the fitness app seemed almost a runaround of the appeal of PGP, Tor, and Privacy Badger that promised a degree of privacy by encrypting data from online trackers and privacy self-defense; rather than ensure the anonymization of the internet connections, however, the platform posted patterns of use whose legibility did not violate individual privacy, so much as state secrets.  Indeed, the surprising effects of how the Strava app made individuals suddenly legible so that they popped out of darker regions was perhaps the most striking finding of the global heatmap, as it illuminated stark discontinuities.

The newly and vastly amplified dataset included zoom functions of much greater specificity:  so richly detailed Strava was charged with betraying once secret locations of U.S. military worldwide, even if unknowingly, and creating a data vulnerability for the nation the would have global effects.  The heatmap made stunningly visible rasterized images of the aggregate activity of those sharing their locations that it gained unwanted degree of publicity months after it went live in November, 2017, for revealing the actual location and global military presence of American soldiers tracking their exercise and sharing geodata–including American and European soldiers stationed in the Middle East and Africa, and even in South Korea.  Although the California-based fitness app rendered space that seemed to celebrate the extent and intensity of physical exercise in encomiastic ways, as if the app succeeded in motivating invigorating exploration of space, and tracking one’s activity that guaranteed anonymity by blending data of its users in brightly lit zones, as for the Bay Area–

 

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–the image that had clear implications of announcing its near-global adoption registered in the more isolated circumstances that many members of the American military increasingly find themselves.  The data set that Strava celebrated in November, 2017 as “beautiful data” on the athletic playgrounds of the world took an unexpected turn within months, as Strava came to remind all military users to opt out of sharing their geodata on the zoomable global heatmap, that aggregated shared geodata, lest secret locations of a global American military presence that extended to the Middle East and Africa be inadvertently revealed.  Whereas the California fitness app wanted to celebrate its global presence, the map revealed the spread of secret bases of the U.S. military in a globalized world.  The map of all users sharing geodata with the app were not intended to be personalized, but the global heatmap showed bright spots of soldiers stationed in several war zones.

The narrative in which the map was seen changed, in other words, as it became not a data dump of athletic performance across the world, that was able to measure and celebrated individual endurance,  but a narrative of hidden military and intelligence locations, tagging CIA operatives and overseas advisors by indelibly illuminating their exercise routes in a field of war in ways that seemed to foretell the end of military secrets in a world of widespread data-sharing. And Strava Labs for their part probably didn’t exactly help the problem when they took time to assure the public that they indeed “take the safety of our community seriously and are committed to work with military and governmental authorities to correct any sensitive areas that appear” in the web-maps,” as if to assure audiences they privileged the public interest and public safety of their users.  (But as much as addressing public safety in terms of operational security, Strava’s public statements were limited to caring for the community of users of the app, more than actual states.  The disjunction reveals very much:  when Strava labs saw their “users” or customers as the prime audience to which they were faithful, they indeed suggested that they held an obligation to users outside of loyalty to any nation-state, and indeed celebrated the geographical distribution of their own community across national frontiers.)  Indeed, the app’s heatmap disrespected national frontiers, by suggesting an alternate space of exercise that was believed and treated as it had nothing political in it.

In contrast, the landscape that American President Donald Trump presented in his first chest-thumping first State of the Union returned to the restoration of American security seemed incredibly to deny the consequences of recent availability of military geodata and indeed military base locations, in announcing that in his watch, we “no longer tell .  our enemies our plans.  For whereas President Trump boasted the return to an era of national security and guarded military secrets, the app broadcast a pinpoint record of the global dispersion of American troops, military consultants, and CIA “black” sites and annexes.  Indeed, for all the vaunted expansion of the U.S. military budget, the increased vulnerability of special operations forces has been something that the United States has poorly prepared for, although the release of the heat map prompted Gen. Jim Mattis to undertake a review of all use of social media devices within the military, so shocked was the news of the ability to plot geographical location by the exercise app. If the activities tracked and monitored in the hugely popular fitness app suggested a world taking better care for their patterns of exercise, it revealed scary patterns as a proxy to chart American presence that map the recent global expansion of the United States military in the beauty of its global picture across incandescently illuminated streams–

 

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–as when one zoomed down to those running in Kabul, and geolocated the movement in ways that betrayed military footprint from intelligence personnel to foreign operatives to contractors overseas.  The data harvested on its platform appears to endanger American national security–and offers new ways to combine with information culled from social media–as it seems to pinpoint the bases around which military take their daily runs.

 

Strava sites?Strava heatmap, Kabul

 

The recognition of the scale of personal tracking by soldiers sharing data on exercise apps grew as one exploited the heatmap’s scalability, and examined areas in which few locals were using it–or had access to the First World problem of registering how many miles one ran.  While the data was not only sourced from Americans, the anonymity of the aggregate map–which can be viewed in multiple shades–provided an image of ghostly presence that seemed particularly apt to describe concerns of security and suggest an aura of revealing secret knowledge.  The cool factor of the Strava map lit up the hidden knowledge that echoed the longstanding surveillance of the communication records of Americans in the bulk data collection that the Patriot Act allowed, although now the dragnet on data use was being done by private enterprise, suggesting an odd public-private sharing of technology, as what had been viewed as a domestic market suddenly gained new uses on an international front.  The poor data security of U.S. forces abroad reminded us that we are by no means the only actor collecting bulk data, but also the scale of digital dust that we all create as we entrust information about our geographical locations to companies even when they promote the value of doing so to be salutary.

Multiple accusatory narratives quickly spun about whether the release of the new global heatmap by Strava Labs constituted a breach in national security.  The soundbite from the State of the Union proclaiming a “new era” described changed conditions by referencing Gen. Michael Flynn’s charge, first raised during the 2016 Presidential campaign on national television news,  that the United States had sadly become “the best enemies in the world” during the Obama years, as he attacked the government of which he had been part for being itself complicit in how “our enemies love when we telegraph what we’re doing” by not maintaining secrecy in our military plans.  Flynn’s assertion became something of a meme in the campaign trail.  And President Trump sought to reference the fear of such changes of a past undermining national authority abroad when he claimed to bring closure to lax security, choosing to message that the loopholes that existed were now closed, and respect had been achieved.  The fictionalized imaginary landscape seemed to distract America from danger or unemployment in celebrating its arrival in a better economic place.  The message seemed as imaginary as the landscape of an employed America, which had arrived in a better economic and place.

General Flynn’s metaphor of telegraphing was even then quaintly outdated, as if from a different media world.  But the allegation that had become a meme on alt right social media during the campaign to discredit military competence, gaining new traction as data security became increasingly a subject of national and international news.  Since President, despite having quickly issued one of executive orders that he has been so fond of signing on cybersecurity, Trump has in fact been openly criticized for a lack of vision or of leadership in addressing  national vulnerabilities in cybersecurity.  As President, Trump has preferred to pay lip service in the executive order, by far his preferred medium of public communication, to the growing frustration of a number of cybersecurity advisors who resigned before clarifying best practices of grid security.   Broad sharing of geodata by military and intelligence raised red flags of security compromises; it would, perhaps, be better raise a clarion call about our unending readiness to aggregate and be aggregated, and the unforeseen risks of sharing data.

The patterns of tracking exercise–biking, running, swimming, windsurfing–created striking pictures in aggregate, reflecting the collective comparisons of routes and itineraries, and showing a terrain vibrant with activity.  But while the app did not specialize in tracking individual performance or local movements, the new context of many apps transformed foreign counties where military travelled to sites where their data sharing stood out.  The sense of accessing the platform was so second nature to American soldiers moved across space, in fact, ignorant of the platform on which it was aggregated and its effects–or the audiences before who it was broadcast and displayed.  The ability to detect bright spots of athletic engagement around American bases, military camps, and CIA outposts suggested an unwanted form of data-sharing, RT television newscasters proclaimed with undisguised pleasure at the ease with which soldiers could be observed in different locations across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and crowed that Americans are so unwary about being surveilled so as to provide evidence willingly of their own global footprint’s size.

 

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It’s striking that government secrecy has become a public hallmark of the Trump administration.  But if Trump wanted to inaugurate the start of a fictional landscape of securing state secrets in his first State of the Union address, his words were pronounced with no acknowledgement of the release of the heatmap and the concerns of leaking security operations.  The map that Strava labs designed to celebrate the global extension of a triumphal image of the expansion of exercise in a triumphal image appeared in new guise as the latest example of breached military security secrets–suddenly made apparent at high resolution when one zoomed in at greater scale to Syria, Somalia, Niger, or Afghanistan, and even seem to be able to track the local movement of troops in active areas of war, and not only identify those bases, airfields, and secret annexes, but map their outlines that corresponded to the laps that soldiers seem to have run regularly around their perimeter while sharing their geodata publicly, or with the app.  While the app was designed to broadcast one’s personal best, as well as log one’s heart rate, sleep patterns, and performance (personal data which remained private), it collated in aggregate the patterns of activity across national borders.

For its part, Strava had only boasted it could “create the ultimate map of athlete playgrounds” by rendering “Strava’s global network of athletes” in a stunning heatmap from directly uploaded data.  If there was a sense that the “visualization of Strava’s global network of athletes” described a self-selected community, the beauty of the data set created from 13 trillion data points provided a new sense of exercise space, as if it sketched a record in aggregate of individual endurance, or a collective rendering of folks achieving personal bests.  But the illuminated “maps” of the global network of those exercising and the distribution of US military bases and sites of secret involvement raises complex issues of data-sharing, and the shock at the intersection of leisure space and military secrets–somewhat akin to the stern warning military commanders issued to years ago about using Pokemon Go! in restricted areas of military bases, mapping a comprehensive global map of military over-extension is an odd artifact of globalization.  And it was odd to see RT seize on this issue, as a way of describing the presence of the actors they id’d as “Uncle Sam” to suggest how zooming in on the global map revealed the reach of the United States in Afghanistan or Syria, as if playing a computerized game to see where clusters of forces might be illuminated, as if to exploit fears of revealing military secrets through geolocated data.

The story was pitched on RT suggested a market-driven surveillance network of which the Americans were themselves the dupes.  In its own spin on the story, RT reported of the leaks with glee, for rather than arriving from hackers, or Russian-sponsored hacking groups, military security was compromised by the very tracking devices, it was argued, that soldiers, military intelligence, and CIA officers wore.

 

 

 

 

 

By imposing outlines of national maps on the dynamic rasters of the web map that Strava released, the position of military forces or advisors indeed seemed able to be roughly revealed as military secrets by zooming into locations, much as RT announcers asserted, as if the “bracelets” of fitbits provided tools to geolocate soldiers as if they were manacles, reminiscent of the ankle bracelets given to many parolees, sex offenders, or prisoners, by using a GPS tracking system to monitor released inmates all the better to monitor their acitivities, in a practice that has only grown in response to overcrowding conditions in many federal and state prisons–GPS tracking systems were billed as able to save prisons up to $9,500 per inmate, or up to $25 a day; but rather than provide tools to surveil non-violent offenders, the effective monitoring of military bases and what seem CIA field stations provided a multiple security vulnerabilities of unprecedented scale.

But the real story may have been how so much data was available not only for state eyes, but for a broader public:  in an age where surveillance by the state is extending farther than ever before, and when we need, in the words of Laura Poitras, “a practical and metaphorical road map for navigating the post-9/11 landscape,” the maps of Strava have shifted the landscape of surveillance far from the state, and deflected it onto the internet.  For the far greater geographical precision and detail of a diverse user group may prefigure the future of data sharing–and the increased vulnerabilities that it creates.  The live data map broadcast not only an image of global divides, but of the striking patterns of the aggregation of geodata that reminded us of  the pressing problem of data vulnerability in the military’s extended network of secret military bases and dark sites.  Indeed, when a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Nathan Russer, first noted that the Strata search engine created an Op-Sec catastrophe for leaking locations of US military patrols and bases, his observations unleashed a storm of pattern analysis and fears of compromised national security.  It indeed seems that the vaunted agility that allowed American forces to deploy in much of the world could now be readily observed, as we zoom into specific sites of potential military involvement to uncover the presence of Americans and assess the degree of involvement in different sites, as well as the motion through individual sites of conflict.  The spectral map that results suggests something quite close to surveillance–at time, one can scrape the place of individual users form the app’s web map–but that is dislodged from the state.

The notion of a private outsourcing of data surveillance to the public sphere is hardly new.  One can think, immediately, of Facebook’s algorithms or personal data-harvesting or those of search engines.  Although the U.S. Department of Defense has urged all active military abroad to limit their active presence in online social media, no matter where they are stationed, the news reminded us yet again of an increased intersection between political space and social media, even if this time the intersection seems more shaped like a Moebius strip.  The divisions within a global geographic visualization of Strava’s users reminded one of a usage landscape that suggested a striking degree of continuity with the Cold War–with an expanded iron curtain, save in scattered metropoles–whose stark spatial division reminded us of the different sort of lifestyles that public posts of athletic performance reveals.  As much as showing a greater openness, the heat map suggests a far greater willingness of posting on social media use:  the intersection suggests a different familiarity with space, and a proprietary value to the internet.’

 

strava1Strava Labs

 

Indeed, in only a few months to notice how American soldiers’ presence in coalition military sites suddenly popped out in the darker spaces of the Syrian Civil War, where different theaters of action of coalition forces that include American soldiers are revealed, and panning back to other theaters can indeed revealed the global presence of U.S. military and intelligence.  Against a dark field, the erasure of any sense of national frontiers in the Strata labs data map suggests the permeability of much of the world not only by interactive technologies but by the isolated groups of soldiers who deal with the stress of deployment by bike rides and runs while they are stationed in Afghanistan.

 

 

Runing In Kabul

 

Although the fitness app saw its aggregation as registering geodata in the relatively apolitical space of physical exercise, fears of political and national security repercussions ran pretty high.  Indeed, the tracking of running laps, cycling, and daily exercise routines revealed U.S. military bases in Syria so clearly that it proved a basis to locate and orient oneself to an archipelago of U.S. military activity abroad in the global heat map, and lit up American presence in Mosul, Tanff, north of Bagdad and around Raqqa, providing a historical map able to pinpoint airfields, outposts, and secret stations in the war against the Islamic State.  Security analysts like Tobias Schneider argued they helped track the movements and locations of troops and even extract information on individual soldiers.  In place of an image of the global contagion of tracking exercise, the patterns of performance provided a way to look at the micro-climates of exercise on a scaling that were not otherwise evident in the arcs of the impressive global heatmap.

Sissela Bok classically noted the ways that secrecy and privacy overlap and are linked in some collective groups, as the military, but the absence of privacy or secrecy on much of the Strava Labs heatmap raised questions of the increasing difficulties to maintain a sense of secrecy or privacy in an age of geographically growing war.  In an age when more and more are living under surveillance, and indeed when the surveillance of subjects has only begun to gain attention as a fact of life, the fear of broadcasting an effective surveillance of exercising soldiers seems particularly ironic–or careless.  The practices of secrecy were more than lax.  For the United States military has in fact, quite vigorously promoted Fitbit flex trackers among pilot programs at U.S. bases to lose calories, and provided devices that measure steps walked, calories burned, and health sleep as part of its Performance Triad;  Fitbit trackers were provided as part of a pilot fitness program from 2013 with few issues raised about security, and placing restrictions on American soldiers’ use of mobile phones, peripherals, or wearable technologies would limit military volunteers.  (The Pentagon has in all distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of its anti-obesity program, in more flexible wearable form, without thinking of the information that they broadcast.)  Yet soon after the map appeared, folks noted on Twitter with irony that “Someone forgot to turn off their Fitbit,” and it became a refrain on social media by late January, as the image that tracked American military outposts not only in Kabul, but in the Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Niger all popped out of a global map–embodying the very outlines of the camps around which military run.  ‘

Although the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center informed the intelligence community of dangers of being tagged by “social media postings,” the imagined privacy of exercising soldiers is far less closely monitored than should be the case–resulting in a lack of clear vigilance about publishing Strava data.

 

Runing In Kabul.pngKabul, Afghanistan, in Strava Labs global heatmap

 

The heat map so strongly lluminated itineraries users ran, biked, or skied, tracked in incandescently illuminated streams, and even zoom in on specific locations, where they stand out from considerably darker zones of low use of the app, that some national security officials wanted the app to take time to take the maps offline so that they could be scrubbed; worries grew that one could even to scrape the itineraries of individual soldiers who exercise on military service in the heatmaps.

But the two fold ways of reading of the map’s surface suggest that their contents were difficult to free.  The same map celebrating the app’s global use revealed deep discrepancies between the brightly illuminated areas of high-use and data input and its dark zones.  Data mapped on Strava’s website also seems to enable one to id the soldiers using the Strava app with far greater certainty than foreign governments or non-state actors had before, in ways that would create multiple potentially embarrassing problems of delicate foreign relations.  While in part the fear may have derived from the hugeness of the dataset, the fear of being compromised by data raised an increased sense of emergency of a security being risked, and fears of national vulnerability.  Partly this was because of the huge scale of geospatial data.  The updated version of the heatmap issued by Strava Labs illuminated the world in a way that few had seen, and not only because of its greater specificity:  Strava had doubled its resolution, rasterizing all activity and data directly uploaded, and optimizing rasters to ensure a far richer and more beautiful visualization, along glowing lines to reflect intensity of use that looked as if they were in fact vectors.  It made its data points quite beautiful, stretching them into bright lines, eliminating noise and static to create a super smooth image that almost seems to update the Jane Jacobs’ notions of public space and its common access–and the definition of spaces for exercise.

To some extent, the highlighting that the app did of common routes of exercise seem to mirrored the metric of walkability, the measurement of active transportation forms like walking and biking and stood as a surrogate for environmental quality.  The fitness map improved on the walkscore or its cosmopolitan variants, by involving its users to create a new map of exercising space.  The abilities to foreground individual and collective athletic performance in a readily accessible map provided what must be admitted is a pretty privileged view of the world; but the self-mapped community it revealed gained a new context just two months after it went live, as the map drew attention to the patterns it revealed of using an app to track one’s activities, as much as register work-out trails.

 

San Fran Strava dataset  San Francisco in Strava Labs Heatmap

 

The new map attracted attention not only for the fitness crowd, a self-selecting demographic, in short, but as an interesting extension of the beauty and the huge amount of datasets it uploaded and digested in a highly legible form:  indeed the legibility of the data that was able to be regularly updated online suggested a new form of consensual surveillance.  The data-rich expansion of what was the first update to the global heat map of users that Strava Labs issued since 2015 encoded over six time more data, and promised a degree of precision that was never even imagined before, notably including correction for GPS distortions and possibilities of new privacy settings, in ways that amplified its ability to be seen as a tracking device most notably in those areas where the aggregate of Strava users was not so dense, first of all those military sites where American military and operatives were stationed and perhaps secretly engaged, but gave little thought to the day sharing app installed on their Fitbits or iPhones, and may even have seen the data-sharing function as a source of comfort of belonging to a larger exercise community.

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Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey.  While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it.

The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world.  Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation.  But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.

This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural.

 

1.  For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape.  They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also  suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures.  The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast.  The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.

 

90-7.

 

Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps.  The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.

Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes.  Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised.  For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register.  By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map.  We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.

Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change.  But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete.  The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants:   their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence.  While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–

 

Harvey flooding_1.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/University of Colorado at Boulder, August 29. 2017

 

1504094467hurricane-harvey-flood-map.gifMaps of the World

 

–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset.  Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected.  Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?

 

90-5.jpegAccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

90AccuWeather, Friday to Monday

 

Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–

 

Harvey flooding_1Dartmouth Flood Observatory at University of Colorado, Boulder/August 29, 2017

 

–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency.  The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.

The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully.  The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California.  We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming.  Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.

The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.

 

2.  Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?

One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope.  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–

 

 

–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.

Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they  are the disconnect.  Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.

But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,

 

1851_2013_mjrhurr2

 

the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.  What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?

 

Destroyed satellite dishes after Hurricane Maria hit Humacao, Puerto Rico  REUTERS/Alvin Baez

 

 

To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.

The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–

 

pipeline_line_mapProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue

 

-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–

 

gulfofmexicopipelinesProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red

 

They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas.  Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.

Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.

 

3.  How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather?  How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.

Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.

 

2017-four-us-hur-landfalls_3The Weather Channel

 

We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.

 

direct-strikesThe Weather Channel

 

If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also  shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.

 

 

Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.

 

Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey Dartmouth Flood Observatory

 

Harvey flooding_0.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017

 

Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.

 

2005-tracks-update.jpg

direct-strikes

 

A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

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Filed under climate change, data visualization, ecological disasters, hurricanes, Remote Sensing