Monthly Archives: March 2014

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

Access to pure freshwater seems an innate right, and freshwater lakes conjure pristine landscapes.  But the twinned threats of global warming and industrial farms threaten to alter the geography of watery world in an apparently definitive fashion, as rivers, ponds, and lakes across America–and the world–have been found to be teeming with toxic algae.   In what seems to be a brazen photoshopping of photographs of the Great Lakes, the apparent aquatic “greening” of formerly fresh waters in fact carries quite sinister associations.  The abundant algal blooms in the Great Lakes recall the modern miracle of the annual greening of the Chicago River each St. Patrick’s Day, but are of much more anthropogenic origin.  Appearing at regular times and places, they raise a corner on a changing relation to the worldly environment.

But they are also–in the manner of all “offshore” events–both particularly challenging to chart or to measure by fixed or clearly demarcated lines so often employed in terrestrial maps.  Rather than being photoshoppped, the satellite maps make points difficult to interpret or decode, even if they trigger immediate danger signs of the dawn of a different world, and a quite different national map of the extent of our potable water.  They prompts questions of how to map man’s impact on the shifting environment of the Great Lakes.

 

lake-erie-habs

 

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

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

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

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

 

Cwall99_lg

 

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

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

 

hab

 

These maps are less fun or enjoyable to read, if only because they so often bear bad news.  The adverse effects of algal blooms on local animal populations and food webs are even more difficult to track along clear analytics, although a varied range of metrics and maps–from MODIS satellite views of remote sensing to GIS plotting of specific readings to Google Earth views and aerial photographs.  Even as folks are downing Spirulina and eating Kelp, the pernicious cyanobacteria of green-blue algae blooms, The effectiveness of the beauty of mapping algae is difficult to effectively use as compelling narratives, however, whether about that danger, or in ways that overcome the difficult distaste of the un-kelp-like sludge of algal blooms, about the alarming spread of Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB’s) either off the shores of the United States or as effectively clogging food webs in its lakes.  As of 2013, health authorities issued advisories and warnings on algal blooms at 147 different sites and untold cost and environmental impact due to such harmful blooms, of which no systematic collation seems to exist.

Mapping the presence of such HAB’s is not only a question of reporting locations of efflorescence, but of mapping both the causative webs by which they seem to emerge with the deposits of phosphorous-rich fertilizer and waste in rivers and runoff, as well as mapping the impact of blooms within food webs and food-cycles, although it is often discussed primarily or solely in regard to its potential dangers to humans–given the neurotoxins that it has produced in rivers, lakes, and even waterfalls in Minnesota, as well as Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Ontario, Ohio, and even the Sacramento River delta, in addition, most famously, to Lake Erie–whose shallow waters encourage algae blooms, and where locals of recently sought a joint US-Canadian agency called for the immediate imposition of fixed limits on local fertilizer use.   If over 140 sites of algal blooms are present in the bays, ponds, and lakes of New York State alone, and in many lakes across the world, the widespread occurrence of such blooms have been tied to fertilizer runoff, but their endemic presence in so many freshwater lakes have only relatively recently been systematically tied to outbreaks of disease.

Hand of HAB

 

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

Harmful algae blooms’ explosive off the charts growth responds to a confluence both of high usage of fertilizer in crops and lawns, intensified by rapidly rising temperatures that foment their spread in freshwater and seawater alike:  the expansive growth of algae seems something of a by-product of our current global warming trends, as the increased summer heat provides an optimum occasion for spurts of algal growth, nourished by streamed-in phosphorous and other animal wastes, in ways that change the microbial populations of freshwater lakes.  And the world of rapidly growing algae has deep consequences for public health.  For rather than the edible sorts of seaweed, the toxicity of algae in freshwater systems is all too likely to foster bacteria-levels in human drinking water and fish that are not usually seen, making the mapping of stagnant water algae of increasing concern in much of the midwest and northeast–especially nearby sites of large-scale or industrial agriculture.  What are the best ways that algae can be mapped, or that the mapping of algae can be a proactive safeguard on the responsible stewardship of the toxicity of agricultural and lawn run-off?

The blaming of substandard practices of fertilizing soil and huge expansion of chemical fertilizers with phosphorous, combined with the increased problems of storing waste, create a new geography of pollution that renders human impact salient by the spread of an algae bloom crisis around the Great Lakes, which since 1995 have emerged in the Maumee River that feeds the Great Lakes and runs through many factory farms in these inland lakes:  increasingly, Kansas is reporting widespread algae blooms in lakes, as well as Pennsylvania and Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection blog and which the Courier Journal describe as the first cases beyond the lower Midwest.

Screen-Shot-2013-09-24-at-11.17.56-AM

 

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

Are we even close to cultivating the ability to read the levels of toxic agents like microcystins in algae blooms, or able to find reliable ways of transcribing their potential harmful side-effects? The specific case of Lake Erie, specific both since it is one of the densest sites of such blooms and on account of its low water-level, may itself be predictive of the danger of algal blooms in future years.

lake-erie-habs

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Algal Blooms 2012 true

Modis Green Erie

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

Algea on Google Earth

 

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

 

Lake Erie satellite image

 

 

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

 

L-Ont-bloom-580x386

 

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

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

 

blooms across USA

 

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

 

Factory Farms Focus on Iowa?

 

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

 

Operation-Downspout-Logo

 

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

 

Algae by Burlington

 

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

 

220px-River_algae_Sichuan

 

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

 

green-algae-bloom-china-lake-wading_37797_600x450

 

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

 

220px-Oobleck_Cover

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

 

oobleck in act

 

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

 

floraison-massive-algues-vertes-chine

 

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

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

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

 

Nov 2 1979--Florida Marine

FLorida Marine 1979 Red Tide

Florida marine Dec 30 1979

Red Tide Expands 1979 Florida Marine

 

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

 

Florida Marine carina 1995

Florida Marine Key

new year's day 1986

 

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

 

Florida Fish and Wildlife HAB

Or, in October 2013,

October 2013 Florida Fish and Wildlife RI

 

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

 

Google Maps St. Lucie River, 2013

 

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

Florida--part of America

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

Panorama of Florida

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

Straits of Florida 1720

 

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

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Filed under algae blooms, Global Warming, Great Lakes, remotely sensed maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Butler's map of friendships

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

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

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

Coordinated Migration #2

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

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

United FB regions

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

Facebook-Developer-Heat-Map

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

Coordinated Migration #2

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

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

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

Coordianted Migration--Africa

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

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

Population Growth UN Charts

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

To Istanbul!

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

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

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

Coordinated Migration--Asia

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

Philippines

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

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

Coordinated Migration in US

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

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

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March 5, 2014 · 3:04 pm