Monthly Archives: June 2014

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

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

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

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

SF Traffic

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

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


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

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


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

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




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

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




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


Stamen Cabs



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


colored map cabs' speeds


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

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


Densest at midtown #4


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


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


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


Densest at Midtown #2


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


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


Big Mapping NYC Taxi Trips from Open Data


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


Uber hand


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




But let’s return to the subtlety Fischer’s coding of end points in orange and sites of hailing in blue allows.  The aggregation is so dense that it defines the entire street grid.  Most superficially, a scan of the data visualization he posted shows the hailing of cabs to be clustered on avenues where cabs congregate and course North or South–joins legibility with aesthetics, charting where New Yorkers access and stop cabs to tell us a lot about the navigation of the city’s grid in its crowd-sourcing of automotive itineraries.

For Fischer’s visualization deserves plaudits for elegantly synthesizing an exact visualization of the unique ways that folks use urban space:  of the over a million and a half taxi-rides that were taken in 2013, most concentrated in the cab-mecca of Manhattan, most seem to be taken along the North-South axes of the avenues, somewhat predictably, with a striking density of destinations on almost all of the major streets, often ending along North-South avenues.  Fischer’s map almost illuminates the grid of city streets in ways that tell us considerably amount the range of disposable income available to Manhattanites as well as to most visitors to New York.  The intense activity that the cab occupies as a sort of “second car” and mode of transit suggest a fully served community, if it sacrifices data on speed, acceleration, and delays that might be necessary to really envision drivers’ relative effectiveness.


187 mill Taxi Trips in NYC


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


Blur of Midtown's White Heat


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


GPS Fixes near LaGuardia Airport


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

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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Veins around park and Mysterious Red Dots


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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Corners are often Bulbs


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




Indeed, despite the universalizing nature of Uber’s intentions, the app they offer may best function  precisely in those cities and urban areas which fit the traffic patterns specific to San Francisco most closely.  San Francisco, the city where the app was first devised, offers a unique problem of navigation for taxis:  pedestrians and inhabitants both face a scarcity of free cabs and often face the need for long trips from downtown to, say, the Inner or Outer Richmond or Pacific Heights, call cabs over to the East Bay, and are often located at a distance from taxi stands, and where fares might have too much difficulty hailing a cab at later hours.  And where single women who want a secure ride door-to-door make up, it’s been suggested, a major portion of the fares.  (It might be argued, however, that the whole point of Uber was to harvest a huge amount of data that can be plotted by future mapmakers and indeed predict the relative likelihood of destinations across the city in a more sophisticated way than was ever possible.)

But even in San Francisco, it bears noting, the recent introduction of “Pick-Up Points,” or recommendations of specific pick-up locations in mid-2015 suggest a new way of mimicking mobile taxi-stands for their users–as if to acknowledge the difficulty inherent to promising mobility for an urban space that is often by definition clogged.  Although the potential to be anywhere–or assign a driver to appear anywhere–at first distinguished Uber’s provision of crowd-sourced drivers, eerily soon after the suggestion that the rideshare service provide precise locations of where a fare might be best able to draw drivers–and, if not hail a cab, meet one’s driver–the urban maze of U-turns, changing traffic flows, one-way streets and freeway onramps makes it not only more convenient but more enabling to imitate the interactive suggestions made by Lyft, for example, in inviting its users to indicate where they might best meet their ride:


The innovation is not to become less interactive, but to offer a set of coordinates from, for example, a crowded field or region, where one’s ride might otherwise have difficulty locating you, even if that selection may sacrifice the illusion of being anywhere, anytime, and involve some extra footsteps of one’s own:

Suggested Pickup POint UBER


There is some data that demonstrates that the indication of such exact sites of pick-up may allow riders to appear at precise times without creating a situation where drivers would actually compete for fares, and to ensure the illusion of personalized service in a service that in aggregate reveals clear patterns of its own.

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

Rides into neighborhoods Bradley Voytek


Might one decide to map the different topographies of traffic flow across different cities in the hopes of predicting how well Uber offers a fit for the navigation of a distinct urban space?  Even with the increased homogenization of cities, the underlying plans and patterns of local traffic provide some guide to its potential “fit” with local traffic and cab-use. It demands investigation how the market would adjust for Uber to be most complimentary to local needs.  The integration of GPS with a local taxi economy has been recently argued to create an artificial scarcity of taxis squelching competition, but to champion the free market approach runs the risk of setting off shocks in the local economy of providing short-term rides that has developed in the city’s somewhat fragile transportation economy.  For as well as reveal the pathways of negotiating urban canyons of New York, the visualization reveals a delicate local economy in which car-users navigate the available calculus of transportation–a city where few drive the cars they own every day, and despite a relative density of car-ownership in Manhattan and New York City as a whole.

Indeed, many don’t even rely upon cars–despite the incredible density of cars per square mile in the relatively affluent region, according to the data mapped in StreetsBlog LA.


Vehicles:Sq Mile NYC   Vehicles:Sq MileStreetsBlog LA

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


Car Ownership in NYC and environs Vehicles:Person StreetsBlog LA

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

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


Although the vast bulk of cab-rides in New York City are based in downtown traffic, where garages are costly and urban street space at a premium, the data visualization reminds us of the continued importance of cab services to negotiate local space.  The relatively subtle tool for moving in a narrow time-window that cabs provide offer an increasingly needed medium to move through and use space that seems unwise to disrupt not only as a way to move the city’s economy, but for the very reason that it is so deeply established of negotiating specific constants of its traffic patterns and laws.  Indeed, the poor ability of GPS or any GIS system to record the shifting pulse and intensities of traffic raises questions of the time which its drivers need to accommodate to actual traffic flows.

If Uber is able to navigate it, best of luck.  Maybe it already has:  but the uncertainty of how markets are currently treating this ride-sharing service suggests that it may have opened the way to far more competitors than it ever foresaw.

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Are We There Yet? The Plane in the Map

New markets of maps are always emerging, and we seem to have our own interest in making maps for an growingly de-centered globalized world.  But perhaps one of the oddest markets is for the rehabilitation of the itinerary in a globalized age, a rehabilitation that seems not only against the grain but designed to bequeath greater familiarity to a space often felt to shift beneath one’s feet:  where one is as one watches the landscape unfold in the most current flight maps almost undermines the position of the viewer as if to reinforce whatever queasiness one might feel while suspended high above the earth in a crowded flight cabin.

In an attempt to create a sense of individuality in the in-flight experience that seems safely guided by a captain piloting the plane, the in-flight maps omit the range of other planes crowding the airspace of the world, and indeed the possibility that the plane is steered remotely or by an automated program, giving a sense of collective participation in mapping the steady course of the airplane’s flight-path in a proliferating variety of formats.  Whereas airline-based in-flight tracking maps are generated for paying passengers for apparently utilitarian ends, the fairly antiquated medium of spatial representation is compellingly abstract–and often can prove as disorienting as much as orienting.  Increasingly, the tools for envisioning the path of your plane on a Mercator projection–serendipitously fitting in the frames of video screens inset above most tray-tables in Economy flights–which allow us to imagine the global context of airplane flight paths in unique ways.

Wildly out of scale and based on estimated representations of flight paths, the maps displayed behind tray-tables on the backs of seats claim an odd sense of exactitude designed to increase confidence, the maps convince us that we are in good hands, and suggest that once we have entered on our course of air travel we have entered into a unique relation to the land  but also a position of safety, in which we will be safely guided to our eventual destinations.




Is it any coincidence that the map is viewed as one has little sensation of moving, and needs to be reminded of progressive trajectory of global motion across it?  The inclusion of a directional set of arrows, resembling an early modern wind rose, atop the rather detailed bathymetry of the ocean floor suggests a reminder of global travel.  If there is a superfluity of detail in mapping the ocean in a ramp of bright iridescent blues, the map also serves somewhat as an invitation to future destinations–


United Flight Paths:GeoNova.png


–that reflect the increased expansion of air travel from a time when plane rides seemed to sketch something like a single transcontinental highway in the air with a few turn-offs:





The proliferation of airspace in recent times is well-known.  But less scrutinized or contemplated is the value of retaining or communicating a personalized map of the travel of the individual plane across an empty cloud-free sky, as a distillation of the personal experience of flight.  The disorientation of these personalized maps consulted above tray tables provides the clearest reminder between snatches of sleep or airplane reading that we are indeed in motion at that very moment, providing a register of distance travelled, height, and arrival time as well, in the upper left-hand corner, time remaining in flight–and the depiction of the magnified presence of a plane over the land that lies contracted below, wildly out of scale with the perspective of the plane that moves across its surface.




Edward St. Aubyn nicely described the odd nature offered by the constant counterpoint of the disembodied relation to maps for passengers faced with the cartographical options of geolocation in rapid-fire succession.  If the provision of data seems to revel in informative abundance, the information overload easily loses coherence for many viewers, so carefully crafted are the maps to command attention over the short-term, as if to compensated for the limited attention-spans that is assumed of most airplane passengers.  The dizzying disorientation with which the shifting scale of the map, showing a child “their plane hovering near the Irish coast, south of Cork,” suddenly “expanded to show London and Paris and the Bay of Biscay,” only to morph yet again to an “informational feast” that “[at] the next scale included Casablanca and Djibouti and Warsaw” in ways that immediately undermined any comfort  of its color-saturated informational content.  If airline companies may hope to present to its passengers a form of reassurance, the abundance of maps, apparently exulting in the possibilities of representing a course of transit, and as a result communicated “told you everything except the local time on the plane.”  If St. Aubyn sees the superabundance of information on the map as deeply alienating, it is also a reminder of the alienated nature of the in-between space of transit.  For one is in an intermediate place in the plane, which remains outrageously magnified on the map, but also outside of it, moving across time zones with the apparent potential of moving to any place on the map, and indeed eventually moving outside its frame, as one shifts among maps that seem to lack any indices, but hurriedly create or improvise a sense of place as long as we are in the air.

With the crowding of the paths of the airways,  the itineraries overhead are not only an “informational feast,” but a progressive sense of the unfolding of the flight path that one can watch, while seated, from an empyrean point of view, that is truly satisfying to frame not one’s sense of where one is, but of how much flight time remains.  For if the seated passenger is removed from any sense of place, during the course of transit, the map allows one to be a spectator of where one is flying and enlists the most recent mapping graphics to do so, foregrounding the varieties of visual entertainments of map reading while we are in the air compounding the iconography of the cloud cover of a weather map, the remove of the plane from the ground foregrounded by the ridiculously out of scale rendering of the aircraft.





The plane is in a sense part of but not part of the map, a sort of talisman that gives us a sense of direction and markers of distance as we are removed from the earth.


Miles to NY


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Our Increasingly Uncomfortable Topographies of Incarceration

The yellowing map that was compiled of brutally dehumanizing acts of violence across the United States from the start of the last century presents what seems another country.  The preponderance of dark splotches marking incidence of such outbreaks like a pox not only suggest the deeply rooted nature of a radicalized terror we must confront.  Their spread possesses an alarming–if not terrifying–correspondence to the relatively sudden spawning and foundation of privately held prisons across identical states.  In ways that reflect the difficulties of imagining clear social consensus, and at the same time reveal the ugly divides in attitudes to individuals, the map that compiles the occurrence of lynchings seems not to be only a removed archival record, but a seems an actual precedent for the race-based nature of mass incarceration in America today.

The spate of such privatized prisons and institutions of confinement seek to balance the actual overcrowding that plagues most state-run circular facilities today–facilities that are stained not only by outbreaks of disease, unjust incarceration of the mentally ill, violations of human rights, and overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  But even as the institutionalization of dehumanizing violence that seems to have disappeared all to readily from public view has left deep psychic scares in the country in ways difficult to map or even gauge as what can only seem a one-time normalization of racialized violence, and if such crimes against humanity pose steep challenges to comprehend, the question of their remove–and whether the past is ever dead, or even past–is raised by the realities of racially biased incarceration that contemporary society still seems to tolerate.


The yellowed map remains so heart-breaking as to seem what may be a foreign country in the openness of racially motivated violence, to be sure:  the image that maps all lynchings that were recorded in US states and counties from 1900-1931 record a widespread dehumanization  in the fairly recent past, but seems a landscape of hatred–and racial animosity–that has receded into the past, and that few could imagine or acknowledge any social proximity.  The national map, based on research of the Tennessee-Based Tuskegee Institute for the early twentieth century, or just years after the journalist Ida B. Wells in 1895 had tabulated the widespread phenomenon of lynching blacks in the 1890s, pictures a nation so consumed with hatred and vigilante violence to seem far removed from our world–as if truly foreign country, the widespread frequency of lynching over three decades that it maps suggests a terrible if tacit sanctioning of public violence and violent dehumanization directed largely against blacks.  The barbaric dehumanization may appear confined to certain region that one would want to demonize as different, but the breadth of its generality from Louisiana to Arkansas to Texas to Georgia to Florida and to Virginia is truly terrible and mind-boggling to comprehend–and only based on the availability of data.  Must must have been lost, or hard to confirm.

Similarly challenging to comprehend, as Bryan Stevenson has noted, is habituation to a landscape of violence that must have been the intentional and psychically indelible result on blacks.  The distribution of cases of lynching across early twentieth century America reminds us, terrifyingly, of an acceptance of such an extra-legal institution of racist persecution.  It hits us, with the visceral shock that, allegedly, the then-Malcolm Little felt when he first heard Billie Holiday sing the signature “Strange Fruit,” a meditation on the rash of lynchings in the South, after arriving in New York City.  Holiday evoked “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” in ways by which the future Malcolm X was deeply moved at their lamentational refrain describing the dehumanization of blacks.  The yellowed map provokes a similar punch to the chest, iasking its viewer to recognize a country where a dehumanizing hatred was widespread, and lynchings regularly occurred across the “gallant” South that Billie Holiday evoked with spooky bitterness.

The spectacle of the hideous violence enacted by vigilantes on black bodies seems most densely concentrated in areas of deep south–most especially in Georgia–but a large area of “southern trees” span the fields of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina, where racial hatred and uneasiness had deep roots and provoked profoundly deep social anxieties at challenges to social segregation.  The practice of lynching seems to have been clearly tolerated further north and further west to Washington, Utah, and even California, forcing us to consider the expanse of the “strange and bitter crop” we often locate in a time so removed from our own.   Such a strikingly expansive geography of organized vigilantism and improvised executions across so much of the United States now seem difficult to comprehend–going far beyond racism in their distancing of men as others–as the familiarity of dehumanization it implies was a forceful distancing of oneself from others’ lives and experience, and readiness to exempt them from a universal system of justice.

But is it only a historical coincidence that a remarkable geographic concentration of both the growth of federal prisons from 1950 and of rates of incarceration mirrors the distribution of lynchings both along the southern Mississippi and in western Florida–two sites of the greatest growth of federal prisoners?  The echo of exclusionary disenfranchisement is more than eery:  for if the number of lynchings seem focussed to some extent along the Mississippi River, from Arkansas to Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Florida–the map is based on recorded data alone, and must exclude or omit what lies outside recorded lynchings that, if the victims of mob violence were white or caucasian victims in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, were overwhelmingly African American in majority from 1900–and rarely perpetrated on few whites from the 1920s–suggests that we re-examine this Tuskegee Institute map against the patterns of incarceration with which our country is now also plagued.


The even greater detail of a similarly heartbreaking distribution recently and more authoritatively delineated by the Equal Justice Initiative’s survey of a full seventy-three years of lynchings foregrounds premeditated vigilantism aimed at African Americans, and predominantly in Southern States, that claimed some 4,000 lives of their victims in a far more extensive manner than previously believed–wildly incommensurate with the relatively minor infractions which inspired a brutality and level of atrocity that responded more to anger at apparent violations of the segregated status quo.  The map that Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative released greatly expands earlier lists released by the Tuskegee Institute from 1912, and includes previously unreported collective massacres similarly intended to terrorize local black communities through what can only be described as a culture of extreme violence across the Old South:


Equal Justice Initiative (source)/Visualization and graphic from New York Times

The emergence of such a landscape of violence across southern states over the years 1870-1950 suggests the extensive nature of brutally performed executions that were no doubt designed to terrorize the population, far beyond retributive justice as public spectacles of violence that were acted out on black bodies:  the troubling levels of such violent executions reveals strikingly sharp concentrations at sites across the South where blacks were most subordinated–along the Mississippi, as well as in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida–and insubordination feared.  The distribution of such popularly sanctioned violence against blacks no doubt reflects the concentration of populations of blacks in the deep Southern United States by 1950, with a few exceptions, even after the great migrations to New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and suggest the reality of a landscape of terror from which many blacks able to do so removed themselves:

Negro Popuilation in US

Library of Congress

The expanded evidence of sustained patterns of such violently dehumanizing practices of lynching–at times in reactions to race riots, as in the densest site of the atrocity, and most densely in Louisiana, reached numbers so astounding that they cannot capture the habituation to violence based on “racial terror,” and indeed the unleashing of something like a repressive dehumanization that has been historically underestimated in its expanse.  Stevenson suggested the very long-term effects of how “the lynching era created a narrative of racial difference, a presumption of guilt, a presumption of danger so readily assigned to African Americans in particular–and that’s the same presumption of guilt that burdens young kids living in urban areas who are sometimes menaced, threatened, or shot and killed by law enforcement officers.”  Does the spate of the construction of jails in many of the same regions suggest something of a similarly misguided–if by no means as openly violent or explicitly dehumanizing–a disproportionate strategy of response?

If the past is indeed a foreign country, our country retains an institutionalized ‘othering’ of criminal populations that has come to fulfill similarly monitory functions if not similarly terrorizing roles, that run against our better instincts.  The ongoing expansion of institutional structures of imprisonment might however be compared to the geographic multiplication of lynchings in the early part of the twentieth century, as a similarly misguided attempt at justice.  Although density of the concentration of lynchings across the Southern states evocatively mark a vanished record of openly sanctioned violence of vigilantes and murder, the proliferation of jails in some of the same regions of the country raise questions about the widespread acceptance of practices of imprisonment in contemporary America.  Although imprisonment removes felons criminals from the public eye, the widespread acceptance of practices of imprisonment in contemporary America seems haunted by a distance from humanity analogous to the normalization of the vigilantism of earlier times.  Indeed, the belief that crimes of immigration, drug possession, or other non-felony offenses merits excluding persons from civil society by mass-incarceration, and the collective incarceration of African Americans in which this results, seems more than eery sense of continuity with the past.

For the map made from findings of the Tuskegee Institute and printed by the by the American Map Company circa 1931, presents a troubling distribution of the social ills of the inter-racial hatred in early twentieth century America.  The map, based on the decision to compile data on lynchings at the prescient decision of Booker T. Washington, shows Georgia and Mississippi at the top of the cumulative tally of such a vigilante justice, the locations of the vast majority of which are knownresonates with maps of slave-owning some two generations prior.  It also offers something of a historical perspective on continued state-sanctioned violence of correctional authorities against imprisoned felons in America today–and perhaps a window into how we are able to turn the other cheek to a pronounced widespread ‘othering’ of a large population of the nation.  Mapping of the spread of mass-incarceration and prison construction suggest a shadow of the terrifying precedents of the absence of legal protections for all citizenry, and readiness to marginalize members of society and to suspend civil protections.  The distribution of imprisoned Americans and the costs of imprisonment document a similar image of the scars and severe social costs today–judging only from the topographies of prisons and imprisonment in the United States.


Wikipedia:  prison incarceration rates by state as of 2008; based on statistics from US Bureau of Justice

The map strongly contrasts to the actual localities of highest crime, as compiled from an  FBI Uniform Crime Report, of 2012, despite some similarities:  indeed, the contrasts are even more apparent when it comes tot eh contiguous darker states of high incarceration in the southernmost states.

 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 2012.png

1.  The occurrence of lynchings that we can track like a pox from a century ago might go some way to explain striking reluctance to abandon state-sponsored executions of the imprisoned in America’s legal system.  The willingness to turn the other cheek to demonized populations by excluding them from either civil rights or legal protection of their persons even suggests a sense of the validity of imprisonment that stayed with us in the disenfranchisement and expulsion of those classified or tarred as felons.  For our prison system seems, as we look at it in detail, to operate outside of the sense of individual rights we imagine a legal system would secure, and reveals a strong sense of excluding demonized members of our society from the social order, out of the belief that incarceration is the best service we can offer.  This is a question that we might do well to revisit, especially when we consider the widespread evils that a socially sanctioned system of particularly violent retributive “justice” held across several generations in many counties across the United States.

Lynchings focussed in South?

Maps indeed condense pictures of nations.  The national maps of incarceration offer a troubling image of our civil society, whose system of justice seems to tug at its seams of civil society as we direct increasing funds to maintaining a carceral state across the country.  Is the perpetuation of an expanding system of imprisonment and prison construction a vicious cycle with terrifying historical precedents?  Have we expanded our prison system, even more bluntly, in ways that provide a rationale for a new violence of social exclusion?

As US courts continue to imprison more folks than China–a nation whose population is nearly four times our size–the attempt to believe we are able to control the spreading number of imprisoned, and to continue to deny prisoners any rights, suggests a greatly diminished notion of the social good.  The provide something of a map of a masked immobile population, relocated from the cities to marginal areas in upper New York state, northern California inland, southern California desert, southern or central Texas, or southern Florida coast, too easy to be forgotten even as we watch, only somewhat guiltily, multiple seasons of “Orange is the New Black.”  For while we are watching sequential seasons of the social interaction among inmates, we are acknowledging both the thin line dividing characters and a carceral system and reaching into the life of imprisoned, voyeuristically, attracted by the ability to cross a dividing line between the imprisoned and those out of prison we don’t often traverse:  the inmate-inmate sociability among women we almost seem to know in orange is all the more engrossing because of the setting in Danbury prison to chart the social topography of a foreign land where we like to think of ourselves as unlikely to go.

2.  A set of infographics on the social costs of the meteoric expansion not only of prison populations, but of almost improvised solutions to deal with prison costs, will suggest not only the serious social costs of the continued expansion of mandatory jail sentencing, but the extent of social violence and disturbances that the institutionalization of such sentencing–and of sentencing of young kids to Life Without Parole–has already produced.  The maps of jails and practices of imprisonment across the country show not only a sort of sanctioning and sublimation of a similarly oppositional rhetoric but also their institutionalization.  Maps that locate the changing distribution of prison populations or provisionally released parolees across the nation and state of California–and in urban communities–should send a number of red flags about the sort of society that our tax dollars are working to create through the expanding possibilities of incarceration.  The expansion of the prison industry within the United States has long won widespread ire of many, but has also increasingly been mixed or seasoned by a growing sufferance of the unequal distributions of the prison populations and demographics.

The overt if passive tolerance of the evolution of a system of imprisonment and as a society apart, defined by its own operations, protocols, and possibilities of employment and economic viability within the United States is something akin to a cancer eating at civil society.  “Mass-incarceration on a scale . . . . unexampled in human history is a fundamental face of our country today,” as Adam Gopnik observed back in 2011, and has created a bizarre social map threatening to warp the civil fabric and government alike.  It is no coincidence that the almost routine nature of carceral practices and prison sentencing is at the cry of in the television dramatic comedy “Orange is the New Black,” which traces the lives and fate of women imprisoned on drug charges who we would not “expect” to follow behind bars.  In the Netflix series, a correctional facility re-appears as a  soundstage, in a bizarre sleight of the unconscious where the socially repressed preponderance of imprisonment returns, or the marginalized becomes a stage filled with characters with whom we identify.  We become the complicit audience and spectators:  the show’s broad appeal may well rest in how the following maps of the huge growth of incarceration has dramatically affected our national fabric.

Maps are compelling media to process the reality of incarceration and its hidden and actual costs, and help to confront the huge social costs of the very processes of dehumanization we often want to hide–but risk to create very lasting social and humanitarian dangers.  For we similarly rarely observe either the social costs of the scale of imprisonment that we have undertaken across the fifty states, or the expansion of what stands as virtually a separate state of the incarcerated–a state devoid of civil rights or voting rights, but which is not only increasingly silenced, but which we do not want to recognize.  In a manner similar to which lynching was a silenced rite of violence in much of the south and elsewhere that was rarely recognized–witness the power of Billie Holiday’s song, Strange Fruit, composed by Abel Meeropol, after he was so haunted by photographs of lynchings that led him to compose the song in 1939–until society was made to face its sanctioning of mob-based violence and outright cruelty.  When we look at the percentages of imprisoned in some of the very same states, we cannot but continue to flinch.

3.  From an implicit tolerance and acceptance of crime as a part of daily life in urban society, over three decades the United States has transformed to an incarcerating society of proportions that have never been known before.  Prisons are increasingly constructed across the country to house increased number of prison sentences handed down:  their construction is not based on the changed the character of justice, but made prison a procedural part of policing criminal activities, with the result of shifting our social topography more than the economic recession.  In ways that seem to offer para-urban societies of imprisoned life, prison life has emerged as a false compartmentalization of social actors.  This division corrodes the social fabric and may well derive from an obsession with the procedural operations of the law that culminate in the legal naturalization of the process of incarceration.   William J. Stunz implied so much in his Collapse of American Criminal Justice, where he tied the new legal culture that promotes the dominance of incarceration to the institutionalization of a terrifying proceduralization of meting justice, that privileges process over individual rights.  If mass-incarceration is the United States has become a part of criminal policy across many states, the criminal system, Professor Stunz argued, is as much at fault for the adoption of jail sentences as part of confronting crime.  The increased reliance on incarceration–and the dehumanization of prison populations held in not only unsanitary conditions but with poor medical attention–create a situation rife with overcrowding, squalid conditions of life, and little structure or actual occupation for inmates’ time.


The Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College London nicely distorts a Robinson projection to show the  hugely distorted proportion of their population of imprisoned populations as of 2010, shading nations in darker hues in correspondence with the percentage of its own citizens the country jails, in ways that not only bloat the United States’ landmass, but shows it to be the country that imprisons the greatest share of its population–over 700 per 100,000–surpassing, in so doing, either Cuba, South Africa, or Thailand, as well as the Russian Federation and China. and suggesting the broken nature of our addiction to imprisoning our fellow-citizens.


International Centre for Prison Studies/Kings College, London

The increasingly poor conditions in the US prison population are, for now, not able to be mapped–no doubt because of poor availability of data.  But the poor conditions in the carceral state in the United States parallels both the increasing expansion of a prison system and the privatization of prisons as centers of “managing” imprisoned populations, often including solitary confinement and other abusive practice, rather than responding to rights of humane imprisonment–as if the construction were not an oxymoron.

The global context of our habituation with imprisonment however conceals the relative readiness of certain states are ready to treat their residents, but and the clear domination of southern states–“Red” states?–to a policy of zero tolerance, or readiness to look the other way in ways that provide .  The map conceals the fact that the greatest growth of prisons in recent decades, between 1979 and 200, occurred in Texas (706%) and Florida (115%)–which show ample deep blues of a rich culture of imprisonment–but also New York (117%), California (177%), and Georgia (133%), where imprisonment has increasingly emerged as a way of life, in ways tat seem independent of political parties.  Perhaps this arose from anxieties of immigration in the first two states–Texas saw 133 prisons built in 2000 alone; Florida 84 and California 83 over the same two decades–but building of further prisons to house an expanding number of imprisoned has become routine in our national  justice system:  Minnesota built 60 prisons; Georgia 42; Illinois 40.  Was imprisoning not in some way seen as a way of reorganizing society by 2008?

The annual cost of $5.1 billion in prison construction in 1995 alone to feed this growth of mass-incarceration is unable to be sustained.


Wikipedia:  prison incarceration rates by state as of 2008; based on statistics from US Bureau of Justice

The uneven concentration of prison populations in much of the United States reflects the distinctly larger likelihood that rural populations will be sending their populations to prisons that has risen markedly from 2006 to 2013, with a considerable decline in the numbers of prisons from larger cities as Los Angeles–a decline of 69%–and San Francisco–a decline of 93%–which suggests not only a greater gentrification of the city, which may explain the considerable if lesser reduction of people sent to prison in Brooklyn as well in this period–37%–or Durham, North Carolina–


Geography of Incarceration

–but a clear sense of “keeping it safe” in many counties that maintain their own policies and practices of active persecution, as noted Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, which determine how the punishment fits the crime.

Keeping it Safe.png

New York Times

Indeed, the privatization of the process of prison construction in the United States has led a greater amount of prisons to be built in the country than Stalin built in Russia, and has defined us as the paragon of the incarcerated society.  Rose Heyer created stunning map of US prison proliferation from 1900 to 2000 for the Prison Policy Initiative, represented the United States at the International Cartographic Conference and Map Exhibition in 2005, charting the growth of populations housed across the country in federal prisons from 57,00 to 1.3 million.  The result reveals the hidden population of a lost metropolis that is dispersed across the country–whose demographic size rivaled (and now surpasses) the population of the city of San Diego, but are located behind bars across the country, often removed from cities, whose expansion suggests a negative nation within our own:


4.  How to process the map of growing incarceration–or indeed map the terrifying phenomenon?

Composer Paul Rucker has crafted an eery performance piece about “the proliferation of the US prison system if seen from a celestial point of view,” animating the augmentation of prisons across the nation through 2005, echoing Heyer’s map, that concludes with in an image documenting the infestation with practices of incarceration:  if light green beacons dot the country with prisons through 1900, yellow dots spring up after 1940, and then morph to orange dots through 1980 in a sequence of pulsating lights that mark prison foundations in ways increasingly difficult to process or get one’s mind around as a growing landscape of confinement. The topography of sanctioned violence against individual offenders may be concentrated in the Deep South for multiple reasons.  But it corresponds to a map of the willingness to see  criminals as ready for incarceration that oddly echoes the landscape of income inequality across the country.


More striking is the shift in the topography of US Federal prisons across the land since 1950–when prisons were concentrated in but a few states, and understood to be marginalized from the body politic–boggles the mind:  we live in an era of prison-contracting, marked not only by a growth of state prisons, but widespread practices of incarceration.


What has happened?  If the spread of prisons map somewhat onto the nation’s major cities, the overlay of red dots that suggest dots of blood marking prisons built from 1981 to 2005 seem to suggest a spread of smallpox or toxic pustules across the land, as the spread of incarcerating institutions finds its counterpart as wistful cello bowing gives way, as the nation reddens as clear regions of penal proliferation gives way, to the current image of the nation in his multimedia performance, and a plaintive cello to concludes with electric bass guitar and  snare drums, offering a frustration and rage against the institution of incarcerating institutions, as much as a mode to contemplate the contours of this new status quo.  The accompanying soundtrack of the multimedia presentation compels attention to the conditions of life for those residents of the expanding carceral state that now confines a surprisingly sizable proportion of the residents of many states–and over 3% of its total residents nationwide, according to a meme that has circulated on the internet, if, just as terrifyingly, it seems to reflect African Americans as much as the general population.  Already a decade ago, many states were approaching or at a situation with 5% of their populations under control of prisons or criminal justice.


Rather than lie concentrated in an archipelago of incarceration, the web of prisons house over 1.5 million inhabitants is a true pox upon our houses, but embodies a large population of imprisoned, spread across the nation in legally sanctioned confinement.

Rucker 2005

Try to track the same impending expansion of practices of incarceration in dramatic progression, follow Rucker’s transfixing musical meditation on the “celestial point of view” on confinement–


to its conclusion, and try to distance yourself from the massive assault on civil liberties that is perhaps its primary consequence.   The terrifying dimensions of such a carceral expansion remaps the country as a center of confinement, as much as an embodied territory.  What happens to the hidden population as a result?

Proliferation Animated

5.  The dramatic dehumanization of prison populations raises fears of a crisis in health, mental health, and empathy whose impact has still not been fully felt for many other residents in the country.  Yet the impact on the country cannot be denied:  “Orange is the New Black,” a retelling of the true story of Piper Kerman, serves as some sort of barometer of the national subconscious, by which to come to terms with the expansion of such routinized imprisonment as a way of managing populations.  The prison system, indeed, has expanded to provide a system for the geographic dispersal of criminal populations into private prisons that is as striking as the spread of institutions of incarceration across the land.  And among those imprisoned, the rise of imprisoned women by some 646% between 1980 and 2000–or over double the rise for men, according to the Sentencing Project–our prison population has slowly begun to demographically change, the  large majority of women being sent to state and not federal prisons for non-violent offenses.  The show’s huge popularity rests on the degree to which prison-life can change the structure of many American families, but how we’re increasingly apt to not know prison society or to even take the time to examine its structure.

The multiplication of prisons across the nation, paired with the habituation of sentencing to jail terms, has created deep social stresses across most of the most challenged communities, most vulnerable to dropping out of high school or fragile family structures where single parents are unable to support kids to the extent that they need.  The “system” has begun to redistribute prisoners across the nation, leading prisoners to often be shifted, on account of the exiling of local prisons or closure of older sites, hundreds of miles from their homes and possibilities of family visitation, like prisoners in Washington, D.C. who are routinely sent to prisons in Texas, Florida, or California after the closure of the Lorton, Va., prison which formerly housed them in ways that radically increase the probabilities of recidivism, basing oneself on statistics from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of Washington, D.C.

DC offenders jailed away from DC

The odd expanse of the distribution of D.C. offenders throughout to some twenty-six states nation-wide is not completely atypical for the broad redistribution of inmates in federal prisons in the frequent separation of families in ways that militate against visitation rights.

One can get a similar snapshot of the removal of kids from their parents that acute levels of imprisonment and incarceration generates in this map of children of imprisoned populations in Illinois prisons, in a geomapping of those receiving assistance from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services based on a Statewide Provider Database, breaking the state’s prisons into their racial composition in relation to those children and youth who were in the database from 2009:  the result shows the dislocation of parents from their kids, the isolation of children at an age vulnerable to high drop-out rates, and the vulnerability of African-American families.

Incarcerated Parents of DCFS Children

6.  And what of the current proliferation of privatized jails, institutions which suggest not only the monetization of imprisonment, but even, in building their economy on institutions of imprisonment, perpetuate an effective incentivization of imprisoning felons?  The augmentation of the number of prisons run by private agencies–contracted out by the state–in a practice that rapidly increased since 2000 in the G.W. Bush administration so that institutions of incarceration now cost the country upwards of $50 billion to administer and run, and have come to be part of states’ local economies.  The rise of private prisons in our society has grown to some extent independently from rates of imprisonment, as they almost seem to generate a false need for practices of incarceration, as multiple contractors of prisons have come to meet the demand in multiple growing states, and not only because they are legally guaranteed to turn a profit.

Although many prisoners were assigned to build military materiel during World War II, to compensate for the shortage of working men, the expansion of such for-profit entities with independent voices as corporations and lobbyists suggests something like a system of displacing costs and balances, an idea with one foot back in the industrial revolution, and another in the notion of paying off exorbitant costs generated by the criminal justice system itself–inserting the expanding number of prisoners in a market for cheap labor that can compete for jobs sent off-shore, oddly congruent with conservative demands to downsize government costs.  The dramatic expansion of private prisons are, for the most part, though not entirely, concentrated in the southern states:  Florida, Missouri, Arizona, Texas, and the trio of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the top three states most likely to send their population to prison, are the places most likely and ready to send their citizens to prison. The emergence of such for-profit groups as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or GEO Group constitute not only massively powerful forces of federal lobbying, investing from 1.5 to 3.5 million dollars in backing legislative efforts to expand imprisonment, and sentencing terms, but to redefine the notion of criminality in ways that are in danger of undermining our democratic values.  Both corporations are publicly traded, in a perverse exploitation of practices of imprisonment as money-making ventures.  The GEO Group happily describes itself in corporate newspeak as “the first fully integrated equity real estate investment trust specializing in the design, development, financing and operation of correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities worldwide,” casting itself as an optimum source of investment, rather than as an institution that benefits society or counters crime:  the odd perversion of the rhetoric of institutions of hospitality masks the experience of the prison as a profit-making exercise, somewhat analogous to the workhouses from the 19th century industrial revolution.

Such prisons market themselves as sites of investment at the same time as they constitute something akin to legalized sweatshops, which sanction slave-labor type conditions, unregulated and un-unionized,without overhead, that perpetuate violent sites of prisoner-prisoner violence as well as abusive relations to prisoners, and a virtual race to incarcerate in order better to exploit the incarcerated.

Private prisons:imprisonment rate

While this map focusses on three companies of “private prisons”, in the state of Texas alone, the number of privately run prisons boggles the mind, and lead one to wonder how their expansion can imagined to respond to an actual public good:


The extent to which the expansion of such private prisons is now embedded in our local economy has actually influenced members of the US Congress of both political parties, quite recently,  to reject the “Deutch” amendment to ease requirements to detain 34,000 undocumented immigrants each night to continue to receive federal funding:


Talk of a “prison industrial complex” is not far off, as an invisible republic of prisoners stripped of rights and humanity has been institutionalized with startling rapidity across the nation, where a growing percentage of residents live in confinement.  The rise of prison labor, working for as little as .23/hour, which are organized by corporations like Unicorps, founded by the Federal Department of Labor, based on prison labor, based on “nation-wide locations” that can outsource labor “at offshore prices.” Such an effective acceptance of incarceration as a vital part of local economies distinguishes the United States.  It not only leads to the exploitation of prisoners–and the consequent perversion of a system of justice–but includes the standard the practice of paying inmates less than $1/day or less to package meals for inmates at other prisons or putting defendants not able to pay court fees–especially in immigration cases–in prison as a result. While cutting monies to enforce federal standards for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, states are opting out of monies that might offer recourse to prisoners for abusive conditions, at the same time as “trying to squeeze money out of defendants once their involved with the system, rather than trying to save money by keeping them out of it,” as  has noted.  “They come to America to steal our jobs, so we arrest them to do our jobs,” as Stephen Colbert put it in his recent “Debt or Prison,” relieving costs of incarcerating folks by using them as cheap labor to make meals, scrub showers, or make products, even by ostensible felons who are imprisoned for not being able to pay court fees–creating a system of making more prisons whose cost can be covered by work done by imprisoned, resolving debt by imprisonment in ways akin to workhouses or forced labor.

7.  It is important to remember that imprisonment offers itself as something akin to a national epidemic.  Placed in a broader context, the rise of prisons across the land raise red flags about the sad state of the anomaly of our incarcerating society.  The global willingness to incarcerate populations reveals how this lopsided choreography plays out in the global stage, however, and raises some eyebrows about the readiness of our institutional use of prisons across the country, if we didn’t need the living example of Guantanamo Bay as an example of how hard it is to wean ourselves from the incarcerating operations so common to American life as a way to settle social disputes–creating outsized populations of prisoners in such places as Guantanamo Bay, like Panama, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Barbados or Martinique.  According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, American jails hold 25% of all prison inmates on earth. How did prison become such a readily institutionally accepted part of our society and legal system?  Does America offer a model from which the culture of incarceration has diffused?


A cartogram of imprisonment devised by The Society Pages, to inflates the size of countries with the greatest incarceration rates, and shrink those countries which incarcerate fewer than 150 per 100,000 people, and expands the United States to Brobdingnagian proportions:

imprisonment cartogram

The swing toward ready imprisonment–and the ready criminalization of behavior or reliance on a prison system to absorb the marginalized, despite the clear dangers of incarceration both to psychological health and well-being, as well as to human compassion, suggest a looming crisis in our belief in a system that is not really able to help us in the end.  Since the year 1980 alone–when I was about to start college–the social costs of sanctioning such an expansion of practices incarceration seems staggering.  If the continued growth of incarcerated individuals is pursued in the belief that it can solve social ills that have been barely addressed, its e cost to our society demands to be calculated.

Has any other nation ever been able to afford the costs of incarceration that such policies dictate?  At a cost of 24,000 per inmate per year, the costs of incarceration are perhaps most gravely social, but increasingly financially infeasible.



Our current rates for incarcerating youth are as strikingly disproportionate, raising even greater fear of the dangers of our penal addiction:


The spread within our justice system of the initials “LWOP”–sentencing to life without parole–seems a fit between the need to house criminalized populations and the expansion of an true economy of incarceration, where the only chance to make sense out of the national population guilty of crimes is to incarcerate them at considerable national cost.  (Prisons bring real jobs to a city, including not only guards, but food services, sanitation workers, drivers, and an injection of federal or state monies, as well as, in the short-term, construction jobs.)  The topography of Life-without-Parole sentencing across the nation is a particularly unseemly sight when we realize the current institutionalization of the sentencing structure across the states, to which New York, Indiana, Kentucky, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, California, Alaska are the only exceptions across fifty-one states, across which life sentencing of youths in Florida and Louisiana seem shockingly high and almost legally accepted by courts:


We all know that growing up in a prison is not the best site for emotional development or health care, the legally sanctioned expulsion of incarcerated from our society has grown, increasingly strong and widely accepted as the consequence of felony:  felons are disenfranchised so widely that in much of the nation poses a real threat to their civil rights.  Most all states deny to prisoners the right to vote, and many extend that to periods of probation or parole, to the extent that over 6 million votes are excluded–even as conservative groups  have seized on prisoners’ voting as the number one form of voting fraud.  With about one in every 33 American adult citizens in jail or prison or on parole–in some form of correctional control–in 2013, the end result is a massive act of disenfranchisement that potentially undermines our democracy and democratic values:

Felony Disenfranchisement

The potential long-term disenfranchisement of African American populations who are routinely sent to prison for lesser charges, or to those charged with illegal immigration, poses long-term difficulties for our civil society, as well as on our sense of community.

8.  This is true on the level of states, as much as a national level.  Local populations of the imprisoned have strikingly deteriorated over time, as states have not been able to keep up with the sentencing of criminals to prison terms or life without parole.  Even though we saw record-high numbers of prisoners in most states in 2008, when the quintupling on prison expenditures seem to have been first noticed in infographics, the large prison populations in California, the the increased tendency of states to lower prison rolls has hardly reached federal prison.  A record high number of Americans still seems to continued sent to prison, increasing the number of imprisoned Americans for the first time in history to 1 in 100.


To take one example, the tremendous growth in the prisons of the state of California, once considered the pride of the country, has responded to a rage of procedural sentencing–in part due to the acceptance of a new law that allowed victims of crime to speak at parole hearings of an incarcerated, in ways that reduced chances of parole, and allowing the state’s governor to overturn parole board decisions.  And the notorious 1988 advertisement that aired in the presidential primaries, turning the fortunes of George H. W. Bush around by showcasing the dangers of giving a furlough to a convicted criminal led to a fear of reducing incarceration or granting releases on parole, in ways that encouraged the reinvention of criminal incarceration as a new normal, or status quo.  Neighborhoods, family members, and networks of friends share carceral experiences and stories, as well as knowledge of orange clothes, in a seismic shift of staggering proportions since the early 1990s, with few or little sufficient social services to be reintegrated into society.

California's Prison Population

An interesting statistic is mirrored in how the desire to secure our own borders, and pursue immigration offenses, as much as to police criminalized drugs, has led to an explosion of prison populations in ways that have contributed to challenges in current capacity:


One result is a major reason behind the rise of privatized prisons, no doubt, and the deep problems that they create for personal and civil rights.   One hidden story of this splurge of construction–and the institutionalization of prison terms that has resulted–is, incredibly, that the rage of sentencing across the nation has created problems in accommodating and housing–or containing–future prisoners, as the practice of sentencing outstrips even the rapid rate of prison construction in several of the most prison-friendly states, including such large states as California, Ohio, and Illinois, as well as in states like Virginia and New Jersey that bear the brunt of urban criminality from nearby states or regions, with the result of an overflowing of penal institutions in many of the states that hold the largest cities:


The quite lopsided nature of the national choropleth conceals regional disparities in each state that result from a growing reliance on prisons to solve social problems or disputes of criminality or criminalized acts.  But both state and federal authorities in the United States habitually displace the site of prisons from those areas where prisoners or their families dwell, and indeed to build prisons at sites geographically removed from where prisoners once dwelled.  And census figures of prison populations show some disquieting imbalances in the equilibria of prison populations. One can see a markedly increased density of incarcerated African Americans in the country’s penitential system–often removed from the cities in which the prisoners originally dwelled, to be sure.  With 1 in 33 black men in jail, the effects on families across the country is unthinkably severe, if not statistics that threaten to unravel the fabric of our civil society.


One can even detect in census figures a clear pattern of “forced migration” of African Americans to site of new prisons in one decade, a change presented on Prisoners of the Census but not reported in most news agencies:


A strikingly similar change in the social composition of counties that the incarceration of Latinos has created offers a similar displacement of incarcerated from their families, friends, and children–or parents, based entirely upon the construction of new correctional facilities:


What are the effects of this new populace of prisoners, and how much have national authorities taken time to consider the consequences of the real stresses on our society that result from it? One result is increasingly to divide the country, or create increasing blind alleys of bleak social narratives in select pockets of the country, which our system of imprisonment effectively marginalized from public view.

The distributions in each state of incarcerated populations are clearly concentrated in urban environments, where prison sentences seem a regular recourse of local authorities.  There is a considerable clustering in specific regions in the south lands, both of those sent to form part of prison populations and parolees, if one looks at California, whose south lands seem to show a congregation of incarceration, as well as parolees.  One can only wonder about the unique topographies created by the extreme density of parolees in specific areas–often around cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego–but extending into the interior and Imperial Valley.  What sort of discussions does the clustering of returning folks on parole create within such cities and areas?  What makes a spot a likely one to which parolees want to return, and to meet family members from whom they were separated from one another?  What makes such separation ethically justified?

The contradictory rise of a new group of “pay-to-stay” prisons in the East Bay (and elsewhere) invites prisoners to pay an extra $155 per day to avoid being sent to the county jail facility, and rather occupy one of the Fremont facility’s 58 beds, if they can afford to do so–and suggests a tacit admission of the failure of the prison system, if not a relinquishing of state responsibility to treat inmates well.  One must apply before to a judge and be screened by jail, and pay a one-time processing fee, as if joining a country club, and has led to ACLU’s criticisms of the institution of a separate “jail of the rich.”

9.  Of course, the effects of the system of incarceration on local communities are widely different, if only because widespread practices of widespread incarceration are designed to marginalize communities from the nation as a whole. The concentration of prisoner re-entry into civil society in the regions around Los Angeles and pockets across the state is striking, revealing the potential proportion of prisoners and the health-risks they pose in specific areas of the state–Kern, Alameda, Los Angeles and San Diego accounting for almost half of the total number of parolees in the state.

parolee concentration statewide CA

RAND Corporation (RAND Researcher Lois Davis)

An even finer lens might be directed to the distributions of those formerly incarcerated in precise urban neighborhoods, and an outsized spending in specific neighborhoods from which a predominance of men and boys are incarcerated at considerable expense.  The finely grained studies of New York City’s incarcerated provided an opportunity for the microscopic examination of the provenance of the incarcerated, and raises eyebrows of empathy about the communities from which they arrive in jails. One could go much further, of course, to delineate the disproportionate nature of urban incarceration. The staggering studies of Eric Caldera and others show the disproportionate effective cordoning off of specific urban populations in prison cells, and to muse on the map as an illustration of social costs of imprisonment.  Caldera and his team have tried to correlate the costs of imprisonment with city blocks to show the way that our expenditures on prison in 2003 correlated with specific neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY, that cast a clearer light on the distribution of imprisonment in our society.

Mapping Prison Expenditures in Brooklyn NY--Eric Cadora 2004

Caldera’s aim is of course not to identify a topography of centers of criminality, so much as the lopsided nature of cultures of incarceration that become the new normal in specific areas and to specific courts.  The costs to society, of course, are often extreme, given the huge costs not only to specific boroughs, but to specific regions of those boroughs.

Mapping PRison Expenditures by Incarcerated

Neighborhoods and areas which effecitvely “send” young men to prison are strikingly concentrated in just one poorer area or zone of each borough, suggesting the deeply lopsided topography of New York’s social fabric, as well as the deeply rooted cultures of incarceration where specific neighborhoods are, in essence, incarcerated, both disrupting families and making orange the new normal and incarceration a fact of daily life.

17% --> 50% male prison population

Disrupted families are a deep national cost that is impossible to calculate, and with which social services can’t hope  to keep up.

Children of Incarcerated parents

This count omits those regions which palm the fees for social disturbances caused by teens onto their parents, as if to abdicate the social responsibility of the state over the underage.  After kids are taken off to prison, the state does not even offer to foot the bill, suggesting the abdication of the moral, ethical, and individual consequences that a stay in the slammer might create or only intensify.  The decision to abdicate responsibility for such teens–to reverse charges on the families from which they have come–seems the most ethically unjustifiable position of all:  isn’t this a lawsuit waiting to happen?  While parents are free to negotiate a new rate for the costs of investigations, criminal justice fees, incarceration, and even for wearing of an electronic bracelet that places the offender on GPS, accumulated criminal justice fees can allow court officials to garnish parents’ wages, claim tax refunds their parents are owed, or place liens on the parents’ property to secure fees.  The Assistant District Attorney of Alameda County explains:  “That’s part of being a parent; you’re responsible for your kids and their actions.” God bless San Francisco County?


Can one really conscionably place the financial blame on the families, in an age of the widespread de-funding and decline of graduation rates in public schools?  The picture of those likely to face incarceration who are high-school dropouts are startling.



Filed under carceral state, Old South, prison industry, US Prisons, world imprisonment

Our Globalized Maps of Ocean Temperatures

Classical terrestrial world maps–either the detailed terrestrial world projections that associated with the atlas-makers Mercator and Abraham Ortelius or those terrestrial planispheres noting cities and ancient monuments of Ptolemaic design–were based on a need to find a solution to how to transfer the curved surface of the world to a flat surface.  When we are talking about global events–from warming to El Niño–we need to synthesize global variations in a spectrum of a set of surface temperatures that only a satellite can assemble, and to read them as inscribed on a global surface.  The virtual image of weather changes depend on information  removed from actual landscape, or inhabited land–but rests on the persuasive power of a compelling image of the earth’s curved surface in the synthesis of a coherent image of ocean temperatures over a continuous expanse of the earth’s surface:  although undoubtedly provoked by the world’s inhabitants, and a revealing record of the anthopocene, the mapping of oceanic temperature is something of a record of climatological impact and of the increasing need to come to comprehend shifting temperatures of the word’s oceans in truly globalized terms.

Is this map more powerful because it recalls a familiar globe, and because it promises to mediate record of the ocean’s equator that would be otherwise totally unable to be visualized in a coherent visual form?  The global visualization creates a compelling record to understand the odd embodiment of a shifting pattern of climate prediction, even if the synthesis lacks reference to a cartographical model or a set of scribal practices.  The map provides a way of detecting (and indeed predicting) unusually warm ocean temperatures that create El Niño, in ways that trace the preconditions to create a cascade of climactic changes provoked ocean surface topography through a visual syntax akin to a weather map:  the virtual globe deploys digital media to map movement across and motion through oceans, tracing shifts in subsurface ocean temperatures over space that would be otherwise concealed from sight:  the silhouettes of  the continental masses not only displace attention from the land, but subordinate land weather patterns to the irregularities changes in atmospheric pressure and sea temperatures that they foreground in a strikingly technicolor map whose hues mirror heat-sensitive readings, rather than areas of settlement.  (Continents are only present as ghostly images in these maps that direct our attention and interest to the phenomena sensed in ocean waters.)




The satellite thermal map of the swelling of seawater around the equator, generated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, tracks the temperatures beneath the swelling of oceanic waters to forecast El Niño oscillations this summer and fall.  By tracking significant sea surface temperature anomalies, they trace changes to gauge the possibilities of potential future major weather disruption of the globe, and to try to comprehend the shifts in temperature that might change weather systems in so drastic a way to impact food chains, agricultural economies, and climactic experiences in similarly out of the ordinary ways, exposing the otherwise hidden shifts in ocean temperatures by catchy chromatic spectrum of colors around the equator.


Jet Streams


Rather than only trace migrations, the map marks pronounced sea surface temperature rise across the Pacific is suggested by the surface’s deep crimson reds, extending from the islands off Singapore.  The Google Earth satellite view contrast to the arboreal distribution of the topography more evident, as if to embody the threat that it poses to the landmasses that are the usual focus of world atlases.


latest_sst.jpg   SST Anomalies


The spread of warm waters across the Pacific indicated in such maps echo the famous charting of sea-temperature anomalies of 1997-98 El Niño, which La Niña followed, when the end of trade winds led warm waters to slosh Eastward, pushing cooler water down from the surface, and interrupting the feeding habitats of fish and aquatic environments and interrupting the local marine food web.  The map traces shifts in surface temperatures by tracking of anomalies in the below video to suggest an advancing augmenting of surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific.

The anomaly of equatorial sea-temperatures across the Pacific is most easily pictured by mapping the greatest warmth in red:  the visualization of global variations across the ocean surface suggests sustained pattens of temperature rise, mapping not only temperatures but their divergence the form the median, and tracing patterns in their variability over time–far more meaningful in the global ecosystem than the relations between surface temperatures tout court.

The result is a new globalist map, tracking not countries and border lines or borderlands, but that “other ecumene”–that other inhabited world–of oceans and ocean life:



At least the hope is to start to direct attention to it, and to an area of the world’s temperatures that are not often mapped.  The above visualization rests on an ability to synthesize a coherent constellation of multiple factors–prepared in a cogently digested form–but proves a guide to local imbalances and deviations, in the hope that we can grasp the global impact of these increases in the collective image that results, offering considering subtlety to register local shifts across space that help reveal the whirls, eddies, flows and sloshes across the ocean seas, even if it might require far more learning to interpret in its consequences than the more familiar sorts of weather maps that we are used to access on line.  While not a globe or a sphere that earlier globe-makers might recognize, the elegantly articulated silhouetted continents suggest contre-jour qualities of the map, as if demanding that we start to try to pay attention to the deeper temperature changes in the seas that will reveal how shifts in atmospheric pressure create temperature shifts that will lead to a redistribution of nutrients in the ocean created by the consequent shift in upwelling and alter rainfall patterns worldwide or create droughts or typhoons as the result of an unusual warming of waters just below the ocean’s surface.

The dazzling image of the surrounding medium that conditions and prepares the climactic variations of the unmapped land to which they are so deeply linked, create an image of a global weather system we are only slightly prepared to come to understand.  The map’s comprehensive coverage of ocean temperatures is a shocker of a visualization, employing a rainbow of gradations of color to striking effect that combines both the exactitude of pinpoint images and the tools of digital visualization.  It is a sort of learning experience or primer on the immensity of global climate change, creating several deeply intractable pockets of climate change all closely located offshore, scarily noting the surprising relative proximity of the warmest areas to those regions, shown in white, which designate the remaining regions of polar ice, at the same time as the change in temperature seems embodied at an odd remove from the viewer or the surrounding shores.  Similarly generated maps created from remote sensing constitute some of the greatest emblems of the environmental disasters of our time.  Other options used by NOAA to chart the swell in temperatures in the upper 300 meters of the Pacific ocean in 2014 track a growing swell of something like an oceanic monster that grows in swells beneath its surface, evoking something of a large-scale sea monster that gradually began to reach across the Pacific toward the shores of South America, against the easterly winds that usually send surface water west across the Pacific.

The progress of waters beneath the ocean’s surface seem to track an animated entity in this set of subsurface charts, which capture the progress of the slosh of water magnifying the subsurface temperatures across the Pacific out of actual proportions to increase the visibility of temperature changes that seem to flow as if they were submerged underwater almost biomorphic forms resembling monstrous worms or undersea tornadoes that channel currents of churning heat that span the pacific, deep below the ocean’s surface:


Feb 19 slosh,jpgmid-February, 2014


Feb 19 slosh,jpg March 16 sloshmid-March, 2014   March 16 sloshmid-April, 2014


In  a Kelvin wave, pushing from the warm waters of Indonesia to South America, the slosh of ocean waters can prompt the cascade of atmospheric events.  The bounded parameters of the visualization are limited to the ocean, but are meant to provoke a similar imagining of the potential events that such a swell might trigger, and provided one of the first indications of a probability of possible climactic shifts over the months to come. Despite the specificity of readings that it can coherently synthesize, the chromatic blending of these measurements in a real ‘heat map’ of ocean temperatures create a false demarcation of categories, by removing the temperature changes from their effects in magnifying their deviation from the norm.  Mapping the ocean as a surface of travel or site of navigation has long challenged the categories of visualization employed in land maps, if only because of the fact that the notion of oceanic space challenged the categories that were developed to visualize surface topographies.

The synthesis of mapping temperatures at different depths track migrations of water in the medium of the ocean is perforce removed from the specificities of place transcribed and tried to be pinpointed in earlier engraved maps,  that tried to render legible the currents, routes, currents and eddies of the sea, or to record the variations in the underlying ocean floor.  The globalist maps of the ocean’s temperatures that result offer something more like an animated graphic, instead of an objective form, because they lack clear contour lines or fixity that were the basis by which so many earlier ocean maps tried to calibrate currents, negotiate sea-routes, track winds, or map the topography of the ocean’s floor.

The embodiment of the expanding biomorphic swell in subsurface temperatures, mapped as extending across the Pacific, renders the shift in temperature as gliding contra corrente. They offer a major change in the claims and abilities of totalistic mapping of the oceans, and in the attribution of embodied characteristics to the ocean–which emerges now, if in ways that seem metaphorically misleading, as somewhat organic, as if it were something of a separate living entity from the land, which almost gained its own context, rather than appearing as either a surface for viewing nautical travel–


North America with the Opposite CoastsRumsey Associates


–or the result of an array of bathymetric bearings of submarine topographies by collating depth-soundings taken by sailors on weighted lines.


SF Bay


Of course, the topic of the maps–global climate change–is itself removed from the precision to mapping nautical location to calibrate calculated routes, path, or place as marked by means of a line, and understand risks of nautical travel, and a concept of travel rooted to the ocean’s superficies.  The maps of oceanic temperatures not only reflect the transferral of maps from paper to the far more heavily pixellated medium of the screen, but a search for visual formats of embodying shifting temperatures that were often elusive as subjects of global mapping in earlier charting traditions.

As such, they suggest, in the rhetoric of uncovering hidden changes detected by satellite, both the need to try to process global shifts in temperature in tactile terms, an eery remove at which the changes in oceanic temperature lie from the viewer, hinting ominously and only by extension about the likely possibility of future risks of global climate change to which the world’s inhabitants are now, as if suddenly, finding themselves to be subject.

The new premium on taking stock of mapping temperature change is about learning to visualize the migration of ocean temperatures as if by analogy to a weather chart–and indeed the resemblance to the images of cold fronts on the Weather Channel seems striking–but in ways that take into consideration how these movements in temperature migrate in currents and swells through and across the ocean’s own watery medium, and cannot only be considered in the localized perspectives of the individual points of a depth-charge.  For the mapping of oceanic temperatures are not only a way of mapping the communication of heat, or the rising temperatures of the world and its atmosphere, but the newly inter-related concept of what it means to be warm.

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Filed under global weather mapping, mapping abnormal sea temperatures, mapping global climate change, mapping ocean swells, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Weather Channel, weather maps