Category Archives: data visualization

Locating the Lost Moo Pah Soccer Team

We followed with intense interest and hope the gripping story of the teenage soccer team who had entered the dangerous complex of narrow caves in North Thailand.  We focussed on the possibilities for their rescue as we watched the narrow entry ways into the remote complex where they were stranded on rocky shoals, over two miles into the Tham Luang complex and over a mile underground.  Before the maps of the narrowing cave, we could only imagine the excitement of their entrance into the cavernous passage where they left bikes, and to imagine the conditions where for over two weeks the U-16 team waited with their committed Assistant Coach, as we tried to get our heads around the danger that the team faced in the darkness, drinking or licking water off of its walls.

The compelling story of the “lost” team attracted the global attention from their sudden disappearance, discovery by two divers, to their rescue gained huge interest and dramatic power, as we tried to move into the narrow confines of the cave themselves.  Despite the immense power of the human story, and the endurance of each team member of the Moo Pah, or “Wild Boars,” the global scale of attempts to locate the team so remotely stranded were as historic, as we all tried to place the “Lost Thai Cave Boys”–all of whom nineteen divers have now thankfully rescued or extracted from the torturously narrow cave, whose cavernous opening narrows into one of the most labyrinthine of complexes of as one progresses into passage ways.  While the lack of GPS or wifi made navigation or consultation of instruments used in mapping of little value, cross-sections of the deep cave from forty years ago provided only the roughest of guides to the torturous paths of often slippery ground that threatened to fill from southwest monsoon rains–sudden rains already pressed the team deeper into the caves.   As the teenage team was removed from all contact with the world, or abilities of geolocation, the rest of the world depended on maps to imagine the possibility of contact with the kids who were suddenly known, in a bizarre trending topic, as the lost cave boys.

We needed maps to keep them in sight, as it were, and to imagine the very possibility of their survival:  even the most schematic maps of the caves’ dimensions, abstract cross-sections drafted thirty years ago, offered a sense of contact with the team that was removed from GPS, so far removed to be out of contact, over a mile underground.

29 coupessTham Luang cross-sections, Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie, Expeditions Thai 87 – 88

 

While the multi-national effort helped to guarantee the rescue effort was miraculous, it is also a testament to the sheer force of globalization that the former Buddhist monk who led twelve teenage soccer players–several of whom were stateless ethnic minors–became a compelling focus of international attention after being tragically  trapped while exploring a cave complex.  The young team, stranded two miles into a six-mile long complex, with limited food and air, were almost abandoned, until the surprising accidental discovery that the teenage members of the Moo Pa team–the “Wild Boars”–were all found alive with their Assistant Coach by a group of British underwater divers, apparently on holiday, exploring another branch of the vast flooded cave complex, who first photographed the team, smiling at having contact after ten days.  If not for the fortuitous sighting and discovery–and perhaps if not for the lit photograph the divers managed to take of them in the cave’s depths, they may well have tragically perished.

The happenstance discovery that was made a week and a half–ten full days–after the team members had after they disappeared was relayed around the globe, more a miracle of endurance as much as of modern technology, though the two were conflated.  Able to capture them by cel phones, the image of their survival in the darkness underground survival mapped an odd snapshot of globalization.  While the cave was visited several times by the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the statelessness of the players or assistant coach who helped found the Moo Pa team was not mentioned.  As global attention turned to the cave, and divers arrive from the United States, Britain, Australia, Finland, and Canada, the search almost became almost a spectacle of state theater, as the Royal Thai Army undertook to map and track the location of the “lost cave boys” in the mountainous remote province, as global attention turned to the Tham Luang caves, which suddenly sprung to international headlines as a near-constant topic of social media.

 

s095716743June 28, 2018

 

M5SFALUCC4I6ROCRKMM4BD345Y.jpgJuly 7, 2018 (Rungroj Yongrit/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)

 

 

The complex of caves in which the team members were stranded was abstracted from what was an area of widespread statelessness, divided between different warring factions, the possibilities of their rescue the focus of global attention.

 

1. The efforts to discovery the team had already attracted help  While U.S. Pacific Command had sent a rescue team to help in the search for the twelve players between twelve and sixteen and their coach, searching with Thai military using remotely operated underwater vehicles and heat-seeking drone, the absence of any indications in the complex Tham Luang Nang Non caves was puzzling.  The mystery of their apparent disappearance was broken by an unexpected image of the smiling soccer team, on a ledge deep into the cavernous complex of caves, taking refuge from rising waters, far beyond the gear and cycles they deposited near its entrance, and indeed beyond the “beach” where those exploring this branch of the complex pause to rest, some four km into the cave.  The flooded waters that had already begun to rise with the arrival of the monsoons that fill the cave annually, further imperiling the group.  (The rains may have been a bit early this year, due to climate change.)

As the Thai army worked hard to locate the group for two weeks, the embodied problem of achieving the remote extraction of the soccer players focussed global attention; being trapped on a ledge in darkness by rising water when you don’t know how to swim was the stuff of universal nightmares.  But the graphics of their rescue through the caves, now lit by lamps and accompanied by divers with head lamps and oxygen, provided a miraculous rescue narrative leading to their emergence.

rescue contact 1.pngReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

The image of the smiling teens taken by British divers became something of a clarion call to expand  technologies and tools for their rescue.  While what is paramountly important is that the “Thai Cave Boys” are coming to light and to their families, even as the rains are beginning to fall heavily, the global spread of the news of their disappearance and accidental spotting and the massive media response that both triggered helped coordinate a rescue effort up to a thousand meters underground with oxygen tanks, headlights, a team of divers, ropes to allow steep uphill climbs of wet caves, once drained but in need of more pumping before monsoon rains intensify, and time for the team to take a crash course in diving; Dawn Cai worked to stitch together an elegant GIF of the trek to recovery that nicely captures the confines of the remote cave, and the deeply embodied experience that we all struggled to imagine in reading about the scenario and replaying it in our minds.

The drama of the survival of the boys for two weeks in the narrow Tham Luang Caves, two and a half miles deep into their interior and 800-1000 meters deep underground, attached global attention first as what a feared tragedy, resolved only with difficulty.  What became a nail-biting drama of the “cave boys”‘ fate was the focus of global media; the gripping difficulties of the teenagers suddenly involved multiple states, directing more attention than ever to a remote cave in North Thailand.  Looking at maps of the cave, the weird sense that we had in following the story that this could be a site anywhere–a cave that often seemed eerily disembodied from its environment or a specificity of place, or its location in the mountains near its border with Myanmar, site of thousands of the over 400,000 stateless refugees, displaced ethic minorities, stateless not yet granted asylum by Thailand, beset by drug trafficking, human trafficking, and malarial outbreaks.  The relatively retrorgade region of the Golden Triangle divided between the Shan State North and South and United Wa–has become a site for high-tech mapping, however, as if to affirm the unity and control of a region divided by different local internal conflicts–and contested boundaries the had created refugee flows.

5.-Myanmar-Fragile-Link-Conflict-Map

contested boundaries.pngAsia Times (Chiang Rai province divided by United Wa and Shan state armies)

 

–which were determined the stories of the lives of the Assistant Coach and his charges.  Ethnic strife was obscured by the tools of tracking the boys’ location and safety.   The shift of global media attention to the lost boys seems to have led to efforts of the Thai Royal Army to create the impression that the team was safe–and the situation in Chiang Rai province controlled.

 

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2.  The first sightings of the team fed a range of credible attempts to locate and extract the twelve kids from deep in the cave, past a rocky shoal known as “Pattaya Beach” and through its narrow openings, was planned:  we only had a sense of the depth of their location in the cave complex after the first sighting of the team ten days after their disappearance into the dark cave.
Cave Entrace in BorderlandsPlanet Labs

alternate vis reuters caveReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

The news of contact and communication  made global headlines, and served to reorient global attention immediately to humanitarian offers to assist in rescue efforts in an age when humanitarian impulses appear globally in short supply; the image of twelve young members of the Moo Pah team, wearing brightly colored jerseys, on a perch on a rocky ledge deep underground, relayed around the world, seems a partial miracle of the ability to capture imagery in almost all places, as well as a reminder of the challenge of ever locating them on the map.  If the terrifying nature of finding no response on your teen’s cell phone has long ceased to be purely a First World Problem, the alarm of loosing any contact with one’s teen seemed to foreground the terror of how quickly they had disappeared.

Despite the miracle rescue by which they were “found safe” inside the complex, as the monsoon rains were just about to begin, the mapping, and tracking the young Moo Pa team was a drama hard to get one’s head around that gripped the world, and lead to a huge exultation at the emergence of the first six players from the cave complex became a cause for global celebration, even as the former monk, the valiant Aekkopol Chanthawong who is their Assistant Coach, remains trapped with the rest of his charge and team, teaching them the virtues of stoicism and patience as well as techniques of breathing and meditation that had more than anything else to survive, presumably, kept them in good spirits and alive for over two weeks.  Helped in part by the recession of the waters, but also by the shallow breathing techniques that allowed survival in an oxygen-depleted caves, the dedication of Aekkopol to the boys he trained not only in soccer, but to dwell in the dark stands out.  The coach was practiced in long meditation retrains, and  arrived  as an orphan at the War Phra Thet Doi Wao monastery, only leaving training to be a monk after ten years.  Where his own advice about meditation and calmness a crucial importance to reducing the team’s panic, as well as the trust he had gained?

 

beautiful-fine-artWat Phra Tat Doi Wao monastery, Chiang Mae province in Golden Triangle

 

While knowledge of the possibility of their rescue, the survival of the team fed their survival past ten days, their survival was the other story that was masked by the amassing of international efforts, helicopters, diving equipment and cables to find and extract members of the team from the cave complex, equipped with oxygen canisters and lights. What is celebrated as a high tech adventure rescue depends on the focus of the former monk who, despite his statelessness, has become something of a national hero–but also for the techniques of survival he imparted, more important than the anti-anxiety medications that the multinational team of divers brought when rescuing them.

The unfolding involvement of a global commitments to locate and extract the thirteen teens seems a modern counterpart to the myth of Princess Jao Mae Nan Nong who fled her parents with her love to the complex of caves after their forbidden love was discovered, and still serves as its protector.  Princess Jao Mae was said to have stabbed herself in the complex of caves where she had fled her parents with her lover, after he was killed by soldiers her father sent in pursuit, and her blood forms the waters that fill the caves, providing a powerful link between the caves and the afterlife.  The Princess’s spirit still is venerated as protecting those who enter the cave complex in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province; indeed the altar of the pink-robed Princess after the boys disappeared attracted attracted many offerings, incense, and candles with other offerings as raining and flooding slowed the search, and her role as a powerful bridge between the living and the dead and guardian of the caves in northern Tahailand gained power as a focus for hope of intercession.

The story of the fate of the “lost boys” became a parallel tale of the turning of global attention turning to the caves in Northern Thailand, to provide a different form of intercession as rescue efforts grew   The stories of Jao Mae shifted, to be sure, to new mapping technologies as the members of the team were located and found, as if in response to the efforts of collective prayer, and a variety of possible new schemes for locating and saving the lost team became a truly international affair, unexpectedly turning all attention to Northern Thailand for evidence of reasons to hope.  To be sure, the rise of an emphasis on technologies of tracking and mapping the caves may have displaced the prominence of breathing techniques and meditation practices that played a large role in the Wild Boars’ team’s survival underground for ten days.  “In the cave,” deep beneath the surface of the ground, as military soldiers combed the mountainside with maps, remembered the head coach Nopparat Khanthawong, the assistant coach had “taught the boys how to meditate so that they could pass the time without stress,” as they waited in the darkness, without food or any sense of the passage of time for ten days, in ways that “helped save their lives” by techniques learned asa novice fat Phra that doi wao temple where he arrived as a refugee orphan from Myanmar.  Aekkopol often meditated with monks of the temple and the surrounding forest for days at a time with only a small reserve of food.   And he was the last to leave the cave, shortly before the pumping apparatus that had drained the caves of rainwater failed.   Yet the entire affair and rescue was shown and described most often as an instance of modernization, supervised by the Prime Minister, in which the Royal Thai Army played a major role in securing the area, developing strategic approaches, as well as draining the cave.

 

3.  Tracking the site of the lost team had riveted global attention and indeed become a project of global mapping over the week plus since the tragedy of their June 20 disappearance unfolded in the news, from the first incredulous attempts to track their location in the torturous complex of underground caves to the more recent imagining of rescue attempts by diving, drilling, or any other means of extraction, as the under sixteen soccer team learned new techniques of breathing, meditation, and perseverance from their dedicated Assistant Coach.  We collectively communed with them, and contemplated their chances for rescue as we south to orient ourselves to the unfolding development of what we didn’t want to imagine was another human tragedy through our maps.  As we needed to believe they were alive–as they thankfully were–maps were an affirmation of their existence, and a logic of collective action.

Paper maps provided a surprisingly important point of reference above ground, as the position of the boys was considered and contemplated in previous days, as if to preserve or imagine a virtual tie to their remote location.

4728Pongmonat Tasiri/EPA

Despite the diminishing hopes of teenager’s survival after the first week they went missing, their survival of the children has become something of a test-case to find if there is any area of the world that cannot be mapped–and for rescue technologies, as well as a drama of locating hope underground in a darkening above-ground world.  For global attention to the video taken by British divers of the group of teenagers who were trapped by unexpected rains while exploring the complex with their Assistant Coach after practice, and the possibilities of international cooperations to locate the small group was nourished on social media, if it had already electrified much of the nation.  What was already a state concern of Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the often unspoken if unseemly question of whether Thai soldiers and policemen had the necessary technology or skill to locate the lost team, as hope at their discovery gave way to fears of how to extract them from the cave, or return them through underwater passages,–either by drilling into the soil or squirreling them through often narrow caves.  But the fears of altering the structure of caves were balanced with the difficulty of navigating within its dark, narrow passage-ways.

What became a local exercise that the boys to explore the cave complex that the rising of the waters suddenly trapped them became an international affair, as the the world wide web focussed global attention on images of their fate, as a grainy photograph of a few smiling team members on a tablet became a cause for unexpected jubilation and offered a sort of technological reassurance even as their fate was unclear.  Images of relatives praying near the caves’ entrance with offerings of incense, garlands, and an eventual altar were balanced with images of high-tech mapping of the paths that the team took.  The utter joy one parent showed at the arrival of the image of team members on a tablet triggered a global effort to locate and save the team members believed lost, who truly seem to have shown more resilience than the rest of the world.  The sudden burst after the confirmation of their survival was a sort of miracle—they seemed healthy and even well-off while deep underground!–but the sense of a miracle was conflated with technology of the image relayed above ground.

The sudden alarm at loosing contact with one’s teen’s cell phone would have perhaps set off alarm world wide, even if the team was not found to be located at such a remote remove.  Is it a coincidence that in an era when few children are encouraged to wander far from home, or explore their local ravines and neighborhoods without worry, that the attention of the world was turned on the team stranded in the cave?  Most on the internet wondered what in God’s name the team was ever doing in the cave, or on the warning sign posted at its entrance cautioning about entering as monsoon rains approached.  The flooding of the cave where the team members were stranded was glossed as a tragedy, a race against time, and as an international challenge for sustaining hope, as the former monk became a true hero, teaching his team techniques of shallow breathing, meditation, and focus with self-sacrifice that gave them strength and perseverance in the face of terrifying danger.  He was the last to leave the cave, and soon after his departure the pumping apparatus that had drained the flooded caves broke.

 

Phra Rathet Doi TempleWat Phra That Doi Monastery, norhtern Thailand

 

The complex of caves in northern Thailand became something of a final site for nature, and struggling against natural forces, without wifi or GPS, even as the sense of why a team would go exploring the network alternated with worries rising waters complicated their rescue.   As an international effort grew, as new technologies were mapped onto the essentially quite human, all too human effort to locate and save the under-sixteen team and its dedicated Assistant Coach beneath the mountainous terrain.

 

Chiang  Rae.png

Hope transformed to preventing a terrible tragedy as possible rescue missions are contemplated or planned, and attempts to map their fate.  The difficulties of their extraction riveted global viewers to the fate of teenagers hailing from borderlands of Myanmar and Thailand, who were chosen for their interest in soccer, as forces from the Thai Army to Elon Musk to the former Navy SEAL diver who died in doing so have tried to understand how to extract safely, in what a real-life drama that dramatically surpassed the World Cup, and offered a narrative of international cooperation to save the teenagers feared lost, who were themselves stateless, as their relatives continued to bring offerings to the Jao Mae shrine venerated as able to bridge the cave and otherworld.  The story of the post-practice exploration of the complex by twelve U-16 teenagers aged twelve to sixteen–the age of my daughter–seems one of the technically difficult of situations processes, but most unfair as the story of a lost school group has grown as posted photographs of the twelve kids has provided a ray of hope, despite fears of future flooding of the caves by rains, and the perpetual threat of diminishing oxygen.

The complex’s narrow walls and rather torturous network provided what seemed the only remaining thread by which they could be saved or captured, and the specific difficulties of negotiating a rescue in the cave, after multiple divers had already tried to move along narrow passages to explore the caves, and unsuccessfully attempted to drain them with pumps, as the team was found farther into the complex–and up the hill–from where soldiers had earlier searched, and consideration of the place of Pattaya Beach–near where they were found, but in a delicate and narrow section of the caves.–and around the sections of the hill that soldiers sought to exams above ground.

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4.  While the cave entrance remained large fairly deep after its entrance, the problem of following and mapping the progress of the boys into its sections grew more concrete after it was discovered how deeply in they had travelled, just past the raised area known as Pettaya Beach.

 

tunnel leading to team

THuam Luang spelExpeditions Thai 87 – 88

Tracked by the latest mapping technologies and relayed on media circuits since the news of their discovery erupted, the plight of members of  the Moo Pa Thai soccer team trapped in the six-mile long Tham Luang cave complex has been a focus of global attention and mapping efforts.   The mapping and remapping of the site is of course both a testament to the dire nature of the situation of a group trapped deep within the cave, with limited oxygen, as well as food, buoyed by the miracle of their discovery after nine days and were stranded after they began exploring the cave and the difficulty of drilling from above-ground or navigating the dark cave itself to locate the team of teenagers trapped within, suffering the stuff of nightmares, as well as the problem of extorting them while negotiating narrow often underwater passage-ways.

As rising waters threatened to fill the narrowest of cave walls, unable to accommodate air tanks, and attempts to pump water from the complex failed, mapping truly seemed the least of it as the extraction of the team faced the pressures of rising waters, malnourishment, and oxygen lack.  (Elon Musk boosted hopes by tweeting his team was developing a narrow child-sized submarine pod able to navigate the hairpin turns in the cave complex, as if the pod would quite miraculously be able to be constructed and arrive on time–and even travelled himself to the cave system, seeking to promote the value of his oxygen engine to the Thai team.)  The collective ensemble of efforts, spurred by the problems of locating a group of boys who didn’t know how to swim or dive as the waters ran into the cave complex, was a logical problem, in many ways, that demanded resolving problems of entering the cave underwater, illuminating the passage way, and guiding the boys out, as well, it seemed, as draining the water that had already entered from growing rains.

But the challenges of mapping their location, and the sense that they had traveled to a place so remote where they were not able to be mapped and tracked.  The problem in part created a level of tension that riveted the world.  The human drama of the young members of the Moo Pa team, became a subject nand symbol of national as much as provincial pride, as the problems of skills required to achieve their rescue became debated.  The discussion and debate seemed a parallel story in itself, even if the possibly deadly adventure of the group of teens was intensely involving.  The Thai Army that sought to ascertain routes of their rescue looked over maps of the cave’s veins that snaked under the mountain ranges, as if to plan the underground rescue–focussing on the cave complex they knew so well, but with less of a sense of how to extract the kids trapped within by drilling from above ground.

 

image.pngRungroj Yongrit/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock

Despite the actual insufficiency of maps, we have tried to map the incredibly narrow contours of the cave complex, as if to puzzle over how they might be located and saved, and somehow track their course along the narrowing width of the complex from its opening–as if to map the difficulty of the job to the scale of a five-foot tall teen–to craft a more experiential record of speleological cross-sections of the mines through which the teens had traveled. based on the first surveys of the cave of 1987 of its narrowing cross-sections, now assembled in a more interactive form as if in a flip-book.

Cave Oening.png

Cave map.png

tunnel leading to teamNew York Times Interactive

29 coupessExpeditions Thai 87 – 88

–and helped embody the experience of being trapped in such narrow confines so deep underground where they were trapped.

fit boy in cave

Images borrowed from the largely structural maps of cavers who had explored the narrow Tham Luang complex–and from the exact field of speleology–the visualization sought to pose the options for rescuing the team members in the narrow caves where they were stranded, learning how to negotiate with limited oxygen and rising water.  The interactive map in the Taimes  invites observers to imagine their narrowness, but minimized the  complications of locating the team within the cave,–it elicited wonder at how the team had managed to climb so deeply into the complex as the water rose.

 

5.  But the “map” reamined oddly abstracted form crucial information about the underground setting–failing to  suggest the real problem of rising water and ground conditions, as while tracing the path of complex with accuracy, it strips a 2D sense of location from the  context of rising waters and difficult ground conditions in a cave from which water needs to be pumped.  But perhaps the point was to capture the compelling embodied experience of their isolation in the remote cave.  The Interactive graphics nicely reproduced the difficulties of moving along and negotiating the narrow turns, some requiring kneeling, swimming horizontally, or crouching to pass  as if to experience the narrowing of its amazingly twisty course, as if in a video game, tracking the tortuously narrow course of the caves, through which the team progressed to try to avoid rising waters, in a nightmarish situation with all to real consequences.

But we were linked through the miracle of interactive mapping to pray for the futures of the teenagers, with their schoolmates and Buddhist monks who assembled at its entrance, as if to restore them to a map.  Even as we cringed at the near-impossibility of establishing their location, after already one diver who attempted to locate them lost his life, contemplating the entrance into the narrowing passageways of the caves and the team’s itinerary as well as the possibilities of their future rescue.

 

alternate vis reuters caveReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

While watching forecasts for raises that can boost the already rising floodwaters, teams of divers have contemplated maps, and the rescue camp locate near the mouth of the cave provided only a possible site of salvation, in hopes that they could be moved there.  Is the cave’s mount a more apt site of prayer, or of recovery?

The misfortune of the soccer team had converted the mouth of the cave to the site of an altar that was sort of shrine, and a site of prayer for divine intervention, as worries  turned to what thin, depleted oxygen the team members might still have access during the two weeks after they disappeared, their bicycles found, partly washed away, near the cave entrance, while the classmates of the team-members participated in large collective prayers, and Buddhist monks gathered near the Tham Luang caves, juxtaposing the science of mapping their location with a perhaps more credible collective prayer.

 

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Were the major efforts in mapping not serving as their own sort of prayers, if of a modernist variety, and hopes for a miracle of intercession before the waters rose and the oxygen depleted in the stretch of the rocky cave complex?  While the maps did show the human story of the position to which the teens had arrived, and posit and frame the problems of their rescue, thankfully underway, the maps seemed as important as framing, sustaining, and affirming a sort of tenuous empathy to their fate, allowing access to the remote cave system.  If they created the possibility of the necessary conditions for their rescue they also became a kind of guiding light for those of us who followed the spectacle so intensely from our own backlit screens.

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Filed under #ThaiCaveBoys, cave complexes, data visualization, monsoon rains, Thailand,

The Natures of a City

All too often hidden from view on city maps are urban ecosystems beyond the built landscape or paved roads.  The fluid paths that undergird the city are  most difficult to discern for inhabitants–but perhaps vital to attend to–even if they are omitted from most urban maps that present an ecosystem for cars.  What we most often exclude from the built environment of the city–trees, animals, and insects–gain amazing visibility through open data of habitats and tree cover, and uncover corridors we rarely attend.

For in focussing on the paved physical plant of cities in most of our online mapping tools, we are guilty of treating describing in most on-line maps.  Such maps risk filtering our actual experience of urban environments; they blinder attention to an environment–or to spaces where we don’t drive–and isolating attention to the broader ecosystem in which we live.  We risk desensitizing ourselves to a delicate environmental balance, and mask the habitat cities can create, or the deep fluidity of urban spaces–the extent to which this fluidity is nourished by open spaces, rather than built space.  So much is increasingly revealed by increased attention to the embodiment of urban space in the recent map of San Francisco by the Nature in the City team, and it comes at an opportune time to shift attention from the hulking monoliths destined to crowd the future skyline–

 

Future Skyline?.png.

–and to remind us of deeper currents that shape urban space, for San Francisco including the fault lines near the city to the landfill or sandy grounds remaining under the downtown area to the unique habitat sandy beaches, green spaces, streets, urban forests, and gardens, as well as parks allow.  As registered in recent LiDAR orthoimagery of trees, shrubs and grasses across the unpaved areas of San Francisco, one can follow the habitats that the greening of a city far beyond its parks allows.  The unique base-map to plot living habitats combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation, to show the city as supporting a diverse range of habitats we would rarely discover.

 

LIdar Orthoimagery SFNature in the City basemap/LiDAR orthoimagery of San Francisco with bathymetry

The extensive range of open data in the city of San Francisco made it an ideal subject for mapping a city that is an intersection between a range of avian, mammalian, and watery habitat at the edge of the continental shelf.  San Francisco was long ago described in bucolic terms as that “undulating landscape lying under the threat of seismic risk,” back when Tony Kushner wrote in the 1980s; and Kushner’s conceit that God left stage right after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, chased off-scene by human action, recent data helps us to take stock of the deep patterns of urban environments to restore the divine.

For while we are apt to imagine as architectural landscapes as human achievements–

 

Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo de Barbari, Venetie MD (engraved woodcut perspective map of Venice, 1500)

 

–they perpetuate the urban myth of a space isolated from nature that erase the discovery that the living detail of urban habitats contains something of the divine.

In an age where the from of cities stands to change boundaries with global warming and sea-level rise, it is incumbent to use open data to re-examine the city as an environment, and less as detached from the world, but revise the mythology of the city, separated form the variety of creatures, plants, and bugs that animate the same place.  And in an era when what a Secretary of the Environment should dedicate attention is still unclear, mapping an urban space that doesn’t account for the flows, currents, and fluid sense of urban space rooted in nature is unconscionable.

The rich open datasets available for San Francisco provide a counterpoint:  they suggest an ability to embody urban space less reliant on the building blocks of city squares, freeways, or paved space, but an intersection of its geography and native or indigenous habitat that have been encouraged once again to develop in the city.  To read it is to examine areas that foster wildness–and a range of indigenous wildlife–across beaches, urban forests, hills, and in its gardens, beyond parks.  The map reveals the many open spaces and gardens in the city, suggesting the forms of vitality San Francisco conserves, despite the challenges of many native inhabitants–from spotted owls to shorebirds like once-threatened snowy plover and the loss of redwoods, by focussing on the species in the city and the Western United States’ largest estuary.  It reminds us that as well as being a flyover spot for birds and shorebirds, San Francisco’s Bay is not the only  biodiversity hotspot for large numbers of endangered shorebirds; for the city’s open spaces provide crucial habitat that provides a model at a time of species die-offs and habitat loss–making the map a positive counter-model for disturbing trends.

 

1. Attempts to embody a range of rich open data can be recast as  a form of resistance and of taking stock of what is often construed a primarily built space.  Indeed, by rehabilitating it as a site of migrations, habitats, and living surface, enlivening a region beyond built constructions., but whose habitats have been nourished by the work of habitat restoration and ecological encouragement undertaken by Americorps and by Nature in the City in San Francisco, starting from an appreciation of migration hot spots around above and in the city, questioning the health of the hoary city/nature divide and inviting us to measure our relation to urban environments by taking a walk in them, or what is left of them, joining Robinson Jeffers on an “unbroken field of poppy and lupin” where horses pasture where “people are a tide/that swells, and in time will ebb, and all/their works dissolve” and we can “indeed decenter our minds from ourselves.”

 

clarkia-th classicHilltop Migration Hotspots in San Francisco

The layers of the map attend to the overlap between built and ‘natural’ space, and to integrate open datasets of  species can reveal across space.  The third edition of the Nature in the City map foregrounds and helps to discern pathways that move around and in urban space–orienting us to urban ecology in instructive ways around its built space, by focussing on the green space that is maintained in the city in a range of “open spaces” of different scale, from the dunes and shore to urban forests to private gardens that create corridors and open spaces to preserve local biodiversity in a time of climate change, and the nature that coexists in the city, and can be seen in layers of green space, open space, watersheds, and cultivated land in San Francisco–and let a surprising range of local species pop out of those habitats, larger than its scale, to invite its exploration.

Nautre in the City Centerpiece

By counting and tracking what what exists alongside built space, to reclaim the different patterns that move alongside buildings in San Francisco–from coyote to  hairstreak butterflies or native poppies–and reveal the intersection of built space and broader ecosystems, mapping the city to attend not only to parks and gardens so conspicuously present, but the habitats that intersect around and in its built space, as well as the proximity to underground fault-lines that threaten to undermine its built surface.  And the appearance of the third edition of a spectacular species-centered of Nature and the City’s collation of the environment of the city’s urban space with the mapping of the city’s expansive liquefaction zones on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake provide a basis to assay its overbuilt urban space as part of its nature–and to situate its buildings in a far more cautionary tale about the risks of seismic activity from nearby fault lines.

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For although we are increasingly surrounded by a habitat designed for cars, data on species, plant life both re-orient us to and augment our sense of place.  It is a reflection of how the rise of open data promises ways of negotiating an urban space less exclusively than the built environment, however, and of placing the city in natural settings outside the traditional urban view.   A range of static and interactive maps have emerged that grab visual attention in new ways for mapping urban space.  The view of space they offer is oriented less to vertical monuments and spires of steel and glass that dot urban areas, or indeed to paved space, than patterns of migration of animals, commuters, sea-level, seismic risk or the underground world of potential liquefaction–to lay claim to attention that disrupts our usual focus on records of built property.  The urban view, often elevated, situates the urban plant as a microcosm of human creation in often triumphalist fashion, the rise of open data provides a basis for unpacking the city that stands to destabilize the position of the viewer, and for looking at what is often overlooked.

For while most city maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their  legibility, open data–on parks, trees, wildlife sightings, human traffic, cars–challenges our ability to process and draw connections between data in extremely useful ways, that may better orient ourselves to the future of built space–a question that is increasingly on the table–and develop a new sort of visual intelligence to gauge the viability of urban space.  And San Francisco’s Bay Area, recently an important site of greening in America, and of the remaking of the urban space, seems ideally suited to calibrate and take stock of how we are surrounded by actual habitat.  For as such groups as Friends of the Urban Forest, the California Academy of Sciences, and SF Parks have worked to expand and defend “green spaces” of the city in a broader way than parks alone, broadening their appreciation of the role of urban trees, sidewalk gardens, and indeed neighborhood planting events, they have promoted a non-urban sense of the nature in the city and indeed of an “urban forest” that has redefined the city as a habitat–and include the city in the natural world.

As most cosmopolites are increasingly confronted and finding ourselves moving between “non”-places–undefined spaces of transit and liminality, which combine environments but themselves lack defined bounds–airports; highways; websites; hotels; or even tour groups–and look for other places in a decline of public space, we may moreover look at the city and its location as a new space,–less hegemonically mapped or understood as one of government and public administration, but as containing its own natural corridors and environments that are outside the spaces of human government.

The result is a dislocating, but liberating, invitation to measure one’s own relation to urban space–rather than partitioning green pace and built space, maps can open avenues for the shifting conceptualization of relations between nature and cities, often unimaginatively and inadequately demarcated from one another, even for a city like San Francisco, whose distinctive grid is all too often separated from green spaces on its boundary, in ways that the cartographic coloration of both static and web-based maps has tended to reproduce.  Despite the tendency in the 1980s to map the “green city” apart form the “built city”–and focussed on its parks, the importance of understanding spatial continuities of habitat foreground a sense of urban accommodation less anthropocentric in nature but enriching in their density of a new range of information.

ff_sovietmaps_1_hero2.jpgSan Francisco and Surrounding Bay (1980)

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Filed under data visualization, environmental geography, map design, natural history, San Francisco

National Security and Personal Bests

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Strava sites?Strava heatmap, Kabul

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

strava1Strava Labs

 

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

 

 

Runing In Kabul

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

San Fran Strava dataset  San Francisco in Strava Labs Heatmap

 

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

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Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

90-5.jpegAccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

90AccuWeather, Friday to Monday

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

1851_2013_mjrhurr2

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

2017-four-us-hur-landfalls_3The Weather Channel

 

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

 

direct-strikesThe Weather Channel

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey Dartmouth Flood Observatory

 

Harvey flooding_0.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

 

2005-tracks-update.jpg

direct-strikes

 

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

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

Is Health Care a Democratic Right?

The bulbous, bloated cartogram meant to render the prospective withdrawal of insurers from individual health-care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act in its deepest colors foregrounded the concentration of a reduced insurance market in rural areas.  The image of a nation seething over, and the ground boiling over as if with discontent, cartogram, distorted “red” and “blue” states alike, but seemed evidence of the ways that the Affordable Care Act warped the even playing field in the United States–as if that ever existed, and could be expected to exist today.  But it might be taken as an emblem of the deep anger and resentment that many areas of the United States felt toward what was labeled “Obamacare,” and the regional markets left with but one insurer–and an inevitable feared rise in their insurance premiums–in the health insurance markets that the Affordable Care Act would create.

The designers of the cartogram warped to counties’ population almost aptly if inevitably rendered the country as boiling over with anger:  it seemed to render a powerful emblem to justify if not inspire broad indignancy about the apparently uneven consequences of mandated insurance exchanges which it argued the less populated–and poorer–areas of the country would be stuck with, as a distillation of social injustice.  For the cartogram captured what its designers argued was the distorted market for health insurance which people on the coasts had designed as destined to shut out large areas of the country shaded in lighter colors–and prevalently light pink.  But the prediction of a contraction of providers that undergirds this ominous scenario, as we now know, didn’t come about at all,–even if the strong passions provoked by the fight over health care did leave the country boiling over with anger and indignancy widely felt to be objectively justified.

 

map2_20170725Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves

It can be quite forcefully argued that health care deserves to be regarded as a  democratic right–democratic with a “small ‘d,'” in the sense of an egalitarian right, even though debates about access to health insurance are increasingly cast in politically partisan terms.  Although access to insurance exchanges are increasingly treated as a question less of a right than the reflection of a political position, the proposition of guaranteeing health coverage is rejected by champions of the marketplace and its benefits, who argue that its falsity undermines a free market.  As a result, in part, health-care exchanges are increasingly mapped in terms that might well be mistaken for political partisan divisions within the fabric of the nation.  Indeed, the sharp, flat blues, reds, and deep carmine of different regions suggest the hopes and difficulties of providing a uniform insurance plan for a nation of radically different numbers of insured, facing the hope to provide more with coverage in a way that may seem to tilt against the open nature of the marketplace.

 

Us Marketplaces.png

 

But democratic rights include not only political participation but due rights to certain benefits that accord undeniable liberties.  And although liberties which were not defined as including health care in the eighteenth century, leading many strict constructionists to view health insurance as an excessive presence of the state in individual lives, the range of liberties have expanded to-liberties to education, or to health, or protect against race-based, ethnic, or sex-based discrimination–revealing the broadening scope of understanding liberties, and might be  mapped into the fabric of the nation as an individual rights, and a basis for ensuring greater egalitarianism–and social equality–as a right.

 

Obama-healthcareBlack Enterprise

 

Back in 2013, of course, the institution of health-care exchanges set up a new landscape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act–the Affordable Care Act or simply ACA–allowing most Americans to buy insurance on  government-run exchanges (or marketplaces) to have access to health care that they were often lacking in all fifty states, creating the reign of designing data vis of Obamacare exchanges often subsidized by the government for those eligible, to make it available to all, in ways that created some thirty-six exchanges run with the federal government, as states ran the others alone–creating the odd scenario that more enrollees came from red states, where they were run largely by the federal government.

 

state-health-insurance-exchange-landscape

 

But this was not widely accepted, and the rejection of the promise of what is now widely labeled Obamacare reflect the deep divides that its opponents argue the government mandate for buying insurance policies will impose on the nation.  The online popularity of recent projections of a constriction of health insurance options for most counties of the nation that were proposed as recently as the spring of 2017 seemed to reveal the deep dishonesty in the proposals of the Affordable Care Act to level the playing field.  And although the capital of health care as a good to the nation demands to be mapped, the difficulty of parsing the ACA independently of the name of Barack Obama reflect the unfortunate polemic level of debate about seeing adequate health insurance as a right of all–even as fear of losing health insurance dramatically rose across the nation, and the fears of rising premiums posed by its mandates were widely stoked by data visualizations suggesting widespread abandonment of insurance exchanges.

 

Changes in Providers.pngUS Health Policy Gateway

 

The data visualization–which almost amounts to a tool of outright propaganda–uses flat carmine to blanket the real improvements in numbers of the uninsured.  The presentation of an apparent distortion of the market is confirmed by declining insurance policies available on Obamacare exchanges, as its accompanying text assures readers that the real people to benefit from “marketplace enrollment” was the “private health insurance industry” who gained $90 billion in premiums, greatly profiting “publicly traded insurance companies”–distorting meanings of “public” and “private” as if to imply the dystopian nature of health exchanges that benefit coastal states alone.  The map of possible changes in rates of premiums were even more striking, and was presented as evidence of poor policy planning, as well as signs of a grim “slow motion death spiral”–a strategic choice of term suggesting the poor level of health-care it provided, and organically faulty nature of its establishment, but alienating the numbers of premium growth from individuals covered.

 

obamacare-premium-map.png

465213670_wide-c790535ce6a6b088fa700075b6c1de652f014904-s1600-c85.jpg

 

The familiar series of sequential images forecasting the mass exit of insurers from exchanges over a period of four years of the adoption of Obamacare stand at odds with the fears of losing health care and the defense of health care as a right, as well as a national system of insurance.  And despite an onslaught of maps  ostensibly demonstrating the ever-narrowing options for individuals as available insurers in state-based exchanges  dry up; they convey an imaginary future in which few counties with “active markets” of four or more alternatives–apparently compromising the rights of many Americans.

 

nssustaniable decline

Bloomberg Graphics/2017 Health Insurer Exits (projected)

 

Indeed, the image of rapidly dwindling options faced by Americans that such data visualizations claim to be based on data from HealthCare.gov. seem to suggest a focus on individuals.  But the broad brush strokes leave little to the imagination and present an ominous emptying of choice that seems designed to induce panic.  The images are executed with great dramatic effect, but little sense of cartographic skill–they presented a dire picture in which four options would be only available to residents of eight to ten states by 2017, calling into question the ability of much of rural America to remain insured.  The images of rural abandonment by health care exchanges were particularly powerful,  so absolute in their predictions as if to afford little room for interpretation

Yet the projections, for all their power, stand at variance with reality.  There will be, we now know, in fact no Obamacare marketplaces that remain at risk of being without insurers in 2018, as of August 24, 2017–

 

w:o insurers in echange

–and but a smattering of counties that were at risk for being without any insurers:

 

at risk of no insurer

Kaiser Family Foundation Interactive Version/Open Street Maps:  Counties at Risk of Having No Insurer on the Marketplace in 2018 as of August 24, 2017

 

In short, the disruption of the narrative of a dwindling of insurance options has been, after the failure to repeal the ACA, dramatically disrupted.  Even while acknowledging that there was a record low of uninsured in America after the American Care Act was adopted in “Obamacare marketplaces”–a coded term if there ever was one, loaded with disparagement–data visualization were crafted to predict deteriorating coverage options deteriorated in the months ahead in many rural states of apparent objectivity; hastily created maps, at an odd angle to reality, suggested that as much as over a fifth of all federally run marketplaces–predominantly in rural areas–were with only one insurer.

The alleged “bolting” of insurers from such marketplaces were predicted to leave areas like eastern Tennessee without any insurers, like, perhaps, southern Georgia, much of Colorado, almost all of Iowa, many counties in Ohio,  and large numbers of Virginians, as Aetna, Wellmark, and Anthem were predicted to “bolt” from the exchanges, leaving those Obamacare “customers” high and dry.  The argument of the abandonment of rural America was particularly grim.  But as the projections of the “bolting” of insurers fail to acknowledge the sparsely populated nature of many rural areas, the story that they tell of magnifies the poorly managed nature of the marketplace, obscuring the benefits or rights to health care–and the reduction of the number of uninsured across America– that the ACA has managed to create.  By privileging the size of largely unihabited regions of the midwest, maps of uninsured counties presented a decidedly skewed picture of enrollment, where the square miles covered by insurers projected to participate in health exchanges  seemed to outweigh those where insurers participated, irrespective of the sizes of inhabitants.  It is perhaps no surprise that support for Trump’s candidacy did not correlate with support for the ACA–

 

ACA-support-HaystaqDNA-score-by-county

 

 

We focus on individuals to measure popularity for the support for health care reforms across the country.  Although many have recently entertained sustained interactive levels of introspection about where Americans supported  the Affordable Care Act in the months that preceded the election, pouring over the support for the ACA through county-by-county lenses that made sense pretty much only in how they might translate into votes.

While moving toward the acknowledgement of health care as a right is independent from such measurement of support for the ACA, the  low support for the act in sparsely populated areas intensifies as one moved to less populated areas, by and large, to suggest poor penetration of exchanges into much of the nation–and the distance of health care from what seemed in square miles a quite considerable geographic area.  Resistance to the ACA however reflects a rejection of the broad classification of health care as a right–or to even start to affirm it as one nation.   The division of the country, while reflecting the red state/blue state map in many ways, suggest pockets of counties with strong support for the ACA in a surprising range of the south, southwest, and other regions–across the divide between red states and blue.  Haystack’s micro targeting models estimated just under 98,943,000 ACA supporters nationwide–wondering how the electorate would parse on such a push-button issue.  And, indeed, the Senate Republicans were quick to issue a somber grey data visualization that affirmed a clearcut divide suggestive of the status of yellow- or red-alert in areas “abandoned” by Obamacare– in an openly partisan moment, undoubtedly funded by tax dollars.

Senate Republican Party flawed policies 2018U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee

 

If over a third of the nation, colored an arresting yellow, seem to flounder in facing monopolies of insurance in the image that the Republican Policy Committee in the United States Senate designed for public consumption, who seem to have sought to raise a yellow- or red-alert for subscribers of Obamacare being abandoned, the map foreground  a divide in deeply partisan ways, failing to note persistently steep inequalities among  uninsured across the states, and the difficulties to attract insurers to markets in equal numbers, particularly in regions where up to a fifth remained uninsured in 2001-3.

 

% Uninsured 2002-3.png

 

 

Despite some questions of whether Republicans would be “alienating their own voters” didn’t affect the results of 2016 congressional elections.  But the power of the continued threat of a coming “implosion” of exchanges that upset the level playing field as an inevitable occurrence was successfully manufactured in projections of insurance markets that peddled groundless prognostications as if they were objective fact:  they successfully mobilized fears of the ability to avoid or precipitate a coming crisis by making it concretely manifest for viewers, pushing many to question the benefits that the extension of the ACA would actually bring–and to see it as a promise that would not be able to guarantee continued coverage or familiar premiums, and indeed to be engineered by the coastal elites and insurance companies that so much of the country has already come to distrust.   For the data visualizations that projected the uneven playing field that exchanges would create cast a divided commonwealth as a result of the limited choices restrictive options of health insurance many Americans would face.  These visualizations raised significant alarms bout the fate of Obamacare–and the specter of its undemocratic nature raised questions of what it provided to the country, or what future it might bright–that were deployed in particularly effective ways.

Flat colors of a data visualization communicate as many falsehoods about its actual relation to people as Trump’s favored declamation of Obamacare “very, very bad insurance.”  They obscure satisfaction ratse of over 75% among those enrolled in plans, and of almost 90% in public Medicaid programs for the poor.  Rather, the picture of an implosion of insurance markets garnered ungrounded trust, and became demonized as but “a first step” toward what he presented as the apocalyptic scenario in which the “government basically rules everything”–a fear of the implosion of a free market–ignoring that the American Care Act is premised on encouraging competition among medical insurers.  Yet the image of such an implosion or collapse perpetuated in data visualizations of crude colors was something that was manufactured in projections that masqueraded as objectively designed maps.  In charting decreasing insurer participation in exchanges as actualities, data visualizations seem designed to stoke uncertainty about the future viability of health insurance markets in America.  Yet the uninhabited nature of this landscape of counties–a metric that makes sense only really as a convention of electoral politics, rather than health care or even of individuals residing in different parts of the country, is starkly removed from health care save in terms of how it might translate into a political choice.

The rhetoric of these “maps” uses projections cover the individuals who benefit from medical care.  They encourage voters to feel slighted in new medical marketplaces, and ask them to chose a future–without considering metrics of coverage or the relative quality of medical care.  They serve to map a landscape of fear, encouraging fears of growing premiums and less choice among voters in what is painted as a compromised medical marketplace.

 

1.  Construing health-care as part of a democratic system has been understood in surprisingly partisan terms.  Some would restrict liberties to participation a marketplace, by adopting and privileging the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society:  the success of such a distinction has lead to a broad and striking demonization of its mandate, rather than the policies of the health care law signed in 2010–the Affordable Care Act–which as a law has consistently received far less opposition than the change in health insurance provision that mentions President Obama’s name.  The divide in perceptions seems to have been broadened considerably by recent visualizations that project the future market for health care, or project the numbers of insurance carriers available in exchanges, the colors of the availability of carriers overwhelms the presence of individuals, and reveal the new markets that the Affordable Care Act (or ACA) created as if it were an uneven playing field for all Americans.

Indeed, as recently as June 2017 and during the Trump-Clinton campaign, media outlets and websites trumpeted “maps” or “a map” as evidence of the uneven playing fields that the ACA would bring in the country and the restrictive options that were increasingly identified with “Obamacare,” as if it were something different from the health policies that increasing numbers of Americans had enrolled in, but rather a specter of higher premiums, fewer rights, and new restrictions on providers if not health policies that could not be trusted, in ways that continued a drumbeat of visualizations predicting coming imbalances for those enrolled in Obamacare to insurance carriers or to a competitive marketplace–if not rob them of access to insurers–concretizing what Donald Trump cannily called “the broken promise” of Obamacare, as some 2.4 million “customers of Obamacare” would be with but one insurer to select in the coming year.   Health officials in the Trump administration issued a “new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018” as if to provide confirmation of the poor deal that was offered the nation; the data vis produced by the folks at the Heritage Foundation was accompanied by an announcement that, in case any one missed the point, insurance exchanges in 2017 would feature ” a major decrease in competition and choice” (italics added) that exposed the deep failure of the ACA to promote competition as promised:

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IB-exchange-competition-2017-map-1-825.gifHeritage Foundation (January 30, 2017)

 

The absence of competition left some state, the not unsubtle point was made, that were neglected by the insurance companies that had promoted the ACA:

 

ACA Header?.png

 

The stark contrasts of the data visualization were a rallying cry for a public campaign for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, designed to activate the red states that were shown to be the largest losers of the insurance exchanges Obamacare created.  The map released shortly after the inauguration in a push to confirm the repeal of Obamacare, showed almost all counties in the southern United States with but one insurer–as almost a third of the counties in the nation–but not the population by any means.  In the rhetoric of an earlier map that described how “large of swaths of yellow cover a number of Southern and Midwestern states, all of Alaska, and elsewhere indicating counties . . .  are projected as of now to have just one insurer selling individual plans next year,” the images of a restriction of opportunities to buy health insurance was alerted, with areas with but one insurer appropriately colored red, as if to convey danger.

The slightly different visualization from June that accompanied this projected danger suggested that some counties–colored red again–would strip residents enrolled in Obamacare from any insurer for those enrolled in Obamacare–this time in “a new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018“:

 

Conties Analysis ObamacareMSNBC (June 13, 2017)

 

The fear that such maps stoked of an imbalance that cut into the insurance options of many as far as health goes suggested a lack of care and a lack of coverage that suggested a deep disinterest of almost a third of the nation, but did so with little actual grounds.  Those sparsely populated regions loose out in the new marketplace that Obamacare seemed to threaten to impose–even if the Affordable Care Act was created to extend health insurance across the nation:

 

Obamacare 2016_0

McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform (August 26, 2017)

 

Such deep divides within the United States that cut against equal access to health insurance was of course what Obamacare was introduced to prevent, but the exchanges in the less populated states were indeed slow to attract insurers.  However, the terrifying fear of a subtraction of any guarantees of well-being and a level playing field that these projections promote–they are hardly really data visualizations, if they resemble maps–seem as good a definition and a metaphor of undemocratic policies, and a metaphor for the restricted roles people are given a crucial say in the policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  Although the sentiments for including health care as a right has become to a deep divide in the nation, the disadvantages that the initial introduction of the exchanges were cautioned to bring to peoples’ lives and policies were immediately striking.

And the recent success of mapping the actual resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims.  Indeed, as recently as June, 2017, media sources presented “a map” or a set of maps as evidence of the imbalances that the previous administration had failed to foresee, or willfully imposed on the nation.

 

1.  The negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident:  healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA)-, as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of initial convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to return to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges–and that now-President Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.

As soon as the future markets for insurance were mapped and the maps were released, the revelation of apparent gaps and “dwindling in surname choices” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations seemed to show up the falsity of past promises.  The maps gained a polemic authority of their own, confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, and providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of the exchanges that emerged in different states and counties.  For they seemed to reveal an apparent abandonment of the majority of the country by the coastal elites of California Massachusetts, New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.:  indeed, it triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites.  The very story that was told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in many circles were being repeated in the Presidential campaign were used to lace increasing suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.

 

Graphic-of-Insurance-Providers-number.jpg

County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)

 

The deep brown nature of the map didn’t reveal the restrictive choices of insurers, but muddied the picture of the nation, as if throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.  The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” appeared so evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

The mapping of these projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, which data visualizations like the above seemed to expose–while dying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet the residents of all counties in the United States but one will be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect a new acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.

Just a mere two months ago, it was predicted that forty-seven counties would have absolutely no insurers by 2018, and that residents of greater than a thousand counties–and up to 1,200– would be left “bare”–hight and dry–with access to but one insurer in their exchanges.  The alleged analysis of the impending “collapse” of insurer participation nationwide showed an image of “projected insurer participation” as if they described an actuality of declining participation that had effectively fractured the nation–lending currency to pronouncements that struck fear into many voters.

 

County by County analysis.pngExchnage Carrier.pngCNBC, June 13, 2017

 

Despite the manipulative nature of these data visualizations, the recent resilience of markets after election, and specifically the failure to repeal Obamacare, has responded in ways that stand to change.

 

2.  But the picture was indelible when it was framed, forged in the sharp colors of data visualizations which arrived with regularity at the same time as maps of projections of the Presidential election dominated social media and the press.  They created a terrifying image of a divided nation, destroyed by the all but inevitable impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as revealed in “stunning maps” released in the late summer during the Presidential election, as if they were the hidden understory of national divisions that some candidates just didn’t get.  These visualizations allegedly revealed divisions of the nation in ways that must have spooked many, weren’t being addressed by the White House or health care officials, and seemed to signal an era’s end–touting “Higher Costs and Fewer Choices for Obamacare Customers in 2017.”  The below-the-radar war of data visualization for national attention suggested nothing less than the erosion of the union that was tied to the encouragement of insurance exchanges.

Such data visualization worked their magic, triggering narratives of abandonment and appearing to reveal an isolation of several of the poorer parts of the nation that set of alarms about the increased division of a nation and an uneven playing field that the Affordable Care Act–now demonized by the name “Obamacare” to distance itself from the actual legislation–that revealed the apparent absence of competition in “stunning” ways.  For by depicting the “epic collapse” of a system that in fact seemed to be give greater stability to a projection and make it manifest as reality.  The magic of the data visualization was that they purported to reveal an actuality the Obama administration seemed to deny as if it were an actuality that denied options to many Americans.   And although the spread of the one-carrier-ounties across much of the “heartland” seemed confirmation, for many Republicans, of an abandonment of the mythic heartland of Trump voters, which pulled from Iowa to New Mexico to West Virginia for Appalachia for Trump–the complexion of where insurance is available.

The alleged objectivity of the visualization left many with breath held, as “stunning maps” released during the heat of the Presidential election in late summer prophesied an impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as an all but inevitable reality.

 

Obamacare 2016_0McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform

 

Data visualizations of jarring color selections suggest the discontinuity in a system of health care, using the not necessarily clear metric of the existence of a range of carriers.  The notion of the medical marketplace that such competition was supposed to create however realized clear gaps with the counties in violet, whose disarming continuities suggested pockets of the nation that were unfairly left behind, and others in pink that seemed to be similarly compromised in the notion of options or choice their inhabitants were offered.  But the alarmist cartographies were extremely effective in tellign of a story of those regions that were left out–not only Kansas, but Wyoming, West Virginia, and stretches of North Carolina, South Dakota  and Michigan. The maps spoke to many.

The deeper debate about health care as a right demand to be examined in far greater detail than the polemic nature of such visualizations allowed.  And the recent resurgence of insurers in almost all counties of the nation provides a good occasion to do so.   It’s not a secret that the difficulty of construing health-care as a democratic right has also been rejected by many,–who would  restrict liberties to participation a marketplace.  In doing so, they adopt the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society–and view any tampering with the health care market as undue governmental meddling.  Yet the guarantees of well-being and a level playing field seem as good a definition of what is democratic as any, as it affords a needed means to allow people to have greater say in policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  And sentiments for including health care as a right has however come to be one of the deeper divides in the nation.  And the recent success of mapping the real resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims about the narrative of the impending collapse of Obamacare that many data visualizations of the nation relentlessly advanced, with minimal questioning or interrogation, and the how the image of the nation they suggest may explain public understandings of health care as a democratic right.

But since the negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident, healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace alone.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of poor guidance and convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to <em>return</em> to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges have gained them.

 

3.  Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were indeed quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in available options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.  The sentiment of a curtailing of options–and of choice, that elusive and so malleable term–became something of a battle-cry against the ACA, which redefined how it was portrayed and cast as an imposition that failed to meet health needs, but whose premiums were substantially more.

If one might say, with poet Elizabeth Bishop, that “more delicate than the historians’ are the mapmaker’s colors,” unlike the color-choices by which cartographers define land and sea as areas viewers can inhabit and read, the stark colors of the data visualization suggest clearcut differences and decisive results–too often just to stark to be lent the credibility that they seek.  Bishop linked the art and science of the cartographer and the art of poetry, in her first published poem, written when staring at a framed map of the North Atlantic that lay under glass as she was ill.  In tracing the mapped waters, and the land that lies beneath the water in maps, shadowed in green, she admired the transformative nature of the cartographer’s art and the expressive license of defining land and sea, and the edges of sandy shelves, as allowing the cartographer to create an aesthetic object able to engage the viewer’s fantasy, through the delicacy of color choices:  the stark, flat tones of the above data visualization–whose colors are all too strict and edges overly severe–work best to create oppositions and manufacture absolutes that offer little distance on the world, or clear purchase on it.

The colors chosen by the cartographer, if at odds with the actuality of the ordering of the land, cannot compare to how the translation of the edges of insured and uninsured are erased in the clear contrasts that compress the actual contours of health care.  If Bishop contrasted the reality claims of the historian to the artifice of the map-maker, whose creations appear arbitrary, but reveal actual complexities, as allowing possibilities for the contemplation of the world.  But rather than presenting an authoritative version of the world, the human measure of a carefully made map, and the invention it offered as an angle at which to examine the world absent from many visualizations, which privilege a single actuality as sufficiently authoritative to orient viewers to the world along a single narrative–and not preserving a human scale to do so.  The deceptive nature with which data visualizations foretold collapsing insurance choices in the Affordable Care Act presented a false reality. about health insurance exchanges, in short, by creating alarming contrasts between sharp colors in maps that offered no opening for interpretation. In contrast, maps of the actual numbers of those without health insurance reveals a landscape of much more complex edges and shadows, as well as deep divides, demanding to be moused over in detail for their interactive experience, if only to come to terms with the changed life experiences of those in many states, as from 2013-16, as the constantly shrinking number of uninsured grew nation wide in ways that attest to the increasing health of the nation–if with considerable numbers of uninsured remaining in may exchanges:

 

shrinkin uninsured.png

 

percentage uninsured.png

New York Times

 

In contrast, the almost uninhabited landscapes bereft of insurers that data visualizations depict to suggest a narrowing marketplaces and dwindling options of Americans offers an image less about “health”–our about our health as a nation–than the problems of creating continuity among the insurance exchanges that underwrite the insurance marketplace.  The lack of perspective that they offer on the residents of each county and of our country–and the forced viewing of “health” in terms of insurance companies which participate in exchanges, suggest what more contemporary poet, Claudia Rankine, called the particularly contentious meaning of “health” today in the United States:  at a time when “Affordable Care Act” is seen as something different from “Obamacare” by most Americans, who want the affordability of health care but suspect the inequality of “Obamacare”–whose repeal Trump declared his first order of business as President.  “We heard health care and we thought public option/we thought reaching across the street across the lines,/ across the aisle was the manifestation of not a red state/ not a blue state but these united states we thought,” Rankine wrote with assurance of a new landscape of health insurance, “we could be sure of ourselves in this one way sure/of our human element our basic decency.”

But the increased decency of providing more Americans with adequate health care, “a kind of human kind of union we were ready to check-up,” as Rankine wrote, in the belief that “in this one way we were ready/to care for each other we were ready to see/our range of possibilities as a precious commodity,” was distorted in a map that focussed on the marketplaces of insurance options that Obamacare–the Affordable Care Act–sought to create.  If in this nation “despite being founded on genocide and sustained by slavery/in God’s country we thought we were ready/to see sanity inside the humanity,” the humanity of health care seems sadly obscured in the exclusive focus of data visualizations that focus on providers absent from the marketplace.

 

4.  It is rather terrifying that the alleged objectivity and authority of such data visualizations were arrogated to make a point that disguised their nature as projections and roles as arguments.  While doing so is tantamount to disinformation, claiming predictive value as declarative statements which has since proved to be without any merit.  For not only did they distort the question of coverage by ignoring that the areas where three or more carriers would be options were most populated–where the best job had been done informing patients of their options to enroll in policies, and also where far better medical coverage existed for Americans in previous years–but the alarms that they sounded were ungrounded, although the image of two coasts and a well-off midwest that suddenly left large parts of the nation in the lurch effectively tapped into deep suspicions and uncertainty.

Rankine persuasively hypothesized–and elsewhere actively protested–the deeply ingrained racism that motivated a nation ready to distinguish between “Obamacare” and the “Affordable Care Act”–valuing the affordability of health insurance, but suspicious of the insurance labeled by the name of Trump’s predecessor.  The motivations for suspicions about “Obamacare” as a tampering with the free market of health providers is unclear, but it undermines the interest in our understanding of the preciousness of health care as a right.  Yet the humanity of health care seems sadly forgotten by the shift from a topography of individuals insured to a topography of the marketplace.  Although Trump seemed to think he had fired Obamacare from the country by declaring it “dead,” and just destined to implode, the markets revealed themselves to have been set up with considerable resilience, despite deeply troubling glitches in its roll out; if more than eighty counties earlier risked offering no options to enrollees, insurers returned overwhelmingly, where they were able, especially when already strongly present in the marketplaces, despite the threat from President Trump to pull federal subsidies.

The presence of mapping future markets for insurance were released with claims to show of apparent gaps, “dwindling insurance choices,” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations.  They seemed to show up the past promises of the President to preserve choices for Americans to adopt a health plan that suit them best, and portray them as undue impositions on the marketplace.  The projections acquired a polemic authority, as if confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, by providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of exchanges in different counties and even in different states.  They seemed to confirm a feared narrative of the abandonment of the much of the country:  indeed, many popular data visualizations triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites in New York, California, and Washington DC, in particular in Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Missouri and the Deep South, as well as parts of Michigan.  They confirmed the very story told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats repeated in the Presidential campaign as if to lace suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.

 

Graphic-of-Insurance-Providers-number

County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)

The particularly grim picture that they offered came in for little criticism or rebuttal.  But the data visualizations describe landscapes that are curiously depopulated, even as they present a sobering picture to suggest the withdrawal of insurers from medical exchanges.   The map implies an absence of interest in much of America by the very insurers who claimed to have sponsored the new marketplaces–but had only concentrated on the most profitable regions.  Its implications one of the abandonment of many of the rural areas of the country–the less densely populated–although the greatest success of such exchanges in densely populated urban areas that were liberal-leaning is no secret, they imply an absence of interest in less populated areas of the nation.  The implicit message that little attention was paid to the rural areas was underlined through the strategic colors of the data visualization, which seems to suggest a relief map of areas that would suffer higher premiums:   audiences in much of the country were convinced that they just had it worse in the projections all too often portrayed as eventualities that the nation would stand to suffer.  The tan colors that suggest diminished choices of medical insurance muddied the picture of the nation, throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.

The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” that appeared evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

Such premature projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, and invested themselves with an objective authority of exposing an uneven system that was indeed rigged–denying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet residents of all counties in the United States but one will in fact be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.

 

2.  To better grapple with the readiness of insurers to fill the health-care marketplace, the stunning maps of the presence of insurers who have made health-care policies available demands to be examined through a red state-blue state optic.  For eve if the aversion of Republican-leaning regions in the United States to providing alternatives to health care insurers creates a deep divide concentrated in much of the south, prairie, and southwest, where only 1-2 insurers exist, and despite uneven nature of conditions conducive to access to health services that guarantee well-being–and presumably happiness–the markets have grown.

 

HEalth Care Insureres:Red v Blue Govs.png

 

 

If the divide looks harsh anyway for many rural areas, the red/blue divides cannot reflect the actual availability of health providers to Americans.  Since the notion of the division of the distribution of insurance markets by counties seemed suspect anyway, given the sparser population of many of these states, a more accurate picture of national coverage is offered by a simple proportional warping of the odd division of the electorate by the “county”–an outdated geographical unit if there ever was one.  The mapped that warped counties by their relative populations reveals  an even sharper picture of the actually improving state of availability of insurers–the fewer residents of many of the just-one-insurer regions of the south and indeed midwest shrink, to confirm the growing success of the selection of insurance providers by the ACA, despite some obviously problematic and important to address gaps in coverage.

 

Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves.png

 

It is striking that these very gaps mirror with a terrifyingly clear correlation both dial-up speeds and broadband technology, as well as intractable bottom-line problems like gaps in the availability of health-care services in rural areas.

 

FQHCs.png

 

federally-qualified-health-centers

Rural Health Information Hub, December 2016

 

 

5.  Abandoning the red/blue divisions, which are taken by the elected governor, we see an even healthier division of the nation, at least in terms of the regions that provide their residents with something like a reasonable variety of possible health care insurers, with large areas of the most populated areas having three potential insurers, rather than insurance markets imploding at all, despite the clear gaps that it reveals in what seem more underpopulated areas–and, quite strikingly, the absence of broadband that would make it easier to enroll for insurance online.

 

5995cec01400001f002c3494Harold Pollack and Todd Stubble

 

Broadband 2014.pngNational Broadband Map, June 2014 (not updated since)

 

These gaps reveal a division of much of America into two regions–no doubt conducive between two expectations of health care or medical provision.  Most southern states indeed had far fewer insurers–left “bare” with but one provider, despite the low populations of such rural regions being just less conducive to insurance markets, and revealing an uneven playing field long preceding the passage of the Affordable Care Act–

 

SOUTHERN states health care insurers 2017-18Harold Pollack/HealthInsurance.org

 

One Provider South Rural.pngHarold Pollack and Todd Schuble

 

The area is not only medically underserved, but suggests a “Southern Problem” having far less to do with Obamacare than with the disproportionate topography of medicine and indeed of those without health-care, but creating many counties including large stretches of chronic undeserved populations.

 

RAC 2014

 

 

Such maps and data visualizations only suggest a need to appreciate and fathom the deeply compromised liberties in areas with few health insurance providers, where insurers haven’t reached clear markets, that not only overlap with many of the more chronically uninsured areas and populations, but with areas of the a terrifying number of uninsured–folks who have decided or been forced to do without health insurance, and where going without health insurance becomes an accepted acceptable alternative, unlike in many regions of the country,

 

 

us-health-insurance-coverage-map

 

which often echoed the very regions of greatest vulnerability in the nation–counties that to be sure often reached out to Trump as a savior for their deep discontent.

 

Rural Assistance Center Underserved.png

 

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2.  The increasing variety of insurance options for much of the nation raises questions about the persistence of a deep inequality–undemocratic for many–in those pockets coinciding with denser votes for Trump, in a normalized choropleth, and more hospitable to an argument of revising current options of health care–and viewing the Affordable Care Act as an imposition of the federal government.

 

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There are interesting overlaps on those areas where Trump out-performed previous Republican candidates, notably in Florida’s panhandle and less densely populous counties in the deep south; southern Texas; and Appalachia.

 

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The odd reluctance of these areas to attract anything like a range of possible insurers in lower income areas of low-density where Republicans have recently performed well.

 

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New York Times

 

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They reflect the difficult problem of distinct notions of liberty and rights in the country, corresponding to areas where the civilian population was long underinsured, often by upwards of 15%, and where shortages of health-providers–even if not as readily available in county-level data–are strikingly revealed in a state-by-state survey:  states like Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas remained significantly below the national average for primary care physicians in 2012, suggesting regions where there were less developed expectations for attaining health care coverage.

 

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Increased numbers of uninsured exist in many of the same states are, to recap, unsurprisingly located in some of the same regions–which are less likely to vote for representatives who advocate the belief in health care as a right, and perhaps seeing it as able to be outweighed in importance by an argument of states’ “rights,” even if this discourse is designed to deny health insurance.

 

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It seems a cruel irony in an era of globalization that the majority of those doctors or members of the healthcare force serving areas of the United States that were most in need, and who see some 14 millions patients every year, were from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen–citizens of countries included in Trump’s Muslim Ban.  (In other words, these immigrant doctors are filling the increasingly pronounced gap that exists among medical providers in the United States–and getting the job done.)  If medically underserved areas occur in almost every state in the country, the preponderance of medically underserved populations concentrated in less populated areas–as the southwest, southern states, and parts of the Midwest seems to have attracted foreign doctors–and had already led bills to be sponsored to allow Medicare to reimburse pharmacists directly in those communities, to acknowledge the absence of medical services needed by Medicare beneficiaries, to allow clinical pharmacists to work in medical care settings as a health provider.

 

Doctors from coutnries in Muslim Ban.pngSee interactive version of this map here, at the Immigrant Doctors Project

 

The map has some striking overlaps with those regions of rural America that are losing population, although it should be kept tin mind that the above map, which used data from Doximity to suggest the commenting zones for the number of doctors in the United States may distort by expanding the zones of providing services beyond that which physicians actually serve most actively:

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map-loss.pngRural Communities Losing Populations, United States of America

 

The elevation of the pharmacist to a medical provider may raise ethical questions.  But the existence of hight concentrations of medical physicians from the very countries that were targeted by the so-called “Muslim Ban” that Trump championed had the effect of allowing a crucial degree of medical assistance to reach Americans–although the apparent intent of Trump’s legislation would have been to restrict their abilities to return home freely to visit their families, and compromise the proportion of doctors on call in the cities where they are most concentrated–in Toledo, Cleveland, and Dayton, Ohio as well as Detroit MI.

 

Medical Assistance.pngImmigrant Doctors Project

 

Such pronounced concentrations of physicians which were mapped online in readily seaarchable formats by the Immigrant Doctors Project provide powerful tools to view how the markets for physicians’ skills meets the needs of a marketplace, to be sure, if one recalls the huge numbers of medically underserved counties.  But this is not a marketplace that would be easily filled by our current medical system, or the health-care industries that service more rural or poorer areas.

 

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, data visualization, health care, health insurance, Obamacare

Data Visualization Fake-Out?

“Nothing in the world could take us back/ to where we used to be,” as Mariah Carey sung in I Don’t Wanna Cry, a hit song in 1990–the very same year Tim Berners-Lee and CERN collaborators unveiled the World Wide Web, using HTML to share documents across huge networks and URL’s to specify computer targeted and information requested.   The  coincidence of the design of such a document system that led TBL to build and design the world’s first web browser on an NeXT computer and Mariah Carey’s cooing soft-pop hit on only emptiness inside came together again in the release the WannaCry malware–malicious self-propagating code, able to exploit back-door vulnerabilities of Windows 7–which revealed a landscape from which nothing in the world can take us back to where reused to be.  But the data visualizations we’ve used to describe the lateral progression of the encryption of data files from hard drives around the interlinked world lent a new prominence to the World Wide Web as a conduit for targeting destabilization.  It not only revealed how the world wide web has reshaped what we still call the world, but posed questions of how to map such a change.

Wanna Cry left many literally crying for the sudden encryption of data, and many without services–and was intended to leave an unimaginable number of people desolate, if not quite with the absence of love that Mariah Carey wistfully evoked.  But the  virulence of its spread should offer a wake-up call to possibilities of global disruption we are still working to be able to track, map or fully comprehend in adequate fashion–but record as a virulent virus blocking systems most densely in nodes of a web-linked world.

 

the-wannacry-ransomware-attack_535798c2-38bf-11e7-b30b-76e7402dac55Malware 2:10 pm

New York Times

 

The very same visualizations indeed obscure, by oddly rendering it as distributed, the agency that underpins such carefully orchestrated cyber attacks of global consequence, by almost naturalizing its spread.  For by moving the sites where data was most encrypted into a geographical frame of reference, the graphic doesn’t help orient us to its spread, so much as overwhelm us with the data-laden content to visualize a paralysis of global systems; it removes it from context or human agency, in order to capture the omnipresence of the self-propagating cyrptoworm as much as tell a story that helps to orient us to its spread.   Perhaps that is what was intended.

The mapping of global disruption is perhaps a nightmarish puzzle for members of the interlinked world, and demands a place on the front burners of data visualization:  the inadequate nature of considering the spread of systems-wide corruptions can be visualized by cases of the compromising of data, we lack the symbolic tools to grasp the rise of a new map of global dangers.   While such data visualizations provide a terrifying premonition of the destabilization that might result from the encryption of data on a broad scale, they obscure the possibilities of specifically targeted attacks on data and visible infrastructure that are now able to be developed, and the nature of targeted threats that we have only begun to imagine.  The redefinition in this new geography of document-sharing Tim Berners-Lee and friends developed has prepared the way for a landscape of interaction between removed places broadly adopted as a protocol for information-sharing– but one that, as Mariah Carey sung, and instigators of the malware hoped, left one only wanting to cry from behind one’s screen, devastated at the scope of the unforeseen swift data loss.

The data visualizations adopted to depict the flare-ups in compromised hard drives that the cryptoworm created in a manner of hours show the particular virulence with which malware crossed national divides in unprecedented ways, displacing relations of spatial proximity, geographical distance, and regional divides.  In crippling databases including Russian and Chinese private and public institutions in but a day, demanding immediate payment for data to be restored, the ransomware raised the curtain on a new age of uncertainty.  But was the threat eclipsed by the scale of the attack by which information was encrypted?  If the spread of malware seemed to grow across computer systems without apparent relations, the distributed agency that was invested in how the malware spread worldwide seemed to obscure the possibility of agency of the attacks, concealing the tracks of any perpetrator by placing a problem of urgency on screens worldwide.

 

 

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Websites of news media of record widely adopted animated data visualizations to orient their readers to the proliferating corruption of data on tens of thousands of computers and computer systems on account of the malware caused.   Such elegantly animated maps don’t claim to be comprehensive, and are information-laden to the extent that seek to capture the unprecedented speed and range of the spread of the cyberworm launched Friday, May 12, 2017.  We have trouble even comprehending or grasping the scale or speed with which the virus spread on systems, of course, and speed at which malware was propagated itself across networks and spread laterally across systems, rather than by geographic relations, working without a phishing hook of any sort but exploiting an NSA-developed backdoor vulnerability in the Windows 7 operating system to infect networks across national bounds, as it spread laterally across systems worldwide.

The spread of the encryption of hard drives data across space occurred in apparently haphazard ways, spreading globally in the first thirty minutes of across more advanced web-reliant regions of what we still call the globe.  While their spread “followed” systems whose operating systems had not been fully updated, it is important to remember that rather than spreading laterally along a system of their own accord, their release was planned and released by agents, rather than being a casualty of the World Wide Web; a map of instances of hard-drive vulnerabilities however can offer few diagnostic signs or clues to interpret their spread, but offer only a catalogue of individual instances difficult to process in their entirety, so overwhelming and geographically dispersed was their occurrence to defy easy interpretation or processing–they provide little that might be suggested as forensic evidence about their spread.

 

ransomeware 0 hr 30 min 0 secRed Socks Security: Malicious Threat Detection

 

If the growth of the virus’s spread across nations made it seemed to progress in ways that lacked a target, we may lack the tools to visualize the attack.  The systems afflicted were not linked on a geographical register, and in some senses didn’t make sense to read in a map–but if they spread on internet traffic, the broad scale of the attack of ransomeware only foregrounded the fears of where it had arrived from or offer any signs to appreciate any agency within its systems-borne spread.  But if the map seemed the best way to the speed of its growth, it was a distraction from the potential targeted threats of the malicious worm–until a lone British researcher, known as “MalwareTech,” saved the compromising of global systems as he serendipitously identified its kill switch to stop its spread:  what dominated the headlines conceals the dangers of losing sight of the specificity of the wide-ranging attacks, even while registering them in real time.

The rest of the world could only sit in silence, as Mariah Carey once sung, and watch the range of attacks unfold in space in real time:  something went wrong in the mode of sharing data across online systems that had to be couldn’t quite be understood.  If Maria Carey’s hit single contemplated the definite break in time, “only emptiness inside us,” the shock of the screens informing users across the world that their data had been definitively compromised made then realize that any notion of data security vanished, and any hope for composure in the face of cryptoworms had disappeared, as Mariah Carey’s softly-sung lyrics described, and as far away as a network-free world, or one where inter-connected users didn’t define the primary routes of its transmission, without considering the dangers of the compromised infrastructure–not only in banking, but in traffic system, airport controlling, water quality monitoring, and even traffic flows.

But we continue to rely on geographic registers, as if we can’t let go of them, and it is what we have to explain the global spread of compromised systems and a collapse of data security.  The cryptoworm successfully obtained advanced user privileges that allowed it to hijack computer systems that allowed hackers to encrypt documents worldwide in one day, reaching such a broad range of hard drives to make it seem the attack was random or haphazard.  The attacks used code to release a self-propagating worm  that didn’t really move spatially, but progressed online, using a vulnerability for which Microsoft had released a patch only two months previous, in March, in devices that share files across local networks.   After the patch arrived, we were still mapping its spread, and contemplating the prospects of the return of a similar virus, so clearly had it asked us to redefine internet traffic.  But was did the broad spread of the worm and broad scope of systems compromises, which was quick to provoke deep fears of the vulnerabilities that exist from ransomware erase the targeted nature of a similar subsequent malware attack?  The spread of thousands of infections in over a hundred–and then over a hundred and fifty countries–across hard drives across the world exploited the failure to update software systems so broadly to obscure the origins or coordination of such malware attacks, whose use of normal language to alert users of encryption made them seem as if it were an isolated standard operating failure, able to be resolved by individual payment–

 

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–even as the malware crippled networks in different countries without having the appearance of any fixed target.  And if masquerading as a form of ransomware, later variants of the cryptoworm suggested a far, far scarier version of the scope of data corruption.

 

wannacry_03Kapersky Lab/Ars Technica

 

We were of course struck by the unprecedented speed with which such worms replicated along these dispersive networks–following paths that are not made evident in the map of compromised hard drives provided by data security firms, which show the progression of a disease that, like a cancer, creeps invasively along a hidden network, suggests a nightmare of the distributed agency of the internet, invaded by a particularly vicious parasite that for a considerable amount of time even experts saw no way to resolve.

We can now watch the spread of internet attacks in real time, looking at the threats of hacking in real-time, in ways that reflect the emergence of the internet and World Wide Web as a real-time battlefield, even if this is only a representative tracking of hacking attempts tracked by Norse.  It doesn’t include the ten millions of daily attempts to hack into the Pentagon, or the similar number of threats that the National Nuclear Security Administration tries to fend off–and the millions of attacks universities daily confront.  But if we are apt to be mesmerized by the range of such attacks, impossible to fully comprehend or track, we’re likely to be overwhelmed by the serious fears of the security vulnerabilities of which they cannot but remind us, although the abstracted sense of a constant barrage of online attacks can remove us from all too real dangers of their infrastructural effects–and the dangers of destabilization of specifically targeted strikes.

 

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And if we might do well to take stock of the range of attacks by hackers to which the United States is vulnerable, mostly from China and Chinese sources, privileging our country as the target of future strikes–

 

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–we loose sight of their increasingly global nature, now that much of the software to exploit vulnerabilities is available in the Dark Net.  The origins of such attacks aren’t really clearly able to be mapped–hackers are experts at deflecting or rerouting their signals, and bouncing around their traces to make hacks that are located from one site appear to emanate from another from another.  And infrastructural vulnerabilities of infrastructure are increasingly on the table for nations other than the United States, often without the means to monitor such cybersecurity issues or strikes.

In an age when the pathways of internet links may have spawned spontaneous revolutions, uprisings, and unexpected results of elections, non-human communication and propagation of such malicious malware viruses seem an apotheosis of the absence of any agency–a worm that is able to replicate itself within hard drives world wide, removed from any intent.  To be sure, the range of sped-up animated maps to track the progress of the viruses that compromised data across the world produced a sense of wonder at our vulnerability of a sort that has not been widely mapped since the Cold War:  the images generated of internet threats mirrors the map of the danger of missile strikes that emerged in Life magazine back in 1945, at the end of the Second World War–only months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs, that increasingly stand as a premonition of the new nature of things to come.

 

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Life Magazine: The Thirty-Six Hour War (November, 1945)

 

Mutatis mutandi, the image of the visual culture of the early Cold War was adopted by the Russian internet security agency, the Kapersky Labs, as a strategy to image the globally expanding threat of hacking to compromise hard drives and data-based systems.

 

malicious threats USA scaleKapersky Labs

 

In an era that was defined as after or following the thaw of the Cold War, the internet emerged in 1990–just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded its thaw–as a new battleground to wage global conflict.  To be sure, the cybermaps of phishing schemes and potential email attacks are traced by the Kapersky labs in real time, to monitor for global security on the interlinked world-wide online systems.  But their dynamic images retain the symbolic structure of the arcs of a violation of national airspace to suggest the magnitude of the incursions into cyberspace they monitor and report on round the clock.

We continue to map the global spread of malware as if to wonder at its scale:  the distributed compromising of data as an animated sequence of simultaneous flare-ups of intensity from yellow to burning red across the world, as if to pose the question of its communication in terms of spatial continuity and proximity.  In some of the best data visualizations of the scare of WannaCry and Petya viruses, the brightly burning flare-ups signalled a fire that burned so brightly to become impossible to contain as if a metastisizing online cancer spread across the world’s wealthiest regions.  Despite the power of the animated visualization, we may map it wrongly, as if to imply it can be diagnosed as a spatially transmitted contagion without a target or destination.  In using the data-laden information of cybersecurity firms to map the occurrence of data corruption and systems infection, the political antagonisms and animosities that have fed the growth of malware are cunningly left absent from the map at our own peril.

 

 

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Although these maps suggest the scope and nature of the self-replicating cryptoworm, they may take the metaphorical value of a computer virus in literal terms, as a disease map, or biological virus whose contagious could be explained,–like the famous Snow Map, created by a founder of modern epidemiology,  Dr. John Snow, to devise a mode to convince readers of the transmission from a water source of the 1854 London cholera outbreak.  Of course, the malware maps do not try to communicate the pathways or mechanics of the virus’ spread.  For rather than showcasing an event that was planned and of human agency, and whose propagation was in some sense designed, they run the risk of naturalizing both the incidence of systems’ compromises and the malicious nature of the very phenomenon that they describe.  While the meaning that each bring pixel cannot even be understood or processed in a global scale–its impact was local–the intensity of the outbreak seemed almost a skin disease on the surface of the world.  The intensity of its transmission surely mirrors the density of online connections or an economy that was web-based, as networks allowed its contagion spread from Indonesia to Europe the United States, raising alarms as it seemed to actualize some of the worst fears of a cyberattack, of the de-empowered nature of a computer system suddenly devouring its own data, but like a faceless god, from 11:00 one Friday morning, so that by 1:20, the spread of the malware had dense sites of infection on five continents.

The local merged with the global, however, in ways difficult to map:  the maps of real-time tracking of the spread of the worm across a grey, global map made it seem totally removed from human actors, in hopes to capture the speed by which the worm managed to rapidly to spread laterally across systems, using an onslaught of randomly generated IP addresses as a way to target an ever-proliferating range of hard drives through multiplying packets sent to remote hosts, whose own hard drives were hijacked, leaving anonymous-sounding messages of no clear provenance to pop-up on users’ screens, in ways that seem to imitate the “normal” logic of an algorithmic process entertaining the possibility of implicating the user in the encryption of their hard drive or the deletion of necessary valuable files.

 

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The communication of the virus–a biomedical metaphor that seemed particularly unable to offer any diagnostic value, suggesting either the banality of the infection or its nasty spread–was not nosologically helpful, but suggested the virulence of its spread.  The natural history metaphor of the worm–or, better yet, the coinage of the cryptoworm–better expressed the lack of clarity as to its provenance or the seriousness of its damage.  Although subsequent investigations found that the first infections appeared, globally, on computers in India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, according to SophosLabs, the stage was set for a three-pronged global spread–as if in a negative version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, moving from South-East Asia worldwide–that began from 7:44  UTC with such startling rapidity that it will demand detailed unpacking to understand the target or decipher any of the aims that underlay the attack, or the extent of its destructive scope. The spread of the self-proliferating worm was only stopped by the inadvertent discovery in the code of the ransomware of a kill switch, which allowed a security researcher known only as MalwareTech to register a domain name able to slow the spread of the infection in a compromising manner, effectively halting its viral spread.  Despite the rapid proliferation of visualizations of the unprecedented sale of its virulence, in retrospect, it might make sense to ask whether the undifferentiated global nature of the visualization, while stunning, distracted from the malicious operations of its code, and what better metaphors might exist to describe the spread of something dangerously akin to cyberwar.

We only have a few cartographic metaphors to describe the lateral spread of online compromising of computer data and the infiltration of networks, because of the speed with which it spreads challenge human cognition.  Even if it can be schematized in a format that suggest the density of data compromises or the amount of encrypted files, the visualizations offer a limited basis to orient oneself to the seriousness or the danger of these infections, which once they start offer little possibility of stopping their spread.  The later visualizations of the global impact of the release of Wannacry network worm are usefully foreground the rapidity of its spread, and raise the specter of its unstoppability.  But the visualizations of the rapid flare-ups of malware that infect hard drives and encrypt their data may conceal the targeting of instability.  If the spread malware and ransomware have been primarily linked to extortion, the spread of self-propogating cryptoworms cannot only be seen in numbers of systems compromised:  for they are  released and created in order provoke instability, as much as for Bitcoin revenues.  Although theft of data is usually seen as most valuable to the owner of the dataset, the potential interest in ransomware as a service–and much ransomware is now available on the darknet in different forms, suggests a needed growth in cybersecurity.

If ransomware collectively netted about $1 billion during 2016–and stands to become a growth industry of sorts–the latest Petya virus netted but $10,000, although the benefits of the attack might have been much greater–in the form of the disruptions that it creates, often not so clearly racked or visible in the data visualizations of its spread, whose animated explosions suggest its out of control migration across networks as wildly crossing boundaries of state sovereignty, encrypting data on computer systems across space as it travelled along the spines of the internet as if without any destination, as tens of thousands od systems were entered and compromised via ‘back door’ disrupting hospitals in the UK, universities in China, rail in Germany, or car plants in Japan, in ways that were far more easy to track as a systems collapse by locking its victims out of critical data that allowed their continued operation.  The demand for ransom payments to restore apparently stolen data was a screen for the disruption of invasive attack on companies’ computer networks, whose compromising can only start to suggest the infrastructural disruptions they created as they rapidly globally spread, whose apparently anarchic spread revealed the new globalized nature of system vulnerabilities.

 

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wannacry-map

While malware is distinguished by the demand to hold hostage the encrypted files of one’s hard drive, the viral spread of worms targeting systems vulnerabilities can disrupt systems and infrastructure in ways particularly difficult to defend against.  Although the attacks depend on failures to update systems and to preserve retrievable back-ups, the vulnerabilities invite disruptions on a scale only so far imagined in futuristic films.  These apocalyptic scenarios are perpetuated by security firms–and by the video games of the global imaginary that require only greyed out background maps to treat data visualizations as having sufficient complexity if they register the intensity of attacks, even if this only gives cover for the malicious actors who perpetuate their spread.  But the assault on systems by the backdoor vulnerability first discovered by the NSA, in its program for targeting and infiltrating select foreign computer networks, but now for sale on the Dark Web, may only raise the curtain on a far more malicious range of malware, able to backdoor systems that are connected to transportation networks, water treatment plants, traffic systems, credit card systems, banking and airport controlling, far beyond cel phone systems, and able to–as the attack, just before WannaCry plagued web-based systems, compromised IDT Corporation–evade security detection systems.  While regular, complete and restorable systems back-ups may be the only response to ransomware, the possibility of already backdoored systems has lead to fears that the Shadow Brokers group who unleashed the Eternal Blue code from the NSA is a group of Russian-backed cybercriminals, and the hackers who released WannaCry who cyber researchers believe have tied to North Korea, may raise the threshold on cyberwarfare of a scale unheard of in previous years.

“Nothing in the world could take us back/to where we used to be.”  Golan Ben-Omi–who views the analytic skills honed in studying Torah as good training cybersecurity in the Chabad-Lubavitcher community–  Chabad-Lubavitch communities are interested in preserving the integrity of their websites from profane pollution, but are attuned to the dangers of data breaches.  The attack that was made on his company, IDT, by means of an NSA tool with the capacity to penetrate computer systems without tripping alarms–named “DoublePulsar”–enters the kernel of computer systems, or its inner core, to trip the connections between hardware and software that would allow hackers to steal systems credentials in order to compromise systems with far greater impact than earlier breaches and infections, appearing as ransomware, but perpetrating far more serious damage on a system.  The sequential flaring of compromised computer hard drives suggests a landscape that Ben-Omi has been studying for over fifteen years–and believes that the analytical skills honed in the study of Torah will allow his students to analyze.

While we lack the tools to start to map disruptions on such broad scale, the  If the attacks on hard drives that occurred in over one hundred and fifty countries on Friday, May 12, 2017 may have been a case of intentional disruption, but the Petya ransomware attack of July, which successfully targeted the same vulnerabilities, exploited similar vulnerabilities in a potentially more targeted weaponized manner.  Although it “is only code,” the lateral spread across the spines of the internet created fears of impending disaster across the most digitally rooted areas of the world, spreading fears of data disruptions, crashes and infrastructure collapse whose potential won’t be able to be so clearly mapped for quite some time.

The terrain of the crypto worm’s spread is better able to be understood, if not quite familiar.  During the most recent space of malware attacks left most untouched places those farthest from the most unreflective internet-dependent, the map only can suggest the real-life inconveniences that can hardly be captured by the burning flares of yellow-red bursting at spots across the globe at unprecedented velocity.

 

2000px-InternetPenetrationWorldMap.svgGlobal Internet Penetration 2012/Jeff Ogden

 

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Oxford Internet Institute (2011) Data on Internet users and population from World Bank 

 

For while not only communicated–as at first believed–by malicious email attachments, internet links clicked by users whose unreflective response unleash lost data, frozen systems, or looted bank accounts, the spread of ransomware parallels the amazing intensification of net-dependence and systems-based communicative tools, revealed below in the new information ecosystems that have arisen, illustrated in the quite spread of Facebook use over a short amount of time.

 

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The relation between online activity and real-time consequences are difficult to map.

All maps serve to help tell stories, and the intensity of Facebook connections suggest more than a huge time-suck of human lives:  it reveals the increased homogeneity of the systems we use, and the similarity of what we see and read.  But if all maps tell stories, the necessarily partial nature of the dense visualizations of the global disruptiveness of malicious attacks on computer systems seem compromised:  while over-laden to challenge the abilities of viewers to process their content, they only tell the most superficial part of real-time story–the compromising of data–and not the consequences that the widespread collective compromising of hard drives will effect both immediately and in the long run.  And here we get onto thin ice in terms of what can be visualized, and the limits of counting the datasets of the corruptions of computers or systems, and the difficulty of counting beyond the density of compromised hard drives to the real-world implications of systems’ collapse.  One can only start to imagine the implications of such collapse in maps contracting the real-time compromises of computer systems, in ways that reveal the global nature of an infectious spread of malware, but also obscure the different places that might be targets of weaponized malware attacks.

 

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What we can track is the most immediate end-product of the malicious attack, but it offers few clues to interpret the basis for the attack or indeed the different scale of its real-time long-term consequences.

The visualizations track an almost near-inevitable progress of red flares in internet-dependent hubs that appear to overwhelm viewers with their over-laden information in ways that run the risk of obscuring any sense of human agency–or intent–as if to track the spread of a virus across a system that lacks internal logic of its own.  The intensity of attacks on computer networks tracked from the Wannacry ransomware showed the astoundingly rapid spread of the infectious cryptoworm that caused the attacks.  But it presented them as if they were in fact geographically localized, but the disruptions were purged of any explanatory context, geopolitical or other.  For the inevitability of the spread of malware that the images provoke–and the fears of the unstoppability of further crypto worms–may obscure the dangers of their weaponization.  If the launching of cyberthreats is often depicted as a real-time war by cybersecurity firms as Norse–

 

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–we may be increasingly in need of mapping the intersection of such live attacks on data and their real-life consequences beyond the compromising of datasets.

We  were recently warned how the expansion of malware and ransomware would soon propagate over networks in more virulent ways.  Earlier worms that infected hard drives as Conficker in 2008 and SQL Slammer back in 2003 or SamSam, spotted in 2016, offer but “a harbinger of a new wave of more malicious, tenacious and costly ransomware to come,” of even greater scale, warned Joe Marshall of Cisco Talos, with “bigger payouts.”  Marshall warned of the greater goals of hackers to infect networks, and his warnings might be augmented by suggesting the dangers of hackers working with governments to use malicious code to “cast a wider net” through self-propagating crypto worms able to laterally traverse  huge corporate networks as tools by which to target nations–and national infrastructure–in ways that the fear of network intrusion have only begun to come to terms.  When Marshall and his co-author Craig Williams noted in 2016 that the rise of ransomeware was an “ever-growing problem” that will involve greater payments to restore databases in Ransomware: Past, Present and Future with greater “intrusive capabilities,” with the repurposing of network vulnerabilities, on a massive scale, presumably including the targeting of entire systems.  The maps of data encryptions and corruptions that WannaCry caused worldwide served to capture these fears, and their broadly trans-national consequences; the trans-national nature of such a strike on hard drives may well obscure and conceal the strikes and intentions of other malicious actors.  Although some believe payment the easiest option to retrieve data, as the worms are developed that target vulnerabilities in systems, they will potentially be able to compromise targeted banking, transportation, and emergency infrastructures.

Do visualizations of the immediate fears of the spread of one virus conceal concerns of the weaponization of such internet-born infections on specific targets and nations, despite the seemingly unplanned ubiquity of their spread across interlinked systems?  Despite their shock, such visualizations of the intensity of compromised systems, often echoing hubs of internet service, raise pressing questions about how to map the operations and actors behind them that are far more complicated to process fully–and lie off of the map.

 

1. Viewing visualizations of such rapidly spreading worms that compromised computers on a global scale, one wants to be able to peel away layers of the visualization, to reveal, as layers of an onion, the networks along which the cryptoworm laterally spread and the extent of disruptions that its spread caused.  For the scale of the disruptions, and the intent of the hackers or those who launched the malicious code, may only be revealed in a more localized map of the sorts of destabilization that cryptoworms might produce.  While leaving us to wonder at the unprecedented scale of their recent spread over a few hours or minutes, the visualizations take geographical space as their primary register, blank background maps bleached of underlying history, may make them all the more misleading and difficult to read, as they are removed from human agency and context, and treated as an artifact of the spread of the reliance of increasing multinationals on internet services and web-based networks.

Differences in online activity are far less lopsided across geographic space than in previous years, as shown by the Oxford Internet Institute by a cartogram warping of global space showing the relative density of online activity by 2013 data, in ways that allow the broader targeting of systems to conceal a malicious attack on a country.

 

World Online 2013Percentage online OIL

 

–which might also  be read as a record of the increased vulnerability of specific areas, and the systems vulnerabilities might offer to compromise local infrastructure, and start to focus on the implications for those places.  Doing so would consider the growing intersections between The Real World and the internet in a complex social continuum, where stability can be disrupted at select nodes more dependent on how worlds of finance, banking, shipping, health, and traffic are increasingly interlinked.  Given the inevitable nature of such vulnerabilities, the frequent backing up and smooth restoration of backups are necessary to erase the growing threats not only of malware or ransomware, but the disruptions of critical infrastructure future attacks might allow.

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