Category Archives: data visualizations

The Consequences of Over-Crowding our Country with Factory Farms

Questions of scale, distribution, and crowding are increasingly central to mapping and data visualizations.  The increasingly troubling geographical crowding of factory farms in the country constitute a cautionary reminder of our shifting relation to the production of food–and the perils not only of concentrating most livestock in inhumanely crowded conditions, but concentrating our farmlands at a physical remove from most populations.

By a perverse twist in the logic of economic conditions, the unprecedented concentration of farmlands at a remove from populations not only changes our food; the ways we to treat food production come with steep environmental costs.  This post teases out some of the consequences of the transformation of agricultural practices, as intensified application of pesticides to produce the huge quantities of grain that enable industrial-scale ‘farming’ with their own costs.   Despite a renewed culture of small farming in select economies, the remove at which factory farms lie from populations have not only changed our relation to food but created after-effects we have only begun to unpack.

Although the mundane nature of our food supply is rarely so explicitly tied with the anthropocene–a topic especially in vogue, but usually comparison with the carbon footprint or petroleum products.  Yet the density of factory farms in America has left inroads in the landscape that seem truly difficult to erase, from the growing number of “food miles” that much meat now travels to processing plants to reach consumers in restaurants and supermarkets, to the damage that technologies of over-fertilization and pesticide-use.  The shifting landscape of farming, or of big agra, creates a dense concentration of farms in the United States–a post-modern geography that is revealed in the disquieting distrubution that Chris Kirk of Slate created in a web-based map that calls to attention the select space in which American farmers/1,000 people lie–a map that implies the growing distance of most farmers from markets of food, and indeed the concentration of areas where farmers constitute a sizable share of the population.

Farmers:100 eah state

Chris Kirk

Even more striking, perhaps, is the limited range of locations where the production of crops retains greatest value.

Crop Value

The consequences of this quite uneven distribution will be increasingly significant.  Indeed, the greatest environment impact of varied foods are most easily measured by the distances food takes to reaching consumers, the growing “food mileage” fostered by factory farms located in landlocked regions of the country are one of the most strikingly inefficient ways of delivering food–and provide one of the best indices of the impact of food on our environment.


Robert A. Rhode (2000)

1. The data visualization of the distribution of factory farms included as the header to this post places in evidence the concentration of factory farms in America.  It tells a story of the changing nature of animal husbandry in a world where markets have become dissociated from agricultural production–and suggests an absence of attention to the origins of most meat, and the redrawing of husbandry, as well as the redrawing of cropland, far from centers of densest inhabitation, where food-miles are further expanded than in any other era of human history–with indelible consequences for the human diet.

For the intensity of the concentration of factory farms in America is emblematic a strange but powerful illustration of economic disequilibria, where expanding farms have rendered independent farming barely profitable, and driven farmers to become technology-happy in their purchase of new tools of pasturing that almost erase the need for pasture.  The business model that has replaced crop rotation, and open fields of pasture, has not erased the differences between the farming of cattle, pigs, and chickens, but dramatically decreased them to create a terribly terrifying sort of man-made experiment that may not be only waiting to occur.

Increasingly, technologies of mass-farming livestock are not only removed from pasturing, but adopted in places increasingly removed from centers of population, and depending on transportation networks of their own to arrive at consumers in their less-than-fresh state.  The turn toward a dense clustering of factory farms offers a fairly terrifying view of the marginalization of the space where pastured animals dwell–and, of course, chickens have it hardest, both given their size and manipulatable conditions.  The remove of current conditions from sustainable roaming and feeding on nutritious grasses may be ironic, given the clustering of factory farms in many areas of the Midwest, but they are particularly torturous to livestock–animals are increasingly raised with limited access to sunlight, fresh air, or open space–and indeed consumers, as such farming techniques increasingly necessitate antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease from high-grain diets that are far less healthy for livestock.

The influence of such a concentration of farms seems to leave an increasingly indelible footprint on our environment.  The arrival of increasing anthropogenic agricultural landscapes reflects the growing congestion of farmlands–but in a sense begins from the poor stewardship of the land in which the free market has led to a wholesale promotion of the inhumane and unhealthy crowding of a concentration of over-fertilized farms in the so-called heartland of the midwest, a deep distortion that the recent funding for the Farm Bill perpetuates in ways that make it seem difficult to turn back the page on the density of factory farms in many states–and the consequent degradation of the surrounding lands and the environments that factory farms pollute.  Mapping factory farms is not only about communicating the incredible scale of current-day farming, but the increasingly indelible traces that they leave on the land by their use of broadly cast nitrogen-rich fertilizer, neonicotinoid insecticides and other herbicides, for which farm workers–or handlers of produce–are rarely provided any protection.

And although interactive maps have yet to develop adequate synesthetic models to render the human sense of smell, the concentrations of factory farms demand models of integrating interactive with scratch-and-sniff techniques to adequately indicate the 13.8 billion cubic feet of waste factory farms collectively generate, in greater excess of what the land can absorb or incorporate–at considerable danger to polluting drinking water and air, since factory farms fail to use manure to fertilize in the manner that farms did in the past, as well as one of the greatest sources of the release of methane gas.  Neil Gaiman’s Wednesday recently ruefully remarked “San Francisco isn’t the same country as [the imagined town of] Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis,” despite “certain cultural signifiers [like] money, a federal government, entertainment” that perpetuate the illusion of one country like money, television, and McDonald’s.

The area occupied by factory farms suggest something of an actual country within the country, apparently insulated from the population at large, but plays with different rules that stand in increasing danger of contaminating the world from which it appears removed.  For maps suggest significant evidence that the arrival of the anthropocene may lie in the growing disequilibria of ecosystems that have grew up around unnaturally dense concentrations of factory farms.

2. The clustering of factory farms charts an ever-expanding distance between food production and consumption, and a deep re-understanding of man’s relation to the environment.  The alarming scale at which we have come to produce food has entailed a warping of agrarian environments that produce a limited range of foods on ever-increasing scale.  Those pockets of the deepest red–the instinctual signifier of danger–marks an extreme congestion of the landscape with factory farms for livestock and intensive agriculture grown in a scale beyond bulk, whose density carries clear costs.  For with over nine million land animals killed each year in order to produce food for Americans in 2014, factory farms have reached a scale and concentration rarely dreamed of, and the scale of its farming has provoked unfamiliar environmental effects:   the amount of animal manure produced in expanding factory farms in the United States have come to produce the fastest growing source of the greenhouse gas methane in the US since 2007–and as well as producing animal waste, stream harmful quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter.  And their geographic concentration by 2012, largely in an areas of cheap land, and landlocked states, removes them from the possibility of any transport save trucking–


Distributions like the above show the concentration of such “factory farms” across the lower forty-eight states as recently as 2012 demand scrutiny as an object-lesson of a post-industrial agrarian age, whose pockets of deep red or crimson sharply contrasting with wan yellow expanses where factory farms are absent from the landscape.

The distribution demands comparison with a more finely grained map showing the declining number of smaller farms. But its totality confronts viewers with the increasing saturation of pockets of the farms cape in such indelible reds to force us to ask not only about the desirability of producing food so intensively in select regions, but to try to investigate the steep consequences, costs and effects of the colonization of the farmscape by radically intensive factory farms, dedicated to cultivating mono-crops on a far greater economy of scale (and subsidization) than was previously imagined possible. The result is to create a farmscape more increasingly removed from consumers.  For the industry of agriculture–either in the form of crops or animal pasturage–contrasts sharply to the very notion of farm stewardship, and indeed is situated at a greater remove from the most densely inhabited land.


Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Dept of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

Whether or not it is still true that, as Gertrude Stein once said in her Geographical History of America, that “in the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” there are surely a deeper concentration more farms built to “feed” Americans than anywhere else.  By using a range of data visualizations, this post poses questions of how we can best orient ourselves to the increasing crowding of the national farmscape with monocultures that the monopolies of farming Big Agra has introduced.  It then turns to consider the increasingly steep consequences and costs that they pose in our society of laws.

For the drastic dependence on synthetic fertilizers–which now consume a fifth of fossils fuel use, and allow new economies of scale of monocultures releasing farms from a diversity of crops, at the same time that their production was increasingly subsidized, freeing them from the market.  The consolidation and concentration of food-production are enabled by large-scale production freed from sales at the marketplace, doubling of the size of the average farm, while decreasing farms have decreased from 7 million in the 1930s to almost 2 million today, based on an increased ability of production that diminished the nutritional value of produce; animals that are fed almost entirely on a diet of corn produce meat far higher in saturated fats.  The  toxic cocktail of such distorted land-use is complicated even more by the regular release from factory farms of nitrogen and pesticides into the environment posing problems from oxygenic depletion to drastic decreases in local species’ fertility:  the factory farm, liberated from biological constraints of earlier times, has grown to meet radically new economies of scale.

Rather than grow corn, squash, peas, pumpkin, parsnips, carrots or onions, the landscape of the factory farm is focussed on corn–the over-subsidized as the dominant mono-crop grown across the perpetual harvests of over-farmed fertilized lands.

2002 Factory Farm All Map USA

legend factory famrsFactory Farms in the United States, 2002/Food & Water Watch, analysis of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

By adopts a crude sort of map algebra comparing data visualizations, this post juxtaposes a range of datamaps that raise pressing questions about such steep levels of concentration of factory farms, and the severity the extreme crowding of space by factory farms that is scarily demonstrated in the above data vis.  While they are able to go unnoticed, the proximity of small blue dots that designate “meat plants” in the data vis above seem worthy of special note, both because of the considerable geographical remove of such plants that “feed” much of the nation and the clear bands on which they are situated.  Eyeballing these maps of the colonization of much of the midwest, and a density of farming that places a demand on overwatering–and okverfertilizing–select regions, in ways that put an increased premium on long-distance trucking, unfreeze farm products, and huge storage houses.  The concentration of factory farms for hogs, for example, creates an intensity and crowding that cannot be conceived as healthy–where sows pumped nurse piglets in gestation crates, as breeding machines, before being led to the slaughterhouse.



The concentration of hog farms is abstractly rendered in a map, but their increasing intensity is elegantly communicated to viewers of the several interactive visualizations Food & Water Watch devised from GIS data of USDA agrarian censuses from 2002 to 2012:

hogs 2002

Hogs 2012

Food and Water Watch

For such livestock and poultry factory farms, largely out of public view, are quite aptly characterized as concentration camps for animals, which “aren’t farms at all”, and the dangers of such a segregation of such segregation of factory farms, which aim to ban observation by journalists or observers.  Recent attempts to ban observers from reporting on the practices and conditions in farms run by corporations like Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and Borden–“Ag-Gag” laws–make the mapping of such farms more compelling.  Despite the spate of state legislators seeking to tar the observers of the animal factory as guilty of “an act of terrorism,” their mapping far more necessary. For the mapping of the factory farm and the pesticides and fertilizers they spew provides the best way to embody crises otherwise difficult to comprehend from antibacterial resistance to colony-collapse disorder, which have resulted in a decline of 40-50% of bees at farms in recent years that may be due to the increasing use of neonicotinoid insecticides and pesticides that may reduce the homing abilities of bees, and compromise their nervous systems–





–to deeply uneven distributions of epidemiological imbalances, examined in detail at the end of this post.  The density of the colonization of farmlands with factory farms and commercial crops provides a way to embody such complex patterns of causation–even if they hardly resolve the problems they pose.

Such severe environmental imbalances are the product of the concentration of agricultural practices that are increasingly removed form a sense of land-stewardship. The severity of the imbalance created both by the isolation of farms from the landscape and the poor practices adopted by Big Agra without adequate oversight is problematic.  The effective cordoning off of such spots as “off the map” make it important to take stock of their distribution, and the distortions created by their economies of scale–economies that both diminish foods’ nutritive value, endanger farm workers and regions, and make it difficult to quantify environment costs and consequences where they exist.


3.  Over-use of the “anthropocene” inevitably provokes sighs of deep resignation.  But it is rarely tied to the production of food or the bloating of farms beyond a responsible stewardship of th eland.  Even if numbering is knowledge, the quite extreme quantitative density and spread of factory farms across what remains of the arable expanse of the central states suggests a shift in our relation to the land from which there is no clear turning back:  the data visualization in the header to this post may only scratch the surface of an ill-fated agrarian revolution that entails a shifted relation to the land. This data reveals not only a deep distancing from farmed land, but a change in how things grow and live in the land, and how people work the land.  The remove of agribusiness from policies of land management is apparent not only in the changing national farmscape, as well as the broad potential for agrarian mismanagement that the recent proliferation of unmonitored factory farms represent in the United States–where they seem something like the perverse inversion of the yeoman farmer ideal.

For the dramatically increasing density of factory farms in focussed geographic locations have wreaked systemic changes in ecosystems so deeply devastating to be difficult to map in quantifiable or quantitative terms.  Indeed, one would be challenged to isolate the very indices by which such devastation might be meaningfully measured or capture the shifts in landscapes of food production of which they are among the most extreme, so removed are they from notions of captivation and husbandry of the recent past, and so widely have they changed not only the produce–GMO or not–and the livestock and animals that are maintained for slaughter.  The radically changed relation to the land.  Viewed in aggregate, the contours of an almost unbridled presence of Big Agra across specific states offer a striking landscape–and farmscape–that profits from the continued availability of groundwater and aquifers.  The consequences of intensive raising of livestock and drastic consequences of agricultural runoff whose abysmal results is readily revealed in other maps.

What notion of the custodial relation to the most intensively farmed regions If the notion of “rewilding” the landscapes of industrialized nations is a response to the growth of the anthropocene, the factory farm epitomizes an expansion of anthropogenic pollutants that have shifted the environmental landscape of developed countries, and come with significant human costs.  A growing range of GIS data visualizations that can be seen as symptomatic of an age increasingly obese with data–and difficult to process let alone comprehend, as navigating robust data streams quickly leads to a sense of drowning and disempowerment, the ability to distance oneself from the changing landscapes created by the increased intensity of factory farming provides the possibility of regaining a sense of critical perspective on the anthropogenic changes in the ecosystems of agricultural life.  The density of the aggregation of factory farms reveal an imbalance due to lack of clear restrictions on the intensity of their development, the excavation of whose consequences call for more careful comparison to other data maps. To be sure, the lack of restrictions on such intensive farming reflects, in a global context of aquifer depletion, provided by researchers at UC Irvine with NASA data, profiting from the continued supply of groundwater in the central states–


Global Water Storage 2003-13

legend UC Irvine


and the peculiarity of that abundance in a global context, which has created a particularly warped perspective on the feasibility of continuing to water such large-scale farms.

The retro maps of annual rainfall in the US produced by Flowing Data reveals, based on NWS data, how weather patterns in 2013 facilitated the sort of spatial distortions in the farmscape that the map in the header documents.



But the intensity of the landscape of factory farms that has been fashioned by Big Agra facilitated a huge rise in GMO crops, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics that suggest the systemic unhealthiness in the ecosystems that result.


4.  The quite rapidly shifting nature of the landscape of farming that has emerged in recent years, when factory farms have gained an unheard of density in many regions that signal a radically changed relation to food, suggests a new horizon of the anthropocene that demands excavation as an infographic that depicts our shifting relation to how Americans inhabit terrestrial expanse–and the risks we run in doing so.


Big Agra Maplegend factory famrs


The landscape of farmlands Big Agra has colonized and settled reflects a shift in the notion of land-use tied to globalization.  Even as glob tied that have freed humans from their dependence on local or regional ecosystems, the extent of alienation form an agricultural landscapes that have occurred in the past twenty years, and even over the last ten.

For the map reveals a profound super-personal alienation and remove from the farmed landscape, and remove from an ever-increasing density of farmland truly “extreme” in its narrowing of concentration on the potentialities of abundance and perverse privileging of an artificially induced economic abundance of select regions of cattle raising, dairy farming, hog farming, and chicken breeding that cannot be healthy or sustainable as forms of stewardship.  In a time when McDonald’s promises us artisan grilled chicken of a “stringy interior” distinguished by a “somewhat chewy texture” and “fake butter flavor,” the broader relation of most consumers to the meat that they eat seems distinctly challenged.

Even if the clustering darkest crimson that denote an extreme density of factory farming happens to aptly indicate the masking of an emotional attachment to place–more central a premise of factory farms than economic demand–the deep unsustainable nature of the density of factory farming is only scratched in the data visualization that is the header to this post.  For the deepest reds blanketing central states (and the Central and Imperial Valleys of the western states, as well as clear concentrations of crimson in pockets of North Carolina, Florida, western New York and the northwest) suggest scars that may prevent us from recognizing the places in a map that we might otherwise have recognized or know.  The illusion of economic security is in danger of erasing emotional attachments to place, in ways that have only begun to be appreciated or understood.

Such strikingly dense concentrations of factory farms in such regional pockets–indeed, their confounding resilience–is all to evident in the data visualizations that Food and Water Watch has carefully compiled from agricultural censuses over the past decade.  The recent multi-media assemblage Factory Farm Nation–an evident reference to “Fast Food Nation,” whose commercial injunction to overeat, “supersize it,” placed the blame squarely on the business of purveyors of easy meals that were sold at illusionistically cheap prices, without asking about their future health costs.  Yet what of the rewriting of agriculture that has concentrated dense sites of overfarming into our national landscape, as if to meet the nation’s ever-expanding and insatiable taste for meat?  Far from a pastoral landscape, the zones of intensive farming of subsidized monocrops as corn, soy or sorghum so often encouraged by subsidies and so readily converted to a plentiful source of animal feed.

The collective distribution of factory farms spread across the country are not so surprisingly concentrated in its Central Zone.  But the business model has taken seed in regions from California to Washington and Idaho, and to Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina–as of 2012, the concentration of both the largest farms and the centers of meat processing were increasingly concentrated not only from decades past, but even over the past ten years, as large regions of deep red–marking extreme concentrations of factory farms–come to overwhelm large regions and specific economies, and be absent from other regions removed from agribusiness.

The spread of factory farming, facilitated both by state subsidies and GMO crops, is partly premised on the economic transformation of agriculture.  Less visible are its deeply deleterious environmental consequences and ecological effects–as well as create an increasingly unhealthy food chains–and systems of production that seem forcefully remove the consumer from the farm and manufacturing of food that arrives in most supermarkets across much of America.


Big Agra Map

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

5.  What makes the concentration of large farms so troubling is both the remove of food from markets and the conditions farming create–from both slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, shown here by asterisks, and the sacrificing of freshness (and nutritive value) in the over-production of such megacrops.  The concentration of farms pose challenges to the survival of small-scale farming outside very select economic niches, from parts of California, like Silicon Valley, to parts of New England and Vermont–and the steep challenges small farms face from Big Agra even in these areas.  But they depend on the increasing dependency of farmers on the technologies of farming on which Big Agra depends, both from standardized resistant seeds and pesticides to machinery.

The formidable concentration of cattle farming–a quintessential staple of factory farming–reflects the total distribution in 2012 of factory farms in the country, and even more intensely concentrated in the economies of the midwest,

Factory Farms: Cattle

legend factory famrs

With dairy farmers almost living in a somewhat greater variety of other states as of 2012:

Factory Farm Dairy 2012

legend factory famrs

and hog-farming occupying a similarly concentrated, if further contracted, set of select sites largely in the central states:

hog farming

legend factory famrs

The incredible intensity of carmine clusterings revealed in the data visualization above had profoundly changed from 2002, when the agrarian landscape was marked by a robust density of relatively high factory farms, but with fewer extreme concentrations, and an apparent greater range of meat-packing plants–

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

and even from the levels of large factory farms across the nation in 2007–

2007 Factory Farm Map Concentration

legend factory famrs

The state of Iowa appears as a uniform red that render its borders indistinct:


Or the uniform red spread across similar farming states that border the Mississippi, which has helped create one of the largest hypoxic site in the world within the Gulf of Mexico, which absorbs the agricultural runoff emptying from the Mississippi River:

midwest factory famrs

The shift in the notion of a farm is suggested by the concentration in bordering regions of the apparatus of farming–including the threat of resistant strains of bacteria, large feed lots, and almost insoluble problems of the disposal of animal waste.


The parallel radical contraction of regions of chicken-meat “farming”–the raising of “broilers”–suggests an unwarranted density of what was once the most familiar of barnyard animals, and now seem to serve much of the country from select areas of megafarms in the southern states, as well as parts of Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin and Washington, and a range of factory farms along the Mississippi in 2012, that suggest a landscape little changed from 1997, if even more localized:

chicken breeding

What happened to effect such a change save weak agricultural rules and opportunistic farm policies?  One can see a notable consolidation of those “farms” that raise “broilers”–chickens destined for cooking–during the decade and a half between 1997 and 2012, with a rising density of factory farms and the industrialization of poultry farming.

broilers 1997

broilers 2012


6.  The rapid rise of large-scale supplies of feed generate steep risks.  Their expansion was doubtless encouraged by the subsidization of ever-larger farms that allowed geographic concentration of intense factory farming in the central states, the densest clustering of centers of meat-packing.  Fertilizing practices are a part of the picture of creating large feed lots that are in need of better mapping, and provide the possibility of the supersizing of farms across America together with the expansion of the application of herbicides–as much as pesticides.  Such new increasingly agricultural practices characterize most factory farms in America.

A combination of practices such as no-till agriculture, large feed lots, mono crops, and over-fertilized lands are the enabling factors, as much as the consequences, of the spread of the complexes of factory farms across so much of the agricultural landscape of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent Agricultural Census.

How these practices encourage the unhealthy degrees of concentration of factory farms raising animals for slaughter suggest not only hugely increased animal suffering.  The increase of some 20% of livestock that are raised in large factory farms created, for example, a huge amount of manure–some thirteen times that produced by the human population of the United States–that pose a risk to local ecologies.  It also courts the steep risk of effectively creating reservoirs of antibiotic resistant bacteria, not only in specific regions, but in the meat that arrives on one’s table or in restaurants, and provokes the evolution of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics that are regularly fed at low dosages to all livestock–effectively increasing the threat food-born pathogens that industry has minimized.  Indeed, the mapping of AR bacteria across the United States (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) have begun to be mapped themselves, although the data and certainty of the distributions mapped interactively by Extending the Cure based on particularly resistant infections has created a distribution that demands to be further refined in future years–but have already shown a huge rise over time.



Indeed, the extreme density of such factory farms in areas such as Iowa and Nebraska, whose almost undifferentiated terrain of deep red is studded with staggered meat-packing plants that serve a far greater area, preoccupy–as the steady rise of resistant antibiotic strains of bacteria across our national space, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and the huge expenditures of health care that both rises threaten to bequeath.  If increasingly sweeping the more developed world, related to both different standards of eating and to the marketing of anti-herbicides, as well as to problems in the recycling of wastewater, the resistance of antimicrobial bacterial strains pose a range of immense health risks–and a current health care cost in the United States that is estimated at 21-34 billion dollars a year, and some 100,000 deaths.

Although the diffusion of AR bacteria are to a large extent dependent on meat consumption, as much as actual locations of factory farms, the distribution of deep crimson in the central states and north and southwest offer an image of disturbing trends that demands to be excavated for its consequences, as well as contemplated for its intensity.  (They parallel the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds.)

This seems to mirror both the extreme concentration of factory farms evident in the central states, as seen above in the case of Iowa,


midwest factory famrs

or pockets of the American South,

Southern States

legend factory famrs

These images trace the increasing remove discrete stretches of farmlands from the bulk of the population, if not an actual alienation of farmlands as the raising and butchering of meat migrates into controlled settings where antibiotic-resistant (AR) bacteria flourish.  Resistant strains of staph are a problem worldwide, as the below prevalence map reveals, and Methicillin-resistant bacteria have become common across many of the regions consuming factory-farm raised poultry.



Registered incidence of MRSA in human blood (2008), Wikimedia

But it is one in which the United States remains in the lead–and far ahead of Mexico and especially far ahead of Canada, our neighbors to the north, where one finds anti resistant strains to be a fifth of the prevalence of the US:


–and which seems concentrate din the eastern southern states, where it seems predominantly communicated in meat:


Such intensive areas of factory farming are more directly tied in the United States due to the unique geography of intensive farming promoted by Big Agra, the Sisyphean twin of the factory farm.


7.  Agribusiness is the not-too-silent twin of the factory farm, generating the copious abundance of cheap feed that is the bread and butter of factory farm feed lots–the shortsighted widespread use of herbicides Big Agra increasingly adopts, with minimal federal oversight, has facilitated the suppressing of factory farms of similar short-sighted agricultural practices and the poor stewardship of the land they reveal.  Even as the existing studies by the WHO’s anti-cancer arm found “sufficient evidence” that the herbicide glyphosate causes cancer in non-human animals, and “limited evidence” of its causation of chromosomal damage and kidney disease in humans, the Monsanto produced pesticide was reclassified by the EPA with the result of allowing its increased use within the food chain, much as it had earlier shifted the herbicide’s classification as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity”–a shift of 180 degrees–after Monsanto petitioned to increase the allowable amount of the herbicide that in 2001 was already the most-used agricultural herbicide–and constituted 74% of the herbicides farmers used in California in 2012–having increased some 65% in commercial agriculture during the previous decade.

While the widespread uses of such herbicides are not mapped and readily measured with the relative precision and exactitude of factory farms, whose census offers a projection of the estimated extent of the pounds of pesticide used in the US in different states, and indeed an estimated projection of the diffusion of their residue, that demand reflection.  The striking spread of Atrazine, among the deadliest herbicide that is most concentrated in the groundwater of the US, across agricultural states may reflect its use on corn.  But the subsidization of corn and sorghum have so facilitated a dense concentration of sites of cattle feed–some 80 million pounds were used in American crops in 2014, with a rather striking geographical concentration–that the demands to produce corn in abundance for ready markets has led to a concentration of corn-growing and a concentration of Atrazine application that seems to have changed the groundwater supplies of areas of the United States’ most abundant aquifers:



The extremely high concentration of the particularly pernicious pesticide that has been so aggressively marketed by Syngenta is not only dumped in the ground in massive amounts in the ground.  But its traces persist in rivers and streams in 2007 in ways that reflect the expanding scope of its use in agricultural lands including more than half of all corn acreage–two-thirds of sorghum acreage; and up to 90 percent of sugar cane acreage in some states, creating run-off that by agricultural overflow that quite perceptibly pollutes the ambient waters–where it has, Professor Tyrone Hayes has shown, apparently creating sexual abnormalities in amphibian life–conclusively enough for Syngenta to pay $105 million to reimburse cities for the cost of implementing water filtration systems to remove Atrazine from drinking water in 2012 to conclude a class action lawsuit, and a multimillion dollar campaign aimed at discrediting scientists suggesting its the dangers of biological mutation its residues have been compellingly argued to cause.  Only long after the EPA had banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in homes due its close correlation to ADHD, reduced IQ, and poor cognitive development, the same pesticide was widely used in the Central Valley of California on crops of almonds, walnuts, oranges and alfalfa, ignoring the clear dangers that it poses to farm-workers and in run-off, even though the Pesticide Action Network urged an immediate and complete ban to protect agricultural workers and rural communities. The recent plan to restrict the pesticide’s use in farms came against arguments of its manufacturer, Dow Agrosciences, that its presence in runoff has a “negligible” effect, and noting that it is approved for use in some eight-eight other countries.

The spread of Atrazine in streams and waters that has been mapped on the basis of its agricultural use–if hypothetical and based on modeling–indicates the range of its potential spread into the regional groundwater of much of America.




The EPA has unsurprisingly found markedly high concentration in the surface water of those states where Atrazine is applied in greatest abundance, but a notably increased presence of Atrazine in groundwater as well:


Atrazine in Crops:Water EPA for Surface and Ground


Are the evident traces of herbicides such as Atrazine that seem evident in the environment similarly passed on through meats from nearby factory farms–and are they indicative of the sorts of attitudes to the environment that factory farming creates?  Indeed, a clear varying of the presence of the pesticide in drinking water is registered in those summer months of greatest runoff of water into the environment in a farming state such as Iowa–

Atrazine Levels Reflect Planting Season in Iowa

–and NRDC has found remarkable correlations in the pesticide’s concentration in watersheds and Public Water Systems that provide drinking water that reflect its greater presence in surface water, and cannot but raise eyebrows as to the changing quality of water and heath of inhabitants of such regions:  even though the high spikes of Atrazine in ground water during the months of June and July, when plants are presumably given the highest doses to keep pests off, the lower national averages measured by the EPA allows such unhealthy levels to exist during a few month every year, although at substantial risk to nearby communities.

The picture of water systems and watersheds with hold high concentrations of the pesticide in both “raw” and “finished” water was measured in 2015, showing greater local concentrations in Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois, as well Iowa, which suggests the spread of the pesticide’s contamination of regional drinking water supplies.

Atrazine in Stream Water

NRDC (map data from 2015)

IA [Converted] EDIT.eps

There is the sense that a different set of standards has occurred in exposure to health risks in select parts of the nation that reflect the intense application of pesticides like Atrazine in those regions that tolerate factory farms.

The strikingly intense and expansive use of the most popular herbicide Paraquat in crops from corn to sorghum to tubers and as well to sugar–leaves a considerable residue on crops, even if it is designed mostly to eliminate weeds and other plants.  After being both notoriously and extensively sprayed from the air by helicopters in the late 1970s on marijuana and opium fields in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, in a historical roll-out of the pesticide, it has gained wide sales–but also tied to liver, lung, and kidney failure, it has made a huge comeback with the rise of no-till farming at many large farms, broadly distributed across the nation.  Also marketed and produced by Syngenta, the corporation has spent considerable funds to dissociate from studies that suggested the close ties of its residues to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s disease.


And the remarkable promotion and rise of the agricultural use of Glyphosate–the most popular herbicide across the country–and its residual effects tells a similar story. From 2009 to 2012, is estimated agricultural use was particularly prominent across California’s Central Valley, but expanded across the big farming states of the midwest and eastern seaboard in ways that echoes the distribution of large factory farms.


Untitled 5Glyphosate high 2012

8.  A strikingly similar estimated distribution of the potentially devastating neonicotinoid Imidacloprid–believed a major factor in apiary colony collapse disorder–is scarily similar, if not even more widespread geographically–and has only grown.



The most common herbicide in America, whose application pretty much mirrors the disposition of agricultural lands in the country, was long ago approved by the EPA, the potential carcinogen glyphosate has been used without the degree of harsh criticism that use of Atrazine faced after repeated studies indicated its potentially debilitating deformities on wildlife. Yet increasing ties of the herbicide to autism have been terrifying–and led Stephanie Seneff to the recent prediction that half of American kids will be autistic by 2025, and the Environmental Working Group to create a quite sophisticated ESRI interactive map designed to help parents learn whether children’s schools lie within zones where glyphosate is sprayed, and reveal the particular concentration of pesticides in close proximity to schools across the central US and Mississippi.

elementary schoolsEstimated Glyphosate Application/Environmental Working Group/

EWR legend

The probability that the non-selective herbicide, marketed since 1992 under the trade names designed to appeal to a sense of security–like Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster, actually allows residues to accumulate with carcinogenic effects in produce like soybeans and wheat has been suppressed, despite the mapping of its potential effects.  This may especially have grown Monsanto has introduced GMO glyphosene-resistant crops–greatly expanding the market of an herbicide still widely marketed at Walgreens and other stores, and used in residential areas as well as in agricultural sites.


8.  The rapid rise of GMO crops has encouraged the ascendancy of Roundup, now patented by Monsanto, which has replaced Atrazine.  As the effectiveness of atrazine declined, and since many crops no longer tolerate glyphosate, the chemical prohibits the rotation of crops once a common agrarian practice, and suggests a new landscape of over intensive farming, which in corporates herbicide residues–as well, predictably, as glyphosate-resistant weeds in some thirty-five states.

resistant weeds

As much as we demonize nefarious chemical corporations who are the purveyors of poisonous sprays, from Syngenta to Monsanto, perhaps the true culprits lie in the lack of agricultural regulation, and poor economic planning that allowed the rise of factory farms, where the rise of cheap feed created by large-scale agriculture has generated the not-so-astoundingly parallel rise of feedlots in factory farms, in ways that have changed the landscape by which much food is eaten across the country, encouraging a free market of consolidation of farms, without calculation of its costs.

Increased population in suburban areas, often quite close to farmlands, has increased the risk of exposure to known carcinogens and rates of childhood cancer.  The results of such factory farms and economics of subsidized agriculture has led to an increasing number of schools that lie beside areas where GMO crops are planted, and roundup used, in ways that create considerable risks we haven’t bothered to adequately envision, even if they might be easily foreseen.

Total Schools in States within 1,000 feet of roundupd:GMO corn or soybeans

Well-funded teams of publicists and scientists help the PR machines that are run by firms such as Syngenta have effectively blanketed the media not only to undermine –and even created its own PR groups, spin teams, scientists, and “grassroots” groups–in a malapropistic move apparently oblivious of its own odd choice of terminology for a producer of herbicides–that is dedicated to misinform American consumers.  Such a legacy of promoting agribusiness and factory farms seems a lasting legacy from two Bush administrations that will continue to afflict the country’s landscape in future years, as engines of disinformation distance the meaning of actual debate from the general public.

Based on data that the National Resources Defense Council acquired by a Freedom of Information Act during litigation with the Bush Administration, from the EPA’s “Ecological Watershed Monitoring Program” and “Atrazine Monitoring Program” that they released in August 2009 and from a report on Atrazine contamination in surface and drinking water across the Central United States, the hidden topography of atrazine pollution across the United States reflects the dangers that even low-level pollution in groundwater has created in ways that give a new meaning, if with some symbolic appropriateness, to the much-bandied about notion of what constitute our nation’s “reddest” states.


Indeed, the data on the growth of herbicides and pesticides so central to the spread of agribusiness in America, and the consequent reproduction of oversized factory farms, demands mapping and remapping in terms of the prevalence of cancer and other potentially environmentally-induced genetic mutations, and increased incidence of cancer among the young–especially in regions that border beside farmlands were use of Glyphosate and other herbicides or pesticides has rapidly increased.  One study that mapped potential exposure to carcinogens commented on the rising populations near to farmlands in the agricultural powerhouse of California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of a state known for using a large share of all agricultural pesticides and herbicides in the US–to reveal their increasing proximity to residential settlements.


9.  What are some of the ways of taking stock of the considerable damage of such widespread use of carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic pesticides, both to farm workers, neighbors, and also in the food chain?

While few contractors provide protective clothing or respirators to migrant or local workers, and many use clothing or cotton bandanas that, when washed with family clothing, risk spreading contaminants within a family, the recent creation of adequate protective costumes farm workers can easily don, such as the Seguro Protective Suit, are actually designed to be worn everyday by farm workers who work with fruit and vegetables in California’s Central Valley, lest workers be forced to dispose of or wash clothes separately:  the suit features materials able to repel and absorb airborne pesticides that might otherwise settle on skin or clothes, and prevent them from lodging in the lungs of farm workers who would otherwise be exposed to them.  If many workers bring home high concentrations of pesticides into their home and exposing them to steep risks both of birth defects and genetic mutations–despite protective goggles, chemical gloves, or masks.


The residual presence of pesticides lodged in handkerchiefs and bandanas lack adequate chemical filters and carry carcinogens into the home and belongings; and despite current proposals of the Berkeley Expert Systems Technology Lab, producing or providing workers with adequate protective suiting actually rarely occurs.

10.  The topography of pesticide use is not exactly news.  But the widespread nature of the concentration of factory farms, which approaches terrifying intensity in specific census blocks, seem destined to have an increasing effect on human life.  Despite the lack of acceptance of confirmations of the risk of pesticides like Roundup, due to their corporate production, the diffusion of pesticide use exposes both farm workers and populations to increased medical risk, as well as nearby residents and transportation workers.

The lack of adequate measurement of rising level of risk is shocking.  But its ill effects can be measured and visualized in a recent bevy of maps of causes of hospitalization throughout the state, using data generated by the California Health Care Foundation, to map local variations of operations and disease based on state-wide hospitalizations.  Viewing these maps, striking in themselves, is a chance to perform the simple relational algebra to compares the intensity of distributions of farming with the prevalence of illness that might be termed a mental form of map algebra for California alone, without getting into GIS tools, to observe the otherwise unexplained regional and zonal concentration of illness:  even without subtracting those areas of least farming, a picture emerges, even without the prevalence of farming areas in or around the central valley.

One might profitably run through a list of reasons for the radical local variations in the distribution of hospitalization for hysterectomies,

hysterectomies in California

cases of bilateral mastectomies,

bilateral mastectomy

or gall-bladder removals

Gall Bladder Removal CA

in ways that raise clear and pressing questions about the effects of ambient areas.

The different distribution of operations such as coronary angiographies throughout the state rather reflect the relative availability of diagnostic services in specific areas.

coronary angiography

The practice of such “map algebra” involve, properly speaking, creating relations, as by subtraction, of spatial incidence over a set of cells, in order to reveal relations among two temporally sequential or related (or potentially related) raster datasets to reveal interesting homologies, as these maps of NASA’s Land Surface Temperature in North America of 2014 and 2015:


A similar subtraction of individual cells is less able to reveal so clear a contrast of regional variations, perhaps, in the intensity of pesticides and cancer, or the presence of pesticides with the possible likelihood of cognitive impairment and dementia–by Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, or even of depression, and heightened neurotoxicity especially in the case of Paraquat–would provide a compelling correlation over space and a map that would be difficult to ignore.  One might begin from a negative map of the correlation of diseases to those areas where pesticides are less prevalently used, or a simple ratio between incidence of illnesses in cells correlated to with the prevalence of pesticide use.  In either case, a focus on the increased chance of illnesses in those areas where pesticide use is most intense–and potential carcinogens most intensively applied–demands correlation to hospitalizations as well as to length of chemotherapy treatments.

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Refugee Traffic Scars the Globe’s Surface

Almost any graphic is inadequate to represent the plight of displaced refugees.  The aggregate numbers astound: the sixty countries from which 30,000 people were forced to leave their countries each day over the previous year.  While these numbers reflect only those designated candidates for asylum and refugee status–and do not reflect the extent to which those fleeing from persecution and have expanded so dramatically–the image charts the number of asylum-seekers that grew to over 1.2 million in 2014.  Yet the quantities of those considered for refugee status can hardly be adequately processed, let alone mapped in aggregate–or the recognition of refugee status processed on Europe’s borderlands.  The map of refugee flight in red arcs across a map lacking political frontiers and boundaries seeks to foreground just how frantic the desperate search for pathways to new homes have become, and how wide-ranging these itineraries.  If they seek to provide a sort of negative to the privileged paths of an age of increased air travel and suggest the desperation of forced spatial migration, they silence the actual stories of refugees.

What sort of stories does this simplified map simply omit?  The stories of those journeys are interrupted by death, while they are far smaller, of course remain absent:  the perilous trajectories of individuals fleeing Syria, Iraq, Africa, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan however risk not only their lives, but increasingly their legal status as they undertake huge geographic migrations in search of new homes elsewhere, traveling by boat, on foot, or along paths promised by human traffickers.  The sleek image, despite its attempted accuracy, shows the intensity of itineraries as embossed on the map as if to disfigure the notion of global unity that runs against the very narrative of global unity implicit in a iconic equidistant azimuthal projection centered on the North Pole which emphasized global harmony as World War II was tried to be forgotten, which as the official flag adopted by the United Nations adopted in October, 1947 promoted an image of global unity:



Harrison Polar Map/Official UN Flag

But the problem of effectively mediating the growing plight of stateless and displaced from “hot-spots” across the world poses not only a problem of the geographic imagination, but of the ethics of mapping.  For the aggregate mapping of those deserving or awarded refugee status not only presses the limits of the data visualization, bound to simplify itineraries of refugees far more fragmented and indirect than can be mapped, but that no data visualization can group the individual stories that the sheer numbers of those displaced by conflict and violence are barely possible to comprehend.  Refugee traffic suggests a level of instability difficult to condense in any map:  and is “traffic” not a fatally flawed metaphor, suggesting a possibility of monitoring or policing, bureaucratically inflected, blind to varied reasons for the rapid growth of refugees?

The hot-spots from which those crossing borders were readily recognized as refugees were increasingly focussed on wealthier countries since before World War II, but the growth in those granted humanitarian status as refugees had already been defined around clear epicenters back in 2007, when millions of the population in Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Iran were accorded status, after having crossed borders, as refugees, and large numbers of asylum seekers in the United States, Canada, and Europe had started to grow–the map, which seems an earlier version of the decentered azimuthal projection later chosen by the graphics editor and cartographer at the New York Times, similarly serves to suggest the global nature of a problem largely centered in the Middle East.



The choice of trying to map the data of those declared refugee to show the arcs of their arrival from global hot spots on a decentered azimuthal terrestrial projection aptly maps the crowding of the globally displaced in 2014.  But the choice of transferring the collective itineraries to a global projection–in a sort of perverse mapping of flight paths suggests the most deeply troubling side of global inter-connectedness, and perhaps its deepest source of stress–by scarring the world’s surface in a frenetic criss-cross of arcs.   UNHCR data of the global monitoring of refugees’ origins and points of arrival in new homes served to reveal an aggregate picture of resettlement in “Global Trends in Migration of Refugees” based on the accordance of refugee status, but in doing so erases the complex negotiation of the fate of asylum seekers, as well as the painfulness of the itineraries the globally displaced increasingly suffer.  Is it ethical to hope to draw equivalences of the growing problem those claiming asylum as refugees by showing their arrival along idealized clean arcs?

Are we in danger, moreover, of representing refugees by the designation that western countries who grant them asylum accord them, for lack of complete or adequate data of the dynamics of displacement and mass-migration?

1. The graphic seems apt by rendering a scarred world.  But it also seems an all too cool comment on the violent status quo, in which the number of displaced people raising risks by falling back on a modernist aesthetic that fails to capture the violence of displacement and indeed the placelessness of the refugees:  the distinctive azimuthal projection, whose particular properties orients the world around the common locus of refugees’ eventual destinations, so as to suggest the range of their flights, rendering the range of collective arcs of geographic displacement at a uniform scale.  Although the projection, which echoes the cartographical rendering of a global space in the flag of the United Nations, illustrates the actual global consequences of the heartbreaking tragedy of over fifty million refugees and internally displaced (IDP’s) across the world, their fortunes remain impossible to map, and difficult to visualize.  Indeed, despite the difficulties of mapping those displaced, and problems of protracted displacement that have eroded societies, images often remain far more powerful than maps.


displaced persons


By mapping the aggregate destinations of the displaced by flared arcs, of uniform size, the visualization maps the eventual destinations of refugees, as determined according to the UN’s Refugee Agency, and foregrounds the question of their destination rather than the reasons for their displacement.  The costs of such an omission are considerable.  The question of how to represent displacement, and how to mediate the experience of the refugee, raises questions of how to visualize population within a map.  The record numbers of those forced to flee their homes over the past year raise questions of whether resettlement can ever be enough–and if the tragedy incurred by displacement, without a clear destination and often just beyond the borders of the country one fled, trapped in war zones, or stranded in temporary settlements, aggregate trends of displacement seem oddly removed from refugees’ experience.

For while the smooth arcs of geographic relocation data are compelling, they transform the often desperate flight of refugees by an aesthetics of minimalism that rather reduces the scope of the spatial displacement that the terrifying numbers of persecuted refugees experience, and foregrounds the sites at which the displaced arrive–perhaps to remind us of the distance of the United States’ retention of an annual ceiling of resettling 70,000 refugees–and not the unrepresentable scope of the violence of spatial dislocation and tragedy of searing social disruptions.  The deepest difficulty to represent is the precipitous slide toward poverty, hunger, and poor health care of most refugees, whose arcs of travel are both far from smooth, but so rocky and economically destabilizing that the challenges of orienting oneself to its crisis are indeed immense.  And they only begin to chart the number of internally displaced and causes and scale of displacement–and the lack of political will that protracted displacement and flight have created on the ground, in their abstraction of refugee flows.  For while the distribution of internal displacement challenges one to create a compelling graphic, the dynamics of displacement by the Norwegian Internal Displacement Monitoring Center across some sixty countries seem so difficult to embody–or process–that to demand clearer visualization to comprehend the scope of internal displacement of those who are rarely granted asylum–or are accorded the so desired status of refugees.



In its gesturing to the equidistant azimuthal projection of the United Nations, the visualization of refugee traffic evokes the clear ideals of the UN as an institution in its refusal to privilege a specific geographical centering.


The focus in the visualization on UNHCR data of resettlement emphasizes a narrative of resettlement, even some sixty years after UNHCR first directed global attention to the “World Refugee Year” in 1959, with hopes “to encourage additional opportunities for permanent refugee solutions through voluntary repatriation, resettlement or integration, on a purely humanitarian basis.”  For in showing clean arcs that deliver the displaced, analogously to a frenetic set of flight paths, collapsing the time of one year, the tragedy of the unsettled are oddly ignored.  For although the flared arcs on the projection effectively pose questions to the reader about the impact of refugees’ arrival in Europe and wealthier countries, it shifts the question provocatively from the human rights abuses and disasters which provoke such flight–and ignores the terrifyingly young age of so many refugees, over half of whom are less than eighteen.

In seeking to grasp the scope of statelessness and displacement, and the psychic as well as economic questions of displacement, can’t we do better?


2.  Representing the global crisis of the displaced is by no means simple, and data visualizations are often inadequate to represent the travails of the refugee.  But although the movement of the displaced mirrors what UNHCR determined were the destinations of the displaced in 2014, the minimalist projection of terrestrial expanse oddly and dissonantly removes them from the humanitarian crises that created their displacement:  the countries noted in the terrestrial projection recedes into the background behind bright flared arcs that trace in aggregate the migratory paths refugees actually took in ways almost abstracted from experience–and in ways that may effectively unintentionally serve to diminish their plight by expressing it in an aggregate.  While an alternating focus on Southern Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Burma where many have been forced to flee their homes can afflict the most clear-headed with a temporary case of Attention Deficit Disorder as they puzzle at the multiple crises that convulse refugees to flee, leaving millions of Iraqis (2+), Syrians (3.2+), and Rohyingya to remain stateless, their flight is rarely linear, and the omission of the uncertainty of any refugee’s path or flight is troubling.

If the global visualization illustrates the increased intensity of the problem of displaced refugees over the previous year, even as it tracks the scars that divide it.  By using a set of specific points to another on a globe centered on where the greatest refugee traffic occurred, the data vis represents actual distances to countries of asylum, displaying pathways of asylum refugees took on a map of accurate distances, and traffic of truly global scope.  Although the densely crowded red arcs obscure much of France, Germany, and other sites of destination for the displaced as if to exaggerate an influx of to Europe, they illustrate a growing recognition that the scale of human displacement is a global crisis–as much as a crisis of resettling refugees.

The array of intersecting red arcs in the map underscores the proximity of an inter-related world, and provocatively foregrounds the increasingly global scope of a multiplying crisis of displaced persons that have come to scar much of the world’s surface.  The problem of how to synthesize the diverse local experiences displacing increasing refugees across the globe both internally and to other countries is resolved by using UNHCR data to map the growing traffic of the displaced that the we will increasingly be challenged to come to terms. Yet what of the image of interconnectedness that they reveal?  While foregrounded in an equidistant projection that renders evident the symbolic unity of around a nexus of departure of refugees from Africa, Syria, and Ukraine who arrive in Europe, the crimson arcs literally cut across the image of coherent harmony emphasized in the azimuthal projection, by locating sites at uniform distances to emphasize its unified image of the inhabited world–the same reasons it was adopted in different form in the flag of the United Nations–which also downplays the very national differences and frontiers more often inscribed in terrestrial maps, using an equidistant azimuthal projection of the world centered on its pole to project an ideal of global harmony.

The data visualization “Global Trends of Migration” foregrounds a marred world, however.  In it, the sites of refugees’ arrival is often even rendered illegible, disorientingly, by blotches of solid red created by converging flared red arcs.  Was there a somewhat alarmist decision to flare the ends of these arcs at the sites of the “arrival” of refugees, as has been suggested elsewhere by Martin Grand Jean?  For Grand Jean observes that in doing so, the concentration of apparent endings attract greater visual attention than the sites from which persons are displaced, or the intensity of the displacement:  we hide our eyes from the atrocities, in short, and the true nature of the crisis and humanitarian disaster, perhaps in ways informed by UNHCR data on the need to better process refugee flow.   One might go farther in this critique:  for in flaring such endpoints, the image not only oddly downplays the sites of emergency from which they seek asylum, and the unmitigated tragedy of those who remain displaced, but conveys a sense that the flights are smooth.

To be sure, the very term “traffic” that recurs to describe the “Trends in Global Migration of Refugees” seems a bit of an oblique misnomer.  It almost obfuscates the experience of those who were only recently forced to flee their homes, as much as render them for the viewer.  For the elegant aggregation of such a uniquely tragic dataset may not fully come to terms with the growing global tragedy of the apparently unmitigated spread of refugees from an expanding range of sites–and the steep human rights challenges the exponential expansion of global or internal exiles creates.  Although the attempt to synthesize UNHCR data and map those flows offer one of the clearest tools by which to process, comprehend and synthesize the rapid expansion of individuals who were forcibly displaced over the past year, and come to term with that expansion.  But it hardly comes to terms with the desperation of their travails or the difficulty of their departures.  Indeed, by covering much of Europe in busy red blotches it disarmingly foregrounds and describes the arrival of refugees who have successfully left their countries–more than the mechanics of their displacement.  And there is a sense, almost paranoiac, and to be resisted, that the arrival of these streams of refugees who enter the Eurozone almost threaten to cancel its identity.


Cancelled Europe?


What is lost in the image’s busily crowded surface is perhaps made up for by the frenetic intensity it uses to ask us to confront such trajectories of tragedy and desperation.  But as an illustration, the elegance of the visualization seems to mislead viewers through its concentration on a geometry of arrival–and the smoothness with which it invests the desperation of forced departures. Despite its impressive effects, there seem multiple reservations about the possibility of creating an adequate data visualization.  In translating the tragic dataset of forced migrations as a point-to-point correspondence, its simplification approximates the wide geographic itineraries of that the globally displaced have been forced to seek–and understates the tortuously complex paths they actually followed.

Indeed, tensions are implicit in the stark modernist aesthetics of rendering the paths of refugees and the global imperative to address the pressing refugee problems that raise questions of the ethics of mapping the displaced.  The cool modernist aesthetics of “Trends in Global Migration” obscure the messiness of refugees’ own lives.  In recent years, the Refugee Highway and others have sought to address in foregrounding the global “hotspots” of mass-migration–by combining qualitative and quantitative data.  They have tried to reveal what open routes exist for those seeking asylum and capturing the resourcefulness of the refugee–noting possible destinations of asylum, and sites of resettlement, or differentiating between routes taken in fleeing by land and sea to help viewers appreciate the scope of the refugee disaster.  In the image below, Refugee Highway reveals the presence of airplanes over industrialized nations where more refugees are apt to settle or seek asylum suggests the steep symbolic liabilities of Wallace’s stark “Global Trends.”


refugee highway map Refugee Highway-Legend The Refugee Highway

Another alternative visualization, proposed by Grand Jean on the basis of the very same UNHCR 2014 database, places less visual emphasis on the sites of refugees’ arrival, or sites of eventual asylum, but use similar lines as the red arcs of migration, apt for suggesting bloody scars  but less illuminating of the proportions of displaced and, as Grand Jean nicely notes, not weighted in any way, so that the 6,000 Mexican refugees that arrive in Canada are illustrated in an equivalent manner to the million refugees from Syrian territory that have arrived in Lebanon.  Gran Jean has generously proposed an alternative visualization that salutary in varying the thickness of lines that denote refugees’ displacement from sites of humanitarian crisis that confronts the limits of doing justice to the representation of displacement, sacrificing the modernist aesthetics of the image to ensure its greater readability:


Martin Grand Jean

The attention Grand Jean returns to the sites of displacement can be easily rendered in ways that distinguish the different regions and countries from which the 14.37 refugees UNHCR registered have sought asylum, using color to start to distinguish the sites from which refugees were displaced–and start to diminish the information overload of the data visualization of this global crisis.

actual areas

Martin Grand Jean 


There is value to imitating the information overload created by the expanding crisis of global refugees, but it raises questions of the ethics of mapping disasters.  Much as it is difficult to comparatively map the multiplications of centers of forcible displacement, it is difficult to even heuristically approximate the varied qualitative circumstances of the world of the refugee–as much as one would like to grasp the extent of the desperation of exile from the boundaries and neighborhoods of one’s former home.


2.  The elegant economy of the jaw-dropping visualization in the Times of the refugee crisis compellingly transposes the aggregation of annual refugees to illustrate its deeply global nature.  The crisis of those forcibly displaced on a symbolic level by the harmony of uniform spatial relations–in the mode of early modern cordiform maps–although, of course, those thin red lines of scarification disrupt whatever harmony exists across the globe, despite the attention that it calls to its inter-relations, in the manner of the polar azimuthal projection surrounded by two olive branches of peace that was designed as an emblem of the United Nations to suggest the proportional representation of the continents, and lack of privileging one area of the world by Donal McLaughlin, who interest in the transparency of visual communication led him to propose its design in 1946 as a seal for the UNO.

The popularity of the visualization of “Global Trends” lies in its success in cleanly sorting a significantly large dataset in a readily legible terms in ways that insist on the proximity of accumulated crises dispersed across the globe in isolation from one another–but which affect the world and demand a global response.




One unarticulated if implicit institutional message of the equidistant polar projection in the “Global Trends” graphic is that it captures the pressure that the displaced place on the ideals expressed by the equidistant polar azimuthal projection featured on the UN flag.

Even if the very globalization of a refugee crisis makes it hard to focus on the status of those forcibly displaced or the context of collective hot-spots from which folks have fled, so clearly does it abstract individual itineraries of flight from their local contexts, the intensity of its busy red lines captures the overwhelming image of desperation, even if limited to those who have found asylum–not the refugee camps clustering on the borders of Syria, Sudan and Myanmar–it captures the intensity of forced migrations worldwide, if not the circumstances of their internal displacements or their deaths in transit and at sea.  The poor and often perilous conditions of the camps and settlements are left off of the map, as it were, as are the circumstances of ocean travel often brokered by human traffickers.

For the greatest lie and fabrication in the narrative of Global Trends of Displacement is the illusion it perpetuates that all refugees possess and have a destination–and indeed that all refugees arrive.   The extreme unmessiness of rendering the actual tragedy of refugees’ itineraries in purified form with a coolness worthy of Le Corbusier or Eero Salonen frames the crisis of refugees as if tracking airplanes’ movement or allocating resources.  To an extent, this is the result of the UNHCR dataset, which focuses on the arrival in camps or countries of asylum, rather than displacement or the camps were refugees and fleeing persons congregate along the borders of nearby countries.  But the visualization deriving from the data provides readers with a quite misleading illustration of the crisis at hand.  For in concealing local details, they obscure both the individual stories of sacrifice as well as the conditions or scarcities that has driven such a steep expansion of fleeing across what have often increasingly become quite shaky and undefined border-lines, readily renegotiated in theaters of war.


Sudanese refugees mappedUNHCR, Refugees from Southern Sudan by mid-December, 2013


Rather, the image created communicates an impression of cleanly engineered arcs of geographical mobility and direct paths to resettlement.  Unlike earlier visualizations, the elegant red arcing lines adopted in “Global Trends” present the UNHCR data as if to suggest that all refugees arrive–even though the dataset is of course only about those who do seek asylum and resettle elsewhere, and predominantly in countries far removed from their homelands.  This narrative of spatial displacement may obscure a deeper set of narratives of dislocation.


Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

One sacrifices a sense of the local in the arching red lines in the gripping aggregation of global refugees over the past year in “Global Trends,” also pictured the header to this post.  The data vis indeed broached the difficulties of comprehending what has increasingly and ultimately become a global crisis at the end of an age of empire in readily comprehensible terms.  Although the paths of refugees’ flights threatens to muddy the specific travails from which folks are forced to flee in the data visualization, as well as their specific circumstances and travails, it synthesizes and processes the almost unsustainable streams of forced flights from refugee hot spots by foregrounding the actual routes of displacement–while misleadingly suggesting that all refugees found future homes.

Indeed, it maps the unmappable by mapping the pathways of those forcibly displaced:  yet of the 60 million displaced globally, the map focusses on the 14 million (almost a quarter of those displaced worldwide) who have left their countries in 2014 alone, offering what is probably an under-estimation of the encyclopedia of travails that can never, at another level, map or synthesize–as if the routes of fleeing can ever be adequately represented by being sketched on the perfectly engineered arcs akin to the smoothly engineered pathways of multiple airplane flights along which a very different demographic travels.  Refugees are of course unlikely to experience such travel, more characteristic of readers of the Times, who would surely be prone to recognize the map as a sad perversion of global flight paths, converging on Eruopean capitals, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Global Trends in Displacement: DestinationsNew York Times

One feels only awe at the overwhelming nature this sort of dataset, itself difficult and dizzying to process because it offers little real cue for orienting oneself to the complex totality of narratives it collectively encodes.  Whether the augmentation of refugees worldwide can be seen as a quantifiable crisis–and removed from human terms and individual costs–is a question that cannot be here addressed.  But the conversion of the crisis into human flows is a compelling way to try to come to terms with how we’ve come to inhabit the world in rather chilling ways, by plotting some of the data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees on a global projection centered on the primary areas of regional crisis–not without posing the question of why such a global focus of the refugee crisis exists.  The nexus of the refugee “crisis” is so widely spatially distributed, indeed, to leave its “focus” dizzying as one tries to better internally process the extent of displacement worldwide:


detail refugees map New York Times


3.  The frenetic business of the long distance “traffic” pictured on the global map can also be reorganized and viewed, or disaggregated, piecemeal, luckily,  in order to make some sense of the terrifying abundance–or obesity?–of the disturbing dataset whose aggregation reveals the close relations between countries in an age of globalization, if it cannot threaten to obscure the dramatic narratives of individual experience.  The data is condensed into misleadingly orderly (if dizzyingly distracting) mesh of intersecting red lines, arcing over the earth’s surface and boundaries–as if to capture the global nature of the crisis, but which painfully erase the multiple individual narratives of struggle, internal displacement, and blossoming of the unplanned cities of refugee camps, and the different material and environmental constraints against which refugees have to contend and struggle. The comforting illusion that each refugee has a destination–or endpoint–ignore the improvised settlements now dot maps of Jordan, Turkey, Chad and South Sudan, and hold some two million souls, or the deaths of refugees in transit or at sea–runs against the demand for an adequate dynamic map of their own, as if in a sort of reverse map of sites of human habitation inscribed on maps.

Such a map would describe dislocation in greater detail than the valiant ESRI “story map” of those refugee camps administered by the UNHCR, whose slippy map invites one to inspect the numbers of displaced in different camps, but stands at a significant remove from their actual circumstances or experiences of displacement of the story it purports to tell.

efugee camps ESRI Fifty Most Populous Refugee Camps (an ESRI story-map) ArbatDarfur Refugee Camp in Chad Arbat_Transit_Camp_3-3-2014 Arbat Transfer Camp for Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

4.  Could one rather include in such a map variables such as the length of time required for transit from each country, the amount of time required for transit, or the possibility of making such travel–all potential ways to represent the ordeal of displacement in ways that viewers might understand?  Or could one indicate the violence of the displacement in a quantitative way?

Indeed, the focus of the data vis on the routes of migration that refugees take runs against the widely accepted and reported truth that the number of internally displaced persons has expanded far beyond the growth of refugees seeking asylum in recent years–also reported by Sergio Peçanha–if the growth of IDP’s worldwide has surely increased the desperation of those refugees who leave countries of origin.

IDP's New York Times

The greatest single lie that this elegant map of refugees across the world tells in its distribution of a dataset is that all refugees have a destination to which the flee that can be mapped–a lie that the red arcs that imitate the paths of air traffic encourage.  For the paths of those fleeing are of course rarely so removed from the ground or so truly globalized in their dispersion.  In addition, there is a shift of attention from the sites where a truly unmanageable set of crises for refugees exists to the density of points of arrival in European countries as France, Germany, England, Italy, and Sweden, as well as Australia, Canada and the US–all rendered by but a single point or nexus of arrival, or destination–and often obscured by clotted red lines.  Does this detract the readers’ attention from the sites of humanitarian emergency that prompted the rush of refugees? The crowded the image evokes the image of something like a blood splatter, the result of the expansion of the intensity of combat in multiple theaters that, after all, set the mechanisms of displacement in motion, which the practice of aggregation erased.  In ways that imitate the The Refugee Project’s attempt to map arcs of resettlement of those seeking asylum since 1975 in interactive fashion within a single globe, the density of lines that converge in Europe and elsewhere suggest the deeply linked question of the global multiplication of forcibly removed refugees, and the proliferation of a forcible statelessness across so much of the modern world.


Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 12.10.41 PMThe Refugee Project 


But, on the other hand, the visualization’s immediate popularity, registered by wide retweeting, responds to the cognitive difficulty–if not impossibility–of coming to terms in a clear-headed manner with the dizzying multiplication of growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in our increasingly destabilized world. There is considerable clarity in how the orderly arcs mirror the readily recognizable form of a map of destinations of flights, if there is something truly odd in how they represent the terrifyingly troubled transit of peoples in times of war.  Perhaps the map aptly captures in symbolic fashion the desperate flight from regions in its numbers alone, acting like a sort of blood splatter map on the world–although one where the wounds seem to lie in those countries that receive refugees, rather than the sites of the violence that provoked their transit.

For the greatest difficulty with the data visualization remains the remove of its narrative content from the subjective experiences of the refugees than the absorption of refugees in their new countries, and the apparent equivalence that it draws between both the proportion of refugees or the experiences of refugees from different countries.  Hence, the conspicuous inclusion of numbers of departed whose final destinations were a specific country and the foregrounding of the names of those countries that were most likely destinations in the developed world–the United States, Canada, France, and Sweden among them–several countries were a sharply xenophobic ultra-right has been recently recognized as on the rise. Take, for instance, the dispersion or draining of Syrian populations, which despite its orderly symmetry offers only a stripping of data to approximate the ongoing struggles on its disintegrating borders.  During the recent Civil War, some 11.6 million people, almost half of its entire population, have been displaced, half arriving in Egypt, and only a relatively fortunate few arriving in European or industrialized/westernized nations.  Representing the length of time required for resettlement would at least be a surrogate and index for the nature of the experience of refugees that would be a possibly more ethical model for mapping displacement than the dispersion of the Syrian population on simple arcs–without notation of how many displaced Syrians remain, and omit the distortion suggested below of a smoothly engineered migration from refugee camps.


Syrian refugee displacement New York Times


5.  The infographic maps but one corner of the dilemma of global refugees.  One way that the infographic must be read is in dialogue of the as-yet limited reactions of advanced economies to the growing global refugee crisis, to be sure, at a time when it may make less sense to retain the attitudes of protectionism and fears of immigration, evident in the expansion of only 70,000 refugees to the United States during Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 on the basis of “humanitarian concerns” as “in the national interest,” and the retention of limits of admissions in accordance with clear ceilings for each region.  For does such an imposition of such ceilings come to terms with the global desperation felt by the displaced?

admissions of refugees--refugee resettlement assistance FY 2015

White House

There is an obligation to come to terms with the steep fears of immigration and better help readers better wrestle with the plight of the displaced.

An untold understory of the infographic that is less evident in the image used in this post’s header is the considerable concentration of a huge proportion of refugees–some 85% by the count of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees–in one specific geographic region, and the lack of resources that are effectively able to be devoted to these refugees’ fates.  (And this may well be an underestimation of population flows among the internally displaced.)  The majority congregate in regions running from Turkey to Southeast Asia, past Ethiopia to Kenya and the Central African Republic, although one imagines that the displaced in Ukraine are just absent from the dataset, and less able to be accurately measured by the UN numbers.  The region populated by millions of displaced is circled by dotted lines below.  In each of these regions, most relatively impoverished, refugees are often exchanged among countries with limited resources to process compelling human needs–for example, Ethiopia holds  665,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan–where they are bound to press further upon limited existing resources and fragile economies.

85% refugees


What will be the result of these interconnections–and whether they won’t demand far greater global interconnectedness–is not clear.

But the ongoing expansion of refugees in areas where there is no clear governmental or administrative organization will prove especially difficult to map adequately, despite the compelling nature of the “Recent Trends” visualization, such trends are poised to expand in future years, especially from Ukraine as well as Syria and Myanmar.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

It seems most likely that, at some level, the data visualization of the destinations of refugees as seeking asylum from their country of origin unconsciously records how far we have come from the optimism of picturing the possibility of global unity the United Nations auspiciously hoped to inaugurate in 1946–by the agency which compiled the UNHCR database.



6.  There is a significant difficulty, of course, in mapping refugees and the increased clustering of camps that they create in so-called demilitarized border zones.  For each image condenses multiple narratives that one wishes one could tease out, but confronts an image in which one sees limited apparent possibility of resolution save further instability. South Sudan possessed some of the greatest emergency of the refugees of modern times and the twenty-first century both in the some 700,000+ asylum-seeking refugees in neighboring countries at most recent count and one and a half million plus internally displaced persons (IDP’s) within its fragile boundaries, many driven by intense food shortages as well as by an increasingly militarized and fearful situation:  almost a third of the country’s population lack food.  Emergency refugee activities have haven mapped in South Sudan from 2012.  Even as the subsequent refugee crisis generated in the Syrian Civil War has further pressed credulity, South Sudan exemplifies a refugee situation spun out of control with no clear resolution, before which one stares at the map agape,–almost conscious of the continuing inadequacy of ever resolving its narrative in the immediate future.  Back in 2012, UNHCR helpfully mapped refugee settlements (camps) and clusters of individual refugees–denoted in the second map of South Sudan below by inverted triangles; refugee settlements are shown by pink houses–spread both to camps in Ethiopia, and less organized communities on the borders of poor (and undeveloped) countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic, states with their resources already spread thin.


images-16 Refugee Camps and Refuggees around South Sudan Aug 2012 2012 Sudan map legend

UNHCR By 2013, the number of displaced was combined with arrivals of those displaced from nearby areas and states:




By 2014, about three-quarters of a million displaced persons were displaced and 4.9 million were in need of assistance as the borders continued to be particularly permeable and fear drove displaced persons out of the country:




The continued displacement of refugees has only grown considerably during 2015, with increased fighting in South Sudan and the Upper Nile states, at the same time as water and sanitation has continued to deteriorate across the region.  Spurring the possibility for increased refugees, food insecurity of food has grown–as food grows more scarce–in ways that the visualization leaves silent but might provide a telling under-map of the flow of refugees across increasingly fragile borders, in situation maps that foreground departure and the failure of containment within civil society.  Such maps obscure the systemic problems that are bound to make the tally of refugee counts only tic higher over time, perhaps, which might be revealed in deeper layers to suggest the levels of instability that afflict the region. One telling map to compare reveals the increasingly imperiled aquifers and drastically declining availability groundwater.

If we consider the drought to be located in California’s central Valley–a thin orange strip by the Pacific Ocean–the decrease in groundwater NASA satellites have mapped over the past decade quite dramatically extends across the Sudd Basin and Lower Chad Basin in Africa and the entire Nubian Aquifer System and the Congo Basin–as it groundwater shortages has drastically grown across the Arabian aquifer and Indus Basin over the same time.  Water is not the sole issue here, of course, but the unrest that scarcity provokes demands mapping, and GIS visualization, as a layer below the civil society, which in much of Africa and regions without and which never saw the need for infrastructures of water transport is no doubt particularly acute.


Global Water Storage 2003-13 legend UC Irvine


The consequences of depleted aquifers and groundwater across the Lake Chad Basin, Sudd Basin and the Nubian Aquifer System (NAS)–the greatest body of fresh water in the Nile basin,  and Congo Basin have provoked a catastrophe of global proportions, while we returned to the possibilities of the contagious spread of Ebola across the world as if it were the sole apocalypse on our mental radar for much of the past year. The rise of fatal–or near-fatal–the expansion of those attempting to flee food shortages and declining economies in Africa have appeared in or occasioned increasing news reports from the western media, as Italians have called in increasingly strident tones for all of Europe to turn its attention to focus on the flight of refugees in the Mediterranean ocean–which the Italian navy can barely respond to in adequate manner, and create a web across the Mediterranean simplified in the red routes below.  Already the most “deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants” in 2012, the refugee crisis intensified in 2014–often encouraged by human traffickers who deceptively promise perilous passage that is often not followed through, perhaps making this current year–2015–the most deadly in recent memory for those attempting the crossing in ships as they flee humanitarian disasters in Libya in ways that have only begun to be quantified and mapped.






85188.adapt.676.2 National Geographic


The complex story of tragedy and loss that the map conceals is difficult to communicate in conventional cartographical forms, as the each circle represents the suspected or confirmed loss of human passengers.


mediterranean-460-1 New York Times


One understory to this migration, without doubt, is the huge refugee crisis across the Sub-Saharan continent, where 15 million have been displaced in the past year alone:


15 million displaced in sub-Saharan Africa

The “refuge flows” are oddly almost not with a human face, as if they seem a triangular exchange of goods.  As we map refugee traffic in a manner that suggests that the flows of people are removed from a dynamics of struggle on the ground, but guided by an invisible hand or able to be imagined as a coherent network of flow, as if they at times arrive and depart from the same place, we lose a sense of the human costs of the deep scars that they draw over the surface of the inhabited world.


Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations But these overlapping and crisscrossed waves of displacement, if terribly difficult to disentangle, are compressed into so many misleadingly orderly arcs:  their stark form and geometric curvature elided or erasef the struggle, or indeed desperation, that we know companies the experiences of all refugees, and show an image of migration that may be as good as it gets. It surely sends an alarm about the status and state of the stateless refugees forced to flee their homes that forces us to negotiate our own relation to the changed face of the world.  But its curved red lines decisively and assertively arrogate the numbers of those who have sought asylum into smoothly completed arcs in an oddly unproblematic way, given the scarcity of solutions at hand.


Filed under data visualizations, global refugees, immigration, infographics, refugee crisis, refugees, Syrian refugees

Sites of Internment and Surveillance Hidden in the New American West

The mosaic of ethnicities in the United States today appears so inclusive and diverse that echoes of the state’s sanctioning of the forcible spatial segregation of one ethnic group –Japanese Americans–would seem impossibly remote in time and culture until quite recently.  But the tragic and yet state-sponsored episode of Japanese internment by the US military reveals the existence of historical rifts in the historical landscape of the American West, which not only resonate with a history of exclusionary practices, but suggest a striking geography along which practices of exclusion were effected and organized by means of existing maps.  And the recent  invocation of executive order 9066 by Donald Trump, seventy-four years later, when over 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their own houses and relocated to camps of internment as a precedent for the relocation of resident aliens–which Trump has called a  “tough thing,”  but refused to condemn in any way–“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer”–not only to cave to his instincts of fueling prejudice if not racial violence among Americans, but to celebrate a precedent for treating illegal immigrants as alien enemies with no understanding of history or the law.  As the grossly illegal and shameful episode of internment was cited as a basis for racial profiling during the state of exception of War on Terror by Michelle Malkin, the horrific readiness to accept the episode of internment of those with Japanese ancestry as a part of the American legal tradition is not only an instance of unlearning but an act of amnesia that is utterly irresponsible.

And yet, the continued reference of the non-state spaces of American internment in much of the current American West suggests the survival of the landscape that internment produced.  The partitioning of space in maps enabled the exclusionary strategies, moreover, which have a striking overlay with earlier landscapes of exclusion.  Despite a stated mission to keep the country “safe” in the face of the shock of war, detainment of Japanese Americans was not at all something of a historical unicum, but rather fit within landscape of ethnic opposition with possible roots in the nineteenth century, whose secret geography informed the use of sites of sequestering those stripped of citizenship at the start of the twenty-first century.  The space of Native American reserves, or reservations, had been mapped by F. E. Leupp of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1905 as if it were a hidden nation within a nation–land set off from the four-color map of the United States, if largely concentrated in the lands west of the hundredth meridian–

Indian Res in US.png

–an image of spatial separateness that continued by 1941.


The memory of the experience of internment was far more suddenly and deeply inscribed in the national landscape at a single moment, however, if  one not without historical precedents.  T

he permission Executive Order 9066 gave the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded” from 1942 that enabled an internal “enemy” population to be stripped of citizenship.  The establishment of an archipelago of confinement across Arizona, inland California, and Nevada echoed the confinement of native populations–and resonates with recent attempts to define areas of detainment as “off the map” and consequently removed from legal oversight in ways that we might be all too apt to associate with the Cold War–as much as it was improvised.  The geography of the confinement of Japanese Americans provides an instance of something not like race warfare, but the opposition of the state to its enemies perhaps as telling as the geography of ghostly munitions of the Cold War from missile silos, remains of nuclear testing, facilities for storing and developing plutonium, and anti-missile radar that dot the landscapes of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

In mapping the inclusiveness of national diversity, we are increasingly reminded of the ethnic classification of the nation’s population by the carving out of predictions of the behavior of the electorate at the polls–partly because the distribution is so relatively easy to map, partly because how such divisions map onto political parties is a growing riddle, not only since it is less clear that their increasing political voice maps onto a single agenda, but also because of the scare of predictions of white-minority status by 2045.  For the apparent cultural remove of the arrogance of an administration that formally instituted the forced geographic relocation of Japanese Americans to camps away from the west coast seems an odd artifact stoked by the proto-fascist flames ignited by the fear of war.

Might it rather be comprehended as a part of California history?  If the episode of Japanese American relocation seems removed from the state’s current mosaic of diversity, it has eery ties to the hidden history of the West–and the political landscape of recent years.  Although when trains transported individuals to hidden locations inland,their forced displacement for the general safety of “all” was promoted as coalescing home front–based on their predesignation as “enemies of the state” in ways that have recurred in recent years.  It pays to return to them to excavate the map of displacement that defined the west coast, and situate its occurrence within a landscape of longue durée.

The interned painter Chiura Obata was a devoted student of the western landscape of the United States, particularly in Yosemite Park, and created an image that inescapably suggests the portents of a shifting political landscape while interned in Topaz, in his quite contemplative painting of the deeply and heavily smeared reddened sky over the stark landscape of the Relocation Camp where he was interned, after having taught art at the University of California, at a War Relocation Camp that opened its doors in September 11, 1942.

ObataChiura Obata, “Sunset, Water-Tower, Topaz, March 20 1943” painted in the Topaz Relocation Camp

The smears of rust-colored cirrus clouds that Obata drew as reflected on Utah’s barren desert landscape at the Topaz War Relocation Center overwhelms the barbed wire fences barely discernible beneath telephone wires, lending the landscape a monumentality that dwarfs a makeshift guard tower, and creates red lines like scars across the land.  Rather than treat the landscape relocation and internment camps as a panicked response to fears of impending military attack, the rapidity of relocation along fault lines in a political landscape that we may have too readily repressed, when the landscape has been forcibly divided along ethnic or cultural lines in terms of belonging–a division that seems to have been rehabilitated in recent years.

1.  The recent mapping of the notion of “diversity” based on data culled into one of the appealing visualizations displayed on the website of Trulia–the realtor which seems primarily in the business of making us feel good about the prospective places where we might live, if we really and truly had our druthers–expanded the maps of demographic density designed by Randal Olson in more interactively searchable ways that offer an opportune starting point for this post.  The dynamic visualization is based on self-reported Census data promised to capture the current “racial/ethnic” composition of regions across the country where smallest difference existed between a dominant ethnic subset and secondary ethnic group, ranking the relative levels of “diversity” by that metric across the country’s largest metropolitan areas–from Oakland to San Francisco to New York to Houston to San Jose–so that we might better envision the ethnic compositions of the neighborhoods where we live in an era where ethnic diversity seems the closest metric we’ll ever get to what’s cosmopolitan.  It is, however, a map of strong ethnic integration that contrasts with the clearcut demarcation of otherness in the map of several generations past that is the header to this post..

Diversity in USA, 2010

The data visualization is impressive despite its clear limitations–especially evident in the broad equivalences that it draws implicitly between the uniformity of “diversity” as a transparent derivative of data of variety.  Building on data encoded in Dustin Cable’s “Racial Dot Map,” Trulia provides a metric for “diversity” that ignores exact ethnicities, providing a new way of reading a single argument in the 2012 data of ethnic differences that Cable encoded by five different colors–which can be read as a follow-up map of the image of ethnic segregation in the map with which the musing of this post began.

Racial Dot Map

The Trulia map of America’s Racial Kaleidoscope nonetheless offers an interesting and somewhat jarring image for all of its superficiality, even with apparent bearing on the sociology of the red state/blue state divide.  For all the very slipperiness of “ethnic/racial” categories as meaningful demographic tools of parsing populations–when were these two terms ever equivalent seen as surrogates for one another, and how do the categories of the 2010 Census, which use such undifferentiated envelopes as “Asian” or “Black” or “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” as authoritative diverse to parse populations?–to image diversity, there may be some meaning able to be extracted in the visualizations that show their difference and distance from a historical past, when ethnic differences seemed far more starkly inscribed in a pre-globalized world.

For the folks at Trulia created a visualization to map “diversity” that erases whatever degrees of actual racial or ethnic integration exist within counties.  While this may hardly offer a metric of actual “diversity,” the visualization reveals California as the largest continuous body of “diverse” ethnic groups in the country and of its sharpest non-“majority white” areas:

Diversity in USA, 2010

Even without introducing the potentially complexifying newly trending category of the “transracial,” or those individuals who, to use another term diffused in online media thanks to Rachel Dolezal, realized or felt that they were “miscarried”–a term that has touched a clear nerve, given the unclear meaning “race” retains in contemporary America, and the uncomfortable nature of the term.  Where Trulia finds diversity to be concentrated in coastal regions and objectively present in a range of areas that seems to correlate with sites where the home-buying market is tight, the visualization seems most useful to force us to ask what diversity means–as well as to mask the sort of rhetoric of ethnic opposition that so often scarred the landscape of the west.

2.  “Diversity” is a new world, but may once have led to the one of the clearest instances in US history of the forced marginalization of a population of citizens during the early years of American engagement in World War II.  Despite the frustrating failure of imposing categories to classify the composition of our national population at the start of the twenty-first century, the cultural remove at which Japanese ethnicity became a basis for the forced migration of citizens must be balanced with the proximity of the recent circumscription of individual rights.  If panic and fear unjustifiably provoked the systematically organized deportation of Americans of Japanese ancestry–in which a strong dose of economic resentment may have played a large role–the act of remapping civil rights in the United States, if seriously compromised, also sanctioned the remapping of rights in ways that both built on and provided some rather scary precedents.

Did the confinement of a considerable section of the population–and indeed the confinement of a somewhat arbitrarily reclassified class of citizens–created something of a crucial precedent to redefine the rights of citizens by unilateral executive fiat?  The decision to reclassify a segment of the American population recalls the legal justification for a “state of emergency” which the “crown jurist of the Third Reich” Carl Schmitt notoriously advanced as an adequate rationale to suspend rights in the hopes to re-establish order, responsibility for which, Schmitt argued, ultimately lay with the sovereign alone, but whose actions created shared bonds preceded the very notion of the state–and rested in a political nature of the opposition between friend and enemy.  In a cold-hearted logic ways recently revived in George W. Bush’s administration, such an occurrence “extreme emergency” could justify the suspension of the constitution and law, with striking similarity to the political state of emergency by which internment was justified and understood–and was associated with a state of war, both by Schmitt and in the War on Terror of the early twenty-first century.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the remapping of California during the Japanese Evacuation Program, where Japanese Americans were segregated from all “exclusion areas” in the name of a political imperative that transcended political practice.

The institutional order that was created between zones of confinement and zones of exclusion in the “Evacuation Map” created “in satisfaction of the impelling military necessity created by total war with Japan” defined some 108 individual “exclusion areas,” in each of which approximately 1,000 persons were evacuated–allegedly totaling the 100,000 persons evacuated during the two weeks between March 24 and June 6.  Many were concentrated in the Pacific Northwest.  But the repartitioning of the West in terms of Military Area 1 and Military Area 2–a sort of Newspeak of Orwellian resonance–was premised on the presiding rationality of political belonging against the otherness of Japanese Americans that is so foundational in Schmitt’s thought.  The exceptionality of “wartime” provided the basis for suspending their right, and insisting on the primacy of the political for redividing national space, and suspending legal or constitutional precedent by a political mandate that, for Schmitt, would indeed historically and existentially precede any legal or constitutional order.


What sort of networks would have allowed the forced migration of a large section of the Japanese American population to internment camps?  The imposition of such a nation-wide policy of legislated relocation remains conceptually remote, both as a practice and conceptual possibility, let alone as one accepted by the region’s residents.  Its logic lies in the legend to the map, which echoes a truly Schmittian rhetoric of a “state of emergency” in which constitutional rights are suspended; the necessity of “the political” reveals the deep opposition based on “otherness” whose rationality is revealed in its legend.  This state of “otherness” was clearly inscribed in the landscape of the two areas of Military Areas, rather than states and superimposed upon states, is linked to “wartime,” but which echoes of the earlier political orders of the American West:  its legend offers the underlying logic of the state of emergency during which local division was inscribed.

The partitioning of the same region that seems particularly noted for its diversity–the western region of California–as in the framing of an “Exclusion Zone” that was deemed so sensitive in its concentration of state secrets to be off-limits to members identified with Japanese immigrants that they could be stripped of constitutional rights–and forced to board trains from the cities to anodynely-named “Relocation Centers” that were located in the state’s interior–suggests a civilian partitioning of the country not only in the name of war-time exigency, but in fact a paranoia that was fueled not by actual military dangers or actual risks of espionage, in retrospect, but something that was more fed by a combination of opportunism and on-the-ground animosity and ethnic dislike.  If the notion of such dislike might have lain in economic competition, the ethnic opposition was reified in the boundaries of otherness exposed on the map.

The network of relocation camps are often seen as a unicum–and as something like a quite particular circumstantial combination of jealousy for a group of successful immigrants who had often lived in distinct settlements, and whose difference was now cast into political relief, both by the war, and the culture of imperial allegiance that Japanese were seen as increasingly ready to adopt.  But the very network of the camps of resettlement recapitulated narratives of the European occupation of Native America by completely effacing an imaginary frontier between Native Lands and European-American pioneers, placed in evidence by the confining of native peoples in discrete sites that were later known as “reservations,” the bounded areas of the absence of any existence of a Native/American divide across the very western states from which Japanese Americans were banned–and indeed denied narratives of racial or ethnic differentiation, where the destruction of the frontier was replaced by the contained presence of the Native populations in reservations, at the same time as many other reservations were reclaimed as military sites for engineers or the army, in the demand for a wartime effort, even as Native American languages were adopted, as they had been in World War One, to encode military communications and Native Americans participated in huge numbers in the US Army.

The rapid constitution of new networks to displace Japanese Americans from their former homes to the periphery of what became defined as Military Area One in the United States was enabled by the infrastructure of railroads that linked cities to removed “War Relocation Centers” in areas where their inhabitants would not be easily noticed or indeed seen.  The forcible relocation of Japanese Americans was largely enacted and by non-military authorities, but led to the removal of the large number of immigrants to the country to remote areas, cordoned off from sight, in the four months from March, 1942, by which time some ten centers of “war[-time] relocation” were established that removed Japanese Americans from the coast region that they had increasingly migrated in the past thirty years, to areas where they were less likely to be noticed, and the stripping of their civil rights–and allegedly inalienable liberties–were not even seen.


The deep suspicion of ethnic difference created a proclivity to separate Japanese American citizens as a military threat.  Yet as early as 1930, the Office of Naval Intelligence began surveillance on Japanese communities in Hawaii, wary of the military power of Japan.  And from 1936, the same Office in fact compiled lists of those Japanese to be “the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between the countries–long before the idea of confinement camps were broached as a possibility on American soil.

That list would become the Custodial Detention Index, compiled in 1939-41 with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a tabulation one of explicitly “Alien Enemy Control” as enumerating those ostensibly “engaged in subversive activities” or actions deemed “detrimental to the internal security of the United States.”  The list was drawn up a decade after further Japanese immigration to the United States had been banned in 1924, and significantly before Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, allowed regional military commanders to designate “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”  The establishment by the civilian-run War Relocation Agency of what were very euphemistically termed “relocation centers,” together with the six internment camps run by the US Department of Justice, were officially built to house all Japanese-Americans who had been removed from the “exclusion zone” that stretched across the entire western coast of the United States, after March, 1942.

Although the scope of detention was not widely known, or discussed in contemporary maps, a relatively recent map of the Assembly Centers and Internment camps emphasized their existence and geographic distribution in areas that were removed from population centers, lending greater prominence to their considerable geographical remove from areas  Japanese Americans had settled and the inhospitable places to which these forced relocations in internment camps occurred–in the desert, in relatively abandoned villages of the High Sierra, in areas often excluded from common maps.


Ben Pease

The reparative remapping of such sites as Poston and Gila River to our common memory offers a wonderful way to start to come to terms with the network of civilian-administered internment camps that place into relief a less well-documented or perhaps fully apprehended scale of the effective apparatus of state surveillance and that was in place of over 125,000 Japanese Americans into the desert-liike interior of the country for ostensible reasons of suspicions of a Fifth Column in the country of fully US naturalized citizens, who were stripped of all civil liberties.

The stark existence of such an “Exclusion Zone” or ten euphemistically named ‘relocation centers’ to which Japanese-Americans were without distinction detained from 1942 were inhumanely mapped in purely logistical terms to evacuate the western coast of ethnic Japanese with amazingly well-coordinated efficiency over six months with the sort of reflexive unreflectiveness so often characteristic during the unfolding of events occurring during a war:  but the sites were also intentionally created as sites absent from federal law–or international conventions–and in a sense existed as black spots on the national map.


Such practices of forced relocation to sites far removed from cities near the shoreline–and ostensibly near sensitive military sites–depended on a very systematic division and re-assignment of Japanese Americans suddenly dispossessed of their ownership of houses, land, and real estate, which was imagined in a quite cartographical manner–as the movement of Japanese Americans from coastal cities and communities on trains removed them to remote places, as if to expunge their memories, and in locating Japanese Americans in remote areas allowed to be forgotten and go unseen.  The subsequent destruction of any buildings, gardens, or evidence of confinement after the war, when the spaces of confinement were promptly shuttered after January 2, 1945–again by executive order–erased any evidence of the space that were bulldozed and razed, effacing memories of the internment, no doubt more problematic after the discovery of Nazi Concentration Camps.  Despite the total lack of support for accusations of security threats, suspicion seems to have reigned. If the construction of Internment Camps were officially mandated to be situated in places deemed “climates suitable for people,” from the newly created Military Area #1–western Washington and Oregon; western California; Southern Nevada–to the Mississippi, in ways that created a new geography of the United States during wartime, ostensibly for reasons of state.  Yet living in quasi-military improvised unheated barracks ringed by barbed wire that enclosed the thirty to forty blocks of barracks separated by empty spaces, patrolled by soldiers from watchtowers, lacking any privacy or cooking equipment or kitchens, and without any medicine or medical institutions, with only improvised medical care and with nothing but cots in collective rooms, such containment centers were undeniably more than austere–they were dehumanizing by intent.   And while not dedicated to a project of ethnic cleansing, they were motivated by a sense of deep suspicion based on ethnicity alone, and reflect a similar fantasia of spatial containment and confinement that was enabled by a new attitude to space that the wartime maps of the Civil Control Administration reveal. The landscape coded in pale pastels masks and obscures the violence of collectively reclassifying Japanese-Americans as if “internal enemies”–and as threats to the national state–within national political discourse in truly Schmittian terms.



Within the intentionally dispersive extended archipelago of camps, removed from centers of habitation, inmates were largely supervised or overseen by the Wartime Civil Control Administration–a civilian unit–because of falsified reports of a proclivity to espionage.  Such reports were diffused largely through the military and future Department of Defense (then Department of War) and were also  fostered by intense lobbying efforts of white or Anglo farmers (who saw the Japanese American farmers as a threat) encouraged the perpetuation of a race-based paranoia. Even though J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI doubted that any real threat was posed by Japanese Americans, the decision to confine seems to have been preemptively made to quiet a home front:  President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066 led to over 112,000 Japanese Americans to be moved to effective prison camps located in nine states–California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, and the porto-state of Alaska. Although two-thirds had already gained citizenship, they were asked to submit to loyalty oaths and swear not to interfere with the ongoing war effort that had consumed the country.  And were excluded from much of the country. The internment sites were removed in the interior–and located in “Military Area 2”–whose definition somewhat bizzarely, and, quite Orwellianly, departed from the boundary lines of individual states.

They created a new logic of displacement and of the suspension of individual rights. 3.  We associate the transport of prisoners as human chattel destined for ethnic cleansing on trains with Hitler’s Final Solution, perhaps the paradigmatic instance of the forced migration of populations becoming a national project and mission.  But the national network of trains similarly provided the basis for the relatively fast geographic removal of US citizens of Japanese descent across the state from Exclusion Areas, effecting the legal reclassification of citizenship in was that oddly reflected the claims of spatial purification that the abstract order of maps almost inspires. The spectrum of pastel colors of the map issued by the Western Defense Command of the Exclusion Areas where men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were forbidden to set foot conceals its violent measures.


detail evacaution program

The process of internal evacuation conducted “in satisfaction of the impelling military necessity created by total war with Japan” created an “evacuee population” in the United States whose movement was to be controlled and supervised by military forces, ostensibly to remove them from areas where there was any military presence that might be observed.  When immigrants from Japan had been banned from becoming naturalized citizens of the United States–from either owning any property of their own or the ability to vote–Japanese Americans formed independent communities of their own in the western United States, often with separate schools.  The forced transport of Japanese Americans to sites where they were stripped of citizenship and pursuant rights created something of a new standard for the imposition of classification on naturalized citizens for unstated reasons of possible danger to “state secrets”–although the  actual likelihood of any attempted infiltration or espionage on existing military installations was not particularly credible. Forced transportation from communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle created an archipelago of the confined not only in California–and prevented from entering “exclusion zones” that came to include almost one-third of the country, eliminating the presence of Japanese Americans in anywhere save the less densely populated lands of the interior.  While ostensibly directed against possible espionage of those sensitive military areas “from which any or all persons may be [rightfully[ excluded,”  the expansion of exclusion zones to constitute a large share of the country became something of a pretense to redirect populations to areas where they were not seen.  Not only was a third of the Territory of Hawai’i Japanese–between 140,00 and 150,000–in ways that make it ethnically complex, almost 127,000 Japanese Americans were listed in the 1940 Census as living in the country, mostly in California, Oregon and Washington, of which 40,869 resident aliens, born in Japan.

archipelago of Internment Camps in US The rapidly expanding rate at which camps opened across the country over five months testify to the paranoia and unjustified fears that fed the relatively quick establishment of similar internment camps where local rights were suspended or stripped, and the role of the rail in moving a sizable sector of the population nationwide:


This quite carefully planned and strikingly extensive network to move populations from Assembly Centers to Relocation Centers–all since anodynely named–allowed the significant expansion of the areas of exclusion from which Japanese were not allowed to set foot.  They were codified quite rapidly in the months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor led to all of “Japanese ancestry” to be reclassified as potential security threats, despite little evidence of their disloyalty, as attempts to argue against imprisonment that fell on deaf ears:  six weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, after some ethnic Japanese living in Hawaii helped a downed airman, leading to a questioning of their ability to not be imperial subjects and “unassailable” as such, set the basis for a new geography of confinement and exclusion of Japanese from public areas that Earl Warren spearheaded, creating the basis to prevent ethnic Japanese from entering exclusion zones” of almost a third of the country–and encouraging by May 1942 all Japanese to be moved to network of assembly centers and readied for transport to permanent relocation centers across the country.

The declarative bluntness of the administrative languages in the authoritative public notices placed in the street corners of cities such as San Francisco that trumpeted the specter of foreign racial “ancestry” of Japanese Americans–


or the expanse of almost a third of the country from which Japanese Americans had been displaced–

extensive network

cannot speak to the surprised faces of the deported who arrived by train in Arcadia, California, fresh from San Pedro, and the machinery that brought them there, and the helmeted soldiers who are staring down those recently stripped of citizenship, who don’t seem to have fully fathomed the reasons for their fate, or what perhaps the suspension of all legal rights would mean.

The role of the trains in moving populations in California would have paralleled the travels that the young Steve Reich made with his governess across the country from Los Angeles to New York in 1939 and 1940, and the “music documentary” he composed that retrospectively juxtapose those trips with the contemporaneous forced transport of European Jewry for ethnic cleansing.  Reich’s travels occurred almost immediately before Japanese-Americans were moved en masse from Los Angeles to Relocation Centers as Poston or Gila River.  Rendered in the propulsive straining tempo of violins that alternately suggest accelerating pistons and air raid sirens, and accompanied by parallel intonations of porters calling railway stops and voices of survivors, Reich’s braiding of memories intentionally evoked parallel lived geographic relocations as fantasia of forced displacement that mechanized electric rail travel allowed.

relocation in Arcadia, CA at Santa Anita Assembly Center, brought from San Pedro

relocation in Arcadia, CA at Santa Anita Assembly Center, brought from San Pedro

4.  Was there a precedent for such forced movement under military oversight, in the confinement of native Americans in much of the American West to “reservations”, in a manner that Adolf Hitler himself has been noted to have particularly admired for the effective reorganization of the population of the West?  (Hitler was a large fan of Karl May as well as Fenimore Cooper; Navajo reservations provided not only an architectural model for early concentration camps, according to John Toland, which he took as a promise of the extermination of those unable to be “civilized,” in a bizarre bit of cross-cultural reading.)  The precedent of the forced 1864 “Long March” of over 300 miles–some fifty of which in fact occurred between designed to create forced migrations of American Indians from more potentially valuable mineralogical resources to reservations of contracting size.

For between 1864-6 of up to eighteen days attempted an ethnic cleansing of Navajo, from the ancestral homelands of hunters and gatherers located in current northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to the Bosque Redondo internment camp on the Pecos River nearby Fort Sumner–an internment camp that was itself an attempt at ethnic cleansing, where some 3,500 Navajo men, women, and children died and that stood as an inspiration of the possibilities of ethnic cleansing to the Nazi party, as did the camp for Boer prisoners in South Africa, and perhaps a model for the first plans to deport Jews to the area of Lubin to die of disease.  (The image of the confined Native American was potent:  Karl May remained among Hitler’s preferred authors, and Hitler continued to read May’s stories of the grizzled white cowboy Old Shatterhand as Führer and personally recommended to his officers, David Meier notes, during the Russian campaign–perhaps providing a model for the forced marches of prisoners of war to death camps.)

Reservation map MS 3039 map 11 (1886)

The forced migration of a hunting and gathering migratory tribe to an arid 40-square-mile reservation with contaminated water, to face failing crops, disease and raids from neighbouring tribes is a not-so-hidden part of the landscape of the “wild” west that must have been present in the minds of those who administered the transportation of Japanese Americans to sequestered sites of minimal economic or strategic value.

March map (Wiki commons)

While such equivalences in atrocity can hardly be drawn, and should not be encouraged, it remains striking on a conceptual and genealogical level that so many of the camps of internment for Japanese Americans were geographically located not only on state land, but at times on the very reservations on which Native Americans were actually confined–and restricted–in ways that provided a powerful precedent for such practices of territorial confinement and surveillance.

The Poston Relocation Center, for example, built on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in Arizona, working to provide the Reservation with electricity; the Leupp Isolation Center on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, northwest of Winslow; the Gila River Camp, approved in March 18, 1942, for 10,00, over pointed objections of the Gila River Indian Tribe; Tule Lake in an area that was the ancestral home of the Modoc, surviving members of whom were exiled to Oklahoma in 1873; Manzanar, located in the Owens Valley, in an area whose farmlands were worked by Shoshone and Paiutes for some time.  In these circumscribed and well-defined areas, the Constitution was deemed not to apply.  Despite no clear reaction between the Relocation Authorities and future Bureau of Indian Affairs, the director of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon S. Meyer, from 1950 to 1953 worked as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

5.  Few of these sites of isolation were known to the public, moreover, or showcased in the media, with the exception the “show-camp” of Gila River, Arizona.  But the existence of a “hidden geography” necessitated the show-camp among the numerous centers of sequestration Japanese-Americans might have faced.  Lying quite literally “off the map,”and not appearing on maps of the west save in those redacted by the government, the internment camps provide more than a solely symbolic predecessors of what Trevor Paglen has so accurately characterized as the “blank spots on the map Trevor Paglen described, run by the National Security Administration, in the wake of the newfound popularity of the juridical writings of  Carl Schmitt.

For the that became centers for the rendition of foreign nationals deemed security threats, like dry lakebed of Groom Lake, the area of the testing of the U2 missiles and other military aircraft in Area 51, run by the Air Force, or the National Data Center, sites run by the government but which lie outside the legal administration of the state, perversely, and in which the suspension of constitutional rights that Schmitt had claimed was argued to similarly apply.


The suspension of constitutional rights for the American-Japanese who were sequestered has an analogously long set of precedents of its own:  the forced displacement of Native Americans had been an established government policy and project for over sixty years in the nineteenth century, based on denying precedence to claims of residence in lands they had traditionally occupied.

The result created some unique patterns and combinations of interior settlement.  The Japanese Americans in one region came to outnumber the Mohave and Chemahuevi in the area of the desert where they had confined:  the Office of Indian Affairs, indeed, ran many camps together with the War Relocation Authority, based on the hope was to use Japanese labor to construct larger spaces of confinement for Native tribes–either using the confined to confine tribes already stripped of land, or using the dispossessed to create spaces of confinement for the nation-state that had stripped them of their own property–by the canalization of the desert or the construction of newly electrified living quarters.  Native Americans as the Cherokee had earlier been confined to “internment camps” before these were termed “reservations–internment camps whose plans may have served as models for the confinement of Jews in what became Death Camps–in World War II, the US also displaced Aleut people from the Pribilof Islands to internment camps located in Southeast Alaska.

Manznar War Relocation Camp

Do such sites of isolation provide an alternate genealogy for the foundation of rendition sites–“blank spots on the map“–that the NSA much more recently operated at a similar remove from the coasts, public memory, or legal oversight? Do they provide one genealogy of the “black areas” of the law that allow the invocation of state secrets by the government and especially by the Air Force and CIA, but also the Department of Justice of Alberto Gonzalez, where the torturous logic of Schmitt’s emphasis on the state’s right to name its enemies regained respect, partly through the validity that the conservative icon Leo Strauss had given his “political theology” as one way for a strong state to unite men against “evil”:  it is tempting to see what role Schmitt had in providing a precedent to invoke state secrets privilege to shore up the “black worlds” of the NSA, where extraordinary rendition of foreigners like Khaled El-Masri or the Canadian Maher Arar occur, and Groom Lake stays black–and effectively off the map–removing the construction of Air Force bases in Area 51 from criminal persecution, and effectively sanction violations of both federal law and the international Convention Against Torture in some locations. Indeed, the establishment of Relocation Camps mirror and echo the temporal creation of military sites in Southern Nevada that sprung up in the 1950s, nearby Area 51, which has been imagined both as a site of alien abductions and an alleged site for the US military to dedicated efforts to converting alien aircraft, have long remained hidden, and most probably not only to conceal contact with extra-terrestrial life for reasons of state.  The recently expanding government centers tied to extradition offer an an odd gloss on the myths of alien crafts’ conversion to the US military.  In a perverse fantasy of military omnipotence and natural providence, where for some the US Government is believed by many to have inherited the manifest destiny of the nation into the otherworldly relations to alien life.  Just past Death Valley National Park, the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain almost constitute the areas that the nation has removed from most maps–


Military Lands in S. Nevada


–even if the secretive area around Region 51 and Groom Lake, just above the Nellis Air Force Range near Las Vegas, became best-known as sites of an secretive space of rendition and imagined extraterritoriality.

Is the ideal mapping of these areas as removed from oversight, and not subject to prosecution, not only a relic of the Cold War, but a region rich with precedence as offering a theater of opposing the enemy, to maintain enmity, in Schmitt’s curious words, and to maintain such enmities to cultivate the primacy of action, and sustain a not-so-hidden sort of political theology?  If nothing else, it is an odd through-the-looking-glass sort of authenticity that seems located in these areas hidden from oversight. The imagined extraterritoriality which the government entertains is after all a sort of fictive escape from recognizing rights agreed to be accorded individuals, by the escapist alternative of removing them from the actual map:  it is as if, by leaving the map blank where they lie, the conventional rights accorded to all who inhabit the actual world are somehow exempted by their placement off of the recognized map, and outside the nominally universal rights that are accorded citizens by US law and by international legal conventions.  The map, in this sense, seems to have more power for removing people from international treaties and standards that the law could otherwise allow. Croom Lake


Is this a landscape of paranoia, whose contours were poisonously sculpted by a nuclear arms race of the Cold War–or a map of a secret history of sequestration, whereby an expanding nation state subtracted places from judicial review and removed them from public scrutiny?




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Filed under data visualizations, internment, internment camps, Japanese Internment, maps and surveillance

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #2

The ballyhooed shift of the economy from the industrial to the technological and financial sectors seems like it conceals the deep shift in the geography of the working male:  while the anthropocentric focus of the data is not meant to be gender-biased, it reveals a steady decline of the “working man”–an astounding tripling of men not working since the late 1960s.  The expansion of those not working reflects in roughly broad brushstrokes parallels a decline of the industrial workforce, but is also an interesting metric to map the transformation of the nation in ways that concepts of the Recession or failures of job-production cannot describe.  The terrain of men between twenty-five and fifty-four without work–a rough measure of adulthood and able-bodiedness, of which even setting traditional parameters, provide a contrast with the categories of a landscape of the past,  and suggests the shifting place of the working age man in American society–if not the relation between man and work, and the absence of work’s spatial distribution in the United States.

Recent visualizations of the decline of a national workforce seem more like conversation stoppers from which there is little prospect of relief or escape than invitations for thought.  While what we talk about when we view a data visualization is dictated by the parameters of the snapshot it declares, the landscape of the out of work in America is on the front burner of most data visualizers, who have been competing, in the manner of so many actuaries, to present the best picture of American decline.  Fear grips the visualization of the drying up of work, which seems extracted or deflated in ways that create a new sense of hills and valleys in the topographic maps of the country:  what were once centers of the economy are transformed in the economic landscapes of unemployment that they present, providing new contours that we are asked to assess as if it is time to assess the place where we are at through the effects that the arrival of the “Great Recession” from Sea to Shining Sea–and the centers of work that continue to exist across the Home of the Brave.

Before examining the maps of those out of work in America, the contours of such a map suggests one of the backgrounds for the reception of the internet economy and digital revolution that may reveal the special appeal of the somewhat illusory notion that the web promises the coming generation of a wave of new jobs.  While the internet has been blessed as a solace to the out of work, transformed by alchemy of the world wide web into blissed-out surfers putting their time into online betting and social networking sites, net advocates insist on potential economic benefits of the new cultural commons of “prosumers” that lies on the horizons of our backlit lives.  The foreseeing of a massive expansion of the DIY economy as part of a “Third Industrial Revolution” that is to be unleashed on the internet will not only provide a basis for reunderstanding the energy grid; for many, new sites of trading and commerce–on Etsy or other virtual marketplaces–has spontaneously generated claims for the benefits of such new platforms for marketing creativity that will work to make folks feel valued and great about both their “work” and themselves.  Yet Sue Halpern found these claims quite creepy in their unstated underside, not often mentioned by enthusiasts such as Jeremy Rifkin who prophesies a Third Industrial Revolution of clean energy and renewable resources across the globe:   for the link between the internet and a new “energy paradigm” in the new industrial revolution of an “energy internet,” may well augur a day when workers may not only be increasingly replaced by machines, as the internet decouples productivity from human work, but, more insidiously, e-commerce creates the illusion of productive engagement:  “a do-it-yourself subculture is thriving, and sharing cars, tools, houses, and other property is becoming more common, [but] it is also true that much of this activity is happening under duress as steady employment disappears.”  (While 60 million consumers interact with Etsy, Amanda Hess found that 65% of sellers made more than $100 last year.  Compared to the 5,000,000 jobs that Slate‘s Associate Editor Chris Wilson mapped as vanishing from 2008 to 2009 presented a devastating picture of job-loss, barely compensated by talk of the growth of online sellers and small-scale Amazonians.)  This new sense of “work” is not only based on the distractions of web-surfing and the rise of private activities completed during working time in offices, sometimes up to average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day., and even the conclusion that 70 percent of internet traffic to pornographic sites during what seem working hours, and the majority of online purchases (up to 60%) from a similar 9-5 timeframe.  But the illusory jobs and increased appearance of engagement that the internet nourishes seems as important to acknowledge in describing the radical redefinition of work in America.  The apparent addiction to such “involuntary slacking” seems to demand attention as an important counterpart to the shifting geography of work in the United States.

What happened in the dire picture of a loss of five million jobs that he presented of national decline that began from roughly when, in what one can’t feel is a coincidental metric, President Obama took office, and we faced our greatest threat of economic downturn in many years?


The image of economic implosion, or decline in job growth in 2008, two years after the Recession had officially begun, offers a map of the points of local vulnerability to job losses that contrasts with the earlier maps of job growth, and seems like a job-loss virus, spreading from centers of past urban growth, in ways that augur something like a national decline:  the northeast and northern California are deep red, as is the former industrial midwest around Detroit, and the Northwest doesn’t seem to be doing better.  Texas, almost alone with Vermont, for some reason, has spots of blue.  It is not surprising that the Wired map was quickly taken up by Fox News:  the spread of scarlet sink-holes of job-depletion across the continent, radiating out into its surrounding waters, offers a vision of apocalypticism that “others” the continent from a geographic land mass.  The medium of the data visualization offers a snapshot of the status quo sending shivers down one’s spine, jointly suggesting a draining of jobs from the national economy and raising questions about its future.

The image is striking, and drowning in large circles of red, denoting job loss, with small spots of bright blue standing like beacons of hope, but a larger scale image of the shifting growth of unemployment rates over the decade from a Public Policy research team, Mathematica, using statistics from the Census and Dept. of Labor, crafts a far more finely grained picture of national losses from 2000 to 2013, less mired in a feeling of depression and more legible both it int texture and county-by-county specifics that might tell us more:

County Unemployemnt Rate

even if the snapshot map taken in a single year, as 2010, when unemployment was high, revealed a dire deal indeed:

2010 USA

The flat opacity that these data visualizations track, rather than inviting us to contemplate a graphic prospectus of the future, provide a snapshot of relative poverty before which we stand aghast.

The internet has arrived not only as the time-suck from productivity that we’ve all, unconsciously, suspected, but with the promise of a possibility for fashioning new jobs that would lift us from the Great Recession.  Despite the deepest claims that internet commerce provides the opportunity to unleash a new level of contact with consumers and wave of independent sales, it may well be, although it is quite hard to confirm, that the amount of time spent online is something somewhat correlated to the new appearance of folks who are taking steps to leave the workforce, and find solace online, removed from the workplace environments that can provide a somewhat comforting cocoon.  The hope of Jeremy Rifkin that Halpern wryly characterizes as a “vision that people will occupy themselves with more fulfilling activities like making music and self-publishing novels once they are freed from work” exposes the possibility that the internet offers an odd outlet for dropping out of the marketplace.  For while it may be but a coincidence, the shifting geography of being out-of-work, the long-term decline of the American workforce found an interesting outlet for self-promotion and self-fashioning on the internet that Jeremy Rifkin, Lawrence Lessig, and others promise.  But including this image of the economy, or even its economic potential, is almost seems inversely proportioned in its difficult to map compared to the trumpet its benefits.

For the expansion of such self-made businesses or “trade venues” on the web parallel a search to innovate by folks who have been marginalized from or forced to leave the labor force in ways that our statistics of unemployment as reported widely do not fully capture–we must begin by taking stock of the fact that a broad measure of unemployment rose .  To begin to get a handle on our national quagmire of the out work, we need to compute alternative measures of unemployment, however, noting the depressing picture including a broad measure of unemployment computed by the Labor Department to include marginally attached workers–which rose far more than official unemployment rate defined as those looking for work, as Brendan Saloner noted in 2010–even if that rate has now declined to below 6% once again, rather than not budging from 9.6% as was then the case.  The distribution of such a broad measure of underemployment (or unemployment) had striking national variabilities in 2010, focussing on metropolitan areas alone.


Moving a bit forward in time, the New York Times and Economist noted the importance of considering regional disparities in the “Great Recession” by 2011, noting areas where unemployment crested to 20%–

Geograph of a Recession

–which boasted marked declines in unemployment across much of the country for the first time, save in those places deeply effected by the housing bubble, including California, Florida and Nevada, and those regions whose ingrown unemployment was brought by declining industry, such as Pennsylvania or Indiana:

from June '10

New York Times

The picture of relative discrepancies in the specific areas where national employment rates crested above 20% in some areas, or unemployment stubbornly refused to decrease, presents a picture can be interestingly fit into the long-term decline of the workforce in America, the journalist and historian Yoni Appelbaum has argued.  The long-term decline matches a growing share of the male population who need help or are paying taxes, Appelbaum found, which has wrought considerable social changes in our attitudes toward work and workplaces, independently from the “Great Recession.”  Indeed, the shifting geography of the out of work between the ages of 25 and 54 across the nation  provides a similar distribution of deep valleys.  The nation-wide rise in the numbers of out of work men raise interesting questions about what folks are doing with their time, and what sustains attention at a time of disengagement from the economic marketplace.  Men are not, here, taken as the metonymy for human, but describe a deep change in the status quo which may well suggest the feeling of remove from those technological sectors where the economy has grown, and goes beyond a decline in job creation in specific areas across the United States, that may reflect a geography of desperation and alienation independent from the creation of further jobs.  While the prognosis is not warranted from the map alone, the rise of such out of work men, who either elect to leave the workforce or adopt the classification as disabled, creates a distinct culture in specific cities and regions unlike one of competition for existing jobs, that may pose deep threats for the economy and indeed for public health.

While somewhat like the long-term unemployment rates in its complexure, the distinct nature of the pockets of out of work men are removed from the labor market, and present a topography of what might be called disengagement, if one would not rather use terms without moral judgement. While the two issues are closely tied, the specificity of the map of men out of work map seems striking in its greater demographic specificity.

Men Not Working Map

New York Times/Yoni Applebaum

In ways that seem paralleled by the number of women who are leaving the workforce of the same ages, and to illustrate a deep shift of the culture of work, “working, in America, is in decline,” as Appelbaum put it.  Is this major and ongoing shift in how we relate to work, deeply linked to the rise of the disaffection of many from an existing labor market sen too removed from one’s own self-valuation, or perhaps below one’s competence, the expansion of those outside the workforce, male and female–the non-employed, including disabled or with compensation, make up over an eight of the entire adult US population, include students and those retired, but only 25% are classified as unemployed.


Almost independently from “unemployment” per se, the sector of such non-employed between ages 25 and 54 seems particularly unhealthy for the nation, and difficult to explain–as is their apparent geographic clustering.  Only just over half say that their jobs ended with the last recession of December 2007 (61%), but an eighth (13%) claim never to have had a full-time job, suggesting that they are probably on the younger end of the age spectrum.

Why not work, despite the clear adverse psychological and personal effects of such an apparent decision or perceived inability to change one’s condition?  Greater risk for substance abuse, alcoholism, depression–widely recognized as both costly and debilitating–and documented difficulties to create stable relationships.  The choice that men make not to work–or to join a workforce which is still looking to hire–indeed raises questions about families and psychological health, and about the perceived place of the individual in the social world.   But the geography of this decision or lack of apparent incentive to join the workforce that Appelbaum found particularly striking, almost approaches a collective paralysis or depression, if with distinct underlying causes, that in aggregate particularly plagues specific areas of the country–areas associated, to be sure, often with economic decline, but also which seem swamps of unsuccessful stories and narratives, and invites new narratives to be told about maps.  But the poverty of information in the data visualization, whose focus on the present status quo offers only a concentration on the short-term, seems something of an evacuation of information from the map, and demands to be supplemented by greater detail to better grasp the distribution it seeks to define.  Looking for further dimensionality of the data it presents, one is tempted to seek correlations in the flat colors of comparable datasets to find what narratives might emerge from the flat visual surfaces that are presented in the amnesiac surfaces of the data visualizations.

One might start from comparing, for example, to the short-term snapshots of depression according to a Behavioral Risk Surveillance System.  Although the broad geographic parameters of this 2010 map issued by the CDC doesn’t offer comparable fine-grained detail, and both leaves many interesting areas without data (Kentucky) and shows significantly elevated rates of depression across the Old South, it suggests contours of depression across the country, particularly dense in spots of long term out-of-workness from West Virginia–if data lacks for Kentucky–Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee, where it crested above 10%:


But the map unsurprisingly more closely correlates in select regions with the recent Newsweek “Health Gap” that combines mental health and college attendance with other variables of 2014, which uses data from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute–even if that map is not really surprising, and seems to square with a remove from health care, in its clustering on the Mississippi, western Kentucky, and parts of northern Floridam with the Nevada part of the Four Corners and northern New Mexico:


The distribution of the out-of-work male offers a fascinating new subject of mapping, since its distribution seems defined distinctly from the mapping of areas of economic growth, unemployment, or taxation, and suggests a local acceptance of the very demographic category of being out of work.

While we’re at it, of course, we might ask to parse the national distribution of unemployed men along both socioeconomic background and ethnicity, if only to see the results–but these seem to be beyond the point, which is the disquieting nature of the prominence of the category of not seeing oneself as a part of the workforce.  For if there are slightly more non-employed who are African American (14 percent versus 10 percent) or Hispanic (20 percent versus 15 percent), a majority (above 54%) have only a high school education or less, and seem as if our society has failed them–only one fifth have graduated from a 4-year college, in contrast to almost 40% percent of full-time workers, and the disconnect between work and education seems a clearer metric than all else, and their health, as self-reported, is predictably bad–suggesting the possibility of looming considerable social and personal costs, and a great crisis in public health, even if among the non-employed, some 74% affirmed that they have health insurance.  Yet it is conspicuous that one-fifth of non-employed have completed a college degree–even if, perhaps, only recently.

This relatively large number of college graduates who are not able to find work casts a ray of light at the deep depression that might result of being without work, and a paralyzing uncomprehending sense of inadequacy.

The below map offers a compelling mirror of society, and of the long-term difficulties we face.  For the distribution “men not working” is laden with both deep levels of depression, anxiety, and economic despair difficult to process fully, whose apparent uneven distribution and pockets of deep concentration that amazingly surpass 33% suggest the seriously impacted problems of how we define work and occupation today.  The concentration of select areas of dark blue seem swamps of something akin to despair–located around the “Four Corners” and border of New Mexico and Arizona; Southern Oregon; western Montana; northern California; Appalachia; and areas of the Deep South; southern Florida–that seem sights that are sinking, if not almost disappearing, as if potholes of personal futures, off the road map of the common good. These darkly colored regions, off the main highways of America, are less traveled areas, but inescapable parts of our nation’s economy.  Unlike the map of of unemployment for metropolitan areas, some of the most difficult regions of the persistence of men out of work appear at a remove from cities–although the maps use different indices. they suggest similar pictures of the difficulties in the topography of job creation.

Men Not Working Map

Percent Legend

New York Times/Yoni Appelbaum

The local dips in sectors of the nations reveal dark spots in the national economy that can only haunt us.  The metrics of not working men is striking, particularly as the dark green blotches in southern Oregon, northern New Mexico, Appalachia, or parts of Idaho convey a grim desperation of economic displacement, and almost communicate a sense of being left behind.  Is there an odd acceptance of a dark status quo in these areas, where with something like almost half of adult men not at all working leads to a labor market that can almost never be met, and a paralysis of looking for jobs, or actually imagining alternative signs of success?

The region in Northern California, for example, suggests a desperation at the lack of employment opportunities that leads a hazy air of diminished expectations to hang over the land.  The SAMSHA map of sub-state variations of substance abuse using data available online maps a picture disconcertingly parallel in several of its pockets, particularly much of northern California and the Florida Panhandle, but also the Four Corners and Colorado, and LA, although what, exactly, “abuse” is here needs to be examined defined:


We can see a raging 5.1% dependence on or abuse of alcohol in south-central Kentucky, abuse of drugs in Western Massachusetts, on the level of Washington DC, and similarly high levels by the Mexican border in Arizona.   Each of these areas is to some extent echoed in the map of the men who are out of the labor market and not working:  only North Dakota and Iowa seem to be showing low levels of abuse in the years before 2010, which can’t make one feel great about the country, even if the bright red spots in Oklahoma and Idaho come at considerable surprise.

Alcohol dependency seems to be more striking in Northern Central California, Idaho and Montana, and northern states like South Dakota and Minnesota, although Utah is very dry.


But the relation to the out-of-work seems particularly keen and in demand of excavating from the staid surface of the data visualization of local variations in the sustained spread of substance abuse.

Applbaum’s county-by-county visualization offers an inviting grounds for exploration, due perhaps to the appeal of the palate he uses to denote the out-of-work by deepening shades of green and dark blue to denote those men who are out of work, and the apparent narratives that the resulting distribution offers one to spin out of it:  the often opaque surface of such data visualizations seems sensitive to discrepancies in quality of life and the changing ways to spend time that result from such a lack of work.  For example, the rough terrain near to Mendocino, land of spectacularly stupendous ocean views, conceals a growing desperation among numbers of the of sustained employment in several inland areas in California, if not along its coast.

Men not Working Mendocino

Percent LegendNew York Times

Such troughs across the county suggest  a dramatically diminished range of expectations that poorly communicate a future life.  This might be increasingly true of urban areas, where lack of employment seems often endemic in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which pop out of a broader map of the city.

LAPercent LegendNew York  Times

Moving to a broader geographic area, however, the region of the Four Corners together with spots from the Central Valley seem similarly pock-marked with diminished hopes and lowered expectations of arriving at a permanent job, creating what seem swamps of underemployment in parts of the Southwest, where low numbers of working men in large stretches of the country create a striking culture of unwork:

four corners and central valleyPercent LegendNew York Times

the number of men who are not working creates pronounced disequilibria of employment across the economy, and indeed a radically diminished expectation of one’s sense of an active life, let alone retirement.

While rural Appalachia seems one thing, the pockets of men outside the workforce across South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, presents a dire image of a lack of available jobs that correlates interestingly with the refusal to accept National Health Care, and extend to the coast of the Florida panhandle.  Concentrated communities of men not looking for work along the shoreline of the southern states in the Carolinas raise questions of the geography of the out of work.


Percent LegendNew York Times

While we are only tracking men, such potholes of local employment suggest something like low-income clusters, and support groups of the economically alienated, which have no clear or immediate resolution in sight, but seems somehow, one worries, to perpetuate its own existential condition.

The notion of being left behind by a job market, or not being able to integrate within an existing workplace, with little way out, seems to be a central issue in the landscape of heightened disparities that remains.  While it demands far further study and individual local examination, the terrain often seems interminably bleak.  There is the prospect that we are in the process of a broad redefining of work, and of the working landscape, but there are plenty other areas lying outside that changing landscape of work that seem to be left out.  Our changing landscape of employment may be left at the doorstep of a changing national character, but suggests a deep divergence across the country in seeing oneself as a head of households, and of realistic economic expectations.

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Filed under data visualizations, Great Recession, infographics, mapping men without work, mapping the "Great Recession", mapping the not working, unemployment, Unemployment in America, unwork

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #1

We’ve become increasingly accustomed to how data visualizations divide the nation.  But the proliferation of such visualizations almost carries the danger of introducing multiple metrics of diminishing effect.  While we have become so used to how they divide the nation into groups, their multiplication tends to erase the past that lies beneath them, and creates something like a parlor game of contemplating explanatory bases for divides, even indulging the  visual pleasure of parsing the nation that obscures the public good.  In cultivating a period eye of the infographic, a somewhat terrifying occurrence perpetuated now by federalist states’ rights, whose genealogy extends back to efforts to oppose desegregation, we readily consume such rapidly produced images of the nation’s divides.

Organizing the overlooked role nonprofits play across the country create an extremely sensitive marker of how we inhabit the nation, and the varied micro-cultures and economies it retains, even in an age of globalization.  The value of such a map lies less in the image that it presents of the nation as a mirror of a status quo than as a stimulus to reflection and self-examination, as well as an interrogation to the benefits that nonprofits continue to bestow on the public good at the same time as the ongoing and impending contraction of the public sector of government fails to meet those needs.  For the place of the nonprofit in our society provides a way of thinking about their relation to public needs not often met and productive ways of reshaping the status quo.  The very unevenness of the distributions of employment at nonprofits suggests questions of levels of education and legal or financial training, to be sure, as well as necessary capital for forming boards, to make us reflect on the uneven existence and acceptance of nonprofits’ roles in public life.

But if the reasons for such an uneven distribution of nonprofits across the country are unclear–as is the proportional number of positions that nonprofits hire in private-sector employment–it seems especially rewarding to parse and challenging to unpack:  for while the environments that help nonprofits remains a topic for sociological research and scholarly inquiry, the demonstrably different economies and cultures of charitable giving that encourage nonprofits suggest divides in a range of services across the nation–as does the strength of belief in the worthiness and need for the attention of nonprofits to specific issues.  The economic needs of nonprofits presents an image of the national economy that prompts more investigation of the lay of the land–and the national economy’s variegated landscape, that cut to the heart of how maps illustrate spatial divides, far more effectively than the often untrustworthy distributions of votes or political affiliations.  If we have come to privilege difference and map national divides, the landscape of nonprofits demands close scrutiny for what it tells us about the uneven nature of how nonprofits play a public role across the nation–roles with indeed might be encouraged by something as simple as the availability of both open-access on-line data, which still widely varies across America, and indeed the availability of broadband.  (The uneven distribution of the first is pictured in the header to this post.)

A quick initial compare-and-contrast between the most recent snapshot of the percentage of employment in nonprofits of all total employment to the recent metrics of “Where Men Aren’t Working” across the country suggests an almost inverse relation between employment and the landscape of employment in nonprofits–which, with local exceptions, reveal increased economic health.  But the nonprofit landscape in America is more than that, and cannot be reduced to a healthy economy alone.  The reduced presence of the nonprofit across many states mapped below must no doubt have provoked a deeper rippling effect in local and regional economies, which we will be increasingly feeling over time.


non profs in 2012

Men Not Working Map

1.  The multiple socioeconomic factors lead to such steep variations in employment at nonprofits are unclear, and can’t be reduced to single metrics since they are based on synergies.  But the uneven nature of their distribution seem to respond partly to the culture of the availability of a trained demographic, allowing possible professional donation of time, and a distinctly well-trained workforce, as well as either charitable giving–although boards are clearly important–and social needs.  The presence of nonprofits themselves also clearly impact the environments that encourage and allow the vitally important roles that they play in the local society, and generate clusters of nonprofits, with experts and legal teams, that greatly facilitate their growth in ways that meet important local needs–as well, often, as the existence of a number of trained individuals (from former teachers to health-care professionals) able to service the functioning of the nonprofit and its specific needs–a number of which were created during the recent Recession.  The importance of mapping this human geography of the public sector seems especially important in the face persistent attempts to parse, and effectively essentialize the country’s apparent political divides.  Indeed, the topography of the nonprofit provides an interesting way of illustrating differences across the nation–and the map of the spatial distribution of nonprofits addresses interesting questions of how maps illustrate spatial and cultural divides.

The uneven geography of non-profits partly responds to the uneven familiarity with the varied roles nonprofits can fill in local economies–and the existence of evidence of the benefits a nonprofit can bring to local communities.  Clear inequalities within the employment nonprofit organizations can offer mapping of the economic inequities and inequalities of public life.  The role of nonprofits in America is primarily understood as meeting a large and needed social good that would otherwise not be served–and providing a legal infrastructure for private investment to flow in ways that will benefit the public good, extending from preserving the untrammeled nature of public spaces to the effectiveness of our health needs, schools, parks, and the large artistic communities that our nation is able to foster, as well as the monitoring of the continued safety of drinking water or protection of its coasts.

The multiple roles of nonprofits deserve special consideration and hold particular import as an index of social health.  But nonprofits can also be understood as providing some 11.4 million jobs in America, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s recent measurement.  Clearly, a culture of non-profits tends to reinforce itself, and give needed momentum for the expansion of further boards, endowments, and dedication–in ways that permit a culture of nonprofit organizations or 501(c)3’s to gain legitimacy as a source of employment and indeed an effective public actor in a region.  But telling divides are evident among regions of the United States in a map that discriminates between those states that foster nonprofit activity in the country–both as a means of distributing local wealth and directing public attention to public needs.  How much does this divide show a shifting awareness of the role that nonprofits can play within the economy–not only in purely economic terms, and by providing some 5.5% of the GDP and employing some 13.7 million people, or, in 2010, about 10% of the workforce, distributed over a range of business areas including health, education, human services, environmental groups, and international affairs, as well as varied public society benefits, in 2010 and 2011–with most being quite small.   While about 2/3 the income of nonprofits came from private sources in 2010, they offer a crucial role in identifying sites for charitable giving and areas for volunteer work, as well as tax-deductible contributions.  Even despite the recession, giving grew considerably from 2000 to 2009, by 32%, but the geography of the growth in employment was considerably segregated between north and south, in ways that suggest a distinct shift among two qualitatively different sorts of economies, given the sizable contributions that nonprofits are poised to make to local economies.


2.  A clear divide had emerged by 2007, when the majority of employment at nonprofits were based largely in the northeast, it seems, as well as in the less-densely populated states of the midwest, in ways that oddly mirror a North-South divide which inexplicably extents the Mason-Dixon line across the lower forty-eight before the Recession began:


non profit employment in 2007, USA

Perhaps revealing a Scandinavian influence of Minnesota and social conscience of Wisconsonians that has begun to migrate across the country, the northern states not only have a huge edge on non-profits that employ a large number, but a different effect on local societies where they’ve grown.The percentage of non-profits has clearly solidified in the central US during the following year, which revealed something of a sizable growth of states employing over 10% in nonprofits in the year that the Recession began:


non profits 2008 in usa


What’s striking in the statistical distribution released by the US Department of Labor is its difference from the map of the over two million in the nonprofit universe among the disaggregated states in which they exist, which dismembers the nonprofit from the territory in ways that rank those states possessing the largest aggregates of nonprofits–shown here in a rainbow spectrum–without discriminating relative size.




This “pro-performance map” crafted by Guidestar in 2014 tracks the number of nonprofits alone as if this was meaningful.  To be sure, it shows a somewhat important picture of the “nonprofit universe,” which warms at the coasts, but whose topography betrays noted dip in wealth in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, somewhat able to be reconciled with the above, but a huge number of nonprofits in Texas and Florida, as well as New York, Pennsylvania, and California, in a far more disparate topography, but little sense of its topology.  The view that it affords of on the ground of the terrains in which nonprofits operate seems intentionally rendered opaque and misleading; it is perhaps designed to be more celebratory or illustrative of variations than deeply informative.

The high number of nonprofits based in both Texas and Florida, however, inversely reflects the relatively small number of employees in nonprofits in either state compared, say, to New York–which hosts a similar number of non-profits–or to California–though the huge number of nonprofits in that state greatly exceeds that of Texas.  But true variations exist on a more local level.  The numbers of nonprofits are not ranked by population density, or nonprofits’ size and volume of business or effectiveness, although the nature of this funny animal–the nonprofit–also seems to resist clear classification enough that grouping their number in aggregate may be of questionable value save for tax reasons.


3.  However, the deep disparities among regions where nonprofits might meet compelling social needs–witness the wide trough of bright yellow in the deep south, or the orange of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Idaho, more than a decreased degree of available capital, needed boards, or philanthropy.  The map of philanthropy in America interestingly reveals that the decrease in the presence of nonprofits is not necessarily in clear correlation with giving alone:  indeed, according to a recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the proportion of income that wealthy Americans gave to charity as a whole steadily declined as the recession began to lift from 2012, even as middle class Americans, interestingly, gave more readily to charities, as did the poor, either  as they seem to have more disposable income and cash, or as they developed more empathy–the generosity of giving among those earning $200,000 or more declined some 4.6% from 2006-12, while those earning below $100,000 annually increased the share of their income given to charity by 4.5%–creating a sizable spread–and meaning that charities and nonprofits are by no means looking only to the wealthy for support. Moreover, the map of giving across the country revealed some truly striking differences–with greater generosity existing throughout many states where somewhat fewer numbers of nonprofits tend to exist, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado and parts of Arizona and Nevada, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota; Georgia experienced a huge growth in its giving ration.  (Strikingly low records of giving exist in New York, measured in this way, as well as California.)


mapping philanthropy

Giving Ratio


Such an image of the “Giving Ratio” across the nation–and the sharp declines that it reveals in charitable giving in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia–as well as the generosity that it reveals in cities across the Sun Belt from Memphis to Birmingham–conceals that wide variations in economic wealth across the country, as well as the variations in the local presence and intensity of poverty or topology of need.  It also does not unpack what the charitable giving was destined to do.

It is also true that local variations in giving are difficult to classify by state alone, however, and have, as this map of Giving in the Bay Area reveals, a distinctively varied topology.



Bay Area Giving


Nonprofits depend on defining one’s vision and values, as well as the cash-flow so fundamental to making a nonprofit organization work–or attracting the needed funding and board needed to clarify philanthropic goals as the Recession lifted.  The ties to an audience before whom one is able to define both specific goals and best practices are especially critical.  The issue of employment within nonprofits might be placed in the context of total private employment (excluding federal, county, or local jobs, in other words).  But it seems to have most strikingly and stably grown in the northern states through 2012, even in the Recession–which is fundamentally a very good thing.  But the absence of a larger than 6% employment in non-profits within the private sector in a number of needy states or states with large income disparities–first and foremost, Texas–is however striking.  What makes the difficulty in defining the goals of nonprofits seems deeply tied to the sorts of settings where philanthropic projects can be effectively sold.

The proportion of those employed in nonprofits continued to grow steadily during 2012 both in Virginia and North Carolina, as in California–at which time as such employment stagnated in states like Wyoming, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina, the few without a sizable number of nonprofit employment; states in the SouthWest like New Mexico and Arizona, in ways that suggest the changing political temperatures of those regions, at the same time as Indiana grew larger in the number it had of jobs with nonprofit organizations.


non profs in 2012

The national landscape of nonprofits seems decisively tilted to the north and Blue states, or at least to exclude Texas, Wyoming, and much of the Deep South, as well as a few Red states such as Idaho and Arizona. These are places where few would ever go to work for a nonprofit organization, and probably one couldn’t imagine a well-paying job with a nonprofit, given the lesser amount of money in circulation for the public good.


4.  Shifts in employment in nonprofits charted in the above maps from the U.S. Bureau of Labor suggests several hypotheses that demand to be investigated in the future.  The data visualizations clearly show, it seems, the increasing growth and consolidation of the viable employments among nonprofits in those areas where a critical mass of non-profit works exists and circulates, informed in both best practices and opportune models of structuring of such valuable public entities, to fulfill roles not provided by government services.  To be sure, they also show the local consolidation of nonprofits’ advisory boards–not geographically limited, to be sure, but greatly informing the viability of a nonprofit community, matching congruent interests.  But they also reveal the consolidation of a perhaps incremental awareness over time of the visible results non-profits play, and the supplemental benefits that the community can draw from them:  and it is this final factor that seems most dismaying in the maps of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, because we are approaching–or seem to be–a nation in which the divided perception of the role played by non-profits might be becoming naturalized in ways that run against all of our better interests.

While one wouldn’t want to suggest that specific areas have an over-abundance of the nonprofit, there are increasing deserted stretches of the absence of employment by nonprofits, “nonprofit wastelands” where the possible public roles that such entities could play are absent from public debate.  Although the differentiation of the country is increasingly isolating the same southern states for which the Voting Rights Act stipulated “pre-clearance” for changes in electoral laws or practices in order to mitigate segregation from political involvement, the map that results suggests a distinct business culture, less directed to joining boards, providing public involvement, or being encouraged to foster communities of giving across much of the Old South.  This suggests, more than anything, a shifting topography of those states where there primarily don’t seem to be evident social concerns that command attention, or where organizations such as credit unions are needed, and the most dramatic disparities in wealth can not only be found.  One could associate these distributions in interesting ways to areas where there is less hope–both because of persistent poverty, divided here into metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, and less interest in investment or giving back–that seem endemic to Alabama, Mississippi, and sectors of Texas and South Dakota.  What is at stake is not only those areas where one can best communicate one’s vision, but where the pitch for philanthropy can be sufficiently effective to gain a sufficiently broad body of a workforce to attract works to one’s cause.  And in many sites of more persistent poverty, the requisite sort of cash flow might have dried up if it existed in recent times.




(Looking at the distribution of non metro poverty across the south, we might re-evaluate Rand Paul’s ill-spirited observation in Time magazine that “The failure of the war on poverty has created a culture of violence” in Ferguson MO that put police “in a nearly impossible situation”:  a population no longer feeling itself served by a system of justice seems the result of a persistent disenfranchisement, as much as poverty:  instead of blaming “moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair” on politicians who have betrayed trust by encouraging the “poverty trap,” we might do well to look at the deeper causes for neglect of social inequalities.  Deeply ingrained questions of unemployment are clear in tabulating the geographic distribution of folks with income lying below the poverty level state-by-state, using the American Community Survey of 2010, a synthesis from disparities in economic wealth synthesized in censuses from 1980 to 2011.




Although Wyoming does not appear a site of significant populations below the poverty level, and only a fairly conspicuous region of large non-metro poverty rates–




the 2010 Census revealed Wyoming’s three counties with high poverty rates, removed from a swaths of green.




The inverse relation can be expressed by charting the degree of income inequality at the county-by-county level, using the Gini index, which provides a far more finely grained view of inequality.  By organizing the distributions along different quintiles of income-equality, where a zero value expressed full or complete income equality or parity, the persistence of gaps in income inequality–and increase in need–can be mapped county-by-county.

To be sure, only a small range of the nation approaches much above .6, but such peaks of inequality are, somewhat terrifyingly, not only clustered contiguously, but quite clearly localized and concentrated in several specific areas of the nation’s landscape, from the tip of the Florida coast to the deep souther  sates to ares in the Dakotas to rural West Virginia:





The very areas of the south and southwest where income inequality is most pronounced int he 2011 American Community Survey suggests a distinct social topography, one where the incomes of workers at nonprofits are unlikely to congregate or be as visible parts of the local economy, creating the precedents and models for nonprofit action in public life.  Not only are  non-profits less likely to have as high or elevated a social profile, but the sorts of jobs done by the nonprofits and services that they render, often designed to supplement the shrinking presence of federal government in public life or engagement in venues from public education to the environment, invisible or rarely present.  What sort of map would be devised to better illustrate this uneven topography of the nonprofit?  Perhaps a map of the layers of individual sort of nonprofits across counties, that would comprehend the variations in the range of causes that nonprofits might address–which would better show the lacuna or absences of the work of nonprofits, from hospitals to credit unions to afterschool groups to environmental watchdogs, that fill increasingly needed roles across the country.

Does this relate to the distribution of nonprofits, those engines of the redistribution of capital and distributors of benefits of social wealth?  The goods and services that nonprofits generate would be made more visible, in short, integrated into the sort of OpenStreetMap template to chart the relative dearth or multiplication of nonprofits as the very services that nonprofits provide society–often not only supplementary but complementary to the services available in a purely for-profit firms and contractual arrangements, as Hansmann suggested (Hansmann 1980) but also, as economists David Easely and Maureen O’Hara classically argued, as providing activities not offered or able to be contracted in a purely for-profit economy.  Illustrating the diverse ranges that their services fill across the country would be a start to generate a picture of the topography of the needs filled by and goods contracted through nonprofits that individual state statutes allow.  If such a map could be correlated with the local topographic variations across the country’s landscape reveals the varied constraints that nonprofits face and encounter in providing these needs, the different cultures that are created by nonprofits, as much as that nonprofits simply reflect, might be mapped.

The improvement of social welfare that are often among the outcomes of nonprofits might be evened out or at least comprehended as a result, rather than be naturalized or written off as part of the status quo, and the shifting rules in which nonprofits work better understood.  Indeed, working toward the articulation of a clear vision and mission depend on a possibility of finding a believable middle ground which may not readily exist in several states.  They make us want to start to ask what sort of society in which we want to live, and how we might best attend to the severity of the range of economic  inequalities and inequities of access to education that persist across the country.  In an era of increasingly uneven access to technology–and the areas of technological expertise from which nonprofits can benefit–we are, moreover, increasingly in danger of perpetuating the uneven distribution of opportunities for nonprofit employment across the land.  Which would be not only a shame, but have deep consequences for the country’s future political debate.

For while we pretend that the political space of the country is uniform, it is not, and the unequal basis of national infrastructures starts from the basic inequalities in access to broadband, still mostly concentrated in the northeast and region around Lake Michigan, as well as the larger megacities on the west coast from Los Angeles and San Diego to San Francisco and Seattle, with Denver thrown in.  An attempt at evening the ground for the development of nonprofits in different areas might be to reduce extreme variations in the maximum advertised speed and availability of broadband across areas of the country, 3 – 6 Mbps to 1 Gbps+–evident in the near-absence of high-speed broadband in a state like Wyoming–


Max Download Speed BB


or the troughs evident in the number of broadband providers available across different regions, and the clustering this creates, not to mention the deserts in Arkansas:


Served-Unserved # providers 2 to 6



or the numbers of providers offering broadband access


Nubmer of Poviders offering access


or national variations in typical download speeds:


Download speeds


download speed legend


The relative lack of broadband providers in high Gini coefficient regions of persistent poverty unsurprisingly align with those where relative opportunities nonprofit employment is lowest–if the roles that nonprofits might play perhaps most prominent.


BB Providers, 2-12


While such maps, available for further scrutiny at far greater local detail courtesy the Federal Communications Commission’s interactive Broadband Map, may seem far removed from the differences in non-profits, high-speed downloads and access provides one of the crucial channels to jumpstart nonprofits’ activities and provide something of a level playing field in which–pardon the laissez faire rhetoric–nonprofits can grow.  Recent debates about ensuring national net neutrality allow an equality of broadband access that is the basis for preventing further divides from becoming more exacerbated–with deep consequences for the future of political debate and discussion in the United States, as well as institutions of social welfare, in the immediate future.  Allowing corporations to gain privileged possession of a “fast lane”–and shunting all others into a “slow lane”–would leave the country with a two-tier system of access to and availability of resources that are not only individual, but would effectively discourage the growth of nonprofit work in many areas that need it most, and have to deal, as a result, with the lacuna that are embedded in a purely for-profit marketplace.

The crowd-sourced responses of FCC Consumer Broadband Test reveals where the ISP speed was regarded as insufficient used responses to a deeply relative question, but compellingly shows–in a map where red is used to note a negative, and green a positive, a mixed message about the availability of services in some of the areas where it is perhaps most needed to exist as a framework for needed social services:


Crowd-Soruced feedback on ISP


The FCC’s Consumer Broadband Test informatively measured reported download speed-tests for broadband across the same regions, with those at the lower end of the spectrum indicating the lower speeds of delivery in ways that indicate a typical for poorer regions of the country.  Doing the best to increase internet service to level these uneven levels of service provides a needed corrective to the relative absence of nonprofit entities.


Speed-Tests v. Advertised:Typical


Speed Tests:Legend



One might profitably measure not only the speed of downloads, however, but the vitality of open access data across the United States, however, to arrive at a better metric for the data-sharing that is not only necessary but important to conduct business for non-profits–and measures the culture of open data across the land.

The image of the repository of open source addresses Michal Migurski compiled provides a neat map of those places where municipal governmental data is online and available in the US, creating a database which folks can readily use and build off of in their work:





While this rendering can include state-mandated municipalities and not be that illuminating of some regions without open data online, available open data provides a basis for the work of many nonprofits on a large scale, and is conspicuous by its absence save for around fifteen points of light in a large region of the south where markedly lower numbers are employed in non-profits–as a reverse-color illumination maps reveals.


OA data


While we usually use the metaphor of the “shadow economy” to describe the black market, and we have come to refer to “black sites,” since the administration of George W. Bush, as those secret sites at which the National Security Council of the Bush presidency permitted the CIA to build, in order to torture those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations.  But the true areas of the economy that must remain ensconced in shadows are the areas without nonprofits, where the service due sectors of the economy is absent or less actively attended.  This reverse-color mapping is meant to suggest the dark that is left in nonprofits’ void.  To be sure, many centers of nonprofits attend to areas and regions outside of their immediate vicinity:  they serve forests, or legal services, or open waters.  But there is a lack of a sense of that service in areas which remain in the shadows in the above map.  There is, in ways that suggest a deep divide needing to be remedied, that persists in the new Deep South, where one looses one’s orientation on much of the land between Houston and Atlanta, or Dallas, Memphis, and Jacksonville:


OA data US South


The dense bursts of light that cluster around the coastlines of California and hug the shore cede to a vast open expanse, it seems, in the Western states, with stretches of empty space between, as one moves from a concentration dense with nonprofit works to stretches where this would be poorly understood as a line of work–or maybe even as a set of services that goes unmet.


West Coast



The dark spots and even more dark regions across the nation map a desert of non-profits, where social services go unmet, water safety less monitored, literacy tutoring in low profile, after schooling limited, hope diminished, parks untended, and wildlife not preserved.  The critical role of nonprofits in the economy is absent, and both the economy and the society feels the deeply deleterious effects.

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Filed under American Community Survey, data visualizations, mapping the nonprofit economy in America, Non-Profits in America, nonprofit economy, nonprofits, persistent poverty, Recession, statistical maps

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Southern Secession across the United States (Part I)

No region is an island, but divides are defined in ways that create a transmitted insularity along what might be called the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide that cuts across the United States, bisecting much of the nation along what almost appears a meridian.  Even before the efflorescence of confederate resentment in southern states clear in the 2016 Presidential election, but not at all clearly perceived in recent years, but evident the apparent toleration of the claims of white supremacy and the far right.

Indeed, the depth of memories seem to have been provoked by the stripping of symbols of localism and place like the Confederate flag–the emblem of the separateness of the southern identity–exacerbated by a resurgence of regional solidarity reflecting a perceived loss of regional identity and a intrusive federal objections to a symbolism of nobility.




The resistance of localism–and the national drama, indeed, of the attempt to strip the region of its symbol of autonomy–has perhaps not only had a greater impact in how early twenty-first century politics have played out in America, but of the deep presence of the divide of the seceded states across generations.  Can the survival of this divide be mapped?


1. All maps encode narratives, and we turn to maps to spin narratives about the nation every election cycle.   But the rebirth of federalism from 2015 changed the division between red and blue states on the map, and created a deep resentment toward Washington, D.C.  The birth of a division between “red” and “blue” states which emerged in the late 1980s has been revised as several states have started to melt purple, and others shift their demography.  But that creates its own narrative of nationhood:  increasingly, from 2000, “red” states came to describe the national political geography, far more than, say, regions of the “South” or “Northeast” could hope to do, or that the “West” once did.

To be sure, recent threats–or concerns–that supporters of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election would not support the decision of the nation might serve to remind us of just how important the unity and bridging of regional divides is after a presidential election–if only to repair the rifts that might have been particularly pronounced in our current political campaigns, no doubt as the campaigns have become more extended and increasingly conducted in rallies and over televised conventions, and voters more ready to demonize their candidates’ opponents on social media.  Trump’s request to monitor election booths to prevent voting fraud may have  encouraged fear of fraud in the nation unlike the recent past, but revealed a deep disturbance as to the trust in common institutions, no doubt reflecting the lack of a common news source.  The increased skepticism as to the authority of the results of the election may seem a bizarrely clever ploy–given the guarantee it created of silence as to the apparent results of the election that Trump later won–but the seeds of doubt the charges seemed to create were most able to find an audience in southern states, in part as such deep doubts existed about the proprietary nature of a white, male identity.

The unpacking of the regional identity of the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide provides an interesting instance of the transmission of identity across time–even despite the clear lack of qualitative local detail that the map of regional anti-federalism provides.  The access that maps offer to narratives widely vary from the itinerary to the abundance of topographic maps.  But data visualizations as that of gasoline taxation provide a problematically pronounced thin description of expanse, the relative opacity of whose surface is difficult to enter, and whose past is more difficult to excavate.  Such visualizations focus so closely on mediating the immediate short-term, stripped of narrative context, and removed from history, one can ignore the divide they reinstate over memories of earlier divides.  But when one examines the continued adoption of voting rights restrictions in the United States, the echo of political legacies in the land as to the role of government–and its openness to the participation of all citizens–is especially evident in the stipulation in the Voting Rights Act that certain states cannot change election policies without oversight from the Attorney General, and that longstanding legacies of voter exclusion warrants continued federal oversight of voting laws.

As it stands, the vacation of the fifth section of the VRA has led to a new fault-line in the country about where restrictions on voting have been introduced in the 2016 election, with dangerous consequences in our notion of what sorts of exclusion from the voting booth are enshrined in local laws.  But the divide was very present to the segregation laws on the books in the United States as late as 1949, when an early attempt to take stock of the continued segregation of the Southern states was mapped for the benefit of readers in Edwin S. Newman’s  Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights.


civilrightsmap-jpg-crop-original-originalfrom The Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights


The preponderance of separate voting and indeed of institutionalized segregation south of the parallel 36°30’N that divided once seceded states suggested a coherent code of conduct, not completely separate from the diffusion of policies of segregation in the rest of the union but concentrated  in the southern states as enshrined in the law–as it had remained in Arizona and much of New Mexico close to the southern border.


southern-segregationfrom  The Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights


It is perhaps no surprise that many of the states that have recently introduced such new restrictions can be mapped onto those states where voting registration was not only less uniform, but lay below 50% in 1964–states including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as parts of Arizona and North Carolina.  The introduction of new restrictions in the area that lies south of what might be call the divide of the United Sates along the lines of political secession when the nation split along the parallel 36°30’N.  For among the multiple divides that maps of the United States so often mask, the continuing salience of the divide of slave-owning states, a divide that long animated national electoral maps, the parallel is made particularly evident in the history of national data visualizations.




To be sure, the data visualization of disparaties in local taxes of gasoline provides the clearest way to place in evidence the increased economic and political polarization that has emerged over the past three decades.  But doesn’t the growing reliance on infographics and choropleths–those convenient snapshots of the political and socioeconomic status quo–also manipulate the viewer to focus on an explicitly short-term image of the country’s divisions, tailor made, as it were, to suit the very rhetoric of polarization that our political parties have openly curried and engaged?  Indeed, the location of six states whose voters face new voting restrictions in the current election–the .  The limited notion of government that such restrictions presuppose is in a sense an ugly scar, not often visible in the symbolic unity of the national map.  Of the eleven states with highest African American turnout in 2008–when Barack Obama was elected President–six have adopted restrictions on voting rights since 2010, including Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia, and South Carolina, in an apparent systematic if not reflexive effort to retract access to the ballot box and restrict participation in public elections of national import.



The enactment of strict voter ID laws in much of the nation, expected to curtail or repress turnout of in blacks, asian Americans, and latino communities, in what seem attempts to repress voting rights and take advantage of the disadvantaged by excluding the votes of many.  The clustering of new voting restrictions in the southern United States–broadly construed as Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and West Virginia–suggests that the very discriminatory practices that southern states adopted which led to the Voting Rights Act to prevent states from changing voter laws in ways that excluded minorities from the vote–most often by adopting Voter ID, cutting back on voter registration, prevent on-site registration, and pre-registration–threateining to disenfranchise a half a million minority voters.

We were struck by seeing this divide resurrected in a “gasoline tax map” by ExxonMobil blogger Ken Cohen, or in the rather stark divide among states where children are more likely to be raised in a two-parent family–a divide that also runs across our divide into “blue” and “red” states, but contains a striking latitudinal divide according to Census data–a divide that is particularly cautionary, given the benefits children gain from being raised in a household of two parents–and the steeper economic inequalities fostered by the predominance of single-parent households.

two-parent households

New York Times

It is striking that such inequalities are present in an area of such historically steep social inequalities.

To be sure, the country is as politically divided as it has been since the Civil War in recent decades, due both to rising income inequality and to the overlay between money and politics across the country–and the increasing drift to the right of the states-rights no-tax pro-industry Republicans.  Data visualizations that materialize this division, such as the recently-mapped Gas Tax Latitudinal divide, an almost oppositional division of the country by local levels of gasoline taxation, exemplifies how a vision of the present seems to blind us to the past–and to the divide of the country during the Civil War that it seems intentionally to evoke, even as it does so while erasing the historical memory of the division of the country during the Civil War, and the question of states’ rights that the Civil War was fought to resolve.  The current currency of a map that rematerializes such divides, however, and the very picture of an oppositionally divided nation that it insidiously naturalizes and perpetuates.  For the data visualization functions by naturalizing divisions on any issue as if they were inscribed upon the land, and gives an irrefutable evidentiary value to the very claims whose existence they chart.

Is the evocation of a degree of opposition that previously surfaced in the Civil War reveal an after-echo of earlier social and political divides, or does it reflect the distinct political priorities that shape the political topography of the South?  For the division of much of the nation along a deeply etched parallel 36°30’N has been forgotten by the condescension of posterity, as we forget the salience of its transmission in regional memory.

1.  The stark divergence that the data visualization records seems to show how local interests trump the collective.  Its oddly straight divide obscures disturbing inequalities that cut across America, however, and distract viewers from the actual inequalities which have been with us for some time.  And it makes us wonder what other lines cut, similarly, across the country, even as it seems to suggest the arbitrariness of an imposition of taxes at the pump above its seemingly randomly chosen boundary.  The rhetoric of the visualization of the almost latitudinal divide in a “gasoline tax map” by ExxonMobil blogger Ken Cohen shows taxes descending below 40 cents/gallon below the thirty-seventh parallel as if to naturalize a division that might as probably reflect a line of Vitamin D insufficiency that seems specific to the states that lie below the same meridian, whose apparently arbitrary definition conceals the deep significance with which the line was invested in the formation of the United States.   For the Gas-Tax divide raises almost unconscious visions and memories of how different levels of the collective that is our country can coexist on each of its sides–and raise a question of what sort of clear division exists along that line that makes a tax of 40 cents per gallon such a significant division of the nation that it might be poised to replace that between “red” and “blue” states. The visualization below, as mapped by a blogger for Exxon Mobil, compels us to examine the depth that this apparently purely conventional divide has long held in American history, and indeed to try to unpack the persistence of the division along the deeply etched parallel 36°30’N as a divide of national significance, not forgetting the extent of its significance, in a manner often masked by the symbolical and formal coherence of a national map.

Less than 40 CentsAmerican Petroleum Institute

latitudinal divideWikipedia

Is it possible that we are increasingly becoming a nation of readers that has come to accept the relative inequities that data visualizations inscribe, and in need of bringing a deeper skepticism to interpret the stark geographical divisions that they inscribe?   For the authority of the organization of the lower forty eight states in the union that the Gas Tax map seems to perpetuate take the variable of attitudes to a Gas-Tax as evidence of the inequity of an imposition of a specific tax to make a polemic point, but erase the deep divisions it defines in a landscape that the map invites viewers to see as otherwise undifferentiated, but suggests something like a crease in the map of the United States whose memory stubbornly persists among its residents.

The continuity of a bounded region is the implicit subject, to be sure, of any map, and any disruption or divide calls attention to itself as disturbing the otherwise harmonious surface that a map offers to the world.  But the manner that data visualizations invite us to make pronouncements based on a division of hues or an oppositional palette invite its viewers to leap to pronouncements about the variable mapped, even as it seems to empty that division of historical meaning.  All too often, the data visualization works by removing individuals from the history of the habitation of the country, or of the inhabitants of the land, by not inviting us to tell their story, but to present itself as a sufficient statistical record of how the land is inhabited.  As one form of condescension of posterity, much lamented by E. P. Thompson, the data visualization seems to remove the land from the lens of the past.

The difficulty of the autonomy of the visualization as a register erases its status as an argument, investing itself with the objectivity of a map, and removes it from the redolent memories that its flat colors seem to mask.

Jasper JohnsJasper Johns, Map (1961)

2.  Only by reading beneath its surface, and uncovering the transmission of those divides, can they be both excavated and unpacked.  By providing an intensive reading of a map that begs for a surface reading–and that presents itself as a transparent sign of divides within the country that seem disenfranchising, to say the least, or unjust, this post seeks to take the “divide” of tax levels as something of a commentary on the deep divides that have haunted the nation, and that continue to preoccupy those who, like the Supervisor of the US Census Henry Gannett, who famously mapped the divisions of the electorate in the post-Civil War election of 1876, when Southerners joined in a Democratic block, search for a convincing embodiment of national unity.  L.P. Hartley rightly warned the “past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  But the after-images of secession replayed a deeply set collective memory, even as maps sought to contain the different ideas about the nation–and national governance.

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress

At the time of the 1880 election, continued presence of the federal government in ensuring universal voting rights in Southern states, whose advocacy by the Republican made the election a sort of referendum which most all the Southern states would reject.  If the map embodies an image of the nation, the sharp split in the early statistical map that Gannett elegantly designed after the presidential election reveal a divide that eerily mirrors what seems a possible broad rejection of the Democratic party, which fell so sharply and strikingly along the historical break of political consensus along the dividing parallel 36°30’N strikingly recurs in mapping lower gasoline taxes across the United States.

One might do well to read the gas-tax division less as a self-contained statement, than yet another layer of lamination that is placed above the deep discrepancies in economic mobility that are evident across the country, in a recent 2010 census, and then go deeper to excavate the historical significance of that divide, in another deep divide striking as a stark reminder of the coexistence of multiple national economies.


New York Times

While the demographic category has ben not mentioned so far, a prominent element to this picture of national division is race, and the undeniable echo–far more difficult to trace or visualize–of what race continues to signify in different populations that inhabit areas of the land:

Black non-Hispanic 2010 census

3.  The convenient conceit of the national map is to mask faults in the coherence of a sovereign territory.  But the ethics of infographics that are designed to expose fault-lines have not been conceived, and nor have what these infographics encourage us to notice and to ignore.  The spread of our current electoral maps, or their GIS variant geographic distribution of voting habits, reveal surprisingly stark divides that undermine or challenge the nation’s unity and how the technology of mapping suggest a different manner for imagining national unity and noticing national divides.  The habituation to dividing the nation into distinct blocks of a data-driven landscape oddly omits deeper understandings of the regions, even if they are organized around somewhat selective samplings of information, even as they erase the historical context or situations that motivated these divides.

If these are artifacts of the infographics that flood the airwaves and even more the internet, such on-demand maps provide readily orchestrated images that all too often prey on our sense of a historical divide, for all their almost intolerable historical thin-ness.  The GIS-derived maps work by defining imagined boundary lines through preferences that embody new regions of coherence, creating coherent of blocks of voters and regions that seem definitively removed from one another, and almost removed from time, focussing on the present and short-term decisions about politics of apparently diminished historical perspective.  Infographics such as that depicted in the header unwittingly challenge the notion that the state can still perform a symbolization of the nation–or will ever be able to do so effectively–by challenging their readers’ relations to the symbolization of space.

The United States seems to fracture once again on parallel 36°30′, slightly below the line of Vitamin D insufficiency.  The latitudinal line is less rooted in reaction to a historical moment like the 1861 secession, however–the event which began the US Civil War–but to the region’s numinous mythistory.  The mythos of image of regional independence, if stripped of a clear political ideology, is recast as a symbolic frontier of lower gasoline taxes.  But the line gains its symbolic purchase in no small part for its historical resonance of an actual past historical divide–even if it makes no reference or gesture to note it.  The line mirrors not only those states once-seceding from the union, but a map of where the institution of slavery was most prevalent in 1860.  This is the same map, in other words, where the sociologists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen posited a longstanding divide shaped in no small part by the existence of incentives for reinforcing racist institutions even after slavery was nominally abolished; the map oddly recalls, in a tacit sense, albeit one submerged in our cultural memory, the distinct institutions and political attitudes legitimized institutional discrimination as strategic means of containing or resisting Reconstruction, which today inform, they argued, opposition to affirmative action.  It is striking that the division of the nation into two halves was encoded in graphic form when the Superintendant of the US Census, Mr. Henry Gannett, used electoral statistical to distribute the popular in the Presidential election of 1880, for the Scribners’ Historical Atlas of 1883, to explain how the nation, in the face of deep Southern resistance, elected the Republican James Garfield to the White House.

In Gannet’s map, one encounters an afterimage of the Civil War and moment of secession in the continued coherence of anti-Republicanism that seems embodied by the South.  If Acharya and colleagues suggested that the “cataclysmic event” of Emancipation threatened to undermine the longstanding dynamic of economic and political power, Gannett’s selective shading in his color map charted the distribution of the popular vote into red-dyed regions of anti-Republican sentiment that express the rejection of of observers to ensure Emancipation was achieved, and the echo of fiercely anti-Republican sentiment, that give an eerily similarly quality to the shifting physiognomy of the nation in a single statistical map. But the historical referent of the receding past of Secession and of slavery suggest a far more accurate reading of the national pulse than the demagoguery of the infographic of the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide.

1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress

Gannett’s map embraces a land of two colors, but its divide between political parties evidences the two standards of toleration of slavery that had been effectively  sanctioned in the Missouri Compromise.  Denis Wood observed that all maps “perform the act of statehood.”  This function may be doubly true of maps of electoral results.  The divides that re-emerge within such infographics offer a technology for parsing the nation, however:  and it is no surprise that the resurgence of political polarization of the nation along an issue framed as nation, casting local debates and allegiances as congruent with nation concerns, has brought the efflorescence of infographics that cannot only be tied to GIS, so much as the materialization of dissensus in a vision of the nation.   To be sure, the widespread defection of a generation Southern Democrats after the 2010 Obama election set in motion a divide, that encouraged a latitudinal divide to materialize in maps in ways that shifted the national landscape and the image of the nation that maps create.

Longstanding resistance to accepting the imposition of federal taxes at the pump was not only a residue from a century and a half about federal presence in the south, but the “inequalities” it illustrates reveals disrupted what Wood called the “performance of statehood” along a startlingly similar–and deeply resonant–geographic dividing lines.  The recent remapping of historical divides in gasoline taxes are not in themselves bids to rewrite the coherence of territorial unity, but clearly gesture to threats to the coherence of the sovereign status of the country that  maps of Southern Secession try to process, and which haunted the first statistical mappers of the nation in the period following the Civil War.  The Gas-Tax Map is of course ostensibly focussed only on the present, and far more dominated by the short-term than the historical, but offers something like an afterimage of this divided vision of the nation.  The addition of historical perspective on how infographics work in figuring and forging an image of the nation may be a needed counterpart to the declarative insistence of discrepancies of unequal taxation that it seems to suggest.

The transformation of the map into differently-hued blocks illustrates the mental jujitsu somewhat specific to the medium of infographics, which replace the symbolic coherence of the nation with a fragmented version, upending the performative power of a symbolic unity.  One often can’t help looking at the above data visualization, or the images that render the mid-term elections in clear divides, as a reflection of deep divisions that haunt the local political landscape.  This is especially true of the “Gas Tax” divide posted some months earlier in the Exxon-Mobil blog, which now seems almost a premonition of the more recent electoral divide. For despite the premium on the short-term in such data visualizations, which act as if they were transcriptions of the nation’s temperature or public opinion polls, in apparent ignorance among those who craft such visualizations of historical national divides, the symbolic divide cannot help but reference the traumatic divide that split the nation in ways that seem difficult to bridge.

2.  The Gasoline-Tax Divide eerily resurrects a divide between northern and southern states around slave-holding.  Indeed, a sit is rendered, the return of the repressed gains a new immediacy that threaten to replace or overwhelm reality, given the persuasive format of the division in the nation they insidiously perpetuate.


If such a division seems emphasized by the medium of the infographic, the status of infographics in collapsing or synthesizing a large range of data in a readily consumed image demands to be examined for the facility with which it creates national divides.  Although the infographic may only be about the present-day, it places a historical burden on the national divide it resurrects, in gesturing to the current divide as if the entire nation was at stake.  GIS data visualizations, for all their focus on the present and the short-term, tend to challenge the coherence of the nation, by evoking images of the traumatic divides that have rent the country, including the historical divide of southern Secession which had seemed to have receded in collective memory.  But this divide seems to haunt the country during the Obama presidency, seems to haunt the response to riots after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO or the debates about the Voting Rights Act.  The point isn’t that, as Rand Paul argued in Time magazine, that the “something is wrong with criminal justice in America,” but that the south, where Paul resides, where the owner of Celebrity Foods Restaurant in Ferguson can ask, “If you have a commander-in-chief, in a high position like that, facing racial profiling and slander on a daily basis, what do you think it is like for simple, every day, law-abiding African Americans?” is still haunted by a divide.

4.  The recycling of this still-traumatic divide is examined in another post on the persistence of Southern Separatism in the Gas Tax map, which also offers the pretext for this over-lengthy rant on the disturbing images that continue haunt the visualization of  current national divides, and the danger that we face in their compulsive naturalization.  The cognitive quickness with infographics as the above or of the midterm elections of 2014 write off a large area of the South was not only written off as a block of red states but a separate part of the nation in many recent data visualizations, in ways that which, for all their recording of the present, seem haunted by the image of regional secession–and most especially by the very divides that undermined the coherence of the nation from 1861, when the continuity of territorial mapping was overcome, as it were, by the separation of South Carolina and then other slave-holding states south of the parallel 36°30’N that enshrined a scarring divide across the nation by affirming the rights to own in the Missouri Compromise.   Recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect the same line, as if its fracture line were still evident.

959px-Missouri_Compromise_Line.svgWikipedia Commons

The historical occurrence of the divide however appears to intentionally evoke the very trauma of the breakage of the nation along a known fracture line.  The very format of defining blue and red blocks within the country are imitated in how we remember the unfolding of the Secession of Southern States, here shown on Wikipedia in the Missouri Compromise along the parallel 36°30’N:  if the fault line in the nation around the institution of slavery seems to haunt the divides television maps create of the nation’s voting, which form an odd alchemy by coloring the map to mirror how we have come to color national political divides, they are in turn haunted by the fault-lines of secession, or as by the notion of two republics.  This was the line below which the rights of former slaves were not fully protected by presidents after Lincoln, who were sensitive to the strong Democratic redoubts across the south, as Rutherford B. Hayes feared loosing the south, which, if in 1870 he had won some seats in, in later elections it had gone almost uniformly democratic, as an island in search of protecting its own relative liberties.

5.  Such early data visualizations attempt to describe the historical past in a single map, and struggled valiantly with the limits of the narrative content of a data visualization of two- or three-color blocks.  For the above image is almost blissfully mute about the historical experience what happened on the ground, presenting deep divides whose coloration cannot offer perspectives on or how the institution of enslavement was actually lived.  How could such an experience  be contained by a latitudinal parallel, one might ask, across a divide that has apparently effectively created two separate polities, and how could such a line survive even as socioeconomic relations have shifted in the national terrain?

While old maps can afflict us with nostalgia, it’s impossible to wax nostalgic as we view the divided landscape that this “Compromise” sanctioned and the human costs that it created.  While the dividing line between slave-holding states and a north where the institution of human ownership and chattel was curtailed undoubtedly was informed by practices long existed on the ground, it was perpetuated in the map in odd form, as if naturalized to part of the national terrain.  The contemporary use of primary colors to delineate the divide drawn around and west of Missouri oddly echo contemporary electoral maps both in raising questions about the unity that exists between such a chromatically divided country and the possibility of the future unity with such a fracture-line so prominent.   It is striking that a map in Wikipedia Commons, printed below, also adopts the identical chromatic split to render the Missouri Compromise, as if to naturalize a longstanding national divide:  the historical “Compromise” allowed the institution of slave-holding to survive permit slavery in that state, but set a barrier to its expansion north or across the plains, effectively marginalizing the institution in the country to a lower latitude envisioned as constituting a sharp delineation of red states from blue states in ways that the most recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect.  The way that this division intentionally or unintentionally haunts the division of space within the map makes the pointed if blunt rhetoric of the infographic so troublingly compelling.


Such symbolic divides seem to haunt maps, as if scars were inscribed upon them, seem “afterimages” of  the historical moments that and experiences that earlier maps encode.  The concept of mapping an after-image is rarely the focus of a strictly cartographical pursuit, but emerges rather with the distribution of the dataset that give style suggestion of making the land speak, or attributing a voice to map signs.  The line of the gasoline-tax divide offers something close to an after-image that continue to haunt its political landscape.  Exploiting our addiction to the data visualization to allow us to look at spatial divides in new ways, the image promises the apparent immediacy and credibility and unmediated access to our representational democracy–from the prevalence of execution of imprisoned men across the Southern states, and the response of mass incarceration mapped in an earlier post, as both political parties responded to the deep anxieties by quintupling our prison populations from 1972, when it stood at 300,000, to over two million today, independently from crime.

Can such afterimages of the institution of slavery be traced in these maps, despite their apparent denial of the past?  The impact of slavery’s institution–and the reluctance to relinquish such divides of difference or to redirect taxes for a public good–may have been all the more indelible in proportion to the institutional forms of promoting racist sentiments and resistance to cultural and institutional changes that promoted changes in the economic status of blacks in the south.   For the authority of both images are deeply informed by the extreme descriptive thin-ness that are endemic to all data visualizations of the country.  The sheen of two-, three-, or four-tone data visualizations which promise to orient us to a polarization of political beliefs that invite us to divine tea leaves in the divides between monochrome color blocks.  But they do so without even stating the local interests or political debates at stake, reducing the “informational” value that tan image that reveals in its county-by-county distribution a clear latitudinal divide.

The use infographics to process information with limited demands on the reader, grabbing visual attention in an over-saturated news market.  But since they provide such compelling pictures and predictions of national debate, even to occupy a prominent place in the political discourse, they demand to be examined in the context of the expanding archive of data visualizations foregrounding divides.  Even without offering local variations to the viewer, each trumpets its own actuality, as if they mapped the country with an apparently definitive objectivity not previously accessible with such immediacy.

Indeed, the alleged objectivity in the medium of infographics might seem to lie in the ease with which they are created.  But it is even more striking how such infographics have resurrected the claims of objectivity, long debunked, in the political map.  Such opaque flatness is exemplified by the alleged inequities illustrated in the Gasoline Tax Map in this posts’ header, about which this post offers meditations–and might be read selectively by scrolling through its images.The data visualization, if based on a selective sampling of few data points, orients viewers to the country by discrepancies in levels of gasoline taxation as disrupting continuity among states, as if to trumpet the purported inequities of the tax burden that result.  Devised by Exxon-Mobil blogger in order to make apparent the case against tax inequality, the map not-so-tacitly echoes the divide of the Civil War of which it seems to constitute an after-image–if not the Missouri Compromise that legislated the distribution of slavery in the United States.  On the one hand, it seems to use the haunting imagery of secession effectively to suggest a breakaway republic-in-a-republic of lower taxes, where big government’s role has been diminished, in a Land of Cockaigne where gas flows free from the pump, unencumbered by government oversight.  On the other, the two-tone tan graphic of course evokes a break-away republic:  for it registers a prominent political divide that still seems to haunt our country’s coherence in ways far more seriously than folks at the American Petroleum Institute who released the map or the Exxon-Mobil blog may in fact realize:  the break of secession, and its aftermath created a traumatic divide in the nation that the gas-tax differential is haunted.

The muteness with which it charts a break between northern and southern states–and alleged transparency of unequal tax burden drivers face–suggests the limited information endemic to selective data visualizations, if not the irresponsiveness with which the data-modeling of national elections’ results pose as evidence of national division.  This post attempts to excavate such images, by considering such images in deeper historical relief.  By opening a history the associations of a divided country that such an info-graphic so pronouncedly reveals by its evocation of a national map, this post examines the way that such visualizations exploit a historical rent in the fabric of the nation, by is tacit invocation of the secession of the southern states.  The traumatic break that was the aftermath of secession and reconstruction is not only evoked in the map, but the info graphic seems to belong to a series of images that replay the divides between north and south along a latitudinal line.

Indeed, the chunky data visualization provokes a reflection for this blogger on the role of maps in the performance of national unity, from the first statistical maps of population devised by Francis Amasa Walker based on the ninth U.S. Census, give viewers a comprehensive picture of the nation, to the political maps of his successor, Henry Gannett, who confronted the problem of visualizing how voters behaved at the polls, to our own attempts to evoke or come to terms with nation divides.  Walker’s maps of racial, immigrant, and economic distributions not only characterized the nation but provided ways to understand the divides of its composition.  Walker’s map of the distribution of “colored population” in the states revealed in its focus on the  presence of African Americans across much of the country according to the 1870 Census–a map revolutionary, to some extent, in including all inhabitants of the United States within the nation’s population, even if its instructions reveal a preoccupation with those of “African blood.”

Colored Population 1872

Color 1870 census

Walker’s map of Walker contrasted to the map engraved by the Liberal German immigrant engraver Edwin Hegesheimer in a visually striking choropleth map of the distribution of slavery across the south quickly provided a strongly pro-Union image, convincingly rooting the economy of the southern states in the institution of slavery to which many wanted to direct attention:

1861 slave population map

While Hergesheimer’s choropleth map created a strong otherness of the southern states economy, and foregrounded the isolation of slavery shortly after ten states had seceded from the nation, when it was sold to support the war effort, the distribution of the electoral vote of 1880 sought to reveal the containment of Southern opposition to the Republican platform.  Does the Gas-Tax map tacitly echo of this earlier divide?  A modern reproduction of the same graphic of the concentration of blacks in the South in 1860 has been argued to reflect a modern map of sociocultural disparities of economic opportunity.

6.  The two-color maps by which Gannett and Hewes charted the distribution of the electoral vote, county-by-county, across the United States, as shown below, by using red to indicate the persistence of antirepublican sentiment across much of the south.   As Gannett and Hewes’ other maps, it demonstrated the new political lay of the land “by graphic method” to unite the “present condition” in a synthetic image:  if maps of the nation had been increasingly displayed in classrooms, post offices, railway stations, and shopping centers around 1860, the Gannett maps of the country’s divided electorate reveal what approaches to be monochrome fields that, while showing the persistence of anti-Republican memories linked to secession, in ways that realize the true trauma in the collective memory in the post-war attempts to create a union.


Vast lingering shades of red

 Library of Congress

Employing such a visually arresting shade of carmine red in the map is not only striking.  It seems to suggest the persistence of a deep resistance among the local population to integration and what would be called the backlash to efforts of Reconstruction, but also to use red as a pigment to describe national division, and promote a narrative of national dividedness that was a strong carry-over from the Civil War, if not to “map” the memory of slave-holding and the Missouri Compromise in an effectively arresting cartographical format, making a retinal impression on the viewer as well as conveying information.  Maps in the color supplement of the Chicago Tribune have been associated with two-color mapping of presidential contests that chart Democratic votes in red in predicting the victory cof William Howard Taft over William Jennings Bryan.  That election divided the country in ways reflected in Henry Gannett’s prominent use of “red” to designate the anti-Republican electorate in the Scribners’ 1883 Historical Atlas.  

Gannett’s map would, as much as illuminate a national divide, suggest the increasing post-war coherence by which representational government was laboriously but precisely fashioned.   The intensity with which the afterimage of Secession made its presence known through successive presidential elections that he and Hewes documented for the 1883 Historical Atlas, and which they followed through the Presidential elections of 1884 and 1888.  The maps provided a tool to trace the persistence of an anti-Republican voting block across the south, in which the divide of Secession materialized in new ways as a part of the Republic.  These images imprinted an image of a divided nation over time, questioning the map’s performance of the nation–seeming to register the memory of secession and autonomy in the aftermath of Reconstruction, and seem to process the deep trauma of this divide through the widespread resistance to the Republican program of Reconstruction perhaps more effectively offered a way to map the memory of secession, and the lingering trauma of the attempted imposition of Reconstruction across the areas with such deeply rooted racial discrimination in the Southern states.

1880-popular-vote-for-hgPopular Vote of 1880 (Library of Congress)

Both the map whose shading reveals the intensity of the popular vote’s distribution and the inset map of electoral votes explicitly capture “afterimages” of southern secession by relying on repeating clear chromatic differences.  The divisions came to be incorporated in a performance of the nation’s continued coherence in a government-sanctioned map, and indeed create a tacit narrative about national division that all readers of the map would have retained.

The mapping of shifting distributions of the vote in later years traced the persistence of this after-image and data visualizations of the nation, which continued in 1884–when Gannett mapped the ration of the predominant vote to the total vote, focussing on the density of Democratic votes in pockets below the latitudinal divide–continue to register the attempts to record the integration of the nation, as well as the persistence of a deep divide, as a persistent carmine registers pointedly in South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas, and parts of Alabama.

1884 {popular vote from totals}Popular Vote of 1884 (Library of Congress)

The reuse of the familiar chromatic format from Gannett’s earlier map of distributing the popular vote is clearly dialogic.  The attempt to map the totality of the nation in 1888–by which time the carmine block of red-hued anti-Republican votes,  long understood as concentrated in the Southern states, had gained a considerable collective density in the Deep South, which shift from rosy pink to carmine on either side of the latitudinal line–with the deeper carmine reserved for South Carolina and Mississippi, and north Carolina and Tennessee and even Alabama fading to a far lighter shade of pink.  (The pronounced pockets of deep red in South Carolina and on the lower banks of the Mississippi, suggest,as well as a probable suppression of the black vote, afterimages of Southern independence.)

1888 ratio map to predominant votePopular Vote of 1888 (Library of Congress)

The sequence of maps identified an unconscious “afterimage” that reference the symbolization of unity in the country, but also the pressures that threaten to tear it apart.  Using the conceit of an “afterimage” to describe the map serves to illuminate its very historicity–and the way that the map narrates a story of the unity that maps such as that of the Missouri Compromise created, or that the first maps to register southern secession, from Harper’s Magazine in 1861–expressed northern and southern states as two differently shaded entities to frame a crisis in national identity rendered in explicitly cartographical terms.  The different shades used to depict regions the initially seceding states that followed South Carolina in early 1861 and join the Confederacy by May precipitated the Civil War–and secession created a fracture line in the country, in which the northern states were shaded deeply in gray.  Several “border states” elected to remain in the Union; the Harper’s map displayed their “comparative area” east of the Rockies, etching a spatial division that left an imprint that has been difficult to erase from the land, if often difficult to sharply define–whose after-images can be readily recognized in subsequent maps.


As much as reflect the trauma of secession, to be sure, Gannett’s maps traced the afterimage of secession and the rebuilding of the nation during the trauma of Reconstruction:  if Freud argued, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that traumatic events, rather than really experienced or fully recognized as they occur, but are consciously processed only after the fact, when they are informally or formally remembered, the recognition of Secession was understood in Reconstruction as voters were asked to participate in a shared political process.  In an age when the unity of the continental United States had just been processed, as in the “Washington” that the future Confederate Matthew Fontaine Maury designed shortly before the south’s secession.  The map designed to be exhibited in classrooms, rail stations, shopping centers, and in window display cases, symbolizing the nation, was ringed by a ribbon of presidential faces, provided an emblem of sovereign unity, the data visualizations that Hewes and Gannett created offered less a mosaic of states than a mosaic of two divided political parties.

Muary's Washington Wall Map for schools, window display in shopping districts, public life

It was a map of an area rich with unsettled local resentments, and of oppositional divides, the likes of which we have, not so oddly, only recently begun to see recurring once again, but were, it feels like, also very much always with us, but just repressed or something that we were just not able to look at or recognize, and ready to suppress.   If Gannett’s map seems to knit together these regions, in the “Gas Tax” map on the Exxon blog, the two halves seem to be pried apart once more–without recognizing the trauma of its historical division–in ways that erase the memories that earlier maps so clearly tacitly preserved.

We are of course not new at all to such symbolic prying apart of the nation state.  The intensity of the frequencies of colors of like red and blue to designate differences in the map seem to appeal to how color-divides continue to haunt the land.  Although “afterimages” of an optical nature are the result of retinal impressions especially intense colors or sudden bursts of light leave in the eye–whether in optometry exams or after staring at sunsets or, less pleasurably, backlit computer screens.  Such bursts of light imprint the fovea and leave after-effects, continuing even we close our eyes, in our retinas, that float in apparent day-glo hues that seem suspended in our line of sight, and only fade with time.  In the manner that these oddly colored images hover in our field of vision as disembodied forms, removed spatial bearings, mapped events can haunt a place.  The scares evident in specific maps can act, superimposed upon space, like scars, capturing divides that continue to haunt data visualizations.  Their survival seems an interesting extension of the analogy we draw between maps and vision, even if data visualizations don’t appeal to perceptual models, and are oddly echoed in the strong colors that data visualizations adopt, as if to leave similarly strong afterimages in our minds, despite their relative historical poverty.

7.  The existence of such cartographical ‘afterimages’ seems an especially appropriate concept to use to discuss the chromatic divide red v. blue that has materialized the nation’s divide in televised newscasts, soon after the diffusion of color TV became a standard source from which we derive news information.  While some of the first maps to use chromatic difference to suggest a divide that haunted the nation–the divide of Secession–did so quite consciously to depict the survival of oppositional polarization in a vision of the nation–here crystallized around the reaction to the continued presence of federal troops in the south and program of Reconstruction–the conceit of recording such an “afterimage” has become more unconscious, and more disruptive.  We have read the divides of recent presidential elections so often that they seem to be etched into our cerebral cortices after having followed the twists and turns of the 2000 election, dividing states “blue” or “red” in essential ways, but are shocked at how the line of latitude still scars the nation’s political topography.  The divides mapped offer less of a metaphorical window or mirror of the territory than a reflection of the after-images of divides or differences that continue to inhabit different practices of political representation across the land, as if to offer a divide along which issues of national significance are still prone fall.

The use of “red” to reference Republican states is often attributed to Tim Russert‘s political commentary on the aftermath of election night in 2000.  The two-color divide gained a symbolic currency as electoral votes were tabulated with continued inconclusiveness, the evidence of alternating colors for political parties in televised electoral results was revealed by Kevin Drum to have lacked clear identification with a party in the color-coded electoral maps shown from Presidential elections 1976–states for Jimmy Carter were mapped “red” in 1976 and 1980, and states voting in majority for Walter Mondale were in 1984; if states voting for George Bush were shown in red in the color televised results of 1988 election, states footing for Clinton were mapped in red in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996.  (Across the border, in Canada, “blue” is claimed by the Conservative party, designating the Liberals as “red”, and New Democratic Party “orange,” though it leans further left.)  But although states the voted for Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie in 1968 were colored in red on the nightly news, the Wikipedia electoral maps have retrospectively canonized the identification of red as Republican since the visualization of the results of the presidential election of 2000.


However, the election might be best known in relation to this post for how it revealed a similar division, not to sectorization, on behalf of Wallace’s Independent South-based candidacy, largely viewed on TV in black and white:

Cronkite 68 Election NIght

But in 2000 the use of red to reference “Republican states” was almost naturalized, and by 2004 the opposition became among the words of the year, so clearly was the visualization embedded in viewers’ minds as something that made common sense.  For William Safire,  Russert was “the leading popularizer of a blue-Democrat, red-Republican assignment [which soon] took hold nationally”:  but Russert was such a huge television personality valued for his skill at both distilling and framing news into bite-sized yet informative, that his adoption lent currency to the division as a compelling symbol, credit for inventing the dismaying division of choreographic unity aside.  The image of a chromatically divided country took hold as it crystallized in common use or a collective consciousness, perhaps for the very reason that it makes a single story about the nation so difficult to tell.  So dominant is the storyline of division, it is difficult to orient oneself to Gannett’s statistical map and remember that the light azure signifies Republican votes, and the carmine intensity of the south reveals the relative density of a Democratic preference.

While we recognize something like a similar scar looking at the map of levels of gas taxation that break along a familiar latitudinal divide in the header to this post, the survival of the scar of secession is so quickly recognized because of how it disrupts the notion of the map as a performance and representation of the unity of the nation, however, and the ways that images disrupt national unity suggest the death of the map’s primacy as a tool for embodying national identity, and its rise for spatializing a pie chart in potent ways.  Of course, the new separatism is quite new, and wasn’t so visible after the results, say, of the Senate elections of 2008, although these were particularly distinctive in their Democratic tilt, despite the quasi-separatist victory of George Wallace in his 1968 presidential candidacy as an Independent:

2008 Senate Races

But the recent resurgence of Southern separatism, even if temporary, makes the map of the 1880 popular vote particularly interesting, as a way of narrating national unity–if not a symbolic restoration of the nation’s symbolic coherence–at a time of apparently increasingly bitter national divides.

An overly familiar latitudinal divide was resurrected in the “Gas Tax Map” first posted on the Exxon-Mobil blog to suggest the steep differences of what drivers pay at the pump.  The map does not detail the variations of gas prices per gallon, however, but the taxes that it suggest create a policy of “passing on costs” to drivers.  Readers of data visualizations are immediately capitulated into the role of news analysts, who can read the legible national divides rendered in the monolithic blocks of bright colors along which one country breaks.  The aesthetic of data visualizations respond to the increasing value on the art of readily putting results at our finger-tips–of a piece with the shrinking horizon of expectations of online news, but also to the condensation they provide that seem to underlie an actual map:  they parse the political preferences as filtered through representational democracy, investing regions with contrasting–if not opposing–ideological divides, as if to expose the fault-lines in the democratic state.  For they respond to the demand for sources of ready to digest information by arranging the division among voting preferences on not too unfamiliar fracture lines.

8.  Our current collective fascination with how data visualizations reduce a problem and sum up a status quo seem to find their corollary in how the chromatic division the land are accepted as explanatory tools to decode the politics of our conflicted present.  This leads us to valorize images that obscure their historical poverty, and privilege distributions only over the short-term.  But if they perpetuate the restricted temporal horizon, in privileging the access to the things as they are like a snapshot of the nation, we privilege the false definitiveness of the spatial distribution of data as if it were transparent or comprehensive–in ways we know it will never be–and promote the notion that the “visualizations” they offer reflect reality in a definitive way.

While we admire the elegant aesthetic of reading the purported clarity of such divisions of space, the thin-ness that they create tease us through the familiarity of other lines of spatial division, which they reify without offering any way to explore.  For by substituting the actuality of their findings for a historical reading of the very ways they map space, they focus and limit our attention to the present moment’s actuality–or the superficiality of their snapshots of spatial division.  The odd and largely unstated assumption of the latitudinal divide Cohen traced across the country reveals the staying power of a division, an “afterimage” of a political divide and resurrecting the notion of a divided nation.  Examining precedents of mapping of fault-lines of national divides place in relief the very historical precedents data visualizations erase and help process reasons for the persistence of a fault-line over time.  Detecting the survival of such “after-images” offers an excavation of the historical depth of such spatial divides, and of throwing even the most generic data visualization into a slightly more subtle temporal relief.

Gas Tax

The divide traced between northern and southern states traced in an infographic that seems to advertise the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide” offers an invitation to meditate on the longstanding holding power of a map sign, and excavate the transmission of such a stark divide between northern and southern states’ political cultures, and the historical depth of the division that the selective criteria that these infographics foreground, otherwise sacrificed in its transcendent view. Reading the cartographical rhetoric of the “map” of gasoline taxation reveals an after-image of secession that contrasts to the messiness of recent electoral maps.  It gains new relief when placed in a historical context of the contested nature of political unity that maps create–or disrupt–in rendering regional unity, as the image that is so readily apprehended as an unfair division of tax burden suggests alternate visions of public space, if not of the daily presence of federal government, which many now seem to which would just go away.

Whether the latitudinal line of southern secession inhabit the Gasoline Tax Map, the data visualization it presents embodies the separatism of a region, whose coherence long erased from national maps.  The divide along the 37th parallel, adopted in American law to demarcate the space permitting and sanctioning slavery in the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery north of the latitudinal parallel 36°30′ strikingly recurs in tracing lower gasoline taxes across the United States.  Certain cartographical signs often seem inscribed upon the land, as if revealing traces that recur in data visualizations at different times.  They suggest the survival of such an “afterimage” seem to reveal divisions as if they were rooted in the topography of a place, as if they were “afterimages” of a deeply drawn political divides that have continued to shape the very landscapes they ostensibly describe.  Such after-images are far too abstract for cartographical practice, but emerge as familiar fault-lines that can be readily recognized in distributions of datasets:  they arrange the land as if it its divisions could independently signify across time.

9.  The overly tidy geographical mapping of political polarization to be sure mirrors the divide in vision of government in daily life often reified and naturalized as a dichotomous divide of Red vs. Blue States. We have read the divides of recent presidential elections so often that they seem to be etched into our cerebral cortices after having followed the twists and turns of the 2000 election, dividing states “blue” or “red” in essential ways, but are shocked at how the line of latitude still scars the nation’s political topography.  The divides mapped offer less of a metaphorical window or mirror of the territory than a reflection of the after-images of divides or differences that continue to inhabit different practices of political representation across the land, as if to offer a divide along which issues of national significance are still prone fall.

Recent maps of the divide or break between “red” and “blue” states are being dismantled to a certain extent in recent infographics, which trace how migration patterns have partly dissolved the clear lines of distinction in purple states in recent years.  But the power with which this color scheme presented tools to trace the changing political landscape of the United States emerged suddenly and quite sharply in American politics and on televised news reports of election-night when in 2000 the NBC graphics department decided to designate a national divide that explained the breakdown of the vote in a presidential election in a seemed a compelling way.  The map was popular as it revealed a fractured landscape of electoral preferences, and occasioned continued glossing as being the result of economic interests, a deep social or cultural divide, or difference in lifestyle that would somehow provide a way of understanding the changing political landscape of the country, rather than a purely political divide, in quite definitive terms.  For the gas-tax latitudinal divide not only maps questions of taxation; the status of taxing gas taxes maps a region marked by federal suspicion, and reluctance to accept taxation for gasoline.

The stark chromatic rift of consensus is rendered all the starker, curiously, in infographics used to process votes in contemporary politics, as if to further naturalize a divide within the nation.  Even in  map projections of the future composition of the US Congress, such as the interactive projections the website of the New York Times offers readers to ask us to predict how the outcome of mid-term 2014 elections for the US Senate by our own intuitions, we can imagine the break of states along a blue v. red divide.  And conceit recurred, most recently, in Election Day 2014, when the red split apart with apparent unity, now including much of the northwest:

Design Your Own Electoral MapNew York Times

Is it a coincidence that the problem of race, long suppressed, was resurgent in this election, when a far whiter, and far older, selection of voters made their voices known at the polls.

White 75%

While the interactive visualization of the balance of power is powerful, the Congress that will assemble from January 2015 will reflect a resurgence of a historical divide separating northern from southern states, and a similar run of red in the northwest.  The red that spans the “Gulf States” below recalls a time when electoral politics broke along something like a difference in vision of the nation, of the sort that was already mapped so clearly evident in the resistance to taxing gasoline used as this post’s header from the Exxon-Mobil blog, which begs to be read as bearing information of the very sort such infographics contain.

One of the first infographics ever designed, based on a far more detailed statistical map that tabulated the popular vote by county, was designed by Henry Gannett, then Superintendent of the Census, to process and mend the divide of political polarization after the presidential election of 1880, when states divided over the question of Reconstruction–but when the results of the popular vote revealed a more complex picture, even if one that in large part echoes the Gas-Tax divide.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

This dividing line–and Gannett’s mapping of the central trauma, the war over and the aims of secession no longer sustainable, of reconstruction, mark something of a divide that has haunted the very lines on which the electoral votes across the nation have often continued to divide–a divide that seems to have solidified in political institutions, if one looks at the breakdown of the electoral votes, and how the South voted democratic as a block by 1880, if Rutherford Hayes won votes in 1876 both along the Mississippi and in South Carolina and Florida.


Library of Congress (detail of above)

The echo of this divide that has appeared in the recent midterm elections of 2010 suggested the naturalization of a similar break, as Republican candidates ran, on an almost national platform, based on the vilification of the current president, with strikingly analogous results–if “red” now designated a majority of votes for Republican candidates, the sense one gains, looking at the electoral map, is a collective refusal to accept the paralysis in Washington that was blamed on a Democratic president.

The barrage of maps encountered on election night 2014 strikingly replicated the familiar divide that once more divided the nation.  In an age of immediate news and cultivation of the snapshot of political preference, many might even bemoan the absence of readily available consolidated results of elections, which are run by individual states, and not the federal government, so habituated are we to making available a synoptic view as if on demand–it is a lament that, with the lack of a single source, the map cannot be readily created and put on view with the immediacy increasingly demanded and required.  (The time required for mapping political preferences, albeit dramatically reduced in recent years, to generate data maps of elections even as the results are first reported, has lead us to notice the lack of a national standard for the reporting of electoral results, and leads to the “difficulty” with which different states’ polls close at different times–in another instance of how reality has trouble producing the data visualizations we might otherwise demand.)

First results

NYT #2

New York Times

While Virginia remained “blue” by the end of the night, as Illinois, one did not even need to know, implies the data visualization, a political rationale for how the votes broke along the latitudinal divide.  The progression that continued to western states suggest a continuity of opposition to a status quo–or to a President with whom Republicans persistently identified their Democratic opponents, as they tried to make mid-term elections a personal referendum on a President with qualified popularity across much of the Southern half of the country–and those states where the President’s popularity has not that recently plummeted.  Although the Republican Party and Tea Party folk tried to treat the mid-terms as something of an imaginary referendum–as if this would validate a shift in the country’s political composition, and could revise the results of the Presidential election of 2012 or repeal of the ACA–the very notion of running against Obamacare (as preposterous as it might seem) evoked a frightening fold along the latitudinal divide.

Last Map Tues Election Eve

New York Times

Of course, the mid-term elections assembled perhaps the whitest and the oldest electorate in some time, as resistance to Obama’s presidency mobilized much of the southern vote.  And for that 36.6% of those eligible who did vote were excited to vote by the slogan, as much as the idea, of defunding Obamacare–and, for right-wing bloggers, presenting the election as a grounds for a decisive rollback the President’s agenda–and opportunity to re-map a country actually being center-right:  as if misconstruing the ‘mid-term’ elections as a midterm examination President Obama had flunked.  The divide between states by primary colors of course concealed the fact that an astoundingly low number of the electorate participated–a number that fell below one third of those edible to vote in Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  It was with considerable presences that CNN’s national correspondent, John King, asked viewers “Do you live in Red America or Blue America?” before a map of the potential results of races in the House of Representatives, earnestly informing the nation, “if you live here, you live in Blue America,” but “if you live here, you live in Red America,” before a map that he claimed simply “says it all.”

Blue America or Red America?CNN

One can’t attribute low turn out in the election to the finality of the infographic–although this CNN data visualization surely provides less of a mirror or image of the country than John King boasts, and does seem to disenfranchise the members of the television audience to which King speaks, evoking the inevitability of the current complexion of the nation as if it were a medical patient.  The limited amount of information the infographic offered viewers, and the limited analysis John King presented, however suggest the dangers of treating the map as if it spoke–or as if it dictated the region from which one was from.  For rather than using the map as a performance of the nation, King seems to have relished use of the map as a symbol of national splintering, in the ways that have become increasingly current since the election of 2000, gesticulating as if to fashion a consensus from the division made palpable on the screen behind his hands.

The map of purported voting preferences–this said on account of the quite historically low turnout, skewed to both a whiter and older electorate–has become a bit of a totem for 24-7 news stations, descriptive of a land beset by political paralysis.  It was difficult to frame consensus in as during the polarized political opinion in the aftermath of Reconstruction after the Civil War, but there was considerable interest in trying to frame and assess that consensus within national maps, and indeed anxiety about the lack of post-war consensus that would lead to the formation of a government.  In 1880, when maps provided such important tools of investing symbolic unity in the relatively recently expanding nation, the map provided a way to create such a symbolic condensation of public opinion that seemed to stand as an icon of representative democracy, although the images have taken on a deeper and more introspective tenor in recent years, as if the voting preferences for different parties provided a reflection–seeing the map as mirror–of what the nature of our nation is.  But the polarization of politics at the end of Reconstruction was of course of necessity bridged–if messily, and in ways that created more of a scar of inequality than necessary in the view of some–or attempted to do so, whereas the pseudo-maps that are infographics which we produce  or, today, see produced  are examples of how maps lie, and how we rely on them to frame our national unity–and to mend the growing gap evident in visualizations of the national electorate.  For the notion of mapping national unity goes to the point of peacefully moving past the national divisions of an election, and embodying consensus in the face of a divisive election.

10.  If such data visualizations perpetuate a “red” versus “blue” dichotomy that arrests the eye, it obscures areas of grey.  Such areas are more evident in a map of Senate races.  Although it distorts voters’ preferences–actual voting preferences of the electorate are often effectively silenced or erased by their amalgamation in a single dominant hue– the precursor of modern infographics to which U.S. historian Susan Shulten recently called attention as helping process political polarization shortly after the Civil War creates a far more detailed accounting for local divides on a county-by-county level.   Such maps work with considerably greater thin-ness than the colors employed in Gannett’s statistical map.  Gannet’s map showed a nation strikingly divided on somewhat similar lines in a similarly polarizing election that was rooted in a clearer political divide, but where the salience of the divide was closely examined.  Indeed, the current map manufactures a divide along lines we’ve become a bit overly familiar, as if to present the election as a verdict on the divide between parties and in the nation, although the current divide seems most likely to be less sharply pronounced than that one hundred and thirty five years ago.  The greater possibilities for engagement in Gannett’s tabulation of the popular vote, made not on-demand for a news cycle but with the care of hindsight, suggests a far more subtle shading of the country to explore.

Gannett remapped the recently reasserted unity of the country in an attempt to heal–or historicize–how it divided into two camps over the issue of Reconstruction then championed by the Republican party’s platform–and did so in ways that first broached the question of such a political divide.  Although in his map, red signifies counties with a majority of Democratic vote, the chromatic construction of the map queried the unity of the nation around the question of its political representation, using the available body to map county by county.  (Despite the charges of widespread fraud and poor tallying of votes in the contested 1876 election, in which the winner of the popular vote, Samuel J. Tilden, lost the election, the map was also something of an elegant manifesto of its own of the presidential election’s legitimacy.)  In using infographics to process the political polarization of his own day, Gannett first chose red votes to designated counties voting Democratic, and against Reconstruction, shading the surface of the increasingly common map of the United States to distill how political divisions first mapped onto clear geographic lines in the Presidential election of 1880, when the tabulation of national votes was first tabulated with accuracy, as if to compensate for the widespread suppression of votes and gridlock associated with the US Presidential election of 1876.

Gannett rendered the distribution of votes in a qualitatively descriptive elegant fashion, worthy of Nate Silver, to provide an retrospective optic to visualize the political divide in the country in detail.  It recognized as a resistance to Reconstruction at a local level that deeply rooted in several southern counties, broadly split along the divide of the Missouri Compromise, in something like a growing scar across the land.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The map however seems and attempt to process a traumatic moment of which we have lost sight, which demands to be excavated for its own uneven topography because it is such a compelling achievement in revealing a complex engagement with issues–and indeed a varied surface of political debate that impels one to regard it as if it lay at the bottom of a palimpsest, over with later layers of distributions have accrued but can be peeled off, lending something like three-dimensionality to the infographic itself.

One might start from considering what it means to discuss the survival of such a similar divide across the nation.  Such broad brush strokes of regional differences, despite clear local variations in tone, suggest an apparently contiguous block of red across the southern states that is eery to recognize.  Although the aesthetic contrast between the two data maps is evident, both snapshots suggest the depth of a diachronic division along parallel 36°30′ N, a line along which the country has often folded, despite the flattened nature of the polling data synoptically digested in both images of divides that plague the nation.  The divide is echoed as an after image  thirty six and half degrees north of the equator in the distribution of levels of gasoline taxation, as if an after-image of a line of political secession has haunted the political landscape of the American south, that appears a unified block of voting red:

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress (detail)

Such data visualizations reveal a persistent divide or dissonance between the geographic unity of continental United States from their vision of political coherence.  Schulten argued that Gannett’s statistical map promoted a new understanding of the country’s division despite its political polarization, and provided a way for readers to struggle with understandings of national unity–in an early antecedent to the aesthetic of the infographic–and breach the historical depth of local or regional political divisions.   The images not only created an after-image of secession, but created a powerful surrogate for the relation to the nation, and indeed peacefully progressing to the conclusion of a contested election.  It maps the depths of divides absent from the historical flatness–and short-term purview–endemic to the tastes that datamaps both exploit and respond to.

Excavating the “after-image” that lies within an infographic offers a way of investigating the flattening of time that infographics all too often both perpetuate and perform:  the conceit of the “afterimage” provides a way to unpack the flatness of an infographic, and offers something of a remedy for the specter of the short-term that haunts most data visualizations–if not a way to investigate the presence of the past that lurks, as if within the map that lies underneath its surface.  For whereas infographics foster a reduction of historical perspectives on their interpretation, curtailing the long-term in the pathologically short-term attention span or ingrained “short-termism,” acknowledging after-images offer a way to unpack the false claims of comprehensiveness they promote, excavating the map of political divides that underlie how infographics divide the nation.  Detecting after-images provides a way to uncover the historical depth by which such spatial divides formed.

While we’ve often forgotten the above maps, which have only been recently resurrected to the eye of history from the dustbin of data visualizations, the divide traced between northern and southern states in the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide Map” provided in the Exxon-Mobil blog offers an invitation to meditate on the longstanding holding power of a map sign.  It might also offer an invitation to excavate the transmission of such a stark divide between northern and southern states’ political cultures, and the historical depth of the division that the selective criteria info graphics foreground, and which are sacrificed in its assumption of an Apollonian transcendent view of the nation-state.

11.  The way that data visualizations function as maps in the performance of statehood has been increasingly disrupted in a range of info-graphics.  The disruptions such visualizations chart reveal the persistence of poverty across certain areas of the country–a poverty we far too often naturalize, or which is absent from the national maps that we draw and the divides that we emphasize within them.  It’s striking that the very divide mapped in the header to this post–the Gasoline-Tax Divide–creates an eye-grabbing continuity across many of the same southern states that jumps out within the contemporary maps of the national distribution of well-being, a county-by-county assessment of QOL (an alternative to GDP, taking a sextet of life-expectancy, income, education, disability, obesity, and unemployment, rather than only a financial metric).

Indeed, the disparities in the Gas Tax might reflect a reluctance to impose taxes on poorer and relatively non-urban areas–and imposing a tax at the pump would cause undue duress.  But the weird continuity of orange, even if a snapshot based on present-day statistics and metrics, no doubt conceals the very sort of historical context that the narrow temporal perspective of most infographics tend to erase–even as they structure data by a geographic map or interface.

County Ranking of Happiness--Education, unemployment, disability, income, life expectancy, obesity

The above map is less of a descriptive vehicle, to be sure, than a compelling tool to structure data.  “It is a cold thing, a map, humorless and dull, born of calipers and a draughtsman’s board,” wrote the twentieth-century pioneering aviatrix Berryl Markham–who rarely relied on them, to judge by her surprise in reaching Newfoundland in her pioneering transatlantic flight.  But the infographic is far colder, more stripped of quantitative detail about place, the socio-cultural mosaics evident in data visualizations offer provocations to dig deeper beneath their surface records of the short-term.  As if to conceal its relative poverty, employing cartographical outlines to organize data in a transcendent view seems designed to endow the data with apparent objectivity and legitimacy that validate its relevance to the work of imagining a nation.  Even the most abstract data visualizations adapt cartographical conventions to frame transcendent views that provoke questions of national unity.

Every so often, the divides revealed in illuminate otherwise hidden divides that haunt a landscape.  If the conventions of mapping often naturalizing spatial divisions, data distributions expose deeply drawn divides in how maps work to organize national space.  Even as the scientistic claims of mapping has so grown in considerable ways in computer-assisted data visualizations, the transcendent view that they offer conceals–even as it reveals–significant divides that have accumulated over time, and inform the political histories which they work to create. For all the flatness or superficial oversimplification of spatial difference suggested in the three-color snapshots that info-graphics provide, even the crudest divides become palimpsests ready to be excavated and illuminated when they are placed in relation to a long-term.

The romance of detecting such afterimages of southern secession offers a corrective to claims for rendering the division of the status quo that the seductive form of data visualizations as registers of a current inequality in levels of taxation.  It might be profitable to read the divide as an echo of the far deeper inequalities that underlie the nation’s terrain, and its bitter-tasting residues.  Divisions that underlie the symbolic unity of the lower forty eight are evident elsewhere.  They recur, for example, in the different legal cultures of each state, the different attitudes to imprisonment evident in topographies of the widespread mass incarceration of minorities in correctional facilities across so many southern Gulf Coast states, mapped by Elwin Wyly against a backdrop of the share of African American males within that total incarcerated population.


While Wyly’s 2004 map concentrates on a clustering of Federal Prisons, state prisons, military barracks, and larger private correctional facilities and police lockups outside of a  national context, it raises clear questions of a culture of incarceration specific to a region of states.

Many of the states that lie below the parallel that defines the “Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide” were slow to abolish the poll tax, as was stipulated in the 24th amendment adopted in 1964–if Texas did not do so until 2009, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama were slow to add themselves to the list, and it was never ratified by seven southern states, including Mississippi.  And even if the US Supreme Court has recently struck down government oversight of specific states’ election laws as stipulated in the Voting Rights Act, to protect minority disenfranchisement in those regions with ingrained histories of discrimination, the depth of the political divides that define the south are still difficult to map.  If an earlier post in this blog described the deep divides of disparities between insured and uninsured Americans that many images of the nation conceal–or fail to illuminate for all the seductiveness of their totality–and asked about the motivations of these blindspots–and large numbers of uninsured across much of southern states from Texas to Florida.

% Uninsured in States Saying No

12.  The deepest discontent about the representation and concealment of social and cultural divides in infographics lies in the relative absence of local context–or of historical depth–that would offer adequate contextual representations.  Even as they vaunt their own authorship, most infographics are hampered by blinders of the short-term.  The  dilemma of the short-term horizon of infographics so readily produced from the multiple databases daily generated in the twenty-first century haunts the pervasive nature of their use, and especially haunts the necessarily incomplete images of imagined objectivity they offer.

Even as we have come to be suspect of the objectivity of the map, we’ve come to accept the objectivity of the infographic as convenient forms to grasp or process social and political changes, despite the rather insidious erasure of context in their embodiment of a strictly short-term image of opinion, political preference, or social divides.  What would it look like to express or imagine a historical perspective on the divides traced on a map, mapping something that was less a statistical snapshot than an image of the relative continuity of deeply drawn divides?  For an infographic acquires an illusion of temporal depth when one considers it less as a distribution of inequalities, but an “after-image” of the depth of earlier divides.

If Ferguson, MO is a predominantly African-American as a community, low voter turnout means that not only are its police force mostly white, but so are its elected officials, mayor, local commissions, community groups, and parks board–and indeed, its neighborhoods reflect the persistence of starkly segregated communities that seems typical of such suburbs, according to the American Community Survey of 2010, although Ferguson transformed quickly from a predominantly white suburb to one predominantly identifying African-American.  It was in such a strongly segregated sense of space that the unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed on Canfield Drive off West Florissant, after he allegedly “intimidated” a 240 lb. white policeman and refused to “clear the road.”  Brown’s death has sparked a series of protests at the unjust actions of the suburb’s largely white police force–making it the flashpoint of a problem across America.  The recognition across America of the injustice of the ruling might lead one to re-evaluate Rand Paul’s mean-spirited observation in Time magazine that “Something is wrong with criminal justice in America.”  Paul writes as if the Department of Justice weren’t troubled by the million black faces of those incarcerated in the skyrocketing federal prison which has since 1980 grown by 800%, observing caustically that “The failure of the war on poverty has created a culture of violence” which placed Ferguson police “in a nearly impossible situation.”

But the problems that this population no longer feels served by a system of justice may be the far deeper threat:  and the persistence of disenfranchisement creates a deep sense of alienation and indeed a geography of alienation, as much as being created by a culture of violence encouraged by the “war on drugs,” or demanding a reassertion of “moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair” and politicians who have betrayed the public trust by encouraging the “poverty trap.”  Yet news reports attend to how much marijuana was in Michael Brown’s system, and the inability of police to deal with the violent nature of urban life–as if that would warrant shooting at a man without a gun in a suburban setting.  Such pieties as Paul espouses conceal the outsized dangers that all young black men face of twenty-one times to be shot dead by police than white teenagers:  a difference between 31 young black men shot per million by police for every 1.5 young white man.  Paul is quick to identify the danger for black men as the product of high-crime areas:  but the suburban community of Ferguson was hardly a center of crime.  Reform of justice might begin from a bigger rethinking of the inequalities of race, indeed, and the geography of alienation that afflict urban and extra-urban areas alike, a geography perpetuated by the mythistory of the South and its perpetuation of segregation.

Renewed violence in the wake of the verdict that did not prosecute Darren Wilson, the officer who shot the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, spurred local and international protest at the miscarriage of clearing the Wilson of wrong-doing, even as many protestors were arrested; a rash of tweets exploded across the nation, most intensely in the Missouri region, the eastern half of the US, and the largest cities on the west coast.

Twitter Map

Can we start from recognizing the costs of the deep southern separatism on the ground?  Even as President Obama noted “is not just an issue for Ferguson, [but] this is an issue for America” that “there are issues in which the law feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion” that can’t be “tamped down,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, perceiving himself increasingly isolated, called for the National Guard to quell discontent at the failure to convict the officer who had repeatedly shot and killed Brown at point blank range.

13.  The atlas that emerges from these of data visualizations reveals traces of the past, to be sure, and deep fractures in the topography of representational democracy that single infographics elide that undergird Ferguson.  But attention to the persistence of afterimages might offer ways to read the infographic against its conclusive finality, and might help to contextualize the stories that the infographics tell about the nation, as well as the echo-chamber of the infographic that the repeated symbolization of national divides creates.

At the risk of offering a presentist argument, such a reading might even enrich the cartographical template beneath infographics’ color-enhanced veneer:  one should be able to cultivate a skill of cartographical interpretation to better illuminate divides that haunt the data science, and scars not otherwise clearly revealed in their distributions, by noting the traces of an afterimage able to be recognized only within the semantic space of the map that underlies the data distribution, and by which the simplicity of its often overly crisp coloration can be read in greater depth.  The cartographic format of data-visualization offers a timeless two-dimensional rendering that vaunts its transparent rendering of divides.

The act of excavating the existence and persistence of afterimages is foreign to actual cartographical practice–or the aura of objectivity that is invested in a map as a comprehensive collation of accurate readings of place.  But the premium on dividing space into monochrome blocks seem too clearly borrowed from television screens to qualify as being seen as an actual map meant to orient the viewer to political divides than inventive ways to condense the current electoral habits of the voting class.  Excavating afterimages in the blunt medium of the infographic is something of a strategy for reading that seeks to puncture the adoption of apparent objectivity of what might be called a cartographical point of view that national infographics and electoral maps all too often assume for themselves.

Scrutinizing the afterimage that might be present in any map–or data visualization that invoke a map-like objectivity–becomes most apparent when one recognizes something like the embodiment of a spatial divide in map signs that betrays signs of the long-term, which the adoption of the alleged objectivity of a map obscures; as if removed from the subject they chart, the divide documented in the above data vis is not only an objective break in tax levels, but an underlying disruption as an afterimage that invites us to explore, or conduct something like an archeology, of the divide that it traces, and investigate the very opacity of the data visualization as a historical construction.

Even for those not overly familiar with mapping techniques will recognize their signs and conventions as the trigger of a spatial divide seared into our map-reading minds:  the recurrence of a clear parallel as the line of the gasoline-tax that has been newly diffused by Exxon-Mobil to document disparities  in gas prices across the United States.  For it also testifies to a particular powerful afterimage of a continental divide that continue to haunt its political landscape, and indeed the relation of a region to the prospect of national unity–perhaps more deeply than the divides so often drawn so often in recent years between red states and blue states.  For it traces a transmitted border of regional separatism as much as tracing a line of the inequality of the imposition of taxes on gasoline that suggests the possibility of lower gas taxes for a select few, rather than anything like a federal policy or situation that federal laws might remedy:  the map reflects local refusals of accepting the inequity of further taxes at the pump, rather than it reveals an unequal distribution of tax rates.

Gas Tax

gas keyAmerican Petroleum Institute

Despite the intent of its corporate promoters to relieve Americans from the apparent shackles of unequal taxation at the gas pump, the graphic unwittingly builds upon a deep distrust of national government even if it seems unconscious of what lies behind the very division that it seems so intent to track and promote in revealing the disparity of the gas tax.  (The curtailed short-sightedness of the infographic appeals to the short-term self-interest of the consumer or driver and effaces the historicity of the latitudinal divide.)

14.  Data visualizations recall the new discourse-functions such early printed maps claimed, and as “after-images” of the earlier divides they traced.  But they also perpetuate them.  The after-images we see in the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide” are compelling since they refract the performance of inventing national cohesiveness in maps, and of picturing and re-inventing social unity, as much as frame a “hidden gas tax campaign” of which we have been largely unaware and which needs to be revealed.  Even if the map distributed by Exxon-Mobil is intended to reveal the undue impositions of the federal state across the country, it reminds us of the continued fractures of political space maps sought to paper over in rendering a national collective in ways that would fulfill their role as crucial reference points in the performance of statehood.   The “national inequalities” it illustrates might be placed within the longstanding resistance in this region to accepting federal presence, or seen as residual resistance to federal presence; but the mapping of resistance to further taxes at the pump are compelling because they suggest a intentionally disrupted performance of statehood.  By recuperating the situated nature of the historical production of such images, we can start to challenge the aggressive rhetoric of objectivity they adopt and their short-sighted aims.

It might make more sense to read the context in which data maps work to create the country, rather than how they indicate or present a set of traits transmitted over time.  But one cannot fail to be struck by how a split between northern and southern states arrestingly suggests an enduring dividing line of deep historical resonance, as if its cartographical signs could speak across time.  The clear divide that the rejection of taxes on gasoline seems to map among state legislature south of the 37th parallel that creates such a strong Gasoline-Tax Divide echoes the line of southern secession in particularly haunting ways.  It is striking that the past inhabits the very divides the map describes, as does our own cartographic consciousness of the rift between states created by this cartographical line of longitude that is so familiar.  It is as if the unconscious of the mapmaker were rendered or emerged in the “Gas Tax” map, given the clarity with which the dataset reveals a divide that we, as viewers, immediately recognize and are as quickly conscious of it as being  long suppressed:  as much as offering a window or a mirror on the landscape they describe, recognition of that divide asks us to interpret its content, less by our position in relation to its space than analysts of its continuity with past landscapes, or of how map signs serve to configure our relation to the nation-state.

For all our usual attempts to historicize the map as a document, the distributions of space that reveal the after-image become oddly unmoored from their specific time as the patterns we detect seem so uncannily present:  as if unhinged the historical context they were created, we innately recognize the “afterimage” preserved in them, as the scars that seem to be left by other traumatic spatial divides, triggering our own sense of cartographic consciousness of the space.  The strong presence of such “after-images” resonate with the presence of the map and map-interpretation in our lives, and recapitulate a tradition where maps consciously came to terms with national divide–and came to occupy a distinctly new set of discourse function oddly repeated in the latitudinal divide of local levels of taxation on gasoline.

One might hence begin from re-examining the nature of the narratives about national unity that Gannett’s map raises–a question I return in a later post reflecting further on the map’s historical context and legacy–and the ways that maps refigure national identity.  The specific political circumstances of Gannett’s map suggest that Gannett used the data available in tabulations of the popular vote at local levels to digest a far more sophisticated and refined picture of the national complexion of the country–or the political complexion of its regions–than the framework afforded by televised infographics that map the results of the elections back onto the country–as if that would reveal actual variations in voting habits, despite the narrow margins of so many elections that the same sort of data visualization so evidently obscures.  If the projection of election results in the 1880 election that he labored to create, Gannett used great care to how the map was read by its readers, without a need to respond to insistent demands to provide a record of immediate results.  Indeed, rather than suggest that his picture revealed a divide, the use of chromatic differentials in lithography allowed him to create something of a keen record of local variations, no doubt bearing out a keen interest to register the extent of an afterimage of secession in the map of the popular vote, quite unlike the short term visions of most electoral maps on the nightly news, which is only slightly tweaked in the work of political scientists.  Because of this attentiveness, it might be beneficial to expand a more detailed reading of how Gannett’s map was sensitive to the persistence of an afterimage of the clear divide between northern and southern states.

The geographically polarized divide emerged in the division of states described in a county-by-county representation of the degree to which the popular vote leaned Democratic or Republican.  Schulten powerfully presented Gannett’s earlystatistical map as the product of an early age of political partisanship, if not a founding moment of political divide, when the resistance to Reconstruction caused southern voters to attempt to reject the Republican platform, in ways that almost reflect a particularly salient latitudinal divide.  Indeed, after the 1876 election had been decided by a committee, and apparently against the popular vote, despite widespread accusations of voting  suppression, the statistical accuracy of the 1883 map published first in Scribner’s Statistical Atlas revealed how despite the deep carmine coloration of much of the South and indeed the national map, once translated to the electoral college, a difference of “just 7,000” votes gave James Garfield a decisive victory–yet the margin would hardly mend the national divide.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The political division that it mapped as “Political History” barely concealed how the charge to manufacture an image of national unity. During the divided era of Reconstruction, as secretary of the US Census, Gannett approached the subject of national unity when he mapped the popular vote in the aftermath of the bitterly contested 1880 election.

The distribution of the vote revealed a predictably haunting cultural divide–as well as a preoccupying way to remap the nation.  As a material artifact, Gannett’s map seems removed in time and political culture, but introduced–if in a reverse color scheme–the division between Blue States and Red States to communicate most readily the deeply contested election in a county-by-county rendering of the votes that political parties won.  Gannett’s map reveals with considerable immediacy and precision the extent to which the division of slave-holding states adjudicated within the Missouri Compromise left something more than a bitter taste, but a scar, that continued into the aftermath of Reconstruction, hardly ended in the Great Compromise that concluded the election of 1875.  The longitudinal parallel that came to define the dividing line of secession for southern states, as had the Missouri Compromise, effectively engraved a legal divide in a sovereign state that create two polities in uneasy balance with one another.  The boundary generated a deep after-image in secession that haunted how Gannett considered national unity–both in the war and its aftermath, as mending the uneasy echo of blue versus red states.  As much as seeking to “visualize the spatial dynamics of political power” in an icon of political polarization, it processed the legacy of southern secession by affirming the strong after-image, just twenty years secession had been advanced.

For all its similarities to computer-assisted data visualizations, Gannett’s map presents a divided landscape, if one whose color choice is reversed from the polarization by which we area accustomed to divide the country, that is less fractured than united.  We’ve grown so accustomed to denote “red” and “blue” states as to naturalize specific political preferences–and even profess shock at a “blue state diaspora” which created purple states, and offset red states’  growth, or describe folks fleeing blue states as if their blueness would be inherited in a naturalized political topography.  We naturalize the very coloration of an infographic as if it defined the nation’s political terrain.  Gannett’s map not only echoes not only the line of southern secession, but how the first maps of the United States became tools to represent the failure of secession and triumph of union as they “perform[ed] the act of statehood,” in Wood’s terms.

By placing the divides it creates in a deeper historical context of finer grain, Gannett’s map began a genealogy of the data visualization, historian Schulten argued “invented Red and Blue states” as a graphically efficient and persuasive way to process each party’s different levels of support.  The antagonistic opposition evident in the popular vote of the 1880 election also recorded a searing and long-lasting national divide whose memory, when scars of blood spilled on the battlefield not far receded, rooted in rejecting an overly intrusive federal presence south of the latitudinal divide–and  the centrality that the issue of Reconstruction occupied in Republican platforms in that year.  Schulten justly acknowledged how the map offered a new way to understand national divides, by using increased levels of cartographical literacy in the late nineteenth century to create an effective graphic register of national political divides during Reconstruction.

The historical map of the popular vote of the Presidential election of 1880 constituted a resonant moment in which afterimage of the continued divisions could be traced.  Even in the wake of the Civil War  the terms that Reconstruction throated to dictate to the southern states elicited a degree of collective opposition that revealed the deep divides that continued across the country, and had hardly begun to heal.  The divides revealed in Gannett’s political map remind us, in their graduated shades of blue and red, of the divides that were delineated, as if indelibly, and translated in how the “Popular Vote” was distributed.  The map offered a far more textured and finely grained visualization of voting preferences county-by-county across each state and territory than had ever existed in its rendering of the polity against a clearly defined projection of longitude and latitude, and in the provision of that data to a large body of readers cannot help but recall the recent popularity of synoptic summaries of recent presidential elections, also colored “red” and “blue” to indicate opposite ends of the spectrum.

The distribution sought to reveal considerably more local messiness than exists in the recent state-by-state colorations of info graphics, only recently contested in maps of more subtle parsings of voting tendencies by political scientists who interrogate electoral behavior more closely than the electoral counts.  Even a superficial reading of the lithograph of “Political History” suggests the continued difficulty of overcoming memories of Southern Secession in 1880–although, as the lower right inset map reveals, stark differences were really only revealed as the popular vote was translated to the electoral count.   Yet Gannett’s map is compelling since it maps a striking after-image in the distribution of the popular vote that seems to recognize to unique propositional qualities in maps as signifiers, as well as to their power as rendering of big data in  close detail.  Despite the very different modes of production from the engraved map to the crude datamap to the interactive map, the power of their codes and conventions becomes unmoored in the mind of the map-reader that illuminate the how strongly the map’s representational functions resonate with the representational claims of the state.

Even in our dataphilic age, after-images move across media echoing the divisions first inscribed in print–the earliest ancestor of the infographic exists in the statistical maps of the US Census to map a still imperfect union among the states that seceded from the Union and the Republic, in an early detailed distributions of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1880 as a way to embody the union–and embody, if perhaps unintentionally, the depth of the resistance to the Republican platform designated by deep pockets of rich carmine in those counties that lay below the thirty-seventh parallel.  The divide that the abstract line continued to embody both in the years immediately following the failure of southern Secession–which elections of both 1876 and 1880 sought to overcome or as much as possible repair–itself occasioned deep cartographical reflection, even if somewhat papered over in exquisitely detailed remappings of the oppositional divides in the popular vote that Gannett’s office undertook to reveal the continued unity of the nation.   Gannett presented his statistical map of the distribution of the popular and electoral vote in a time of political antagonism–it explained the clear victory of the Republican party in a polarized contest–as if to present an argument that unity still existed across the land.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

Even in a time of such heightened political extremism, and when the memory of secession just less than twenty years earlier was still strong in one’s mind, the debate about Reconstruction that were so central in presidential platforms were less a cause for divisiveness, as was readily demonstrated by voting statistics.  Gannett was quite clear-headed when he introduced his collection of printed folio-sized maps and diagrams with the promise that they could digest graphically the “dry and difficult” study of statistics by how both form and color provide a manner of “clothing the dry bones of statistics in flesh and blood” by embodying and revealing material continuity among them, in which “features of great importance, hitherto but vaguely comprehended, are made to appear at a glance, . . . so vividly impressed as not to be easily forgotten” (1883).

Such aids, Gannett perceptively realized, not only “make public sentiment and shape public policy” in ways  “essential to intelligent and successful government” in any representational democracy, but most especially in the Reconstructionist postwar world.  Gannett’s elevation of the medium expanded his role as the Superintendent of the Census to a public portavoce of the state in a sequence of folio maps such as his image of the divided popular vote.  The resistance to the alleged interposition of further federal taxes at the pump reflects something of a similar resistance to the mapping of a symbolic unity, which seems at the core of what the visualization in the header to this post seeks to contest.  For the unexpected division of the symbolic unity of the United States gets at the heart of the sort of discussion that such infographics seek to begin, if not the local stories that they tell.
15.  The distribution of states between the Democratic and new Republican party defined a symbolic divide that was the inheritance of the Civil War and processed the aftermath of southern secession in the polarized political community it traced.  Gannett almost acted as an emblem-maker whose vision rooted the evolution of national consensus.  But the depth of the division that he traced between recognizable colors–red and blue–provoke winces of recognition.  Indeed, the distinctly familiar contours it charts among political environments makes the first infographic used to gloss a Presidential race so striking to readers today.

The organization of the nation by coloring states through the electoral votes that they assigned to each party in the Scribners’ Statistical Atlas (1883) offered informed readers a basis to gloss electoral division that seems a clear precursor of the recent divide between “Blue” and “Red” states, as Schulten has noted, by giving political legibility to the country in a manner few readers had been accustomed to resolve the Secession of the south in the presidential process.  Gannett’s statistical map aimed to overcome the depth of the lasting political division–here noting Democratic votes in shades of Red, and Republican votes in shades of Blue–that Gannett himself would have been most happy to compare to the divides that continue to haunt the country one hundred and thirty years hence, but whose very division he pointedly used the map of the popular vote (and of how the electoral process mediated the popular vote) as a cogent means to overcome.


Library of Congress

The elegant infographic–inset in Gannett’s larger map of the popular vote of 1880–distributed electoral results the particularly divisive presidential contest, in which Reconstruction loomed large as if to affirm the integrity and coherence of the United States by the links between regions of slightly varied hues.  We can bridge the depth of the historical divide in which the map was designed by the head of the US Census because the sharp divide among electors is so recognizable to the infographics that we consume each recent presidential election that redraw fault-lines over the same form as if they forecast impending fractures:  earlier maps become resonant by conjuring divides that echo with unfortunately continuing fractures in the political topography of our own national space that our pundits are so happy and ready to gloss repeatedly.  When the far cruder data capture shown in this post’s header also offers an unexpected persistence of afterimages of a past we readily detect in its own spatial analysis as stubborn prompts of the depth of duration of the “after-image” that Gannett’s map renders so indelibly in detail.

While we could view these maps as screens on which we project our own divides, the recognition the map provokes suggests something more than a mnemonic and more than a harbinger of political modernity and its graphical symbolization.  So clearly do some maps reveal the historicity of radical rupture in the past that their delineation of divide seems transmitted in unconscious ways.  The Exxon-Mobil gasoline tax map was distributed by the American Petroleum Institute to illustrate the unfair differences in gas prices across the United States, but might be more striking for tracing the continued presence of such an after-image of southern separatism.  If earlier maps of southern secession struggle with the wrenching divides of a national space, their continued after-images in later datasets remind us of the echoes that some divides however improbably continue to retain, as they appear as if scars or scratches on the map’s face are suddenly revealed  in an X-ray or by application of ultra-violet light, for all its banality of chocolate brown, chestnut and tan.

Gas TaxAmerican Petroleum Institute

16.  For such afterimages reveal the continued unexpected resilience of divides across the topography of political preferences that surprise us by their sudden appearance.  The shock they provide reflects how we continue to carve up space in our minds in ways received from cartographical records:  to risk a poetical analogy, mapped after-images offer etchings of crises that haunt the landscape, and rhyme with past divides.  One example might serve to make the point.  The forestalled break of Scotland from the United Kingdom–despite worry about its possibility–carried little sense of the story implied by an earlier after-image or prefigurement, save perhaps Hadrian’s wall or the marine gulf that the thirteenth-century monk Matthew of Paris mapped between England and “Scocia Ultra Marina“:  a return to what Scotland was wasn’t clear as an embodiment of the region–for all its untapped potential of oil production–presented little meaning for most ridings’ votes.

Scots Referencum

Scocia ultra marinaBritish Library

Of course, Matthew of Paris used map signs holding far less currency among contemporary map readers, and drew the map in ways that the “Yes” vote were less ready to exploit since they hardly seem forward looking.  But the division he drew that separated Scotland from England and Wales was curiously reiterated, this time as an imagined string of the Cheviot Hills whose westward progression reflected the separateness of Scotland, in Samuel Augustus Mitchell‘s 1860 “County Map of England and Wales, printed and published in Philadelphia on the eve of the U.S. Civil War:

Cheviot Hills Divide Scotland 1860“County Map Of England, And Wales” (Philadelphia, 1860); courtesy Rumsey Cartography Associates

The potential shock of the separation of Scotland from the UK would be something like the reverse of disrupting the memory of a recognized map through the for-now forestalled shock of redrawing the United Kingdom:  even folks at Colliers–already familiar with recent redrawing maps of Europe as a whole--have hesitated at dividing a national space of apparent unity that the outline of the United Kingdom has long defined.  In the recent 2014 referendum, the complicated and perhaps incomplete defeat of secession might perhaps have turned in part on the lack of convincing maps of separatism–everyone seems to have one–and the limited mobilization that the historical divide summoned–aside from Braveheart, perhaps–in conjuring the unity of mapped space apart from the apparent integrity of the UK.  (There seems to have been little possibility in providing or drawing on a map that embodied hopes for to separatism, perhaps, or an “after-image” of the mapping of a prospect of Scots autonomy that the referendum’s supporters would build upon.)

We clearly recognize something like a scar in the map when we watch how levels of gas taxation that break along a familiar latitudinal divide:  the scar of secession is quickly recognized in the map, in ways that lead us to map the basis of what motivated resistance to taxes on gasoline, and to ask what the divides that are so present in that map show, aside from the readiness of resistance to taxation.  Such cartographical after-images are revealed in ways that are specific to particular maps, and linked to both the sort of stories that the best dataset can show and the graphical coherence that the map provides. to the viewer which offer the possibility to grasp the meaning that the map embodies as a sort of argument about how we divide and understand space–and understand space by dividing it.   Tthe Southern Poverty Law Center presented a compelling a “geography of hate” by mapping actual hate groups.  The persistence of such advocacy groups grew from “pressing concerns” of collective hatred, from the Kentucky-based IKA–the “Imperial Klans of America”–to the Illinois-based BOK–or “Brotherhood of the Klan.”  But if the resulting image could be interpreted as evidence of the persistence such an “after-images,” the persuasiveness of dividing states in the “Hate Map” is, dismayingly, not so compelling as a distribution of a clear political topography that divides the United States:  the point is their persistence in our country, but the map blurs the resolution of specific pockets where these groups might be allowed to flourish in a broad range of states, or the relative size of these insidious organizations that perpetuate discontent:  the map is a chilling image, but also an unclear reflection, although it is clear how the cresting above forty (terrifying as it is) distinguishes Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida–as well as California, the loss leader in this metric.


The map appears to isolate regions where hatred finds its focus, but of course can’t be readily mapped onto each region’s residents.

17.  The concept of such cartographical “after-images” suggests more of a trace or imprint on than part of its representational functions.  The devil lies in the details, or in the extent that the details allow the viewer to enter into the local landscape a map presents:  after-images register differences that might be read as a lasting scar left on the land, but are best discerned within the content of subsequent maps.

The scars or “after-images” left by such a political rupture are often most easily decoded and read in immediately subsequent maps–especially maps that turn on such sensitive questions as those of political representation in the immediate wake of the Civil War.  The lack of volition specific to after-images make them unlikely metaphors for the highly structured field of the map’s space, but as disembodied forms they compliment the inherited structures of space that are rarely registered in the actual landscape, but as if imprinted on the landscape in ways somehow independent of them, such “afterimages” are registered with surprising clarity in the distribution of the crudest data overlays to the far finer grain of Gannet’s lithograph.  If maps offer an alternative way of “seeing” the transmission of divisions imprinted on their surface, they reveal the after-effects of secession by spinning compelling narratives about the division of north and south. Even the crudest data maps might be aptly described as compelling “afterimages” of the lines secession drew across the land’s expanse, shaping local inhabitants’ view of the nation and national government as much as reflecting them.  Gannett’s registration of such dense redouts of anti-Republican animosity transcends mere conviction, but was rooted in reluctance to adopt what is seen as external imposition of civil rights’  policies, and reflects the retention of meaning that existed in the past demarcation of a Confederacy-Union divide.  But the recognition of the longitudinal divide among states which refuse the taxation of gasoline constitutes an odd after-image of the secession of southern states, as if an anachronistic echo of self-declared construction of a divide in the political landscape of the twenty-first century.

The concept of the “after-images” appeals more than that of a trace and an imprint on the map’s surface.  For rather than being an accomplishment or renewal than it registers the shock that occurred in the status quo, in ways that might the recognized as something of a scar that was left upon the land, but is able to be discerned only through a later map.  The afterimage reveals the result of the continuation of a cascade of events in how spatial divides are redrawn whose echoes–to synthetically shift or mix metaphors–continue to reverberate in how we read the landscape that it maps.  Instead of being defined in the map, the afterimage emerges from the resonance between maps, and from comparison–and is not able to be reduced convention or line on a map or be mapped, and helps maps empty the relatively abstracted distribution in the divide of local levels of gas-taxation onto an inheritance of political divides.

Gas Taxgas key

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The persistence of divide does not reflect only the outline that the image-maker or map-maker created–“fictor cum dicit fingo figuram imponit”– but also track the depth of a difference maps stubbornly reveal.  Much as the ghostly remnants of sudden ocular over-stimulation glide, disembodied from spatial coordinates or position in our vision, they offer unlikely metaphors for the collectives registered on a land-map.  But as an image of speech they suggest the unconscious ways that narratives of spatial difference are imposed on different ways of inhabiting space–and are imposed by the legal boundaries of difference that were created in the United States from the boundaries in which slave-holding remained permitted from the early nineteenth century, and were indeed defended as a right of the states toward the Confederate south that seceded from the union.

The divide in Gannett’s map of returns in the presidential election of 1880 revealed that Garfield barely won any of the counties in Southern states.  In transcribing the results of an election widely perceived as a referendum on Reconstruction, Gannett vaunted the precise tabulation of national votes and the recent coastal survey to create a color-coded record of the distribution of the popular vote by tones of red and blue for the first time, Susan Schulten wrote, to overcome the continued polarization of the post-war electorate in the United States.  Although the division of the electorate did not precisely correlate on a county-by-county level, the regions which resisted the Republican candidate (here represented in blue) constituted a shift to increasing crimson in comparison with a pinker–and far more light blue–northern states.

Around Mason Dixon LineLibrary of Congress

The division the statistical map reveals across the United States more broadly reflects the complex spectrum of progressive in some southern cities, but reveals dense pockets of

carmine, thanks to Gannett’s innovative graphical choice of gradations of blue and crimson to differentiate electoral preferences in sharp detail.

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress

How such afterimages emerge may be less specific to their subject, most importantly, but based on how they allow us to navigate the political landscapes that they describe.  The most highly structured maps prompt and invite compelling stories about their distributions–whose after-images seem to haunt the political landscape:  as much as define the distribution of votes, in other words, Gannett’s “infographic” offers a solution to visualize the fracturing of national politics.  The compelling nature of such after-images that are revealed in a sequence of maps is less directly signified by attributes of what is mapped, than characteristics whose significance the viewer recognize as they read, as something like traces or indelible imprints separate from their proper subject.  Such persistent afterimages offer narratives that accumulate upon the objectivity of a map.

18.  The divide between regions red and blue was not born on televised news reports of election-night, as Athena out of Zeus’ head, but as NBC’s graphics department decided to designate a national divide the compelling  map of the popular and electoral vote for president  offered a fractured landscape of electoral preferences newly divided.  Whether a social or cultural divide, or a difference in lifestyle, the division offered a way to understand something like changed political landscape of the country with George W. Bush’s victory, although the rhetoric of redrawing the political map seems tired.  The history of sharp divides between “Red” states and “Blue” states responds not only to a search for meaning in our choreographic collective, but to the frustration of birding these divides within a system of representative government, in ways that would overcome the chromatically essentiallized attributes of any region or location as distinct.

They tellingly employ the patriotic hues from the primary colors–red and blue–not only to visualize  either end of the spectrum, but to suggest the continued coherence of the data visualization in a map.  There is less intensity strong enough to generate such perceptual after-images in a map, or presume after-images might be expected to exist, given the shifting political landscape of polarization, which suggest something like a search for narratives of differences that is mediated through political institutions process a political space.  For the divides that they have imagined have also emerged as far more complex, as elections have created a remapping of finer grain than the results of the electoral college would show.  Rather than mapping “blueness” and “redness” to reveal lands divided between Star Bellied Sneetches and Plain Bellied Sneetches, GIS tools, complicating the oppositions of the data visualization.  Ways of opening up these divides over time, suggested by the comparison between the after-images Gannett’s map evinced and the image that was echoed, as if it captured either a figural expression and emotional posture of the country.

The attempt at creating an atlas of data visualizations, comparing different paper maps, would extend to a chronological ordering of the shifting spaces of political affiliations that the quadrennial recurrence of presidential elections would allow.  The terrestrial geographic map of the United States white carries intense contiguous azures in select spots and a roughly rosy interior, David Sparks found, adopting a uniformity of colors to earlier political parties and mapping how political affiliations shifted over one hundred plus years since the Civil War–or roughly from the time of Gannett’s map.  Sparks’ chronologically collapsed isarithmic map of continuous coloration suggests some continuities among voters from 1876 to 2008, if it contains multiple narratives in voting habits by predictable fuzziness in electoral allegiances for most of the country.  But the condensation Sparks devised in a video and collective synthesis reveals a proclivity among states below the thirty-seventh parallel, rendered even fuzzier in the synoptic one-minute animated graphic crafted from multiple frames from 1920 to 2008, whose animated choropleth reveals clear preserves of one-party voting, almost as if regions were inhabited by the ghosts of earlier political preferences. And the replication of the latitudinal divide immediately strikes the viewer, despite its almost air-brushed quality:

isarithmic election map 2008Many divides in maps are frustratingly opaque as they are read over time, and after-images difficult to discern, but political scientists indulge in this sort of mapping, as if in an attempt to invest historical dimensions to the individual data visualizations.  Sparks’ synthesis also interestingly compares, when extended to 2012, to the county-by-county parsing of the Romney-Obama presidential election, in which blue democratic counties spun out in the Southern cities and in the Southwest in ways that broke an earlier landscape of opposition, but which a simple geographic distribution can no longer explain, given the population density of many of the regions of the map in the Northeast and Pacific coast colored blue, a distortion mirrored the unique mosaic of votes in the Midwest and Florida–

County-by-county 2012

-.although a cartogrammic warping of the same election by population reflects the same deeply dyed blue divide of the Northeast, area around Lake Michigan, and West, and an ominous shrinkage of the population of red lands

County-by-county cartogram 2012Mark E. J. Neuman, University of Michigan

The variability of party preferences suggests the irregularity of the blanketing of red states across the interior around 2000–elections which first provoked an actually anomalous red state vs. blue state geography of polarization:  voting patterns from 1920 to 2008 chart electoral preference moves like swells across the country in improbable waves that appear driven by a combination of fashion and circumstance, as much as different areas of work or economic relationships of a fixed geography:

But if temporal synthesis muddies topographic variations in the political landscape, mapping regional electoral preference in presidential contests from 1876 to 2008 effectively define loose contours around the South–and the red blur around Salt Lake City–from the blue-leaning industrialized cities in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west.  The after-image of Reconstruction extends to the longstanding disenfranchisement of African-American voters, still evident in the recent redistricting of Alabama voters.  Despite some shifts, the landscape is recognizable:   “after-images” are not shared memories or distinct allegiances transmitted across generations, but rather reveal evidence the continued impact of removed experiences, per their resonance until they might be said to eventually fade from the picture in which they first created such strong stimuli.

The latitudinal divide that has inscribed itself on the landscape reveals itself best in maps of fine grain–but that in due course diminishes to vanishes, or mutates into new divides.  After all, the divide is not linked to the terrain; it is perhaps even best revealed in the truly compelling (and dynamic) Tableau visualization of the 2012 election’s translation to the elector college that Adam McCann created, which creates something like a distinct sea of Red below the very same conceptual divide:

2012 Tableaux

The Tableau map perhaps best reflects the national division emerging among states adopting laws not mandating that employees join unions–seen widely as anti-worker laws with the most pernicious result of endangering pensions and benefits, increasingly adopted (or introduced) as explicitly pro-business measures.

%22Right%22 to Work Map

%22right%22 to work laws in antion

Data-visualizations often intentionally offer distorted oversimplifications to readers, and fabricating divides in space as if they were permanent in nature.

Afterward:  Re-Examining the Divided Vote in Henry Gannett’s Map as an Image of the Nation

The electoral drama of 2000, when the emergence of a swath of red states reified the Republican victory in especially iconic terms, created a visual rhetoric of division that is particularly insidious.   In contest, the mapping of the popular vote after the Civil War responded to a specific localized crisis in  the country’s chorographic representation.  By giving the spatial distribution of the popular vote for the 1880 election in readable form, Gannett explained the problematic electoral divide–a divide far more salient and problematic than most other periods of the blurred lines of the red-white-and-blue airbrushing of the lower forty-eight that Professor Sparks devised, and that reveal a crisis in political representation–as well as chart the depth of the after-image of Secession in the era of Reconstruction.  Their close proximity to the aftermath of the war led them to create a clear mirror of the political  debates of Reconstruction and in the years before the 1880 election that Republican candidate James Garfield won, but by barely claiming a razor-thin majority of the popular vote, that the statistical battery of the distribution he had at hand caused him to produce a compelling explanation of the vagaries of an electoral system much of the nation’s voters didn’t fully grasp or comprehend–especially since the results of previous 1876 election had been inverted not by the electoral institution but by the Senate’s compromise.

Gannett acted as something of a medium of reflecting deeply-held opinions in inscribing the electoral differences across the United States.  Acting like the cartographical conscious of the divided nation, he mapped how the translation of popular to electoral votes restored a coherent if deeply fragmented sense of community–although one that also provided a basis for future after-images of a divide.  For Gannett set out to create such a statistical map that explained the Republican victory in ways that could be readily digested by a larger audience, to be sure familiar with territorial maps as illustrations of the continuity of the new country, but less sure of how to reconcile that very continuity with the obstinate divisions between political parties who divided around issues of Reconstruction and slavery that the war had provoked.

Political polarization has not only characterized the American political landscape for some time.  The division that began in quite different guises, however, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that pale before the recent divide between Republican and Democrats.  The divisions in the popular vote of 1880 were so stark to lead Gannet to come to terms with their divisions.  He preserved in cartographical terms a record of the divided nation that would readily explain the Republican victory in ways that could be readily consumed, that provided a compelling record of the after-image of the divided polity for an audience whose familiarity with maps of political unity was only relatively recently developed.

The intensity of given counties’ deepest opposition to the Republican platform that advocated Reconstruction as even more intense than Republican support was in much of the north:  although the map is, most prominently, a record of the rejection of secession, and election of a Republican president–Garfield–so used are we to seeing such topographies of opposition in the most recent electoral maps, we almost reflexively detect a steep opposition in counties across Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia as well as Virginia:  the divide immediately catches the viewer’s eye, and data “speaks clearly” to the viewer, given the sophisticated ways that Gannet, as the Superintendent of the Census, used tools of line engraving to calibrate the intensity of voting preference–Republican or Democratic–to map a topography of preference in his map six deepening hues of red, ranging from light pink to deep carmine, or from baby blue to deep azure, saturating counties different colors to reveal the intensity of their inclinations in a stunningly clear topography of majoritarian divides whose modernity immediately strikes us as considerably refined parsing of the popular vote by color coding the proportional distribution of the vote per county for his readers.

3_scribners_1883_625_0Library of Congress

KEY Rep:DemLibrary of Congress

4_scribners-1883-electoral-vote_625Library of Congress


The United States was effectively redrawn, in the redolently patriotic topography of red, white, and blue that both respected local variations even as it recognized a landscape of continuing political differences.  In ways that use of the artifice by which electoral maps can resolve the outcome of contested Presidential contests, the map proves something of an emblem that can be glossed so as to unite the country even after he most bitter divides.  The post-civil war divide during Reconstruction occasioned what Schulten calls “the ancient map that invented Red and Blue states,” as an economic way to describe the different levels of support of each party, and the limited rootedness of that support across geographic divides.

It also reveals the increasing authority of data sciences and statistical mapping as a means of understanding and distilling a complex moment of political change–we can excuse her for dating ‘ancient’ from the burst of statistical maps of early big data in the late nineteenth century, when statistical geography tried to reconcile the big data with the need for images of national unity, although if they offer an early precursor of the hunger for data,  they remain distinct from the less refined skills of visual discrimination that were used in early twenty-first century computer-assisted graphics, and the recent proliferation of their explanatory force.  While the Gannett map reflects the authority of the engraved map as a form of understanding the nation in the mid-nineteenth century, based on new techniques of lithography, to clarify pressing questions of continued national coherence, the fad for the data-visualization–an artifact with deep roots in the nightly news–provoked a search for the selective criteria that best summarized national divides which effectively removed the nation from its past.

Questions of wrestling with American identity from a deeply historical perspective had arisen during Reconstruction because the Republican party had allied its anti-slavery platform as  preserving the integrity of the nation and as the centenary provoked historical perspectives on national identity; the measurement and digestion of recent historical events in graphical guise, Schulten reveals, provides an early form of the info graphic, adopting recent techniques of shading in color lithography to process the popular vote of 1880 in which nine million Americans had voted, and the victor, Republican James Garfield, drew only 7,000 more votes nationwide than his Democratic opponent.  For Schulten, the innovative statistical map of such fine resolution newly “enabl[ed] Americans to visualize the spatial dynamics of political power”–or an election’s results–as it “more systematically measured” election returns, “showing a nation organized not according to railroads and towns, or mountains and rivers”–mapping the vote across counties at a fine grain that invited viewers to navigate and note salient divides in the political landscape that was still haunted by Secession.

The map provided a basis to materially render a political divide in ways that materialize the electorate’s distribution.  Gannett’s map is also striking for how it registers something of an “after-image” of succession, as much as it preserved an image of national unity.  The map offered an image of representational democracy–in which an election could be determined by but 7,000 votes, or shifts in several counties in New York State–in other words presents a new problem of unity, and of Republican dominance after the Civil War.  The map responded to significant uncertainty about the continued integrity of a nation by a Republic president after the election–the cartoonist Thomas Nast seems to have foreseen their electoral victory in a comic news map, representing a sturdy behemoth elephant that would carry the nation, but which obscured its eyesight, piercing Maine and California to balance the midwest on its broad back:  “The Republican Animal Will Carry It,” Nast foretold in a brief legend–the prolific political cartoonist who had long despaired at Republican compromise with the south was displeased by Garfield, but resisted commentary and conceded that the elephant was laden with the map it would carry, and drew few more cartoons about the election.


Gannett let statistics speak eloquently in graphic form to explain how the narrow election translated into electoral victory.  The spatial dynamics his map reveals itself presents a detailed after-images of former slave-holding Southern states–in the continued intensity of popular opposition to the Republican candidate.  Although the narrowness of the margin of victory Garfield won in the popular vote–still the smallest in American history–translated into a handy electoral college victory, the map revealed the continued dominance of opponents of the Republican party in the south, here gauged by the intensity of their opposition:   the two-color chart reveals not only the intensity of deep carmine distrust of Lincoln’s Republicans, but calibrate the intensity of opposition county by county, as if to document the efficiency of the suppression of the votes or voice of many former slaves and free African Americans, now enfranchised by the Fifteenth Amendment–save those Republican redoubts where they were possibly more effectively mobilized by those blacks who had returned to the South during Reconstruction.

The divisions that then defined the electoral landscape still held clear marks of Southern secession, traces apparent in the fields of crimson bridge the symbolic and empirical.  In an age of digital mapping and data visualizations, readers are often invited to tease out as lines fracturing the political landscape.  The local variations in the voting patterns, Gannett sought to show, clearly translated into blocks of red in the electoral map he prominently inset in the large national map at its foot, revealing how the nation seemed broken into two competing constituencies.  The map has special resonance in light of the narrowly resolved election of 1876.  Indeed, the map came tacitly seems to come to terms with the divided electorate in that presidential contest, between Democratic Senator Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes, where the vast majority of Southern states had voted against Hayes and for Tilden, as in 1880, but rather than leaving the vote to Congress, Gannet’s tabulation of the vote with precision elegantly resolved a narrow popular vote, but served to explain the spatial distribution resulted in a clear winner.

The map offers an early precursor of the recent divide between “Blue” and “Red” states, Schulten noted, but serves to illustrate not only a divide but the resolution of a divided electorate through the political process.  The map appears to resolve a newly opened chasm within the electorate, and to hope to resolve that gap in ways that readers could process as they ordered out the county-by-county tendency of the bitterly contested popular vote that determined a race that seemed as if it could go either way as the popular vote was tabulated–and which staged a drama that demanded resolution in a more conclusive cartographical form.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The clear variations in a something of spectrum of light blues and light pinks that was so specific to Gannett’s map was interestingly not retained in the inset map of electoral votes–at first sight Minnesota and Vermont were deepest blue, and Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina deep red, but this only suggests the distribution of electoral votes by shading states in graduated tones to show the popular vote in the synoptic fashion that we have become most familiar, if only because electoral votes are counted by the state as a whole.

4_scribners-1883-electoral-vote_625Library of Congress

The divisions of the country by political preference were, in the end, less accentuated than its unity.  Republicans had cast themselves as the party of saving the union in 1876, and the preservation of the Union remained on the front burner of American political culture during the divisive presidential election of 1880, which was in ways a contentious repeat of the resolution of a country divided by Reconstruction.  As US Census Superintendent, Gannett devised the project of compiling a highly detailed county-by-county account of the distribution of the national popular vote of 1880 whose publication was designed to overcome division by registering the depth of votes for the Republican candidate, Garfield, that made his victory–if actually as narrow as that of his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, itself resolved only by the electoral college–a form of affirming the electoral system as well as a persuasive statistical synthesis, presenting the results of the electoral map in ways that viewers could readily process.

It has to provoke pause that a similar latitudinal divide across the United States continues to haunt the mapping of distinct local levels of taxation on as quotidian a commodity as gasoline by similar forms of shading.  For the gas-tax latitudinal divide not only maps questions of taxation; the status of taxing gas taxes maps a region marked by federal suspicion:  the divide in states’ boundaries registers deep continuities in attitudes toward the political acceptability of introducing a further local taxes that would hamper access to what is taken as a marketplace right.  And the picture of a deep divide that the presidential election of 1880 created as sharply defined precedent as any to trace through the stark shift in public priorities and notions of good government revealed in the Exxon-Mobil gasoline tax map not only “explains a lot” about the United States, as American Petroleum Institute blogger Ken Cohen offered, but traces a continued after-image of secession.  Discussing the haunting of the info-graphic with a removed divide that seems uncannily present in the map itself, will be the subject of a set of future posts in this blog.  For the demographic divides that the map instated left the union haunted by stark divides that at times seem burned into our collective consciousness.  Maps bear traces of the collective experiences with which entire nations wrestle in the modern era, where big data offers the basis to take the temperature of national unity.

Gas Tax

gas key

The recent election in Scotland, to be sure, suggests less of a trace of the past in its distribution of the popular vote or a continued mark of an electoral divide in the UK’s political culture.  With thirty-two of thirty-two reporting, the referendum of 2014 reveals less of a divide than an uneasiness of self-segregation, or uncertainty of autonomy, despite a clear vote around Glasgow.

Scots Referencum


Despite longstanding notions of Scottish separatism, in addition to the difficulties of rejecting the continued benefits of union, and the promise of its institutions, the absence of a separate political culture or perhaps of an existing after-image of separatism on which separatists could draw to mobilize their cause.

The fear that the tax-resisting California Drivers’ Alliance has stoked to mobilize against a hidden gas tax set to take effect in 2015, as part of the state’s efforts to expand the cap-and-trade program, is promised to be poised to put the squeeze on drivers who find themselves at the pump of up to 76 cents per gallon,  as if this were an entirely unwanted and unwarranted imposition on consumers–a point on which the Wall Street Journal readily agrees might prompt “an immediate jump in prices at the pump” onerous to the poor, to raise needed funds for carbon permit auctions.  The rise of this pro-industry if non-partisan community-based movement is based on a similar rhetoric of fear–evident in the forecasting of a loss of jobs that would result of some 18,000–justifies itself on the charge of failing to protect consumers in a similar rejection of representational democracy that has not heard the “pleas of California drivers who will be hurt by higher fuel prices” as if it would only create a “slush fund” for politicians disconnected from their constituents’ needs and are intent on curtailing public debate.  The basis of separatism has less of precedent in the state, however, where there is less recognition in a deeply “blue” state of a discourse of local autonomy and self-interestedness, and far less currency or symbolic capital of mapping the state as an entity apart.

Anyone who has made it this far and seeks more on the visualization of national unity in Gannett’s 1880 map can continue here; and is invited to look at Susan Schulten’s exemplary website, a companion to Mapping the Nation.  For those with an appetite to consider of the survival of the Gas-Tax Latitudinal divide in recent info-graphics betraying an after-image of the divide Gannett first commemorated, do look here.


Filed under data visualizations, infographics, mapping national divides, Red states v. Blue States, statistical maps

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

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

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

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

SF Traffic

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

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


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

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


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

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




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

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




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


Stamen Cabs



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


colored map cabs' speeds


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

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


Densest at midtown #4


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


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


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


Densest at Midtown #2


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


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


Big Mapping NYC Taxi Trips from Open Data


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


Uber hand


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




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

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


187 mill Taxi Trips in NYC


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


Blur of Midtown's White Heat


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


GPS Fixes near LaGuardia Airport


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

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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Veins around park and Mysterious Red Dots


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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Corners are often Bulbs


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




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

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


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

Suggested Pickup POint UBER


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

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

Rides into neighborhoods Bradley Voytek


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

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


Vehicles:Sq Mile NYC   Vehicles:Sq MileStreetsBlog LA

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


Car Ownership in NYC and environs Vehicles:Person StreetsBlog LA

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

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


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

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

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Filed under cabspotting, data visualizations, GPS, GPS devices, mapping city cabs, maps and surveillance, on-demand taxi service, Uber, unwanted surveillance