Category Archives: public health

Florida Tweets

It was the height of irresponsibility, but one that should make Jack Dorsey breathe a sigh of relief that at last he is no longer responsible for Twitter, that the Florida Secretary of State used bad data about the rates of COVID infection around the nation to continue the time-honored tradition to boost the peninsula as a vacation land. And even as the omicron variant was leading to renewed fears of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis took comfort in an opportune map that was recently issued by the CDC, suggesting that, low and behold, the most recent visualization suggested “low transmission rates distinguished the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something right all along.

The CDC image of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity for DeSantis’ media savvy press ecretary, who tweeted it out to her almost 22,000 Twitter followers as a dubious ethical claim of the health that the Sunshine State held for all future travelers, according to the current community transmission levels. Indeed, as this detail of the data vis shows, the lower than substantial levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, that the CDC had advised for all counties colored red for high level of transmission.

David Schultz/Orlando Sun Sentinel from US Center for Disease Control Data

The data vis was important to tweet out at 6:30 am to hit the national news outlets, because it helped begin or frame a narrative that Christina Pushaw, who had long questioned the value of a “piece of cloth” and long defended the Governors’ criticism of mask mandates. The low transmission rates that cast the peninsula as an island of salubrity amidst national rising fears distinguished Florida as a rare area in which the CDC was not returning to recommend mask-wearing even among those vaccinated–at least per appearances, or a superficial reading, endorsing the exemplary nature of its public health protocol. Unlike most all counties in the nation, prominently colored high-risk red to indicate the return of high transmission rates, Florida (a “red” state) was bright blue as a safety of haven as it had, conservative media argued, weathered out the storm of masking hysteria. All of Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break.

But the data was off, way off. In fact, the data vis used cherry picked numbers of a previous days that concealed the hight rates of transmission that existed for southern Georgia and all of Florida–as an updated vis of community transmission for the very next day revealed. The shifting image of transmission rates suggested the lag in data that the state was providing the CDC, as well as the greater risk for variants the nation now faces as a whole. But the data vis, entered into the media cycle of the nation, threw many off ground, in its apparent objectivity. Perhaps that was the job of a press secretary: to distribute any image that provided cover for the Governor who had faced criticism for his handling of COVID-19 by fashioning a new media cycle.

These maps show the levels of COVID community transmission in Florida's counties on Nov. 30, when data for the state was missing from the CDC's portal, and Dec. 1 after the state's data was updated. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

So intertwined is travel with the identity and economy of the state, that it was no surprise that the Florida beaches already made it grounds for public health concerns, and the measures during Spring Break, 2021, gave rise to a spike of COVID cases from new variants. In Spring, 2020, infections in Florida had just begun as its beaches filled, and rose again in the summer; but this Spring seemed the textbook case of exactly “what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of.” Increased partying brought rates of infection of a magnitude six times greater, with up to five variants, in the second spike of infections in the state. The Governor came under fire for his resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and toleration of partly open restaurants and beaches, as the coronavirus literally ate into his popularity, and he became something of a “mini-Trump” as Trump’s popularity slid, and many questioned if his positions reflected political expediency and short-term gain, rather than Florida’s interest.

His national ambitions were evident, and he argued that the new COVID surge was but a summertime blip, as he embraced “freedom” as a choice of parents by keeping schools open, refusing policies of masking in public, and questioning the wisdom of masking or vaccines, even threatening to not pay county officials who enforce mask mandates, trusting the survival of FLorida’s tourism industry would consolidate his status. Governor DeSantis stood his ground as an ardent supporter of his anti-masking policies and a Trump legacy. He attracted admiration and interest of the communications professional, Christina Pushaw, whose admiration of how DeSantis stood up to “persuasive . . . false narratives” begun in the public press. Pushaw all but publicly identified herself as a new press secretary for the beleaguered governor, whose admiration of his public heath policies, landed her a job but helped to transform the press secretary to an alternative news source, to remap the risk of COVID-19 by a new public health narrative–a narrative that, until recently, had only lacked the right data maps to treat her office’s social media as a new news source.

A screen grab of a tweet written by Ron DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

The rise of infections in Florida echoed the first opening up Florida to tourism in early May, 2020 that continued through June. The recent promotion on social media of the low transmission rates in the state suggest difficulties in balancing a parallel calendar of tourism on which Florida has long relied to the accurate tally of community transmission–a tension that may go back, for Governor Ron DeSantis, to his office’s extended tussles with the GIS analyst at the Florida Dept. of Health who first constructed the dashboard of daily and cumulative infections in the state.

While the Governor had claimed that he would “follow the data” in his opening plans, there were deep concerns that the data was not transparent. When Pushaw wrote a set of attack pieces on the GIS analyst who felt that figures of infection rates were being manipulated, massaged or suppressed infection rates, DeSantis’ Lieutenant Governor promoted it as evidence of “one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.” DeSantis soon gained a new press secretary, who had essentially applied for the job by praising the skill with which the Florida governor had resisted public masking and vaccines, working to combat the “devastation caused by socialism . . . happening in our country,” and assailed the “big lie” about corruption that a GIS analyst had charged the state. The woman who had worked as an attache in Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili, now working in Ukraine, might not be a common itinerary to Florida’s Governor’s office, but Pushaw wrote, “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring.” Having assailed the GIS architect of the Dept. of Health COVID dashboard, she offered her services to Florida’s embattled governor to shift attention from COVID-19 infection rates.

After taking the post, Pushaw cultivated a broad social media presence by tweeting some 3,800 times in her first month on the job,–including one arguing watching one’s weight was more protection against COVID-19 than “a piece of cloth” or mask, and promoting the state’s organization for Florida residents of free “antibody infusion treatments” across the state.

State-Run Monoclonal Clinics for COVID-19/@GovRonDeSantis, August 28, 2021

While the map of “state-run treatment sites” seemed to counter the data visualizations of local infection, it tried to set a counter-map to images of level infection or mortality. The notoriety of COVID-19 cases in Florida must have encouraged De Santis’ press secretary to retweet a CDC map dated November 25 that appeared to document low transmission rates in almost all state counties–offering evidence of the healthiness for Christmas visitors. Notwithstanding its Governor’s longstanding resistance to masking and infrequent masking in public spacearding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”. The map retweeted early morning on Thanksgiving Day a shout-out for shifting public perception of the state, as it paints the state as the being sole site of “low” community transmission in the nation, and followed the calls for more praise for DeSantis’ brave strategy of handling the pandemic, since Pushaw became press secretary, both from the Wall Street Journal (Media Ignore Florida COVID Recovery,” October 31, 2021) and Fox News, on which DeSantis echoed Pushaw’s points as he claimed poor media coverage in relation to COVID-19 “deadly” in mid-November, after a rough summer in which 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 afflicted the state. In early November, One America News Network promoted a special report from this summer (“America’s Governor and Florida’s Grit”) about DeSantis’ guaranteeing of increasing access across Florida of “a life-saving COVID-19 drug” that reduced severe illness.

It was hardly surprising with such lead-up of an alternative narrative on Conservative news that Pushaw seemed to seek to boost the narratives that were launched in conservative media when she retweeted a new data map of COVID community transmission news on 6:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning as if to target Christmas travel plans to be discussed at the harvest feast that rather highlighted the far lower transmission of COVID-19 relative to the rest of the country as fears of COVID variants multiplied nationwide. The map with national imprimatur showed a drop of community transmission levels in Florida alone, and seemed to offer some back-of-the-envelope evidence that the spikes of previous years in the southern states and in Florida had created local resistance to the coronavirus and its new variants.

The bifurcated image of the nation that showed Florida as, essentially, the sole site of low COVID transmission, would be sure to attract attention and conversation, political ethics be damned. Flying in the face of the longstanding resistance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to curtail out-of-state tourism that encouraged him to keep the state open to travel, DeSantis’ new press secretary used the map to show Florida open for tourism, after having weathered three waves of spiking coronavirus infections. Perhaps the state’s poor planning for public health in the past by lifting guidances ofr mask mandates might, DeSantis ventured, create safety in the beaches of the Sunshine State in a winter of variants, as the ‘conservative’ media–Wall Street Journal and FOX–had hinted might be the case. DeSantis’ groundless claims of safety found somewhat predictable support from FOX commentators in sustaining “natural resistance” to COVID-19 from past exposure, a “natural” immunity better than vaccination, was a data-based strategy, although what sort of data they were using seemed unclear. (The CDC finds those who had recovered from COVID-19 but were not vaccinated were five times more likely to contract it again than the fully vaccinated.) The conflicts that DeSantis’ office seemed to manage between a state economy dependent on tourism and the calendar of increased community transmission suggests not only a lack of transparency, but a duplicity based on improvised off-the-cuff diagnoses of a dangerous disease.

The lack of COVID-19 transparency that had been a continuing issue in the state since 2020 had reared its ugly head again, and just in time for post-Thanksgiving Christmas planning. Indeed, the absence of transparency was particularly troubling as we increasingly depend on dashboards, tracing, and positivity rates in grappling with the virus and its ongoing mutations. As the self-declared attack dog of the GOP, Governor Ron DeSantis was by 2021 boosting the dubious concept of “natural immunity against COVID-19” as the forefront of a fight against mandating vaccines for large businesses, exempting from vaccination all recovered from Covid; with full vaccination rates in Florida about 60%, around the national average, Florida ranked twenty-first among states providing at least a single shot to residents. Those already vaccinated in Florida were mostly elderly–a demographic on which DeSantis had dutifully concentrated to provide the vaccine. But many residents in the state, liberated from mask-mandates, were partying, barhopping, hitting the beaches, as masking was unenforced at schools, kept open five days a week, or on cruises–DeSantis promised cruise ship companies that in Florida, they wouldn’t need “vaccine passports.”

Governor DeSantis, amidst COVID spikes, emerged as a Trumpian cheerleader standing steadfast in against a “biomedical security state” as COVID infections spiked yet again: “Florida, we’re a free state–people are going to be free to chose to make their own decisions.”

Daily Cases of COVID-19 Reported in Florida by State and Local Health Agencies/New York Times

Days after DeSantis challenged Biden’s authority by declaring “We’re respecting people’s individual freedom in this state,” and banning businesses from adopting vaccine mandates–even though the state’s sizable elderly population was demonstrated to be at risk for co-morbidity.

At the same time, a DeSantis spokesperson and press secretary retweeted a rather striking map with CDC imprimatur made rounds on Twitter: the striking data visualization suggested that rates of community transmission plummeted in comparison to the lower forty-eight. While the image depended on the outdated data Florida provided the CDC, a symbolically powerful image as rising alarm about rising rates of transmission injected fear in holiday plans.

DeSantis’ energetic and telegenic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, whose Twitter profile shows her pushing her hair over her head with a smile as if seeking to embody Florida cool, seemed all but to channel a vacation advertisement in her retweet. In promoting the alleged decline in COVID-19 cases from it appeared that Florida had been granted a reprieve as folks were finalizing winter vacation plans in the face of worries about increased infection rates. Pushaw’s tweets had been flagged for vacuuming up right-wing media–a constituency to which she had belong–and had already been suspended once from Twitter in the past. But she retweeted a CDC data vis to promote the apparent decline in rates as evidence that the state provided the secure vacation spot to soak in sunshine this winter after a stressful year.


The bright blue expansed that so conspicuously appeared to isolate the peninsula in a sea of high rates of community transmission of COVID cases appeared to promise Florida offered some sense of shelter from the storm. Yet in spite of all its apparent objectivity, the CDC data vis Pushaw tweeted out on social media didn’t really prove the assertion of Keesman Koury of the Florida Department of Health that low cases of community transmission the data vis registered reflected the “result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment,” as if that included no mask mandates or social distancing. As if providing evidence of how much the global pandemic was fed by local bad messaging and toxicity, Pushaw boasted of its safety as if promoting a healthy vacation site in the tradition of the State Tourist Board: “Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” as if the data vis provided cutting edge news, sufficient to rethink the state’s ham-handed response to preventing the virus’ spread.

The tweet amounted to outright disinformation–and showed sense of the media savvy of a National Interest journalist turned DeSantis spokesperson known for offensive and off-topic tweets of scurrilous content. Few out-of-staters may have known that she had been accused of stalking the Florida Dept. of Health geographer and data analyst Rebekah Jones, the geographer responsible for having publishing and curating data of COVID-19 infections daily tracking infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to infection across the state–having built the COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths. Jones was terminated by Florida’s Department of Health for “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard–where she was in charge of answering public questions–and unceremoniously fired May 18, 2020, after raising questions about changes in the publication of data and functionality from May 5, including the combination of tallies of total negative COVID tests and positives, perhaps to lower the calculation of COVID positivity on the dashboard she designed, and the retallying of deaths certified as due to coronavirus infections.

As the beaches of South Florida were readying to re-open, Jones, fearing the state fudged public health data irresponsibly, unethically adding negative tests in a false aggregate–even if conducted for the same person–to diminish the ranking of positivity, even as DeSantis proclaimed he was “following the data” in re-opening. Months earlier, Jones had created the dashboard and apologized for the lowering of mortality rates announced per Florida’s Dept. of Health, in the course of reclassifying many coronavirus-related deaths, as the Dept. and adding fewer deaths despite rising mortality rates in Florida to deaths verified as related to COVID-19. The state argued it would “continue to provide the most up-to-date information to arm Floridians with the tools and knowledge necessary to flatten the curve,” but seems to have shifted the nature of its total counts of deaths or indeed of positive cases of infection. But, unlike the state dashboard, Jones showed the density of confirmed COVID infections and the few Florida counties which, by her count, ready to reopen.  The data aggregated on her dashboard suggested that rather than the curve flattened, only two of sixty-seven counties in Florida met the state’s established criteria for re-opening. She complained Florida’s Dept. of Health had wanted her to delete the report card of infections per county, as it showed “that no counties, pretty much, were ready for reopening;” FDOH didn’t want that visible on the dashboard in ways that would “draw attention” to an inconvenient truth, she said in mid-June. (At the same time, the state had witheld data on deaths certifiably related to COVID-19 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, unlike other states, to keep figures low.)

As the data guru in charge of publishing the data, Jones would be expected to be central to any public health work that was based on the data. But she alleged her refusal to lower the state’s positivity rating to allow it to meet its target for reopening led her to be dismissed: as the state became an epicenter for infection in March 2020, the state faced increasing pressure to meet goals to be “ready to open” for the summer.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.
Rebekah Jones at Florida Dept. of Public Health/Photo Courtesy Rebekah Jones

Despite noting the “dramatic changes” on the data portal of concern back in May, 2020, Jones, whose dashboard had long been trusted as a source, seemed to feel it had swung beyond her control: she would only say in early May, “I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that.” The familiar site for residents to orient themselves to daily updates of county-by-county breakdowns of new and total positive cases of coronavirus infections, virulence, hospitalizations, and deaths had shifted,–about a month before infections would peak–

Woman who built Florida's COVID-19 dashboard removed from project |
April 22,2020

–and infections in the state broke previous records, adding nearly 9,000 new cases in a new daily record by June 22, 2020, before the arrival of the Delta variant.

Screengrab via Florida Dept of Health, for Friday, June 26 2020

The numbers of positive cases for state residents grew, as hospitalizations, during that very summer, when they ballooned, and multiple counties in the state grew deep blue.


As if in response to what she contended was an unmerited ouster from Florida’s Dept. of Health for failing to fix datasets, Jones quickly founded her own alternative “rogue” informative COVID-19 dashboard, Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard. While DeSantis had outlined, under the approving eyes of then President Trump, plans to re-open the state by placing “public health-driven data at the forefront” along fixed “benchmarks,” his data guru insisted her refusal to be part of promoting “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data;” she constructed an alternative dashboard showing only one of the sixty-seven counties in the state revealed sufficiently low positivity to warrant reopening or easing restrictions on social distancing. The exclusion of positive antibody tests on the Dept. Health website was clarified on the new site, which aimed to be far updated daily and far more user-friendly when it appeared in June, 2020, and tracked the rise of positive cases that summer, adding increasing features of legibility and of tracking change over time.

Florida's Coronavirus Dashboards
Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard, June 2020

The new site foregrounded total “COVID Positive People” detected in both PCR and Antigen tests in running tallies, listing new positives from the previous day, running counts of recoveries, and available hospital beds beside a county-by-county breakdown, the dashboard offered a far more synthetic fine-grained map of the COVID-19 ground-game of public health to grow public trust. The rival dashboard that debuted in mid-June aimed to show accurate geodata of “what’s going on in a straightforward, nonpolitical way,” synthesized publicly available open data, mined from state reports but not reported straightforwardly on state-run websites. And when it was revealed that the data for which Jones and a group of epidemiologists had been never incorporated in DeSantis’ vaunted plans to rely on the data in plans for re-opening the state; reopening brought a five-fold surge in COVID infections by mid-July, more Covid-19 infections than any other state, and records for the highest number reported in a single day–15,300–more than the high set in New York in early April, during the worst outbreak in the city. The wave, which might well have been prevented, strained hospital and treatment by antivirals. It called into question the logic of DeSantis’ reopening plans, or how much he had relied as promised on health-driven data.

The state in fact seemed to lack even sufficient testing to measure the scale of the outbreak, even as he reopened the state at a far faster clip than New York or California, re-opening all gyms, bars, indoor dining at restaurants, schools, pools and salons and ending stay-at-home orders but a month after they went into effect, to welcome tourists to the state from Memorial Day, increasing the risks to the state’s older residents greatly, before closing the bars in late June. By November, after an other rise in COVID cases ran through the state, Jones’ public message to the Florida Dept. of Public Health to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” as the dashboard stood at 17,460 COVID-related deaths in the state, law enforcement served a search warrant at Jones’ home, guns drawn, seize the laptops from which the former GIS manager of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection ran the alt dashboard–“all my hardware and tech”–seven months after her firing from the Dept. of Public Health.

The dashboard of rising COVID infections released on an ArcGIS platforms was a bombshell that placed her in the public eye–and was regularly updated. The alternative website seems to have led to her attack as a discontent “rogue” rather than a whistleblower in the national news. Its release lead to subsequent national media slamming of Jones in conservative media as a serial social media abuser, as outlets tagged the former public health official as a “super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation,” to defuse her own charges of community transmission. Jones was charged of being guilty of having openly invented lies “about Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary” using social media to pedal pandemic falsehoods. @GeoRebekah temporarily de-platformed on Twitter, Pushaw crowed that her suspension revealed Jones’ untrustworthiness and abuse of the medium, calling it “long overdue.”

Pushaw went further by attacking the GIS systems manager as nothing less than “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation.” DeSantis and his office dutifully applauded Jones’ temporary suspension as evidence for her duplicity, as guilty of “defamatory” statements and a “COVID super-spreader,” happy to see her public profile reduced. Comparing the systems manager to an Irish-born cook whose asymptomatic infection spread to her employers what was known as Salmonella oddly served to demonize her as an immigrant carrier of disease, echoing Trump’s obsession with “foreign” origins of COVID-19; it shifted attention from dangerous mortality levels in the state, and gestured to an era when the pathogenic transmission of salmonella was not understood, more than inadequate responses of the Governor’s office to three waves of COVID-19 in the state.

Pushaw and Jones had a long history of entanglement. The ways that their fraught relations determined the battles over the local messaging on the pandemic remind us of how its global spread was brewed in the toxic channels of local miscommunications about public health. Governor DeSantis had only hired Pushaw as a press secretary, per WaPo, after realizing public messaging on COVID-19 crucial to his public image. The Florida Governor seems to have been especially keen on Pushaw’s exposé of Jones’ “big lie” about DeSantis’ reticence in releasing total counts of positives, long before he restricted state dashboards to weekly updates of limited information by June. 2021, as the state faced a second spike, when it changed its methods of reporting deaths to the CDC, making them hard to tally with regularity, and shifted the format to weekly tallies of vaccination and infections. The articles Pushaw had written attacking Jones’s whistleblower status may have encouraged a long-running conflict that led her to be charged with “computer crimes”; Jones’ charged the press secretary with having stalked the GSI analyst obsessively and aggressively, slurring her reputation after she was fired, allegedly for insubordination for refusing to undercount infections and magnify the number of people tested. The vindictive attacks on the data analyst obscured the problems of reduced clarity of replacing the daily updates on which viewers had relied with weekly tallies.

Florida Covid-19 Dashboard and Surveillance Dashboard
Florida's Rising COVID-19 Numbers: What Do They Mean? : Coronavirus Updates  : NPR
June 24, 2020/Florida Dept. of Health Public Dashboard

The Surveillance Dashboard offered a comprehensive running count and cumulative tally that Jones was charged with having crashed before her dismissal from the Dept. of Health, six months before the police entered her house in December, 2020, weapons drawn, to seize her computers as the novel coronavirus was spreading widely across the state.

Despite the value of allowing state residents to orient themselves to the spread of COVID-19, Jones disturbingly suggested the state was playing fast and loose by manipulating data of infection rates by slimming counts of positives by omitting almost 10,000 antibody tests from its tally. Yet by June 22, 2020, twice broke records for single-day infections in a week: the state dashboard of daily data announced a new record of nearly 8,000 infections and 13.5% positivity rate–a critical number just over the early baseline for re-opening of 10% positivity–even if the WHO baseline for reopening was set in May, 2020, in preparation for summer, at 5% or lower for two weeks. Playing fast and loose with time-stamped data in troubling ways, DeSantis assured the public in mid-June as positivity grew that journalists should realize the past was more important than the present in his allegedly data-driven response, rather than the policies he had adopted: “the main thing is just for folks to look, in May, if you remember end of April, May all the way through, you know coronavirus was relatively quiet in Florida. You had manageable cases. Our positivity rate was 4 or 5 percent consistently.

Only in late June, 2020, was a Public Health Advisory issued that back-tracked on Governor DeSantis’ longstanding objections to preventive measures like public mask-wearing, social distancing, and caution. In fact, some 20 million cloth masks distributed statewide that “all individuals in Florida should wear . . . in any setting where social distancing is not possible” and social interactions limited for all over age sixty-five. The cautionary tone was not alarmist, keeping bars and restaurants open in the sixty-four counties it defined as in “Phase 2,” and allowing all retail businesses and gyms to operate at full capacity, entrusting their clientele to practice social distancing from one another, as part of a “plan on public recovery.

Coronavirus Rising in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas: What We Know  - The New York Times
June 24, 2020

Yet the Governor, in his wisdom and care for his pubic perception , issued an Executive Order Affirming Freedom to Choose emulating the then-President, by June 2021, after school boards considered adopting mask-wearing mandates for their students, as a part of schools being “open for instruction” since the summer of 2020, noting how “masking may lead to negative health” and the CDC “guidance . . . lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”

In this context, perhaps, the old dashboard has became a focus of public attention in what seemed a laboratory case of an unfolding public health disaster–DeSantis had phased out county-by-county daily breakdowns in favor of issuing weekly tallies, having argued that the state had rounded the bend, and removed the regular daily updating of dashboards on which Floridians had long relied on to orient themselves and that geographer Rebekha Jones helped pioneer.

June 22, 2020, via Florida Dept. of Health (screengrab)

Since the escalating records of early summer cases in 2020, the state dashboard had provided a familiar breakdown of infections, offering real time information based on age in a county-by-county breakdown that all of a sudden wasn’t there as a guidepost for local decision at a critical time, once it had been removed.

More crucially to this post, the constraints over how much information of COVID transmission was publicized–and how accurately it was compiled–suggested that DeSantis’ office commitment to ensuring the calendar on which the state’s economy for tourism depended had displaced the monitoring of a calendar for community transmission. By June, 2020, the Florida Dept. of Health substituted weekly COVID tallies in place of the daily breakdown and count that Jones had worked, explaining that the state wanted to streamline information and reported daily case data to the CDC. The new weekly dashboard failed to orient users to a geographic distribution of COVID-19 or what counties infections had occurred, so prominent in the old dashboard; it provided little data that could be drilled down into, by abandoning a county-by-county distribution and dropping the stark visualization of state counties as a “third wave” of COIVID-19 infections hit in 2021, and DeSantis mused that the county-by-county breakdown might be useful to some.

July-August “Third Wave” of COVID-19 infections in 2021 in Florida/New York TImes

DeSantis proclaimed the state had turned the bend. But as Florida led the country in newly confirmed cases in early August, 2021, folks wondered why the daily dashboard of old was no longer readily available as a tool of visualization, worrying that the daily updates were pulled by the Governor’s office prematurely in June, as the pandemic led to more hospitalizations in the state than ever before, but the Governor’s office, rather than offering public health data to state residents, asked for patience “in returning to normalcy”–even after twenty-four days with over 1,000 new cases discovered daily. And in tweeting a map of low transmission rates in the post-Thanksgiving days, claiming COVID cases had begun to “bottom out in Florida,” while they started to peak nationwide, Pushaw seemed to seek to clean up Florida’s public image, by directing attention on social media to an alternative reality that may have benefitted a map that rendered rates of community transmission taken, albeit a map that had benefitted from the new timeline at which Florida was releasing data to the CDC. Indeed, the release of figures of community transmission at different times from the country seemed to offer evidence of how clear-headed policies had kept local transmission rates low, even if the data ws comparing apples and oranges.

The tweet seemed to seek to erase memory of those dashboards of the recent past, that might well have kept tourists away from Florida, due to high positivity rates. The apparently credible picture showing low risks of viral transmission statewide was a retrospective reprieve of sorts for the inexcusably poor public health policies of the past. Although the CDC had updated data on community transmission for the nation, the state received a rather convenient break: for local data had ceased to be updated with much regularity for Florida, compared to the rest of the union, rendering its counties an almost continuous bright blue. Pushaw’s early a.m. tweet was the perfect graphic for her smiling Twitter profile, which recalled the vacation ads of old that promoted the salubrity of the state’s sunny beaches.

The imaginary fault-line that seemed to isolate the panhandle and peninsula as a sight of purity and safety was itself a creation of the lag in the reporting of state data, rather than reflecting a break in community virulence or the “bottoming out” of COVID cases. But the implication that Florida had suddenly become an area of low community transmission reflected cherry-picked data crafting a false comparison between apples and oranges, so to speak, since the state’s data had stopped updating as the rest of the country suffered from rising rates of COVID-19. Was the absence of inclusion of available data on the national COVID data tracker a mistake, or a convenient untruth of deeply unethical nature?

The maps of cases, infection levels, and fatalities, had been if only six states have mask-wearing mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, whereas in 2020, forty-three states had adopted them, the low levels of transmission seemed to promote an image of azure seas across the peninsula that was oddly akin to the images promoting the Vacation Land U.S.A state from the mid-1950s, presided by a beneficent smiling sun, whose rays boded health for all–where the sun was able to be drunk to good health daily in the state’s unofficial elixir, fresh orange juice. Concerns about the continued popularity of winter beach destinations during the rise of the new Omicron variant may have been leading many to rethink their vacations, but the data vis was dropped at a strategic time to plug the beaches’ open space as a space for rejuvenation, a ready get-away for those seeking escape from COVID stress.

“Come on Down to Fabulous Florida,”
State of Florida Tourism advertisement placed in National Geographic, 1952

The couple romping through the surf promised escape in a “lovely peninsula, with its 30,000 lakes and 1,400 miles of mainland coastlines, which is continuously cooled by refreshing [ocean] breezes” is removed from the fears of coastal erosion that recently reared its heads in the collapse of the Seaside FL towers. But the coast beckoned as a site of sociability, for many who had been spooked by the rise of COVID-19, the beach offered an image of health in ways that rehabilitated the classic cinematic myth of the sunshine state of ocean fun.

The past imaginary was one of all carefree abandon, promising a year-round vacationland, outside of the normal flow of time or the seasonal change–as the 1954 advertisement put it, “WARM in Winter–COOL in Summer!“–that would produce “a fabulous state of well-being.”

1954 State Travel Advertisement, “Fabulous Florida . . . WARM in Winter-COOL in Summer!

The “extra special” nature of Florida as “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of fun facilities” was tied to its beaches, but stretched “border to border,” mapping a vacationland free from worry. Was Republicans’ not readiness of to nix the federal budget over mask mandates, and resist previous mandates on vaccination that would buck the federal advisory that folks “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in areas of high or significant transmission risks, mandates for the unvaccinated only existed in reliably “blue” states–California, Connecticut, and New York–where they did not face legislative pushback, and the mask mandate for all only applied to those island territories with uncertain public health infrastructure–Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands–where an outbreak could be devastating, and where Democrats acknowledged the public costs as critical, from Hawaii to New Mexico to Nevada to Illinois, where the COVID scare remained fresh in memory.

Florida was long an outlier of mask-wearing, especially on its beaches, per this classic Mapbox data visualization of the likelihood of meeting masked friends in public from mid-July 2021, that reflected the split sort of realities with which the nation had been confronting COVIDThe rarity of spotting mask-wearing in midsummer 2021 was super spotty in the Sunshine State, especially on its beaches, in a state seemingly torn by parallel realities.

Wat is the Likelihood of Encountering Groups of Five People Following Mask-Wearing Mandate in the United States? New York Times/July 17 2020

The stark local divisions of adopting masks in public space won world-wide attention early in the pandemic. No masking regulations on beachfronts were a sort of albatross for the state governor DeSantis, famous for issuing a forceful Executive Order later in the month, resisting school boards trumpeted the absence of “well-grounded scientific justification” that mask-wearing reduced transmission and finding an absence of sufficient evidence masking could reduce community transmission in the state schools, had openly run against national opinion and allowed “all all parents have the right to make health care decisions for their minor children” affirmed patients’ “rights under Florida law” and vowed to protect all Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. By the time that the new CDC visualization dropped, anxiety was growing the rebound of COVID-19 both in Delta and omicron variants would kill the tourism industry for Christmas Vacation 2021, and DeSantis’ spokesperson must have been primed.

The flimsily persuasive nature of the cherry-picked data of the data vis can be handily spot checked on the CDC website itself, by stepping back just one day for a better view of the risk levels of putting caution aside and heading to the beach. For the lag of a few days of renewing data reminds us of how important the daily release of accurate data is, and how easily it can skew a national image of community transmission that seems to provide a “snapshot” of national levels. Florida’s rates of infection didn’t remain an island from the nation, so much as a lag in reporting failed to show comparable rates of infection to the rest of the nation. The differences were not so pronounced: indeed, the previous day–November 24–mapped the state as being a site of moderate and substantial transmission that could not have suddenly shifted in but one day, so much as the new visualization fit the “narrative” about DeSantis and COVID-19, more than the situation that Floridians experienced on the ground.

And flipping back just a few days previous, the stark divides of low rates of transmission and the substantial to high rates in other states offered little grounds for off the cuff collective diagnoses of the greater hardiness that exposure to COVID due no mask mandates offered a benefit to the state’s population, or might in fact be considered a viable public health policy: a month earlier, transmission seems roughly equivalent on the Florida or Texas coast, and relied on uniform assessment and tallies–but we may have reason to suspect Florida of undercounting to keep its numbers low.

The lay of the land was basically not at all that clear-cut. One can only hope that few made travel plans after seeing that bright blue peninsula on social media: a better bet, it seems, would be Puerto Rico, if the mask-wearing mandate could be tolerated by visitors. In fact, the very areas that visitors might be hoping to travel–from Daytona Beach to Cocoa Beach, or the area around Miami and South Beach, down near the peninsula’s tip–suggested areas of substantial and even high risk, save for the area lying in the Everglades.

Community Transmission by County in the United States, November 26-December 3,
CDC Covid-19 Data Tracker by County

Indeed, a Moderate Risk seemed the fate of much of the state, if the tracker were looked at with regularly updated data sets. And this is relying on the numbers that the Department of Health provided–numbers that might be well scrutinized, given the complaints their former data guru had raised. All said and done, the “narrative” was not one of the power of a Governor to imagine his ability to purge COVID infections from the state, so much as a burst of virulence that demanded to be mapped and tracked in better detail.

CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, November 26-December 2 2021


Filed under COVID-19, Florida, health risks, public health, social media

President of Some?

Donald Trump has presented a new notion of the Presidency to the United States: the open claim to be President of only some of the nation, and to have that model of Presidential rule become the standard for political decisions. This policy was not Trump’s own decision: the retreat from any interest in bipartisan governance that had been the basis for American politics for two hundred years began in the pitched nature of pointed acrimony in the U.S. Senate that erased the decorum and respect among different interests in a model of collective action for over two centuries.

Already by 2011, the nation divided into spectral schema suggesting slight chance of local bipartisan governance, disguising often narrow margins of political victory, despite eighteen states where Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in 2011, some eighteen were split.

Republican States, 2011

While the pitched fervor of some of our national divisions bears the imprint of faith-based movements, they are replicated in the pointillistic logic of the electoral plans of REDMAP–a concerted attempt of regional redistricting. For the reconfiguration of electoral districts has staked out a problem of governance as a strategy of victory that would erode the project of governance, by privileging “states” as an amassing of electoral votes,– rather than positing the coherence of the interests of the nation as a whole. The concept of governance seems fragmented, bolstered by regionalism, states rights discourse, and the cruel new isolationism of go-it-aloneism. In ways recast in the 2020 election as a choice between “darkness” and “light” of truly terrifyingly Manichean proportions, evoking near-apocalyptic scenarios to recast public debate as issues of identitarian self-interest. The divide of states on the 2000 electoral map, which didn’t change much over eight years, enshrined a blue versus red state logic, dovetailing with a deeper plan of retaining electoral control. This was the map was parsed in the seventh season of The West Wing, in 2006, at a time when the television newscasters needed to remind their audience states shaded blue sent electors to vote for Democrat Matt Santos (modeled in 2004 on then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who just delivered the nominating speech at another convention), red ones for his Republic opponent, Arnie Vinick–as Campaign Director colored a dry erase board red and blue as results were announced.

The West Wing, “Election Night” (April 2006)

Obama provided a model for Santos as a candidate not defined by race, pivoting from race to underlying unity among red and blue states, but the restate-blue state divide was militarized. And when Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republican state legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio adopted the idea of ensuring Republican victories by rigging the Electoral College according to the congressional districts that they had redesigned, rather than in bulk, in the hopes to skew the distribution of electors by the congressional districts they had guaranteed would be firmly red, having designed districts that even in what were considered “blue” states had “red” legislatures. m so that districts would be assured that they would not be “outvoted” by urban metro areas would dictate a future.

This gave rise to the logic that asserted the “rural” non-metro regions should reclaim a place at the table by recrafting representational politics to give new meaning to those who increasingly feared–or felt–that their vote just didn’t count but felt that their futures on the line. By redrawing districts, legislatures magnify rural interests outside large metro areas, offering a logic magnifying their political representation through congressional districts as power bases and political divides: not by blue and red states, but by a red republic, in need of its voice. The plan to separate electoral votes from the popular vote can only work by recasting electoral districts on party-skewed lines, independent of any geographic shape save benefitting one party, at the expense of another, at violence to the republic. It was echoed in a tactic of political obstructionism that provided the logic for “red” areas to be increasingly opposed to current governmental policy in the Obama administration.

Republican-Majority Electoral Districts of America, 2013

The reduction of debate between parties may have begun on a local level, but metastasized nationally in legislative maps. The rationale of legislative bodies has shifted on local levels from a representational logic of governance to a pitched battle–as only one party wields legislative power in all but one state in the union.

The Current Partisan Power Play (2019)

The disorienting nature of an overdetermined power play means that there is not much discussion or debate in the local states, or legislative bodies, but a sectarian consolidation of demographic identity as destiny.

The division of parties cast “red” and “blue” as forms of governance that essentialize the color-choices made in news maps as almost existential terms. Indeed, the increased casting of the 2020 Presidential election as a battle between “light” and “dark” was gained distinctly pocalyptic undertones fit for the age of the Coronavirus, mapping the current elections as a referendum of the “future of American democracy” or, for President Trump, a “bright future” and “dark future” whose oppositional terms echo a religious eschatology. Was it any coincidence that the separatist blood-stained banner of the Confederacy reappeared at Trump campaign rallies in 2016, jumping the logic of a chromatic divide into opposing visions that could be understood as a nation divided in war?

Brandon Partin, of Deland, Fla., at 2016 Trump rally in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As candidates proclaim themselves to constituents as an “ally of light, not darkness,” the choice of the election has turned on the complexion of the nation’s political future in ways that concretize the removal of maps of support of political parties as an existential struggle for the nation’s soul, removed from questions of political representation. The eery blocks of political division were apparent in the long led-up to the election, as the fracture lines in the nation were only less apparent because of increasing tension as to which way the highly colored states in play would slide, and how the electoral prism would mediate the popular vote.

The notion that a specter of socialism haunts America, to be promoted by the Democratic Party, is the conclusion to a logic of deeply sectarian politics of belonging.

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Filed under COVID-19, data collection, data visualization, democratic representation, public health

Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

The Many Other Flints Out There

The ambling course of the Flint River has been too often misguidedly vilified as a center of the high lead levels that have created such a toxic crisis of high lead levels in the city’s water, as if to give a geographic source for its woes, rather than the aging local delivery system of its pipes.  Yet the recent suggestion that a range of older industrial towns from New Jersey to Maine to Pennsylvania are beset by similar woes create in aging urban infrasctructures nation-wide suggests it only muddies the waters to give  false specificity of the dangerous waters of the Flint River, 142 miles long.   Many of the older regions of pipes for water used lead or lead solder–some 250 schools and daycare centers nation-wide are beset by dangerous levels of lead in drinking water.  

Yet the demonization of the “dirty” river points a finger at one body of water as the source of E.Coli, neurotoxins, and lead: CNN has incorrectly identified the river as “a notorious tributary that runs through town known to locals for its filth.”  Even Flint native Michael Moore complained of how the city’s mostly African American residents were forced to drink “from the toxic Flint River,” isolating the rivers as a source of toxicity as if to delimit it as a source of public danger rather than acknowledging or adequately mapping the structural, rather than environmental, difficulties of controlling lead leeching from pipes, at the risk of neglecting the benefits of river systems in urban environments.  

And with declining spending on cleaning up lead pollutants and dangerous pipes, the infrastructure of water treatment and plumbing seems a danger of national health that disproportionately targets poorer communities, far more seriously than do drugs, terrorism or crime. If the increased malleability of lead has long encouraged its fabrication into pipes, originally by the rolled sheets by pipe-makers, the cautionary notes that were offered by the builder of second-century Rome, Vitruvius, cautioned readers of his classical architectural treatise that “Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. Hence, if what is generated from it is pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body. This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour; for in casting lead, the fumes from it fixing on the different members, and daily burning them, destroy the vigour of the blood; water should therefore on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome.”  

While an aide to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder explained the disaster of contaminants by which Flint’s overwhelmingly African American residents suffered, telling the Detroit Free Press with some deception that “the people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health”–as if they were indeed the victims of bureaucracy of the EPA.  Governor Snyder’s office concealed the longstanding awareness of the dangers lead pipes created for residents’ drinking water.  The failure of transmission of longstanding knowledge and best practices for treating the water to prevent corrosion of lead pipes is hardly a secret:  federal law stipulated its treatment with anti-corrosive agents since 2012–but such recommendations were ignored..  In a move of gas-lighting or media distraction, Snyder openly called for the state to transfer supervision of the lead-rich water to the locally elected mayor, as if this would restore responsibility to the local level.  

Yet the possibility that Flint might sue the state for allowing the city’s drinking water to reach residents laden with such high lead levels by failing to mandate corrosion-control treatments, suggest that Snyder is particularly pressed to respond adequately to the suffering Flint’s poor residents have faced.

The problem of aging lead pipes is not new.   Although the wisdom Vitruvius’ apparently sensible explanation of the declining vigor of blood among drinking  water from lead pipes doesn’t line up well with modern medicine–Vitruvius praised the better “flavor of [water] conveyed in earthen pipes, . . .  the purity of the flavor being preserved in them” (VIII.6.10-11)–the dangers of the corrosion of lead pipes is well known, and is a danger in many older urban neighborhoods.  Although when geochemist Jerome Nriagu re-ignited debate on how “lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman empire” by pointing to the physiological damage on brain and kidneys of such high levels of lead consumption have may occurred among even upper classes, the immediate consequences of the increased appearance of lead in the water supplies of residents in Flint, MI has provoked real alarms about the unsafe quantity of lead for poorer residents.

 For the high rates of lead in Flint in the drinking water of some 666 houses–an eery number that suggests the mark of the beast, or the sign of the apocalypse–suggests not only the targeted nature of lead-levels among what were now largely lower class homes, where water supplies from the Flint River combined with failure to add anti-corrosives to preserve their older lead pipes.  The leaching of unprecedented quantities into the drinking water of a cluster of homes–despite the clear stipulation in federal law that 011 study on the Flint River found water from the Flint River demanded treatment with anti-corrosive agents to be a safe source for using as piped drinking water–suggests that rather than coming from a polluted river, the many cities that still have dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water across the nation–many higher than in Flint, including Cleveland, Atlantic City, Allentown, PA, or Philadeplia–decreased expenditures on lead abatement from leaded gasoline or lead paint, or for treating water carried by lead pipes, suggest a growing national health risk.

The dense distribution of older pipes that served communities in Flint, a city whose homes have largely been abandoned by the white middle class, suggests the poor conditions of the pipes that carried water to the African-American residents of the city.


The distribution of lead-laden water in Flint raises pressing questions about the stakes of environmental pollution in an old center of automobile manufacturing, whose lead pipes rapidly corroded over time, as they have in many older cities.  the failure to treat or fix water for the older pipes meant that large quantities of the toxic substance–in once case over 10,000 parts per billion (ppb), and often over 1,000 ppb–to have leached from the city’s 5,000 lead service lines and 10,000 lines of unknown composition.  If the meander of the Flint River, which the local government shifted to its water source in 2013 an attempt to cut costs, while awaiting the delivery of water from Lake Huron–was long a site of public recreation and part of the city’s public space–


Next City

–the healthy nature of the river was long confounded with the danger of its treatment before delivery by the city’s pipes.  Despite the higher levels  of corrosive chlorides in the Flint River, the river is far less toxic itself than the water drawn from it became as it traveled on Flint’s own pipes.  The anthropogenic nature of its poisoning by an older infrastructure of lead pipes has been so often confounded with the nature of the river’s water–occasioning the rise of #itisnottheriver–despite its own rich ecology.  The failure to calibrate the quality of the water and their fit with the city pipes however created a , even if the city was compelled to return to Detroit water after the public media attention to the increasingly toxic lead levels in Flint’ drinking water compelled discredited drinking water from the Flint River, or eating the fish caught in it.

Despite much secrecy and delayed action, the discovery of the health consequences of high lead in Flint’s water has raised continued alarms about the levels of lead in much of the United States, both in pipes and in the alarming presence of “legacy lead” form old plumbing as well as crumbling paint, leaded gasolines, and industrial waste, and the alarmingly high levels of lead-presence that is revealed in blood examinations:  nation-wide, it is estimated by the CDC that 2.5 percent of small children had elevated blood levels in 2015 above five micrograms/deciliter, running risks of stunted development and adversely effecting children’s brain development.  

The discovery of such alarming blood-levels by simple testing raises alarming questions about the nature open nature of data on water quality; the presence of high levels of blood-contamination in many American cities raise questions about how maps can best embody problems of water pollution that seem poised to plague the twenty-first century.  Indeed, a recent Reuters map about the high blood-levels lead are based only on available data, but raise compelling questions on the need for efforts to make more data present on blood-levels–as much as on the nation’s infrastructure.  The increased blood-levels of lead are difficult to map, as is the presence of lead in water.  But the compelling distributions of open data that exists on the blood-levels of lead among small children alone–who are most regularly tested, because their developmental suffering is most acute and signals the possibility of environmental pollution or contamination as “first agents.”  The result maps of older cities as Milwaukee, WI–




or South Bend, Indiana–



–raises questions of the need to map the rising health risks that our older industrial infrastructures have bequeathed current generations, and the immense health costs that they are poised to create.  As much as to generate disease maps of the distribution of alarming blood-levels, can we use maps to try to take stock of the dangers in the contaminated waters that so many unknowingly drink without any warning of the presence in it of lead?  Would we not due best to test and map the danger in water, in addition to the levels of blood? How much of th negation, moreover, can we risk not testing? It is amazing that there remains no data for much of the suburban areas around South Bend IN or Chicago IL, as well as, as we shall see, among the rates of blood levels of lead among children in many cities and most regions of the nation–according to the records of the CDC, which does not require uniform testing–it is clear that-such data should exist in hospital records and be public, and may warrant a new level of public mapping efforts, akin to Missing Maps or Open Street Maps, keyed to public health. Even if water quality data is either suppressed or absent for a small region of the United States as a whole, according to CHR,

Maps are successful tools to translate unwieldly abstractions to terms to images we can  comprehend–quite complex multi-causational concepts that range from climate change to mass extinction to El Niño to world pollution and our carbon “footprint” are suddenly able to be analyzed and discussed, if not acted upon.  As well as orient us to a physical space, such maps comprehend uncertainties as climate change in graphic terms, and elegantly materialize streams of big data in fixed form, which seem underscore the complexity of our current environments.  By embodying an individual image able to capture and synthesize temporal differences of temperature across space, they focus attention on otherwise ungraspable global issues in spatial terms, by knitting the consequences of multiple causation into coherent or at least persuasive form.  But can the slippery nature of the flow of water, and the sites of its potential pollution, be effectively mapped?

In mapping “Priority Watersheds for Protection of Water Quality,” Robert L. Kellogg of the Water Conservation Services sought to do so.  Kellogg amassed a range of what would now be called big data to create a chorography of the nation that suggested how what was then Big Agra threatened to pollute some of the largest watersheds in America, to provide a “map” of their relative vulnerability.  The range of chemicals humans had introduced into the local environment, according to the Natural Resources Inventory provided a baseline of the chemicals introduced in croplands–from nitrogen from fertilizers to pounds of pesticides used–that potentially endangered local watersheds–with the result that most all of the top 400 watersheds in the country were potentially endangered.


The chart is so filled with potentially polluted watersheds to raise the question of how quickly #NextFlint–already used in protesting the Dakota Pipeline, Indian Point, lead abatement projects, and wastewater systems, but no doubt a prominent future hashtag– arrive on Twitter.   It is almost not that helpful that Kellogg broke his distribution into risks of fertilizer runoff from fields of corn, barley, cotton, wheat and sorghum–

Fertilizer Vulnerability 1997

and pesticide leeching from fields of corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton, barley, and rice–

Potential Pesticide Risk.png

since the map paints a picture of considerable risk, but one difficult to drill down into.

And although groundwater is an important source of drinking water for many, risk of pollution is notoriously difficult to tie to drinking water in a quantitative manner.  Yet the deep discolorations of the broader chorography suggest the delicate nature of our water safety because of widespread anthropogenic alterations of the agrarian environment, which almost make it difficult to distinguish nature and culture.

Variations in local water quality are far more slippery to grasp or chart with certitude–not only because of its relative nature but because of the multiplicity of anthropogenic sources of pollution used n an anthropocene world, as not only sediments, but the points at which heavy metals and carcinogens might more easily enter drinking water supplies.  It’s far more likely that the water supplies in Flint, MI–where pollution went undetected for months after a switch in water supplies precipitated the leeching of high lead-levels from pipes polluted drinking water for many of the city’s residents–is less an anomaly of poor maintenance than a case that will recur.  For Flint may provide a new standard by which the ongoing contamination of drinking water from old pipes is concealed, unmonitored, and played down by local officials, in ways that a more immediate mapping of sources of water contamination may prevent–and serve to monitor any changes in water quality.  While there is less precedent for such mapping, the regular mapping and measuring water quality may provide the only way that we can take stock–and embody–the fragile quality of clean water that leaves our cities’ taps.

If most maps of water that are issued by the government and monitored by the United States Geographical Service take stock of freshwater rivers and groundwater quality, the vast amounts of the water with which most interact arrive through pipes, filtered finished, or otherwise treated in man-made structures before it arrives in our taps.  The quality of water supplies that circulate in urban areas is particularly to map–although we map the routes of water’s delivery and the system of pipes that transport water to residences, the water that arrives for domestic or industrial use is necessary but challenging to track independently from potential sites of contamination.


The multiplication of anthropogenic effects on water supplies proves more than challenging to synthesize, let alone to gain permission to publish.  This is not only because of the difficulty of mapping the paths of water’s flow, or the varied speeds at which water moves from different sources, or even intersects with pollutants such as run-off or industrial waste.  In ways that go far beyond mapping the pathways of water’s flow, coordinating data about where ground water supplies intersect with contaminants especially frustrate representation,  if not synthesis, in anything like a cohere system.  They are especially difficult to embody in a compelling map.  As familiar maps of air pollution, serious difficulties arise in assembling infuriation from multiple sources because of the falsification of self-reported data.  But expanding of sites of potential pollutants makes real-time data difficult to interpret, understand, or process.  Indeed, the combination of anthropogenic and biogenic effects are difficult to envision or even ascertain.   So complicated are the multiple environmental potential vectors of contamination over space to conceive and to express within a single cartographical form, indeed, one must juggle them in multiple maps, greatly complicated calculations of risk, or water purity.

This post takes a stab at suggesting the difficulty of tracking water safety with needed transparency at the same time as the number potentials sources of pollutants and contamination–not all of which are clearly or entirely anthropogenic–continue to escalate.   As we still struggle to come to terms with the Flint, MI disaster, it seems important to wrestle with the possible vectors of changes in drinking water quality before doing so in later sections of this post, after the first two sections review the challenges of directing attention to water-quality in a series of online interactive maps from the National American Water-Quality Assessment of rivers and streams developed by USGS.

1.  The multiple pathways and courses by which water arrives from rivers, streams, rainfall and aquifers are not the prime obstacles to map water quality.  Even without accounting for finished water, the increased multiplication of possible sites for its contamination by toxins are difficult to render or make clear with the desired transparency.  And it would be good to remember that a large share of the country, geographically speaking, still depends directly or indirectly on surface-water from rivers or streams, with 90% shade dark blue:

Percent pop getting some drinking water directly or indirectly from streams.png

Percentages of people whose drinking water comes directly or indirectly from rivers or streams

The static nature of even a real-time tracking of surface water quality is oddly removed from the fluid nature of water, if based on the limits of data collection:  in the set of USGS maps below, a dense scattering of inverted triangles in various stages of alerts collect local variations in levels of water temperature in a single frame of reference oddly removed from water flow.  Interactive maps in USGS WaterWatch on streamflow conditions collect points of data in a series of pointillist snapshots, keyed across a broad spectrum, that invites us to zoom into states and localities; they allow the viewer to hover over localities to survey the temperature of the national waters to tap real-time data compiled at testing sites;  we can click to access more legible real-time data in individual states.  Most often, these maps track the status of groundwater as an important national good, using local monitoring stations in order to reveal any possible surprises or signs of disturbance.

The level of access to such information serves to create an effective illusion of comprehensiveness and of transparency, augmented by its real-time data.  But does the symbolic coherence of such a tallying of data in a convincing map of the lower forty-eight obscure lacuna–from absences in states such as Nebraska or Vermont, almost blank, and are the reasons for surface-temperature change not rooted in local temperatures?  The real-time mapping of surface water temperatures collate meteorological conditions that affect surface water in ways that raise interesting questions of anomalies in surface water temperatures that might be assembled with other variables to create a comprehensive picture of the characteristics of the nation’s groundwater from its individual snapshots, to contribute to a record of its safety.

Temperature C

USGS WaterWatch (click link for real-time readings)

Such a sense of comprehensiveness is communicated best by hovering over regions, and driving down into states, to more closely examine specific instances of water quality by different criteria. But the looming question of how to embody their coherence in more convincing ways for the viewer might be left as open questions for future data visualization.

Several other maps help us to consider such questions better.  The data points of real-time local levels of nitrates in surface water–albeit strikingly filled with startling blank spots and lacuna, that advertise its selectivity in agricultural regions–is striking despite the quite limited picture of water pollution it offers, due to constraints of available data feeds.


USGS WaterQualityWatch, Nitrates (click link for real time readings)

Both are difficult as a way to grasp or process as a coherent system of flow, oddly.  For despite the usefulness to explore as repositories of data and the huge amount of data they serve to process from testing sites across the nation to a wide audience.  They raise questions of how such information might be better embodied in more effective ways, but do not even try to show water’s local flow.

Such questions seem return when we move to discharge–water-flow–although the effects of obstruction of water are clearly anthropogenic in character. Records of national distribution of real-time discharge remain compelling to navigate across drainage areas are compelling, inviting us to hover over the dot-like distribution of levels of discharge that enter surface water, whose rainbow-like spectrum note divergences from “normal” levels.  Yet if the variations in discharge suggest differences in water’s obstruction, it indicates the huge impact humans and man-made structures exert on water’s flow.


USGS WaterQualityWatch–Discharge (click link for real-time readings)

The wonderfully informative sequence of interactive USGS charts cannot help but raise questions about what alternate real-time measurements–in addition to pH and turbulence–might be collated on open-access servers in different ways for new audiences, moreover, and how the notion about open data about water supplies might be expanded to fit current needs.  For in an era of increasing water scarcity, the servers on which open data about water quality lie might be developed in far more dynamic ways.

The rest of this post might be read as an extended reflection on that question.  An early illustration of the questions that the National Water Quality Assessment rain for this blogger is captured by a compelling image of levels of nitrates in the watershed of the Mississippi–a subject on which I’ve written earlier.  The nitrate loading of larger rivers in the United States is evident in a current USGS map of annual loading of nitrates entering the Mississippi River from its tributaries of 2014, comparable to previous years, which more clearly represents the anthropogenic impact on water quality of different watersheds–even if one wishes one could drill down more, or examine the arrival of other pollutants.  But the map’s use is particularly significant for what it tells us about the ways farmlands increasingly intersect with water quality.

annual load of nitrates, 2014


Despite difficulties in a symbology sufficient to track water’s fluid paths nationwide, the intersection of water with potential sites of contamination which have so broadly proliferated in the modern world to imperil drinking supplies that repeated remapping cannot in itself resolve.  We can usefully model hydrologic flows from data points, but the intersection of anthropogenic and biologic and environmental contaminants demand more creative maps–as do the courses along which water flows in major rivers of the lower 48 contiguous states, scaled by average flow and sized in proportion to data gained from “gage-adjusted flow,” creating an organic map of discharge based on the National Hydrographic Database, NHDPlus v2.  Can we better track how such water picks up contaminants, mineral content, as it moves through underground paths or joins agricultural runoff, and, if so, how might such information might be better embodied a perhaps more effective way in a national database?


American Rivers: A Graphic Pacific Institute/prepared by Matthew Heberger (2013)

2.  The maps raise questions of how to represent the relation of water to its environment.  The question might be better expressed by earlier attempts to classify comprehensive records of rivers, waterfalls and global topography, comprehended entirely through their distance or size–if only to consider what information might be most effectively integrated within its representation of the surface water used in daily life, before we move to the drinking water provided by water-finishing stations.  For the interest in mapping water was long inseparable form its embodiment in rivers, streams, and lakes, without any possibility or idea of encoding data about its quality on such massive scale as is necessitated by our water supplies.

Indeed, while rivers were long mapped as disembodied courses, in the below map of the world’s rivers, contains, and waterfalls, the transit of fluvial waters is almost quaintly isolated as an ineffective model for mapping the transit of water in the modern world to modern eyes, isolated as it is from any environmental context or relation to their physical surroundings.  In ways that seem inconceivable given the premium that maps of water now place on environmental concerns, the discreet pathways of each river is abstracted from their environmental map, and water is mapped in this famous example of synthetic maps as an elegant visual compendium  of knowledge, translating discreet mountains, rivers, glaciers, and indeed waterfalls to a coherent pictorial fictional landscape, whose coherence exists in isolation from an ecosystem.  The  compression of comparative data as an inviting landscape suggest a pristine world we have lost in the age of the anthropocene.

bulla and fontana.png

Bulla and Fontana, 1828

If the viewer of such a map seems addressed as a spectator of wonders, the popular genre of a geographical pastiche aims to dominate nature by exact measurements, assembling a world not yet out of balance in a pictorial pastiche whose frame of reference can be fixed and includes only small if significant references to human presence.  A similarly unthinkable quarantining of the course of the river from immediate surroundings was continued in the “ribbon-maps” of the Mississippi, which Coloney and Fairchilds in 1866 patented as designs following the course of water, as if it were a Trip-Tik or highway:

Strip Map Ribbon of River

Today, by contrast, the variation of local levels of contamination are so great so as to be difficult–if not impossible–to define save by possible chemical and non-chemical contaminants of different levels of consequence.  But the USGS maps above raise questions of what data we openly register about water quality.  Assessment depends on tracking the presence of possible pollutants as well as finishing agents in hopes to establish some broader index of what might be accepted as “water quality,” although the criteria or algorithm for arriving at such a standard has been widely contested–creating multiple uncertainties for how a map of water quality might be credibly assembled.

Different water quality standards not only exist in different states depending on how that water is used, but drinking water standards not only vary widely but are expressed as targets or guidelines, rather than reflections of actuality–and still differ more broadly among nations in terms of levels of mineral substances, pollutants or bacterial counts.

Drinking water Contaminants

There is limited data that such maps reveal about what drinking water–the often finished water with which we daily interact.  If drinking water is far more open to far more vectors of contamination, as the case of Flint, MI has reminded us, and levels of finishing to which drinking water is subject, it is striking how much of the nation is dependent.  But this initial survey of water quality raises questions of what sorts of coherence can exist in maps of water quality, and indeed the difficulty of cartographical selectivity that one brings to any water map. Fortunately, there is an attempt to create rankings of Drinking Water Quality in the state of California, where OOEHA–the Office of Environmental Health and Health Hazard Assessment–has usefully identified eighteen contaminants in drinking water/ and ranked the quality of water across the state at different points by its own metric–but the metric of “water quality” is only as good as the criteria that it employs and adopts, and the measure of water quality by both potential exposure to contaminants and local compliance with Water Board recommendations, while a useful cudgel to increase compliance across the state, skews the purpose of the map to that end, rather than to inviting detailed drilling down into its data: publishing data on water quality is a very tricky matter, with potentially huge impacts on real estate markets, local economies, and more, and easily able to trigger public panics. The ability to drill down into data would provide a needed transparency, however, and environmental awareness.

The reduction of the uninventive datamap to select points of sampling is problematic. The map moreover reduces or limits the rankings of water quality to four, of opaque calculation, and integration of compliance as a factor, may have increased the apparent uniformity of state, where most remains a light tan to reduce alarm. In fact, the data seems massaged to make most of the highly habited regions seem fine and without cause for alarm about water quality–outside of select areas of the Central Valley, whose water quality has long been notoriously open to contamination from agribusiness as well as poor groundwater quality. Should a more dynamic map be created than what we have even from the draft version that has been provided online of what OEHHA calls “the human right to water”?

Office of Environmental Health and Health Hazard Assessment, CA (2019)

The increased awareness of the steep public health risks created by poor water, water contamination, and old pipes, has already led to an attempt to remove old plumbing in public school buildings, water fountains, and assess some water mains in urban settings. The map, produced very recently by the state of California, may set a model for future mappings of water–surely the call for submitting written comments to OEHHA suggests attempts at greater public involvement that begin from recognition of a right to clean water–

Even though the indices and metrics of water quality assessments are inconsistent, and may often be discovered to be incomplete, they provide an accessible format to monitor local water supplies, and the right to water. The range of natural and man-made contaminants entering surface water complicates tracking pollutants and potential carcinogens, particularly as a growing range of pollutants that enter groundwater supplies.   The dense risks of sites of potential water pollution across the country–mapped by Alex Parks to assess “drinking water safety” in 2015 reveals a country crowded by sources of major pollutant discharge by orange circles–indeed almost obscure the division of counties into quartiles shaded from blue to deep violet.  

Radical contrasts in Parks’ index of “water safety” offers a bird’s eye view of steep differences in groundwater purity across the country, distinct from the density of pollutants’ discharge.

Alex Parks' drinking water quality.png
legend drinking safety

Alex Parks, ESRI Community Commons

The map bears further exploration around the region of the Great Lakes for the patchwork of drinking water “safety”, scaled from deep blue (top 25%) to violet (bottom 25%):

patchwork of drinking water.png

Alex Parks, ESRI Community Commons

The complication of entries of pollutants into groundwater is a rough if telling shorthand of the huge differences in water quality across the lower forty-eight–especially around the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes.png

Alex Parks, ESRI Community Maps

The discrepancies in water quality across the United States that Parks calculates are provisionally created from EPA data, in a public health time-bomb waiting to explode with increased water scarcity in coming years–as it already has in Flint’s drinking water.

3.  The dangerous levels of the neurotoxin lead found in drinking water in Flint, MI created an immediate sense of the increasing contingency of drinking water supplies.  Ever since the crisis was precipitated by the switch in Flint to the water of the Flint River in April 2014, in a flawed hope to save money, we have been collectively scrambling for a way to comprehend the scale of the human disaster and the levels of human irresponsibility or failure to adequately track water quality–and indeed the reasons for the apparent readiness to suppress or conceal questions about water quality within the city, in the face of growing questions.

The very difficulty of pressing criminal charges by Michigan’s attorney general, beyond felonies of misconduct for concealing evidence, misleading regulatory officials about water-quality, and tampering with evidence of lead levels in water quality.   While the individuals in question were responsible for such monitoring, the delegation of responsibility to Stephen Bush and Michael Prisby of the Michigan Department of Water Quality for misleading local authorities goes little to remedy the terrible situation or the comprehension of criminal negligence that led lead to leach for so long into drinking water of Flint’s citizens,introducing toxins in their bodies with life-long consequences.  The inability to comprehend even the consequences of chronic health difficulties among those exposed regularly to contaminated water are frustrating in the difficulty to remedy any of this exposure–save, perhaps, not insignificantly, depression and stress, and a continuing panicked level of continued concern and terror.  The expansion of potential and needed local interventions suggests the difficulty to capture its ongoing toll.  (The $5 million currently on the table allotted to cover the costs of mental health needs in Flint barely cover ongoing depression, guilt and anxiety.)

The failure to treat the water after the switch to a different source of water revealed the manifold possibilities for neurotoxins entering drinking water with unmonitored ease in a truly nightmarish way, raising the health care costs of Flint residents and risking compromise of mental health among the 9,000 children six years of age and lower who were exposed to levels of lead in drinking water for over one year.  The outright deception of tracing the public water supplies in Flint–a deception the extended from the failure to treat the new water supplies funneled from Flint’s river to criminal failure to administer administer trustworthy tests of local water-quality in the city that would reveal a cross-section of actual water supplies for allegedly “safe” levels of lead–and even a fraudulent design to guarantee lower lead levels from tap water by suggesting residents run their water for several minutes to “flush” residual contaminants leached from pipes.

Flint Water

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

But the selective testing used a spatial knowledge new pipe lain in the city to obscure the effects of poor water finishing.  The deception of skewing tests concealed feared or potential levels of lead in Flint’s water–and an insistence on making them appear to be safe–perhaps more criminal than the egregious negligence of not adequately treating the water in itself.  But the two are cases of the sloppy management of the provision of water, raising deep concerns of the levels of commitment and adequate oversight of domestic water not only in Flint but across the country.  Indeed, the suspiciously repeated testing of water quality in areas of new water mains to generate low lead levels massaged the statistics to conceal effects of potential negligence in not initially testing lead levels in water that actually far exceeded federal standards to suggest an inadequate monitoring to prevent the dangers of high lead levels from reaching homes.  Was this sort of negligence specific to Flint, a poorer suburb or city in Michigan,  or does it reveal a disconnect between the testing of water and the responsibility for poor judgment in switching water supplies without considering possible costs?

The case of Flint compellingly illustrates the lack of adequate local oversight, and indeed intransigence of the City Emergency Manager in addressing local concerns, adopting recommendations of health experts or scientists about blood lead levels–and indeed their timely reporting and analysis.  But it also embodies the distribution of bad water in America in compelling ways, focussed on the poorer areas of cities with older pipes.  And the mapping of blood lead levels (BLL’s) in the poorer suburb presents cases of the mismanagement of water supplies:  if we pay, in the United States and other countries, for the finishing of drinking water, the poor management of processed water in residential neighborhoods suggests a lack of adequate oversight not only for disadvantaged groups,  but the potential poor management and oversight of local water supplies or the adequate treatment of water-sources for lead pipes. Flint raises questions of the analysis of aggregate data regarding children’s blood lead levels, and indeed of the adequate control and measurement of children’s blood lead levels and exposure through water and other potential vectors of contamination nation-wide.

The tragedy of Flint, MI also raises questions about the lack of information about lead levels in water–complicated by the varied standards employed by different states–needed to better understand how many Flint’s there actually are out there, whose water quality remains to be mapped.  For if maps can effectively embody the different levels of exposure to lead from environmental sources or water pollutants, the counts of lead in water is particularly difficult to measure or map.

4.  Can we better embody the risks posed by the increased compromising of drinking water across the nation?  The problem reflects not only the increasing man-made effects of lead in built environments, but the problems of assessing and juggling the multiple vectors by which carcinogens and other debilitating toxins may increasingly enter drinking water.

We learned ten years ago that over half of the streams in the United States don’t support healthy populations of aquatic life in the lower forty-eight states from the NRSA, with high and rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorous widespread, although the data is not widely mapped and embodied in convincing ways and the presence of phosphorous is generally declining:  yet over 13,000 miles of rivers have high enough levels of neurotoxins as mercury to contaminate fish, and oxygen depletion due to nitrogen and phosphorous induced algal blooms is at risk in two out of five river and stream miles; almost half of the biological conditions in rivers and streams are far beyond or approach poor, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment, which in 2013 rated 55% of 25,000 samples from 2,000 waterways to be “poor” in quality given their high levels of agricultural runoff–and some 40% to have unhealthily high levels of phosphorous–a worsening from 2004.  In its snapshot of the National Biological Condition, just slightly over a fifth of the nation’s streams were considered in”good biological condition;” the picture is not good, particularly in the Temperate Plains, Northern Appalachians, and Upper Midwest, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment of 2014–


EPA/NRSA (2014)

and the status of “wadable streams” across the country was poor, particularly in much of the eastern third of the United States in 2004, when significantly less of the national Biological Condition of stream-water was judged poor–although over two-fifths–and less than a third were judged to be “good” for biological life.


EPA, Water and Stream Assessment (2004)

While we discount the presence of microbiological organisms in the water, whose quality was judged by the Macroinvertabrate Multimetric Index (MMI), the poor biological condition in the northeastern Eastern United States–where poor was found in almost two-thirds of streams–suggests the age of only drinking filtered water is upon us.  The considerable uncertainty of the quality of much of the water in rivers and streams raises steep questions.  It is likely to enter food supplies, if it is not difficult to keep out of finished drinking water that arrives in residential taps by filtration.

The distribution of wastewater treatment varies widely worldwide–

Ration of Wastewater treatment

GRID-Arendal, 2008, uploaded 2012

–as does the filtration of finished water, but the treatment of water in industrialized regions is necessitated by the range of pollutants introduced into water supplies.

wastewater treatment package plants, small and large.png

5. The specific case of the presence of chemical quality of Flint’s water has an immediacy that larger surveys lack, abstracted as they are from actual localities and water quality for consumers.  And it integrates any map of water quality with the possible failures of human decisions of monitoring and testing for water quality.  Indeed, the case of Flint, MI is so chilling because its local detail paint a picture of maladministration and repeated deception of a community at stunning costs.  The scope of the disastrous effects of shifting water sources indeed  only came to light because the continued clamoring for attention of local residents was able to attract laboratory testing beyond the local Health and Human Services, even after questions were raised by the appearance of Flint’s tap water, which residents were repeatedly assured was safe to drink–despite its appearance.

Roosevelt Mitchell.png

Roosevelt Mitchell

Joyce Zhu:Flint Water

Joyce Zhu/

The painful narrative of the failure to maintain adequate oversight over water quality in the city that–the failure to administer or adequately ensure the safety of Flint’s drinking water utilities–raises questions of public health safety of deeply national import.  Can they be better resolved by better maps?  The absence of open data about water contamination–and clear mapping of blood levels of lead for children across America–raises deep questions of public health monitoring across much of the United States.

The vivid presence of rusty water Flint raises clear questions about human decisions to channel water from a local river running through the city long avoided as a source of potable water and of the ability to monitor –but it also raises questions about how better to map the presence of odorless, tasteless contaminants that affect much drinking water in the United States.  Yet the absence of open data on exposure to lead in drinking water is difficult to create, if only because of the lack of open data for most states–only twenty-six out of fifty provide data to the CDC, creating a limited map for Sarah Frostenson, since CDC doest require uniformity.  But the data that is reported is sufficiently alarming in the high lead levels its shows in much of the country–CDC doesn’t require uniformity–most specifically in the northeast, an apparent time-bomb seems to have been created for high blood-levels of lead in children, despite the different metrics that each state uses to detect lead exposure–and the dramatically differing numbers of children tested in each county for lead poisoning that an interactive version of the below map reveals, in many places approaching or exceeding the ten micrograms per deciliter that the CDC now deems of significant harm–a metric downgraded from the far higher amounts tolerated in the 1970s, leading to huge variances in the limits that individual states now retain–or the considerable average 3.1 micrograms/deciliter to which residents of Flint were exposed.  The high exposure rate of over five micrograms almost reached 1%–an inexcusably high rate–in many older industrial parts of the nation.

states recoridng levels of led in children's blood

Sarah Frostenson/VOX–see interactive version here

The notable concentration of blood levels of lead found in children in the northeast and along the Mississippi is alarming–and much of the nation simply lacks adequate reported data on blood levels.  Indeed, the shifting threshold of safety that the United States government has recognized as able to reach 30 μg/dL during the 1970s, then lowered to 25, then 15, and finally 10 for the CDC, although the standard consensus is closer to 5 μg/dL.  It’s recognized that no “safe” concentration of lead in blood exists, and that the effects of any absorption of lead are irreversible, the blood lead levels for children  as low as 2 μg/dL can compromise mental aptitude.  Yet it’s estimated that some 500,000 children living in the US between  1 and 5 years of age have blood lead levels above the 5 μg/dL standard.

The absence of accurate open data on water quality and blood lead levels raises serious questions of national governance and responsibility, as pressing as the difficulties of the management of water supplies in Flint, despite the clear grievances of Flint families, and the clear absence of oversight and local suppression of evidence in Flint.  The more comprehensive mapping of risk for exposure, based on poverty levels and houses’ ages, as well as on an aging infrastructure, recently tabulated according to a methodology developed by Washington State’s Dept. of Public Health and Rad Cunningham, if not based on medical testing of lead-levels in blood, provides a terrifying glimpse of the potentials of lead poisoning nation-wide that serves as a needed wake-up call–even if the map does not record actual cases of lead poisoning.



While not based on blood levels, the map fills an absence of information about water-purity and raises questions about monitoring of water safety from environmental dangers of built environments–and hence raises the highest risks for areas around older cities, in the Midwest and East Coast alike.  As Frostenson noted, “high-risk scores don’t correlate perfectly with an individual’s chance of exposure” with certitude, and many “kids who live in the high-risk areas who might be just fine — they might live in a brand new house, for example” but there are substantially increased  risks of coming into contact with lead in aging infrastructures of urban environments such as  Chicago, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, and Miami.


But by calculating health risk only in terms of aging infrastructure and buildings, have we  stacked the cards against urban environments by the metrics of environmental influences, and paid less attention to the conduits and exogenic pollutants that enter drinking water?

Although researchers had not anticipated such sustained environmental levels of exposure, the case of Flint remains particularly compelling both for its scale of negligence the questions in raises about the possible effects of aging infrastructures on water supplies.  The CDC estimates that nationwide 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer from notable degrees of lead poisoning, and the levels of neurotoxins as lead in drinking water in houses, and in Detroit’s west side, a study found one-fifth of the children show lead poisoning in their blood, from city or home pipes, if not from the water source.  If the flaking paint introduced lead into local environment and contributes to high blood lead levels in over 24 million homes in America, the distribution of such dangerous neurotoxins in domestic lead pipes, inadequately treated water, and water delivery systems is challenging to correlate to blood tests–indeed, tests measure only lead exposure that have occurred in the past thirty days, rather than the lead that has settled in the brain, soft tissue, and bones of the human body–or mapped in compelling ways.  The carcinogen is quickly absorbed in the body to raise questions of how quickly the screening of individual subjects.  And the increased vulnerability to the absorption of lead to cognition in young subjects, and difficulties associated with pre-term pregnancy in pregnant women, suggest the variations in how lead levels affect the population at large.  And although one can use blood kits to monitor local populations, the potential promise of open data on the presence of lead in water systems, if only a partial measure of the contamination of lead in home pipes, provides a macromap of the potentials of lead exposure as well as an alarm for the possibility of irreversible harm–as well as the considerable anguish about residents’ collective exposure to high levels of ingested lead, a and their concern for having been needlessly exposed to neurotoxins.

The narrative of the continued increased lead levels in residential water in Flint places responsibility squarely on local authorities.  The problems of preventing future contamination of local or regional supplies of drinking water rest in questions of responsibility–and indeed liability–for guaranteeing public provision of safe water, with low levels of metals and industrial waste, and even naturally occurring contaminants, and suggest a sad future of the nation’s water supply.  The presence of unsafe levels of lead in local children’s blood–even after evidence of the levels of lead at risky levels of 11 ppb in Flint’s water from January-June, 2015 were learned to have existed–first validated public  state intervention in the local water supplies from last October 1, although the water was not reconnected to Detroit until mid-month.  The very words Flint’s residents use to convey distrust in tap-water–“lead water“–reveals a wariness of public authorities in drinking water, or water for showering, dishwashing or laundry that suggests a frayed social compact about local water safety.

The level of lead would be judged to exceed safety levels in other countries, such as in the nearby nation of Canada, whose occurrence did not seem to necessitate informing the general public.  Such egregious lack of transparency about lead levels in drinking water, and the skepticism initially voiced about their presence until the failure to administer corrosion control in the pipes was admitted publicly, not only delayed the decision to avoid tap water for bathing or drinking or cooking, but obscured the magnitude of the issue of environmental toxins known to be linked to developmental disorders.  While lead levels can become raised due to exposure to peeling or chipped old paint, living near point sources of environmental contamination, or working with lead, the source from Flint’s water was pronounced given low local lead levels in blood for earlier years.

Flint Journal:Jake May

Flint Journal/Jake May

The absence of clear returns on blood levels suggests a failure of government, not able to adequately monitor the safety of populations’ water supplies or inform residents in adequate fashion.

6.  The terrifying succession of events in Flint may be seen as creating a clarion call to make public water supplies’ lead content open data available in readily downloadable form meets a needed level of openness in our potentially failing utilities–and would be a needed wake up call for needed investments in older urban infrastructures.  An increased dedication to open data on water, rather than relying on municipal agencies for oversight, or imagining on how communication could be smoother between local agencies, places an onus for analyzing unfinished and finished water supplies on an open platform.  

Such a platform could allow citizens to analyze and evaluate independently and effectively prevent any irregular anomalies from being not noticed–and indeed transfer the roles of an engaged citizenry for whom results of water systems, if not local residences, are available, from tax payers whose incomes correlate to water quality.  The enormous cost of trace metals and other potential carcinogens are ones for which we all pay in the end–and the cost to society is enormous–the continued absence of transparency on water quality is inexcusable not only in the case of Flint’s bungled reaction to a steady stream of complaints about alteration in the taste, smell, and hue of the water pumped into residences over almost two years, but better materialize a problem on which there is increasing confusion–and inadequate testing, at a time of rising anger at an almost systemic failure to respond to local complaints.  

This would of course include the presence of lead in Flint’s water–so terrifying for the irreversible brain damage suffered by children exposed to drinking water with levels of lead ten times greater (or more) than the limits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended for over two years.  The particular poignancy of the vulnerability of children in poorer neighborhoods–the most vulnerable, as it were, and the most defenseless–seem less a limit case than a canary in the coal mine for pervasive problems of old pipes, water treatment, and drinking water supplies.   Despite clear absence of adequate oversight, and a failure to acknowledge and act on a detected absence of corrosion controls in Flint, open data updates on water quality in real-time may be one of the few things able to restore public trust in drinking water despite the deep distrust of existing monitors of water safety.   The question of liability of Flint’s environmental disaster lay with its water manager, mayor, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and governor as well as with  EPA officials.  

The failure to respond to local knowledge of the abnormalities of the increasingly discolored and oddly smelling and tasting tap water that was commonly found in faucets in Flint’s homes, and the rashes increasingly skin on people’s skin, lies equally on the city managers who so imprudently went ahead with such a shift in water supplier without changing the additives to water supplies; the governor’s office who rejected individual complaints; and EPA authorities who discounted warnings to investigate individual claims or monitor the shift in local water suppliers, intended as a cost-cutting move that was not fully or adequately researched or monitored.  The distributed nature of liability however resulted from little transparency in lead levels:  the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed old pipes, with insufficient investigation of the pipes’ stressors; the emergency manager rebuffed an offer to reconnect to Detroit’s water supply in January, 2015; the Governor’s office shunted aside the public health threat the following month; state agencies tested the water, Miguel Del Toral of the EPA realized, to underreported lead levels.

The limited adequate response to observed differences in water quality in Flint were more likely to be dismissed with concealed public awareness of levels of lead in potable water.  The recent searchable interactive visualization of lead levels across Michigan poses critical questions, indeed, of the degree to which the instance of Flint’s poor decision to divert its supplies from the Flint River was the exception.  Indeed, it doesn’t seem so, when viewed in a state-wide context, with counties shaded to reveal high levels of lead statewide that placed children at risk–whose measurements which are tabulated here.  



searchable interactive map of the state offers a start for Michigan residents to search local water qualities.  By charting the results of testing that revealed high levels of lead among children–an index of particular epidemiological value–it documents a wide distribution of lead levels that even exceed those in Flint.  Although based on a variety of tests, it suggests the possibility of multiple cities of considerably higher blood lead levels–as do early reports of potential poisoning by lead levels in water of some 5,200 homes in Ontario which have older pipes, now suggested to number in the tens of thousands, including lead pipes in some 34,000 city-owned connections out of 500,000.  Indeed, while most American cities have budgeted for a replacement cycle of pipes of 300 years, according to the National Association of Water Companies, the current estimate cuts that back to 95, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  

Is a huge problem of possible future sources of contamination looming on the horizon, recalling the lead poisoning from ancient aqueducts long hypothesized to be tied to the Fall of Rome?   Despite debate, the ill effects of lead were noted by engineers as far back as Vitruvius, who recommended the use of earthen pipes, rather than lead pipes, which he deemed not only “injurious to the human system,” in domestic homes; Vitruvius remembered the “pallid color” of those working in lead, concluding that the substance was sufficiently “pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body.”  Recent engineers have taken time to concur.  The high occurrence of lead leeching from pipes into drinking water illustrate a problem not limited to the United States, whatever slim consolation that brings.  But if some 13% of households in Toronto sampled in a Residential Lead Testing program revealed high blood lead levels exceeding the recommended ten parts per billion (10 ppb), the level lies one-third below the accepted threshold that the EPA has suggested to be safe in the United States.  

7.  The problem lies largely in the elephant in the room of aging household pipes–40,000 homes in Toronto have lead pipes–as do most cities whose water systems were installed over a hundred years ago–suggesting a common problem of urban infrastructure in Washington DC (where about half of the city’s 35,000 lead pipes were replaced, until the Great Recession of 2008), Providence RI, Greenville NC, Sebring OH, Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL (where 900 miles of the water mains lain between 1890 and 1920 have already been replaced), among other older American cities–and has led the EPA to adjust the Lead and Copper Rule concerning replacement of lead service lines from mains to residences as of August 2015.  The cost?  It is estimated to exceed a trillion over twenty-five years by civil engineers in the ASCE, and much of that cost will probably be passed on to consumers.  In Toronto, as in other cities, this may be complicated by a reluctance to use additives that might mitigate local corrosion in urban infrastructures.  

The situation in nearby Detroit has revealed a comparably elevated percentile risk of exposure to lead paint–even if this exposure is not generated through the water.  Yet much of the city was found to lie above the 75th percentile of risk:

Led Exposure in Detroit.png


Data about lead exposure in blood are far more limited, and constrained by the limited availability of data and the irregularity of blood testing:

Lead Exp in Blood.png

8.  The mapping of blood lead levels provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reveal widespread recurrence of public health concerns across southern Michigan, potentially tied to water supplies, betraying particular concentrations in urban or older once-urbanized areas, from Detroit to Albion to Battle Creek–although these could come from old paint and other toxins to which children were exposed.  Yet the clear localization suggests that a range of problems with older infrastructures, from the demolition of buildings to environmental traces of lead, reflect levels of toxins in urban environments.

southern Michigan.png
lead levels.png

While the story in Flint will continue to play out in national news, the many other Flints out there across the state of Michigan–and across the United States–demand to be made as immediate and concrete as possible, and will way as heavily in their huge human costs.

Although the map might be criticized by its unfair profiteering from the Flint’s disaster, whose gravity it effectively minimizes by placing in the context of the multiple sites for presence of lead in older cities and urban areas across much of Michigan, a poor context to assess the systematic failure of Flint’s “emergency manager” to assess the dangers of switching water sources for the city, and the state for not responding to local complaints about water quality, and EPA for tolerating a systematic gaming of water quality tests, the map is not only a cover for Governor Rick Snyder’s policies of crisis management:  for it points to the many vectors of lead contamination that survive in a state which we must not ignore, overwhelmed and disoriented by the scope and scale of Flint’s tragedy.

Carto db lead levels.png

Mike Wilkinson/CartoDB

Yet the absence of alarm in Flint over time makes one wonder what a more careful and prominent mapping of lead levels in water might have revealed, and the action it might have prompted.  Despite the media attention to the failure of Flint’s authorities to adequately monitor water quality in cases delegating authority to emergency managers hoped to reduce local costs in areas of low tax-revenue, whose failure to manage the alternation of water supplies in adequate fashion–in this case, by continuing the addition of anti-corrosives to the new water–creating what has been described as the “rain of lead” in water from Flint’s pipes, effectively targeting citizens due to a government failure to provide them with treated water–a Federal Emergency, still waiting to be classified as the National Disaster that it is.  The range of reasons for lead poisoning that an older infrastructure creates–from paint chips in environment to lead in soil dust–creates a variety of vectors for poisoning, but indicates a problem widespread in water as well.  

Although levels for lead in blood were low for comparable urban areas, the rapid rise in lead-levels found in blood in Flint, which doubled over two years, indicated its basis in a human decision to switch water-sources–rather than an issue lying in the urban infrastructure alone.  The major difference–and this is why ZIP codes provide a poor proxy to compare the local incidence of high lead poisoning in Flint’s water–is clearly off-the-charts concentrations of lead in residences that rise far above allowed levels, and would in some cases qualify as toxic waste.  Indeed, the local levels of concentration at which samples of toxic water must be measured and ascertained means that any general readings of groundwater, finished water or reservoir water are suspect, and one demands local readings of water quality in a range of houses.  Whether this would ever be possible is worth asking, for it poses problems of extended oversight, even as it suggests the difficulty of tabulating water quality without individualized reporting of local results–given that individual buildings in close proximity may reveal quite radically different presence of lead.  In the case of Flint, the local variation of lead readings approaches ten-fold over relatively little space.


The problem was not in the water’s filters–which were performing well!–but was slowly acknowledged after exposure of a considerable spike in lead in children’s blood levels forced government officials to acknowledge the crisis after repeated insistence from local authorities that “Flint water is safe to drink.”   The lack of credence that state officials assigned local complaints about the smell, strange taste, and coloration of water supplies that were tantamount to a dismissal of their local knowledge about the very household water that had arrived in their taps from the Flint River, and led the local government only in October 2014 to issue a “boil-water advisory” to cut high levels of bacteria in the water–six months before high levels of lead were reported, and months before a local automobile plant ceased to use the local water supply in manufacturing, given its corrosive effects.  

9.  The water didn’t come form a trusty source for drinking water, but lack of local communication about its dangers suggest a weird inclination to turn the other eye.  Only by September 2015 was the corrosion of pipes identified as an issue, by which time Flint residents had been exposed to high levels of lead for almost a year and a half–they were only discouraged to use the tainted water supplies in mid-October.


Flint River, Brittany Greeson/New York Times

Would a more public mapping of water quality have clarified issues of liability, and indeed diminished the liabilities of state agencies?  

Turning the other eye to grievous issues of the disparities in urban environments and but ecologies has a long, and tragic history in America, of which Flint is the most current manifestation.  One of the greatest environmental justice issues of recent years has been the dismissal of the existence of the dangers of lead in pipes, drinking water, paint, and gasoline in poorer inner city African American and Hispanics in America.  This dismissal not only lead to a virtual acceptance of lead in 1950s America, David Rosner and Gerald Moskowitz have shown, but a failure to redress problems of urban infrastructure.  And these failures force us to realize that Flint, MI is from an outlier, but a potential eye-opener for the vectors by which environmental presence of lead has long existed in American cities.  Despite the definite failure of delegating authority to emergency managers able to circumvent city practices–as those of the addition of anti-corrosive phosphates to maintain pipes–in ways driven by consideration of tax-payers, rather than the health of citizens, open data on water would also provide a form of civic involvement in monitoring a more transparent relation to water quality of which the nation is increasingly in need.

Despite some deep skepticism for technological solutions to environmental problems, online maps provide a far more transparent basis to assess levels of environmental injustice than  available in earlier years.  The recent EPA Flint Drinking Water Response created an interactive set of maps for ready view both for lead content in drinking water and residual and trace elements of Chlorine in drinking water supplies in Flint was posted in response to the need to restore public confidence in public oversight of water supplies.  It offers the start of a  more transparent practice of instilling trust in government’s oversight of drinking water quality in our homes, in an age when the pollutants in water are being shown to be increasingly widespread and to have been irresponsibly monitored.

Lead Results Flint
Chlorine Residual Sampling Flint

EPA Flint Drinking Water Response/Data Assessment Map and Screening Map

10.   As much as the levels of lead discovered in local water supplies in Flint, MI are a failure of  government, it reveals the importance of securing open data about national drinking water supplies.  Can this be achieved, and placed online in a transparent fashion available in readily downloadable form?  Such levels of openness will be needed as a counterweight to potentially failing utilities and decaying urban infrastructures.  

The danger of regular exposure to high levels of lead leached from pipes in Flint’s drinking water system has directed needed attention to the presence of lead in other cities, including Washington, D.C., by Dr. Marc Edwards, not only to the need to better heed warnings about individual water systems from other local officials–doubts were raised about Flint’s water by Miguel Del Toral in Chicago, but ignored and quashed–but by placing online the numbers of the National Water System and an overhaul of the local sampling systems that led to a systematic minimizing of lead levels in drinking water that is particularly dangerous for brain development.  The prohibitive cost of replacing lead pipes–damage to public and private water lines in Flint, MI alone are estimated in the application for federal disaster assistance at $767 million–as well as another $200 million on health costs for treating residents exposed to lead in drinking water.   At a time when fracking threatens to contaminate public water supplies, a new level of vigilance to the risks of drinking water supplies gains special urgency:  over 7,000 municipal or public water supplies are located in close proximity to fracked wells.  

But the problems of water treatment and corroded pipes within existing municipal infrastructures are perhaps far broader.  The more immediately pressing problems may detract from the dangers posed by potential pollutants from leaking pipelines or fracked wells at this point–although the story of Flint calls timely attention to the importance of securing local water supplies, as its tortured narrative of emergency response raises questions about readiness.   The story of the widespread contamination of drinking water in Flint broke, one should remember, was about a failure of openness and public communication.  It broke only after a wary resident who suspected her child to have been poisoned by lead in her home’s drinking water personally sent samples of drinking water in her home to Dr. Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech.  The particularly telling clue that Edwards found was the presence of a neurotoxin in Flint’s water at levels 150-fold greater than the EPA’s established threshold discovered, triggering the arrival of water-sampling kits to concerned residents in Flint who suspected increased toxicity in their water supplies, which eventually revealed the suppression of evidence of the inadequate treatment of drinking water supplies and failure to monitor tap water adequately in the city, disregarding established National Drinking Water Standards.  

The apparent disinterest of the water utility to inform all homeowners where lead levels exceed the threshold established by the EPA of 15 ppb (parts per billion) not only created a culture of deep suspicion about municipal authorities, but, after the discovery of levels exceeding 2,000 ppb, a distrust of the deep duplicity of public evaluation of tap water or evaluation of the water’s safety by agencies hired by the city as the Professional Services Industry (PSI).  Even after the city of Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October, dangerously high levels of lead had invaded drinking water over a period of years.    The sample sent to Virginia Tech from one home included 158 ppb–among the highest level of lead encounter in Flint, where the 90th percentile of measured water of tested homes was only 27 ppb–still almost twice above the recommended outer limit, although others registered 5,000 ppb, levels that the EPA considers ‘toxic waste’ and others were as high as 13,000 ppb. 


The two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech would spend the next year analyzing alarmingly high levels of lead contamination in local water supplies in Flint, MI that had begun after the city’s  emergency manager decided to stop purchasing treated water from Lake Huron, and to redirect water from the Flint River to urban water supplies without adequately treatment.  The water piped into local residences exposed poor residents to lead to a degree that the municipality and water manager were loath to admit.  While expedient, a less neighborly act was rarely performed.   Only the public release of complete data of children’s blood lead levels in Flint to news agencies prompted the city to switch back to Detroit water, but the pipes carrying potable water in the city’s infrastructure had already been so deeply and dangerously irrevocably compromised, in a blatant failure of public government that lead to indignant public protests, and only slowly occupied a prominent place in national news.  But blood levels provided the only recognized and confirmed indices that made it impossible not to acknowledge the piping of polluted water into Flint residences.

11.  Pronounced social inequities and inequalities can be usually lain out in graphics with immediate effects because of the sharp geographic divisions they reveal in government attention to the public good–illuminating deep discrepancies the pointedly local nature of public risk and the need for investment in water management, as well as real risks.  

From the actual levels of nitrogen pollution that fertilizer runoff creates along the Mississippi’s watershed–discussed below–to the water in the aging or corroded pipes of urban water supplies that have shed led into multiple municipalities’ drinking supplies. Yet readily accessible levels of chemicals within local water supplies that need to be made public open data have been far too often obscured, a problem demanding public acknowledgement.   Although the Government Accountability Office doubts that the EPA possesses sufficient resources or personnel to monitor compliance of drinking water systems and supplies in cities or rural areas, the degree of open gaming of the system by local officials to evade the reporting of high levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water reveals a level of duplicity and evasion with extremely steep costs for the nation’s drinking water supply.

The lack of specificity of high levels of lead in water to Flint that Mike Wilkinson prepared for readers who suspected that city authorities of Flint were alone in playing foul with the city’s water, pressed as they were with low revenues from taxes and a mandate to cut costs from Michigan’s governor, suggest that local decisions can’t be to blame for the widespread crisis in high lead levels in children’s blood across much of Michigan–it is searchable by ZIP–from 2012 to 2014 is not the easiest to search comparatively, but provides a useful start to illustrate the deep difficulties of public water nationwide.

12.  The problem of open data on national water supplies is not limited to leaded pipes, whatever risk the use of older pipes poses to drinking water.  Many of the most common contaminants in public well-water within the “top ten” are naturally occurring–including radium and radon gas, as well as naturally occurring arsenic, manganese, strontium, and boron, in addition to troubling levels of nitrates that are highest in the public well-water of agricultural areas–significant since public supply wells, if using surface water, serve an estimated 34% of the American population, even though the water is not considered “finished” or prepared for drinking.

Public wells.png


Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that far exceed levels recommended by public health authorities–especially in rural areas with a considerable presence of agriculture and Big Agra–

Nitrates in Wells

Patricia Toccalino, Public Wells, USGS

–and of the especially high quantities of naturally occurring arsenic that taint many wells holding surface water for human use, often far above the recommended thresholds–

Arsenic in Wells

Toccalino and Hoople, USGS

Such a high presence of arsenic–considered by geochemist Yan Zheng the “biggest public health problem for water in the United States” and a naturally occurring but particularly stubborn taint in private wells.  Arsenic is definitely the most toxic thing we drink–it is tied to increased risks of organ malfunction and not regulated in most states.  The below point-map compiles degrees of its presence in public water supply systems on a spectrum from bright yellow and red, as befits the levels of alarm its presence raises.

The broad distribution of naturally occurring arsenic concentrations in old industrial areas as well as in California’s central valley, Idaho and Washington state is striking.  (The map is based on individual sites of wells and springs, rather than drinking water quality.)

ARSENIC concentrations usgs

USGS NAWQA Study of 3,350 ground-water samples collected 1973-2001

Many such numbers remain concealed from public knowledge, and not easily accessible; private wells, moreover, are not quantified.  Yet according to USGS findings, some one if five–20%–of domestic wells in the United States actually registered at levels of at least one established carcinogenic contaminant, from radon gas to nitrates to arsenic, or unhealthy concentrations of widely recognized carcinogens whose exact levels of danger for bodily ingestion and exposure are unknown.  (Nitrate problems of this sort are present in the same proportion of wells nationwide, in some regions up to 40%.) The many  wells with danger signs for exceeding one threshold of the presence of a known carcinogen suggest a landscape that needs to be better known–in which the exact locations of potentially “toxic well-water” remain unknown.

1 in 5

Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that exist across the country in the Mississippi watershed.

Miss Basin average annual fertilizer
Nitrogen Pollution of Miss Watersheds
Nitrates in Wells.png


Another visualization of the excess of nitrate-contamination of wells destined for drinking water nation-wide is less limited to the Mississippi, but shows higher concentrations of nitrates on the East coast, as well as in corn-growing areas (South Dakota/Kansas/northern Texas) and California, and parts of Pennsylvania and Idaho).


The timeline of such increased concentrations can be epitomized to some extent by nitrates in California wells, for which a map of growing concentration of nitrates in drinking water 1950-2007 shows impact over time in domestic and municipal wells.

Groundwater in CA:Contaminated

13.  An agreement to share open data on urban public water systems is long overdue–and suggests a needed level of public oversight of drinking water supplies of which we are all in need to know. The public online posting of available data on water quality will be able to give needed coherence to threats not otherwise easily calculated or understood, and all too often easily overlooked.  And if these graphics are not designed to agitate for public opposition to actually polluted waters–and highly contaminated drinking water no less–the limited attention that the need to secure clean drinking water holds in our political culture says something about the need for better public maps to call attention to the presence of critical pollutants in public water supplies, for which there is rarely a better or more succinct or convincing form of public embodiment than in maps.

Take, for example, visualizations that direct attention to the presence of actually toxic pollutants in water–think again of Flint, MI’s terrible municipal tragedy–which essentially pose a problem of political oversight and legislative monitoring.  Taxation of menstrual products are perhaps not nearly so onerous.  The openly abject visualizations illustrate the disproportionate environmental and ambient pollution–as, say, to use a national data vis, one displaying different levels of unregulated toxins in the tap-water of major cities as in fact the product of a policy decision–much as the presence of lead in the pipes in Flint, MI, where a decision was somewhere made to cease treat the water with anti-corrosives–even after University of Michigan-Flint altered the city that it had cut off water fountains at its campus in January, 2015, and add filters to others, and GM publicly announced it had ceased using Flint water on newly machined parts from October 2014.

Current E. coli risks usually can be mapped along watersheds.  But E. coli levels in Flint’s water from 2014 indicated the difficulty of taking water from the Flint River, even if anti-corrosives were not added to water supplies that would prevent lead from leaching from city pipes–not to mention the over 280 contaminated water supplies in Michigan,including the below counties with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic–even though Michigan’s surrounded by some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world.


The intense alarming ‘red’ of poisoning echoes the instinctive sign for danger, it’s an all too common association of poisoning or peril–although the majority (about 2/3) are unregulated, there are at least 316 contaminants in the US water supply.  And although this visualization of the spread of the carcinogenic pollutant tricholoethylene that has leached into the ground and groundwater of Michigan’s Antrim County over a period of ten years, contaminating untold trillions of gallons of water in one of the largest toxic plumes in the country–the pollution from the Mount Clemens Metal Production plant is shown in a neon green that suggests its synthetic unworldliness.


14.  Flint’s environmental disaster has rightly occupied the news’ short attention span–in part because of its failure of adequate oversight, and the inexplicable lack of oversight of government agencies.  But the poisonous plumes that have entered many local water supplies have proved less compelling forms of attention–less because of poor visualization than because of the difficulty of registering their continued prevalence.

Partly, no doubt, this is caused by the huge clean-up costs associated, which few would want to assume, as well as the reluctance to admit the public relations nightmare of culpability of the significant and ongoing environmental damage done to many local water supplies.  Most gaming of public water supplies such as occurred in Flint–and which may be far more widespread than we would like to admit–suggests a deep betrayal of public trust.  And the distribution of extremely high quantities of lead in Flint’s water system–based on the results of over 4,000 freely distributed lead testing kits provided to test drinking water reveal a quite complicated distribution, likely to be due to local pipes:  even though these tests were administered  after the city had switched back to the Detroit water from Lake Huron, and measure the sources of lead poisoning to which people continue to be exposed in Flint seems difficult to determine.

While it does suggest a less disastrous image of lead poisoning, the data map also suggests with considerable detail the complexity of locating sites where lead is in danger of leaching from pipes:  the improvident decision to stop treating the water with anti-corrosives invited the opportunity for lead to leach from pipes in neighborhoods, older homes, and possible water mains in need of replacement, but no clear distribution of exposure to lead seems to appear, as the presence of lead in water merits concern at concentrations above 14 ppb for the EPA, which recommends treatment by filters to be sufficient for lead’s presence below 150 ppb:  test-kits providers randomized results and may need further follow-ups, but the distribution of select cases of a high presence of lead in clear clusters raises pressing questions of how much the addition of anti-corrosive agents can helpt, and fears of the need to replace pipe at some mains and in a clear concentration–if the disaster appears somewhat contained if still quite pronounced, it is concentrated in quite complicated clusters, to judge by the troubling local density of those violet dots.

Michigan Radio Web

Lead poisoning remains, however, by far the most common environmental risk for children in the United States of America–and has long been so.  Indeed, the serious long-term contamination of drinking water with lead in Baltimore, from 150 to 1992, in serious degrees of lead contamination to exist in some 150,000 homes; children drank water contaminated with high concentrations of lead in Baltimore City public schools for ten years, and the drinking water supplied city’s water system was awarded a failing grade in 2000-with lead, carcinogenic Haloacetic acids, and trihalomethanes in the 90th percentile of national standards, placing the city on a boil-water alert, stemming from both the lead pipes used in older houses and partly from its proximity to agricultural runoff.

15.  We often hear about possibly carcinogens in chlorine-based cleansing agents added to  drinking water–the disinfectant by-products (DPB’s) added to drinking water or Haloacetic acids (HAA’s), byproducts of chlorination in water treatment plants–which have received some limited if increased attention from the Environmental Working Group, due to their widespread nature and potentially preventable risk.  The shock that over two-thirds of the US population receives tap water with levels of pollutants introduced to combat microbial infections suggests the perils we court by introducing such potentially steep carcinogenic risks–in a world where 70% of global industrial waste is returned to water and pollutes the available drinking supply, including refrigerants and pollutants, with the result that upwards of 50% of worldwide groundwater stands at serious risk.


The color spectrums that indicate groundwater pollutants in dark reds offers an important tool for showing environmental dangers and registering high levels of danger and local levels of risk–although the acceptable levels of pollutants that appear in much water has not even yet been adequately defined.

Disinfectant Byproducts:HAA5 in LA

At a national level, similarly serious deep local disparities can be mapped to show steeply shifting levels of known but unregulated carcinogens such as Hexavalent Chromium forcefully reveal disparities to elicit public action for the inequalities implicit in local regulations.  They reveal the potential consequences of a national decision not to regulate potential carcinogens in local unfiltered drinking water–and the sharp disparities of where Hexavalent Chromium most pronouncedly appears.

Hexavalent Chromium in US Tap Water

The unevenness in drinking water quality demands multiple indices.

Drinking water Contaminants.png

Or one might well examine the visualization of steeply problematic extent of disparities in the levels of lead that has leached from physical construction materials in areas of New Orleans, including peeling bits of heavy metal paints, or gasoline and other products in the earth and dust, concentrated in inner city environments of older neighborhood in a “bulls-eye” pattern that has been tied to the use of leaded gasoline, and seems typical of most older cities where cars used leaded gas over sustained periods of time.


But even in rural areas, the presence of increased concentration of nitrates in drinking water in townships of lower-density states such as Wisconsin, seem tied to the increased use of fertilizers in farming, more than to leaded gas, although it is absent from the far northern reaches, mirroring areas of densest population and residential settlement, and most intensive use of agricultural farmlands in warmer climes.


How to map risk is never clear.  The mapping of risks of the contamination of water sources is however especially pressing, and with the multiplication of possible sources for leaching of carcinogenic chemicals and minerals into public water supplies and surface water, compiling such data in open access sources is an increasingly important issue of public health.  While the compilation of such databases is difficult and challenging, only by creating a more adequate set of interactive maps of water safety can public trust be restored in our aging infrastructures.


Filed under health risks, industrial pollutants, mapping groundwater pollutants, public health, water safety

Gun Ownership as a Form of Freedom?

Can we sustain an argument that the freedom to own guns truly makes us safe?  Mapping the question of ownership–and indeed even trying to visualize the terrible frequency of mass shootings in the last forty years–makes any consideration of their violent punctuation of public life question the value of construing gun ownership as a freedom.

The frequency with which mass shootings that clot a timeline of the last four decades is hard to comprehend, save for the very difficulty of how such truly terrible episodes have come punctuate our sense of time.  The diminished intervals marking time between mass shootings make the above timeline hard to process or digest–and it frustrates comprehension, but maps an apparent onslaught of apparently unpredictable succession which have so troublingly occurred with increased rapidity in the United States: each mass shooting named once seemed to violently punctuate public space, and set a thresholds for public violence, but in retrospect have almost seemed to collapse as their occurrence and repetition has come to know few bounds in public space–occurring in schools, military bases, public service buildings, or movie theaters–even as few believe that the next mass-shooting would ever occur in the area in which they live.  It suggests that the troubling succession of mass-shootings is in itself a crime of human right sand public consequence, far more than they have ever been portrayed.

The timeline is not spatial in orientation, but arranges place names in a disturbing map of America difficult to come to terms with or recognize–it cannot help but raise questions about how we reconcile increased individual access to firearms and individual rights.  It’s hard to process raises pressing questions of the ways in which our national landscape is increasingly defined by gun violence, dotted by once-memorable place-names of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, Aurora, Newtown, or, more recently, San Bernardino–each of which has come to destabilize the way that previous mass-killings once loomed so large in the present, and in our thoughts about gun control.  Although it makes one want to bore more deeply into the data, it registers a national landscape marked by gun violence with new urgency.   Even as contentious debates are staked about how individual access to guns defines the nation, the simple timeline poses complicated questions about a public arena mapped that seems increasingly mapped by mass shootings.  It describes the prominence of gun violence across a national landscape–even though it only lists but thirteen places by name.  If chronologies were once used to supplement to maps in the middle ages, to sort the settlement of the inhabited world, the shrinking distances between multiple mass shootings on the over-crowded chronology indeed seem to map a growing public arena of gun use that appear increasingly difficult to physically or mentally inhabit.  Yet it is a question all too often marginalized from public debate, and allowed to continue as a truly sick status quo.


Dateline Mass Shootigns USA


Ten YearsMother Jones/Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


The punctuation of time by mass shootings turns to a terrible continuum in recent years overpowers the viewer in ways that make that landscape difficult to process.  Rather than offer a way to mark time, the frequency of what were once treated as discreet  events is overwhelmed, as shootings in public spaces that left four dead have ceased to meaningfully mark time, and suggest a geography of shooting guns in public space.  From occurrences at clearly marked intervals, the pace of mass shootings suggest a surreal information overload in their bunched crowding that challenges legibility, and even remembrance.  For even when distributed on a map, it’s hard to find any coherence in how the clustering of such senseless premeditated tragedies have relentless occurred.  Can one even map their social impact or human cost?

Few maps can register their deep costs than the oddly disembodied timeline.  As one tries to consider shooting, the pace of shootings across the United States is cognitively difficult to process.  The timeline challenges one to comprehend both the toll of the rash of deadly assaults on public space.  There is little consensus about “mass shootings”; the timeline charts shootings in public space that left four or more dead.  But it suggests how, at a time when gun-related violence has recently declined, the recurrence of mass shootings suggests a landscape we need to collectively confront–and to map against the pernicious diffusion of beliefs that gun ownership are a form of freedom guaranteed by Second Amendment rights–although the frantic pace of mass shootings, illustrating the tortured narratives of shooters, to be sure, but also the problems of examining distinct differences between mass shootings, mass murder, and mass killings in relation to the increased access to firearms.

While some would portray the awful repetition of these tragedies as the cost of liberties, the timeline tracks the truly terrible ease of widespread recourse rapid-fire firearms.  Indeed, the horror at the occurrence of mass shootings seems due not only to their horror, but their deep confusion of a militarized and civil space.  The dramatically unique scale of gun violence in the United States has led it to be increasingly accepted as a natural fact, to be sure, as many, including City Lab, have noted, leading Zara Matheson to create a brilliant visualization comparing urban gun violence in America to that of other countries:


homicide_metro_country (2)web

Zara Matheson/City Lab/Martin Prosperity Institute


The amazing scale of gun violence itself has encouraged the expansion of open carry laws and gun rights protests in America, that have resulted in a similar deep confusion between civil and militarized space.  But nothing evidences such a profound and deeply dangerous confusion as specifically or dramatically as mass shootings.  And as the profusion of arms in public space grows at a rapid pace, doesn’t the assertion of gun ownership as a right suggest a deep and problematic confusion of civil and militarized space in the deeply disquieting and increasingly public assertion of Second Amendment rights?


gettyimages-5011345242.jpgGun Activists Marching with AR-15s at UT-Austin/Getty Images


1. It’s not possible to fully comprehend the density of shootings in public places or their especially increased frequency during the past decade–and especially difficult to process their relentlessness across the timeline, which suggests we are in danger of losing count.  They suggest a dangerous landscape of public violence that doesn’t seem likely to change.  Traumatic shootings which once seemed watersheds of public violence, once viewed in aggregation, reveal a relentlessness impossible to process save as a changed state of events.  And while the government has not tracked the rise of mass shootings, or mapped the prevalence of guns in relation to deadly shootings,  on-line aggregations of mass shootings and tallying victims confirm a change in public space–closely tied to the ongoing  advocacy of gun sales by gun manufacturers who fund the NRA:  indeed, the laissez-faire attitude to gun sales are increasingly masqueraded in the United States as a form of liberty in ways that pose an increased danger to public health–that might be more aptly likened to a contagious disease.  Mappings of the rash of mass shootings by active shooters in the past three years embody violence in ways that resemble nothing so much as disease maps.


4d3b7e10-9a94-11e5-b169-65b948f9970d_3797bfb0-99f4-11e5-86c9-23dc4b373c60_mass-shooting-incidents-heatmapdata from Shooting Tracker

But the aggregation of mass shootings in the United States seems tragically tied to the flooding of markets with firearms and guns, not only causally, but in terms of the vociferous defense of individual rights to bear and carry arms in public space–as the recent exaggerated expansion of the Second Amendment defense of individual rights–long agitated for by the NRA–suggests.



Getty Images

In ways raw data speaks more than cartographical forms can embody.  But only by parsing the rise of such mass shootings from gun homicides and firearm use can we begin to understand the deep confusion and distortion mass shootings have made between militarized and public space, and address or process them by more than shock–or start examine reasons for the considerably greater fear of terrorism, despite the 10,000-fold magnitude between the number of gun deaths and deaths from terrorist attacks, and  the wildly disproportionate fatalities from mass shootings since 9/111 than home-grown terrorism.  Treating the San Bernardino mass shootings as terrorism is only not recognizing the prevalence of mass shootings in the American landscape, and makes it increasingly important to clarify the presuppositions of mapping mass shootings.

If the extreme gun violence of mass shootings are parsed since Sandy Hook, or since 9/11, or since the threat of terrorist violence on U.S. soil, the collective growth is striking.  Gun violence is perhaps not possible to measure abstractly, let alone to aggregate.  But the crowding of individual events in a chronology is difficult to process in a timeline that rather than keeping time almost undermine its legibility as a distribution–the very frequency with which mass shootings have come to occur offers pause for reflection.  In aggregation, the timeline is hard to get one’s mind around, as if it challenges the viewer.  In ways that almost undermines its value as a timeline, the clustering of dates when mass shootings occurred suggests the difficulty to process or clearly map their frequency:   public shootings or four victims or more increased in the aftermath of the terrible shooting of kindergarten children in Newtown, PA–guns killed 90,000 since, some 555 children.  Rather than constituting watersheds of public violence or tipping points, the Newton massacre and the shootings of Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech suggest way stations of increased violence in an embodiment of collective violence.

The aggregated timeline poses questions as to whether we are watching a pattern of collective behavior in schools, a geography of anger, or an epidemic of public  health, and charts a widespread and growing confusion between civilian and military arenas in an era of globalized battlefields–in which the range of “perceived enemies” has expanded off of the map.  Aggregates of shootings of four or more dead or injured by guns suggest a similar cognitive overload of data of the dead or injured that we are similarly unable to process in any meaningful way:


shooting deaths:injuries aggregates

Total Gun Deaths of Four or More, based on data of


Sized in relation to local population, a somewhat more legible distribution appears:


Mass Shootigns, Sized per 100,000.png

Washington Post


But distinguishing gang-related violence from other records on mass shootings a broad national problem of guns:


shootings gang:nont gang 2005-12


If we turn to maps to create coherence from the successive mass shootings that increasingly afflict the country, the timeline reminds us most disturbingly of the remove of such events from our own personal responsibility–their relation as traumas remains difficult to start to comprehend, let alone map meaningfully, since they seem so likely to recur and not removed in time.  The distribution of mass shootings suggest an undeniable underside, indeed, to the increased insistence on individual rights to carry guns in public space, despite the deep dangers that they continue to pose.  For the approximation of continuity in the multiplication of mass shootings approximate a sense of helplessness parallel to the terrifying 350 counted shootings of multiple victims over the past year–even if they are not all mass shootings by any definition.

The intense anger and helplessness behind shooting of multiple unknown victims suggests a striking recourse to guns, however, which currently seems bound to increase with the continued easy availability of firearms.  Despite the danger of over-aggregation in light of San Bernardino and Columbia shooting and their mourning, which has almost become its own internet meme, parallel to the sudden rise of training exercises to respond to them, suggest a dangerous desperation to comprehend the scope of gun violence in America by affirming the personal possession of guns–sessions that include the very same sinister design of a public poster devised for a wide morale-boosting campaign by Britain’s Ministry of Information, the government agency charged to design morale-boosting posters during World War II.  The emblem, adopted to suggest the difficulty sustaining attacks and civil space in mass shootings, almost mirror the confusion of civil and militarized space in such shootings.  Its inclusion recalls a tendency to discourses on mass shootings to migrate to terrains of   preparation, as much as prevention:  if the original posters were printed in 2.5 million copies, they were largely “held in reserve, intended for use only in times of crisis, or invasion”–and only later rediscovered by a Northumberland used bookstore.


Mass Shooting Trainings


No matter how much we seek to map their incidence, to create some sort of clarity in danger or fear we might better grasp, the bunching of mass shootings–killings where a single shooter open fires ammunition to leave four dead–suggests a shattering of public peace, and civil space.  While the rise of mass shootings are called a creation of the news cycle, although their incidence have overwhelmed the airwaves– And now we turn to this. Here we go. Again.”, the frequency with which incidence of public mass shootings in America have multiplied with the relentlessness of streaming banner news headlines on cable television suggests a violation of human rights. The increasing pace with which shootings of unknown victims occurred in public space seems impossible to clearly compartmentalize, or continue to report, as their frequency over the past two years enters a terrifying continuity particularly difficult to objectify since they assault humanity.  Although these shootings constitute but a small share of gun violence, the deeply troubling landscape of mass shootings troublingly parallels increasingly strident assertions defense of firearm possession as a right not able to be legally regulated.


2.  Even removed from a coherent geographical form, the sequence of isolated place-names of shooting sites  challenge one to confront the landscape of mass shootings in the United States in disquieting ways. The expansion of such shootings illuminate a shifting landscape of guns in public life–even as fewer than a twentieth of Americans regard gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans, and Congress only recently recognized “mass killings” in 2013 as demanding attention from the Attorney General.  Even in the light of rejecting restrictions on gun laws or an assault weapons ban, the late identification of such premeditated if unpredicted shootings of unknown victims reveal an increasing accumulation of fatalities, not suggested in the timeline, that .  The picture of mass shootings since 1982 indeed suggest a terrifyingly broad distribution across the United States and suggests a failure to responsibly manage firearms in public space.


since 1982

ABC News/Mother Jones

The increasing occurrence of mass shootings challenges viewers to join several apparently incidents whose totality difficult to cognitively process, moving events seared in our personal memories as if they watersheds in a quick succession whose near-continuum strains understanding as a status quo, and raises questions about how to find meaning in their rapid onslaught.




The crowding of the chronology of mass shootings links dramas that unfolded in different parts of the country in a metaphor of the difficulty to grasp the rate of mass shootings in public spaces:   dots designating individual events are difficult to process or parse. Rather than seem individual aberrations, the unpredictable arrival of such mass shootings, grouped collectively, ask us to find coherence in the repetition of mass shootings across America, and to ask why the growing frequency of such shootings is still doubted as specific to our political culture, and relentlessly called into question, rather than addressed, even as tallies of gun deaths have broadly dropped by 30 percent from the early 1990s:  the recent surge of mass shootings are not only due to increased media attention to their senseless randomness, but as a threat to human rights.

The reopening of debates about how gun control laws could stop or hinder the geography of gun deaths or scrutiny of shifting gun laws and their effectiveness suggest the lack of clear voice about guns.  The variation among regulations about carrying guns in public–and transporting firearms–are even cast by advocates of the individual rights to firearm possession as a jumble of intrusive edicts on transporting loaded guns, ammunition, and storing such weapons by local attorney generals, aircraft carriers, TSA officials, and, yes, national parks and wildlife refuges, as so many “regulatory schemes” curtailing the allegedly protected freedom to own and carry guns.


NRA gun laws?NRA-Institute for Legislative Action


Rather than consider mass shootings in terms of criminality or individual deviance, the prevalence of mass shootings across America demand to be recognized as a register of the unregulated liberties to carry guns in public space.  The timeline in the header to this post is disorienting in how it aggregates such shootings, and poses multiple much-debated questions about understanding their rapid pace over time.  Yet the picture of giving coherence to the range of mass shootings across the land is in a sense the reflection of the paranoia of gun protection.  Ordering the relative frequency of mass shootings by lone gunmen is itself a challenge to map–and get one’s mind around–because it lacks without any apparent clarity in its growing spread.  We often turn to maps to try to find some coherence, but find ourselves similarly frustrated by attempts to find coherence in the growing landscape of mass shootings and not offense.  For the pace of mass shootings, once so terrifying in their individuality, has accelerated both since Columbine and since Sandy Hook to make it difficult to not view within a broad change in the use of guns in public settings, conflating militaristic violence and public life, in ways that demand mapping if not to the increased availability of guns, to the ways mass murders might be measured.

The timeline renders it impossible to regard what were once seen as possible turning or tipping points in public violence outside of a context of their collective increase.  However much some pundits repeat the conclusions of criminologists about the constant levels of gun violence in America–distorting the distribution of their frequency by including family violence and gang-related fights that constitute a large share of firearm homicides–the increased occurrence of mass shootings on unknown victims reveal disturbing conflations of guns and public space.  Even to measure gun violence alone deeply distorts the unique problem of mass shootings, as they are premised on lumping such public shootings with a broad epidemic of gun violence, rather than confronting and visualizing the growing conviction of the legitimacy of firing firearms randomly into crowds without restraint.



James Allen Fox


Although mass shootings in public spaces are by nature unpredictable, the aggregation of mass shootings offers a way to analyze and recognize the problems of But although the violent level of gun shootings in America have grown, as violence cannot be universally quantified, mass shootings prove difficult to classify or define with uniformity.  For mass shootings reveal a unique sort of violence in public.  Even when not counting the shootings of family members–the majority of group homicides from firearms, with one in four victims being close family members and over half family members or intimate partner–the increase of public “mass” shootings aimed at unknown victims suggest a confusion of militarized and civil space–and an irresponsible intrusion of firearms into public life, all too eerily mirrored in the attempted seizure of public lands.

The increased anonymity of mass society finds an eery underside in the relentless expansion of mass shootings at unknown human targets in civic space, as if they suggest the fragility of civil society.  The numbers shot or killed by high-capacity magazines have defined and will define the country by their very frequency of mass shootings occur in the United States–however vociferously contested is the claim President Obama’s claim that “this just doesn’t happen elsewhere”, the expansion of such shootings reflects an increased absence of regulation of firearms.   While it’s not entirely true that only “high capacity magazines put the ‘mass’ in mass shootings”, given the range of gun violence, the peculiarity of gun violence in America lies in the frequency of adopting firearms to wound or murder unknown victims, and the need to better chart the level of violence on   For the anonymity of gun violence in America reflects the far greater access to guns in the country, and a broader presence of guns in public spaces of assembly.  The expansion of mass shootings illuminate the shifting landscape of gun violence–even as fewer than a twentieth of Americans regard gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans, and Congress took until 2013 to recognize the “mass killings” as demanding attention from the Attorney General, after it rejected to enact restrictions on gun laws or extend an assault weapons ban.


since columbine

Mother Jones/Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health




The recent proliferation of such mass shootings, rather than raise thresholds for processing public violence, raise questions about reasons for increased recourse to guns, as well as about the perpetrators of crimes.  For the striking relentlessness of the multiplication of premeditated crime in public space is truly difficult to comprehend as they approach a deeply disquieting continuity.   The term “mass shootings”–only slightly removed form “mass-killings” or “mass murder” that evoke wartime–have no place in liberal society as bizarre conflations of military-style violence, so disturbingly are they removed from a society of laws.  Even if exceedingly rare in comparison to gun-related deaths, mass killings by guns have however multiplied in three-fold fashion over the past three years to almost cease to be able to be seen as discrete events as they were once considered to be, as shootings in public spaces by “active shooters” have skyrocketed, as the times between their occurrence declined sharply.

The rise of such shootings has no clear precedent.  Although such killings have a clear history and precedent, at times dated as far back as 1891 or even to 1984, the term “mass shooting” first gained currency around 2012, in reaction to the expansion of public shootings, and the classification introduced by the FBI was soon adopted by CNN, who expanded the bar for fatalities in a mass shooting to four, but also excluded events where the victims were related.  Only after that did the U.S. Congress in 2013 officially qualify “mass shootings” as single incidents leaving three dead in the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act, taking responsibility to define the term as part of America–even while refusing to maintain a public registry of such shootings, or adopt this as the sole definition.  The relative frequency of their occurrence suggests a deep confusion between civilian and military space that demands to be unraveled, even if the lack of a public registry of such public shootings may soon change, as well as the introduction of greater checks on the purchase of guns.  But there is an abdication of responsibility has led to an unchecked expansion of the defense of individual rights of gun ownership–and a dislodging of attention from shootings to the danger of compromising gun rights.

The sense of virtual continuity that approaches in the above timelines are so disordered that it is tempting to find coherence for these unpredictable events in a map.  But the collective mapping of such extreme violence is truly difficult to comprehend as they approach a deeply disquieting continuity.  Individual stories of mass shootings such as the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, PA cannot help but bring tears to one’s eyes, as to President Obama’s, as they will continue to do.  But the intense the pace of shooting multiple victims–evident in the shrinking intervals between black circles that mark mass shootings–represents a terrible sort of information overload.  For it sketches a landscape of mass shootings we’ve been slow to confront, and evokes a sense of powerlessness to interrupt the staccato of their onslaught.  Although shootings has, incredibly, relentlessly accelerated since the Newtown, PA attacks, the same event provoked increased attention to mapping and quantifying  mass shootings, in an attempt to understand that increased frequency.  In spite of the absence of national databases on mass shootings, the rise of crowd-sourced or open-sourced maps since then provide a better dataset of their occurrence–forcing us to confront the increased numbers of people shot or killed by high-capacity magazines, the older demographic of their perpetrators, almost exclusively male, and the greater share children such mass shootings killed, to force us to better examine their occurrence outside the landscape of mourning which has also recurred with increased frequency.

We mine data in hopes to try to impose coherence on the terrifying frequency with which public “mass shootings” doubled after 2007, and tripled by 2011.  But such documentation fails to process the landscape of increased recourse to automatic guns.  The succession of individual mass shootings fail tell a satisfying narrative about their increasing occurrence.  For the collective aggregation of such apparently random acts of violence, the timeline of mass shootings grouped with apparent objectivity, embodies a story that lacks apparent spatial coherence.  Although we use maps to process their relation to one another, and to gain a better picture of the proliferation of public violence, the expansion of mass shootings maps a story that eerily parallels the increased availability of guns and assertion of an individual “right” to firearms irrespective of individual rights or public safety.

Similarly, the government has focussed on mass shootings though an optic of criminal investigation, rather than through their victims.  Although the government, in an abdication of public responsibility, has resisted tabulating the occurrence of such crimes, and only defined “mass killings”in 2013 as a subject worthy of investigation by the Attorney General, collective tabulation often rested in amassing local police records of ‘active shooter incidents’ as problems of law enforcement, rather than within a landscape of gun violence lasting two to five minutes.  The problems of mapping where such premeditated crimes continue to inflict violent injury or death reflects increased access to firearms, parallel to the decrease in urban gun violence.  But their senselessness remains difficult to commemorate or get one’s mind around or even to individually mourn.


920x920-2Mark Wilson/Getty Images


The spread of new venues for shooting, however, and the greater availability of guns promotes a particularly dangerous confusion between public space and shooting space, embodied perhaps in the Right to Carry movement, are troublingly apparent in the growth of gun ranges as sanctioned spaces for using deadly weapons, attracting those who want to use firearms–People come in and say, “Oh, I never knew this [sort of] place existed!”–which rent visitors firearms from a Ruger to a and provide practice venues, so popular that websites exist dedicated to where the nearest ranges are to your address.  Several perpetrators of mass shootings have not only practiced at such ranges, but they allow targets with images of Obama–as a worker at one range remembered patrons had once used targets showing President Clinton.


3.  The tabulation of such terrible incidents of gun violence where a single shooter left four or more dead from a single shooter–a standard defined in FBI data but not adopted universally–have consistently occurred with increased frequency over the past twenty-five years.  The definition introduced by the FBI and taken up by CNN may however, it is widely noted, minimize the scale of these shootings and mask the lack of clear consensus of what constitutes mass shootings–from whether the category reflects fatalities, wounded, or indeed the weapon used.   The refusal to tally mass killings, even if they comprise only 1% of all murders, is inadequate to visualize events that shouldn’t even be happening.  The gun violence enabled by high-capacity magazines that create a potential of shooting multiple victims have led to a spate of mass shootings perpetrated almost entirely (94% of suspects are male) by white men, mostly between 20 and 45 years old, have alarmingly accelerated since 2005.  The difficulty in parsing the changing landscape rests in defining “mass shooting,” quantifying gun violence by its victims, and of understanding the rapid sequence of such truly terrible premeditated crimes.

The multiplication of mass shootings have a fairly uniform spatial distribution, but a geography of anger that invites increasingly military-style assaults on public space.  For if they are not clearly tied to globalism, or economic change, the rise of mass shootings in America are all too tellingly linked to a persistent confusion of militarized actions and public space, aptly characterized by Arjun Appadurai as a geography of anger in an age of globalization.  Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, lest they seem only random or chaotic scatterplot.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


In part, the overcrowded timeline remains difficult to process adequately because of the very density with which marks that note individual events of gun violence overlap with one another, effacing their own legibility, and the difficulty of giving meaning to violent outbursts in a clear context.  The difficulty to discern the individuality among “mass shootings” makes it hard to process the meaning of their frequent repetition.  In part, the abdication of definitional categories by the government, and failure of Congress to define “mass shootings” until after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shooting opened debate about the proliferation of such violent events, suggest an abdication of responsibility–the government has not only left the media without a clear definition to track their occurrence; we have failed to control the rash of shootings in public space.  Although the Newtown shootings led to a number of attempts to aggregate mass shootings–from the Stanford Mass Shootings of America to Shooting Tracker–that placed renewed responsibility and focus on gun violence, and its victims, the absence of focussing on the specific gun violence of mass shootings and how to tabulate its violence outside of a language of criminality has provided an unclear image of its proliferation or its expanse.  President Obama, not only acting as Consoler-in-Chief, increasingly adopted the term “mass shootings” in public statements during 2015.  We cannot afford to let the disarming pattern of their recurrence remain so very difficult to wrap one’s head around.

And so we turn to maps to try to impose some purchase or coherence on the rage of gun violence, which seems to stand between individual actions and some macabre  sort of collective agency.  Only ten public shootings in the timeline are identified by place  in the timeline above.  But the landscape of shootings reveals a violent interruption of public space, difficult to explain or comprehend–both in terms of the increased frequency of mass shootings since events like the Columbine shootings, or the Newtown Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, just three years ago, or the subsequent multiplication of mass shootings whose frequency almost seems not to permit time for processing the memory of the dead.   Even in an age of growing global violence, because it is so hard to get one’s mind around a landscape where public mass shootings have continued to multiply across the land, and their danger goes unaddressed.  The renewed popularity of trainings to survive mass shootings continues to affirm the individual right to possessing firearms as a solution to contain violence–rather than recognize the pathology of gun violence that confuses military-style shootings and public space.

Yet the frequency of the recurrence of mass shootings is difficult to process in part because of the lack of a clear database for either the crimes and weapons with which they were perpetrated–resulting in a deeply troubling longstanding  blind spot in processing the landscape of recourse to guns.  The troubling reluctance to tally mass shootings–or to associate them with guns–has been clouded by a reluctance to identify the violence particular to gun crimes.  Yet  increased numbers of crowd-sourced or vetted counts of mass shootings illustrate a landscape of a terrifying proliferation of violence difficult to get one’s head around, in which the late 1990s constituted something like a watershed, but by the last ten years proliferated in increasingly troubling ways, in a geography of anger that a time-lapse visualization reveals, compressing monthly tallies over fifty years that increasingly stained the nation by blotches of bright red.


Tristan Bridges

This count is an underestimation that does not include mass-shootings involving family members, which amount to a quarter of the victims of mass-shootings, and the majority of such shootings are family-related.  Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, in Appadurai’s terms, might however gain better purchase on their occurrence and indeed the fear of further mass shootings in America.

The proliferation of such premeditated public gun violence across the nation was enacted with complete lack of empathy and arrogant privilege.  Although the recurrence of mass murders in America may have created changing thresholds of public gun violence in the country, particularly since the Columbine massacre in 1999.  When the sociologist Ralph Larkin suggested the emergence of a “cultural script”–a model for shootings inspired by the violence of earlier killers–the suggestion paralleled vigorous public debates as to the ethics of continued identification of perpetrators on television news and the coverage of their manifestos.  But the ethics of tallying the geography of this spate of mass shootings and the landscape it presents is not only as important for the image of the nation that it presents, but for the difficulty of finding any coherence in episodes of public gun violence, at one time rare, but now extending from sites of public congregation from movie theaters to schools to public clinics to on-air news shows.

The problem of tallying mass shootings, after all, is a problem of confronting the extent of gun violence in the country by visualizing the ways that mass shootings, if a small percentage of gun-related deaths, compromise public safety in unacceptable ways with increasing frequency.  So much is revealed in the increased prominence of  the number of mass shootings staged in schools since Newtown alone–


Mapping mass Shootings in Schools.png

School Shootings in the United States since 2013/Every town Research


or the predominance of children among victims of mass shootings–


one in three is a child.png

Everytown Research


Mass shootings are increasingly publicly staged as a perverse taking of justice into one’s own hands, not only as increasing guns have entered circulation, but as the diffusion of firearms equipped with high-capacity magazines has changed the landscape of gun violence.  Despite a partial slowing of their occurrence after passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, in place until 2004, most public shootings occurred with legally purchased guns–80%.  If many perpetrators betrayed signs of mental health problems,this did not obstruct the legal purchase of guns with high-capacity magazines whose rapid-fire capacities that the black dots marking shrinking intervals almost emulates in its chronology of violent crime, whose staccato approached near continuity at several times ov re the past ten years.  If such violence parallels a growing global violence, the painful punctuation of time with public mass shootings, tabulated as a single gunman leaving at least four dead, suggest more than a cultural script, but a geography of extreme rage it is important to try to confront.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


The increasingly crowded chronology reveal an increase in episodes of public gun violence with multiple victims, whose occurrences become difficult to individuate form one another their repetition is so dense.  Yet a clear consequence of such mass shootings is in the geography of fear:  on the heals of individual massshootings, surges in the sales of firearms have arose–recent sales have increased across Southern California in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, in the manner that gun-dealers were quick to report increased requests for weapons after earlier mass shootings as Sandy Hook to two million guns a month.  And once more, firearm purchases have surged.


4.  If we are apt to interpret the increased spate of shootings as a sort of crowd psychology of negative role models, the tacit dialectic between massshootings and gun sales demands mapping as an intersection of a spatial imaginary rooted in the defense of rights to possess firearms and the expansion of further firearm sales–a landscape not of increased gun ownership, but of an expansion of the misunderstood “right” to bear arms.  We are more ready to accept workshops for training in behavior during mass shootings, as if to accept them as a new normal, than to enact laws designed to staunch the sales and circulation of firearms.

For the expansion of mass shootings in America has grown in the face of a lack of official government counting of their occurrence, and a blind spot and self-imposed reluctance to monitor or disturb the alleged “right” to bear arms.  Although there is unclear evidence that the ban on assault weapons limited the growth of gun violence or murders before it expired in 2004, despite reported reduction of guns in circulation at shows and gun sales, the promise and hope to reinstate the plan led to a defense of gun rights consolidated in 2008 by the Roberts court.  The Court’s somewhat surprising defense of gun possession as a personal right paved to an increase in circulation of guns in America that mushroomed first to one per citizen, and approximately 310,000,000 million firearms as of 2012–114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–or more than the number of Americans.  At the same time, the expansion of AR-15’s in American hands beyond 3,750,000 by late 2012–with sixteen million new guns circulating in America by 2013, as detailed in the tenth (and almost self-standing) section of this post.   Industry analysts of gun and ammunition manufacturers–who donate part of their profits to the NRA, mean that the panic-buying after each mass shooting regularly accelerated and “went vertical,” driving new monies to the NRA.

The full-throated defense of gun-ownership as a right, long asserted by many pro-gun groups, was endorsed that parallel the expansion of a landscape of illegal gun shootings and the multiplication of mass-shootings over 2015–in what President Obama recognized as “a pattern . . .  of mass shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”  Rather than the chronology of mass shootings only reflect an inexorable rise of anger or a disembodied landscape of emulation of bad role models, this post suggests the need to embody that landscape in the dramatically increased right to protect individual ownership of guns. that provide a background for the four-fold expansion, by one count, of mass shootings in America from 2008 to 2014:  the expansion of gun sales triggered by Obama’s 2008 election encouraged shops to restock firearms anticipating Obama’s re-election, which indeed spiked sharply after Newtown, when a surge in the circulation of firearms occurred which demands to be mapped.


Millinos of GunsEconomist


Have the costs of such a resurgence of guns in America already born costs?

The extraordinary expansion of such newly identified events as “mass shootings” suggest a failure to map a landscape of gun violence.  The increasing frequency of such murders renders it almost impossible  individuate these terrifyingly militaristic event as discrete; their aggregation overwhelms its own very symbology, as if echoing the deep difficulty to interpret their troubled narratives with any coherence.  The frequency of public mass shootings in America offers a mirror particularly difficult to confront.  We search of more coherent answers in maps–but are frustrated at the meaning of the apparent proliferation of mass shootings since Sandy Hook attacks directed public attention to attempts to contain future gun violence while respecting Second Amendment rights–


Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookMass Shooting Tracker


–and inspired the public record-keeping that had long lacked to provide a clearer image of the expanse of gun violence across the country that has led President Obama to act with a “sense of urgency” to enact gun control measures in ways consistent with Second Amendment rights–even as his opponents return to possible impeding of Second Amendment liberties as a nefarious design needing to be met by their active protection.


4.  Have we have allowed a clear popular distortion of individual rights to possess guns that obscure the multiplication of mass shootings, and landscape of gun violence, distorting the rights of gun ownership as a constitutional liberty, leading to a refusal to monitor or control access to assault rifles or handguns?  By failing to register the relation of rapid-fire guns to crimes, curtailing background checks, and invalidating any bans on the restriction or ownership of handguns, the founders’ call for a “well-regulated [state] Militia” was re-interpreted as an individual prerogative to have unrestricted access to firearms, irrespective of the growing threat to public safety.


Brady Campaing to Prevetn Gun Violence

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence


The timeline at the header to this post challenges us to map memories of individual shootings in schools, movie theaters, public buildings, or auditoriums in an abstract form–and process the reasons for their collective acceleration over time.  Each episode of violence suggests less a fixed ‘place’, of course,  than the extent to which extreme gun-violence intersects with the nation; the collective list challenges viewers to process the collective impact of a new landscape of gun violence in public space, almost 80% of which involved legally purchased guns with high-capacity magazines, and to explain the reasons for the distribution of an undeniable epidemic of public shootings in civic space.  Much as the extension of railroad lines earlier placed locations “on the map” which were earlier unknown, the occurrence of mass shootings–by no means consistently defined in the United States, and based on an old FBI classification since abandoned–puts a town at the intersection between a near-epidemic of violence and civil space.

The sites where mass shootings occurred have entered public memory, even if no clear consensus has emerged on the notion of mass shootings.  Although its value for registering gun violence in America has been questioned, the terrifying prominence of the increase in such public performances of violence has led to increased interrogations of what has allowed (or facilitated) such explosive violence that have been relentless over the last few years.  While we have watched a procession of deer-in-the-headlights photos of perpetrators or examined the eyes of Facebook portraits for clues, the aggregate acts of such violent aggression can’t be seen as an aberration.  The overlap between public instances of gun violence that left four dead is difficult to process both as a loss of individual lives, and epidemic of violence for which no clear end seems in sight:  the telling contraction between shootings in which four or more were killed have come to overlap with one another to make them illegible and impossible to process as a whole–the crowded timeline of violent outbursts overwhelms in ways difficult to process or understand, in part because it removes the increase of mass shootings from a broader context of refuting local restrictions on the possession of guns in 2008 and 2010, as the widespread reluctance to revisit the lax regulation of gun ownership encouraged a belief in the “right” to own guns.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


Tabulated by mass shootings/month, a terrifyingly clustered repetition–if less clearly as a visual metaphor for the difficulty to grasp the frequency of public shootings’ occurrence–returns.  There has never been a break for more than three months in a public shooting that left four dead over six years–breaks that only occurred two times.  Although the shootings cluster, and little coherent pattern exists among the rampages,


Page2-calendarEverytown Research


their occurrence raises questions about the increasing intersection of gun violence and public life.  Even though “mass shootings” comprise quite a slim percentage of gun violence, to be sure–


Page2-TotalUSFirearmHomicides1Everytown Research


–the persistence of mass shootings with terrifying regularity raise inevitable questions about their future role in the country’s public space, and hint at a future of violence in places where violence previously had little place.  Is there something like a tipping point about the diffusion of mass shootings in America, or are we powerless before their spread?

Although mass media has returned to the dramatic setting of public mass shootings as tragic losses of life, we fail to process them as fragments of a national storyline, since their narrative coherence is poorly understood–what coherence can be imposed or read in their distribution remains unclear.  The unpredictable sequence of such heinous crimes staged by individual shooters have only come to be collectively defined, and given coherence by being mapped in ways other than numbers of killed.  Though the mass shooting was not included in the FBI’s Crime Records Reports, the mass shooting has come to resonate with a topography of fear in an age of the perceived rise of terror; if questions have been raised about whether mass media reporting may have increased copycat crimes, the crowded landscape of sites of public gun violence paints a frightening image of America, at the nexus of law enforcement and legal rights of gun ownership, but creates a landscape of its own.

The resonance with which each place-name appears on the crowded timeline suggests the growing difficulty to process the seventy-three of such identified events over the past thirty years, and rapidity with which have arrived in sharply decreasing intervals; as much as a landscape of increased violence across the nation, the mass shooting has become a way of marking time of increased fear–whose crowding as a collective chronology above, reprinted from Mother Jones, based on three decades of data and research from the Harvard School of Public Health on shootings in public space, suggests a random reputation of lives lost.  We turn to maps to try to process them.  But  the increased frequency of mass shootings intersects with public space in these data visualizations, made and remade in attempts to understand whatever coherence they might have or invest coherence in their occurrence fails to reveal clear meanings–even against our intensely fractured political climate.  And after each shooting since Sandy Hook, gun retailers celebrated a “real surge” in sales that was widely championed by gun manufacturers.

The distribution of mass shootings blankets America whether measured by their occurrence or the number killed by such public violence, in ways that define the country in curious ways but they hold a mirror to the country we do not like to recognize.


Stanford Mass Shooting Archive/Open Street Map/CartoDB


5.  Even the recognition of the phenomenon has been deemed too contentious to adopt, we use crowd-sourced web-based tabulations and open-source aggregations from non-profits like Shooting Tracker or Gun Violence Archive to track their occurrence and geographic distribution in the country.  Both websites have tabulated their incidence less with reference to an “active shooter” who is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people” in public space determined by the FBI to describe “mass murders,” as if to hesitated to link them to a weapon of choice.  The tally of mass shootings has been only recently construed less in terms of the incidence of deaths–as tabulated by news agencies as CNN or the FBI–but includes those injured, rather than only those killed.  The timeline however exclusively marks public shootings that left four or more dead, excluding the gunman.  But multiple different definitions about what constitutes a mass killing can however lead any tally to vary and arrive at radically different results; the ongoing lack of consensus in the term as an analytic tool makes it difficult to agree on how this data, and make us depend on non-profits for accurate counts beyond that of news agencies.  (Does a ‘mass shooting’ reflect the number shot in quick sequence (as it does for Shooting Tracker), four or more killed, or only multiple shootings?  Should the category exclude robberies, gang-related violence or domestic violence?)

The results can be so radically different to suggest radically different landscapes of public violence, and rely on different triangulations between perpetrator, victims, and gun, which reflect  contentious debates about relations of gun control and such shootings.  But all try to visualize the undeniably growing intersection between such apparently random outbreaks of gun violence and public space, to try to create meaning from such tragic and not-so-sporadic outbreaks of public violence.  The significant difficulty of cognitively processing the growing frequency of public mass shootings occurring at one time and site–let’s say only killings of four or more unrelated individuals at one site–so overwhelms as an information overload alone, to demand careful consideration.  In part, the events seem too traumatic, most still seared in our personal memories, to be able to be distanced with clarity.  Even when stripped of geographic location, each place-name invites us to place our personal recollections of what seemed altering shootings in a collective context that lacks clear coherence.

Although the timeline in the header is not at all an actual map, per se, each place-name triggers indelible if temporary ruptures of civil society, asking us to try to abstract them as a coherent whole; rather than seem discreet moments, they assume a collective resonance that’s terribly challenging to process–the relation between the distribution of mass shootings to our sense of the space civil society is pressing, but quite difficult to define, even as mass shootings have undeniably multiplied to 375 over the last year, including four or more killed or wounded, in a combination of imitation and increasing violence over a year which at its close was dubbed “year of the mass shootings.”  And only a small number of such events had there been concern about the mental health of their perpetrators expressed to medical practitioners, school officials, or legal authorities–and if concerns were expressed about just over one tenth of perpetrators, fewer than 1% were actually legally barred from buying guns.


Dark USA of mass shootingsKQED


The quick succession of mass shootings in the timeline of course forces us to ask their relation to one another, and expresses the cognitive challenges of getting one’s mind around them–and questions whether a map is even the best medium to track the spate of violence of mass shootings, even as it makes us turn to a map to locate them in space.  The difficulties of visualizing mass shootings lies only in part in the limits of reporting or classifying outbreaks of gun violence occurring at a single site as “mass shootings” by fatalities versus the number of wounded or shot–as if to count as an event that is newsworthy, an individual must die–but in making sense or coherence of the rash of these explosions of violent gunfire across the land.  The chronology lists mass shootings that left four dead but also evokes the very extent to which this past year’s onslaught of mass shootings in ways cognitively challenging to grasp, as their ever shrinking temporal separation approach near-continuity.  If each dot indicates a shooting without reference to space, their accumulated density maps a geography of anger.  For much as the place-names clustered with such density on the timeline, they are cumulatively  less and less easy to grasp as singular events:   mass shootings punctuated the last two decades with an intensity difficult to process such occurrences better–making one turn to a map to endow coherence to the unpredictable outbreaks of indiscriminate shootings across the country with little end in sight.

The aggregation of public gun violence suggest not only a geography of fear–and an undeniable overlooking of anger–but reveal a particularly insidious misinterpretation of gun ownership as a right in legal discourse, as much as the tally of mass shootings is filtered through debates on gun control.  The disembodied dots that dizzyingly crowd the timeline mimic the rapid-fire of bullets delivered by assault weapons’ replaceable magazines.  Despite continued unresolved debates in political discourse about how to gloss the spread of mass shootings in a country where it is so easy to procure guns, the contested interpretation of the map may betray a deep reluctance to confront their pervasive occurrence, and ask what sort of story their increased incidence, perpetrated almost entirely by young, white men–94% of suspects are male–suggests.

For the spread of mass shootings as a category eerily parallels a crisis, suggested by Dorothy Samuels, in American legal discourse as to the right of individuals to “bear arms” as a right without government oversight.  While many perpetrators, to be sure, displayed signs of significant mental health problems, the multiplication of mass shootings has been facilitated by legal sanctioning of individual  “rights” to own guns since 2008.  The defense of such “rights” not only actually encouraged the proliferation of millions of guns in the United States, but generated a political discourse, long-planned by the NRA, about gun ownership that made reinstatement of either research on gun violence or curtailing of gun sales anathema.

Even without focusing  on perpetrators and their weapons, the landscape of gun violence poses questions as to what the aggregation of “mass shootings” reveals.  For even when excluding shootings that result from domestic violence in the home–perhaps unconscionably, given that a quarter of victims of multiple murders are family members and the majority of group-killings stem from family violence– the distribution of the data is terrifying as a rewriting of the use of guns in public space.  We are used to watching zones of war in television films, video games, and movies, but such mass shootings of four or more are difficult to process because they have occurred in spaces of public life:  health centers, schools, auditoria, film theaters, medical clinics, public buildings, or even the television news–as if to openly attack sites of public assembly.


since 1982ABC News/Mother Jones


News stories about mass shootings have remained prominent since 2011, ranking in the top five stories in repeated years, lending familiarity to the term before it was defined by Congress in January, 2013 lowered the threshold for identifying “mass shootings” to three victims.  Data visualizations that “map” the accumulation and relative density of mass shootings present a landscape that we are just starting to learn to measure.  Although”mass killings” were first defined by the FBI, the adoption of “mass shootings” by news agencies as CNN or ABC left unclear consensus in how they are counted or conceived.   Indeed, while deeply disturbing, the ethics of a CartoDB heat map, which blur shootings to obscure individuality, are unclear, if terrifying; their distribution here approximates a disease map, but one particularly challenging to process–as if a miasma removed from the nation.


Carto DB Heat Map mass shootings 2015


–and aggregates data to suggest their wide distribution in populated areas, without any meaningful clarity.  The rise of such public displays of mass violence, if constituting only less than 1% of all gun violence, can’t help but suggest a deep instability within the nation–irrespective of place.   The aggregation of mass killings raises questions about attributing mass killings to a failure of mental health providers or shifting thresholds of violence of mass behavior–and, indeed, the thresholds that the country is able to process.  But the distributions with which mass shootings have occurred in America increasingly seem to define questions of the possible intersections between the site of the mass shooting and public life that are barely touching, but always in danger of overlapping.


6.  The national timeline presents an image of the nation hard to ignore, as if a creepy causal network of mass behavior.  The difficulty in mapping such violent outbreaks seems due to the reminder that they offer of how difficult mass shootings are to prevent, and how ubiquitous they have become, as revealed in this map tallying victims of mass shootings over the past year alone, but whose legibility is also obscured by the failure to count wounded and fatalities of four or more to tally the multiplication of mass-shootings over the past year of 2015–“a pattern . . .  of mass shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”


Mass Shootings 2015PBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


or sized by shootings with three or more fatalities–


2015, three or more



The year was so grim, and so tragic, in the series of shootings that we are still trying to get our minds around and to process, as shootings  occurred almost daily over 2015, that we may be near a tipping point in processing their immensity.

A chronologically collapsed aggregation of the wounded and dead in mass shootings that occurred since the Newtown shootings of 2012 make it impossible not to acknowledge their prevalence across America–in ways not limited to a tally of four dead, but that includes all dead or wounded:


Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookMass Shooting Tracker


The profusion of such violent events with guns contrasts to the twenty-eight states which had not seen a mass shooting incidents from 1984 to 2012–a number that in 2015 shrank to but five, making this earlier landscape look far removed from the nation’s current state:



map-mass-shootingsCitizens Crime Commission, “Mass Shooting Incidents 1984-2012”


The pronounced expansion of mass shootings across both space and time suggests a boiling over of rage across America that such aggregations only force us to start to process.  While such killing sprees were initially termed “rampages” or “mass murders”, the increased currency of the very term “mass shootings”–only slightly removed form “mass-killings” (preferred by USA TODAY, who include killings of family members) or “mass murder” (which cannot help but evoke wartime settings)–suggests a disquieting difficulty to place such conflation of military-style violence and public space in a liberal society– and the troubling sense that this is approaching a new normal.  Even though the polarized nature of political discourse about gun control make it increasingly difficult to resolve.


7.  There at first seems little coherence offered in such maps, and a powerlessness that any action might soon slow their future occurrence–the maps overwhelm one with a feeling of impotence, as if “this was a terrible tragedy but somethings these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them”.  Rather than only create an image of a blood-splattered segment of a continental mass, or a record of psychic disturbances or mass behavior, the images might suggest the spaces that have been opened for mass shootings across the United States which increasingly pose undeniable challenges to human rights.  The shootings are deeply misunderstood as individual cases of psychic disturbance, even if they demand to be understood more clearly as a crisis of public health.

Individual attachment to guns may, insidiously, enable this rash of violent subtractions of self from a social compact.  For the challenge to visualize such violent shootings in public space collectively–and the deep threat and instabilities mass shootings continue to pose–resonate not because they are a large proportion of homicides (fewer than 1%) or gun violence (fewer than 5%), but because of the deep shock they pose to civil society.  Even if the attention to the number of mass killings may distract attention from the real danger of guns, including “slightly modified combat rifles” enough to be “red herrings” in the debate on gun control.  USA Today stokes fears by reporting that mass killings in fact “happen far more often [my italics] than the government reports,” even if shootings in public spaces account for about one-sixth of mass shootings, the events are so disturbing because they blur the boundaries between military action and public space too common in today’s world.

The relation between the space of mass shootings and the inhabited world is in a sense the subject of all maps of mass shootings.  There has been a  dizzying crescendo of shooting sprees in the over the twenty years since the concerted defunding of the CDC’s study of gun violence in America in 1996, believed to “advocate or promote gun control” or defamed of doing so,  and the silencing of research on gun violence.  Since the decision to  direct the 2.6 million that the CDC  invested in studying gun violence to the less-contentious research in traumatic brain injury, the rise of open-source mapping of the mass shootings in America reveal widespread proliferation of military-style gun violence across the national landscape, as if to direct increased attention to the problems of processing a problem from which government funding disappeared.  This is a victory of crowd-sourced mapping.

The onslaught of gun rampages that cause multiple murders and injuries overwhelm, and the clustering of mass shootings in the past ten years to make it impossible to see them as only discrete events:  the virtual continuity that they assumed, as space shrunk between shootings, raises questions of the future and they can be meaningfully processed in a map.  Even as we turn to map their occurrence to find some explanation and meaning from such senseless and only apparently unrelated events.  For although unclear commonalities emerge in their place, their targets, or their scope, they suggest an increased ability to view the level and site of collective instability in the nation.  The distribution of mass shootings over time hence provides a disquieting image of increasing instability of civil society, and demand to be mapped against not only against gun ownership, but against the defense of rights to own guns.  For even although the legality of gun ownership is recognized by courts, nothing is more disturbingly removed from a society of laws than mass shootings.

The term “mass shootings” was only recognized by Congress as they qualified “public mass shootings” as leaving four dead, the FBI had recognized the rapid pace at which public mass shootings in America doubled after 2007, and tripled by 2011.  While a small proportion of gunshot deaths, or the 51,ooo incidents of gun violence over the past year, mass shootings assume particular prominence within the national consciousness from such events–if they undeniably follow the same general distribution with other geographically weighted concentrations of gun violence.


incidents-to-dateGun Violence Archive


mas shootings MSA

Stanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, as of October, 2015


Even as gun violence has overall declined, the spread of mass shootings suggests a changing picture of America that is still being more clearly processed.  In part, this is because the term “mass shooting” has been defined by the media–both CNN and other television networks–although it was first developed by the FBI to tally criminal acts of murder.  In recent years, it has been diffused and developed via the mass media, and specifically the ever-multiplying banner headlines of cable news, whose counts are directed to define them by the number of those killed–four or more dead defines the “mass shooting.”  The attention to those dead, omitting those victims who were injured or escaped violence, both reduces their appearance on a data map, rather than, say, numbers of those killed or injured or the number of bullets that were shot, diluting the aggregations that such shootings map and making them mortality counts , rather than gaining perspective on them episodes of gun violence.  And it distorts how the geography of mass violence and that of civil society overlap.

Reference to “mass shootings” as term of news reporting by CNN (who excluded events where the victims were related to each other) quickly followed, but the time to required for the term to gain currency raises questions about the difficulty to process the new thresholds of such extremely disturbing public acts of violence–USA Today prefers to use “mass killings” instead.   As mass shootings recur with a rapidity to mimic the banner cable news headlines on CNN, where they were frequently announced, one is challenged to process their totality and staccato occurrence alike, given their actual broad geographic distribution.  Because  of the prominent suggestion of serious mental health problems of many perpetrators, we often fall back on diagnoses of individual instability to explain each tragedy that registers in the national consciousness, the huge spike in aggregate mass shootings after 2000 which jumped again from 2013 can’t be diagnosed by individual disturbances or the categories of the mental health profession–so long as gun ownership remains recognized as an individual right.  And yet the mass shooting suggests a deep assault on human rights.

A recent study of the thirty most violent mass shootings since 1945 found more than half occurred in the last decade, and their proliferation seems to have alarmingly grown in recent years  We turn to maps to struggle with the difficulty of comprehending events of terrible particularity in the aggregate.  Despite the terrifying nature of each place-name, which evokes a specific time and tragedy, as if a series of battles, aggregation offers the possibility of drilling down into their occurrence underneath the accumulation of horrific individual stories.  Yet we struggle, since even a map of mass shootings including four or more killed or wounded during the past year poses similar cognitive difficulty to process:


Mass Shootings 2015PBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


Is this an accurate reflection of the country, and what does it tell us about its laws and legal discourse on gun ownership and possession?  Although the mass shooting is still an anomaly, it is also part of a difficult to confront part of our nation.  For the right of personal possession of guns is so difficult to remove or qualify in the United States, and so difficult to prevent rights to gun ownership to be so tragically misconstrued;  if most of the guns purchased for these public shootings were done so legally, the lawlessness of the events is not able to be correlated only with guns, even if the changing landscape of the broad availability of guns seems to have created a space where individuals are all to ready to conflate civil space with a space of violence.  Part of the difficulty to process these ‘events’ surely is that we focus attention on their perpetrators, as much as their victims, reducing the dead to a statistic, and not comprehending their violence:




The prominence of mass shootings illustrates a confusion of public spaces with military-style gun violence in disturbing ways.  For the spread of individuals who have not only subtracted themselves from civil society, but turned to gun violence as a public performance, suggests not only aberrations; the aggregation of such shootings reveals the increased prominence of military-style violence staged within public space, and forces us to view their dizzying repetition within the national landscape.  The geography of mass shootings still remain poorly understood by most:  although about a third of the victims were near their homes when the shootings occurred, fewer than a quarter of Americans believe that there is reason to fear a mass shooting in their neighborhoods, and a fewer than a twentieth see gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans.  Indeed, if Congress only recently recognized the mass shootings in 2012, as increasing numbers of lawmakers forced to confront their occurrence in their home districts, but many affirm the rights to own guns.  And in 2015, only five states were spared mass shooting sprees–“the bloody, perpetual series of mass shootings in the country this year,” as ABC News put it, no doubt reflecting mass-opinion, and the sense that this steady accumulation may have reached something of a tipping point.


8.  Even disembodied from a geographical form, the sequence of haunting place-names captures the degree to which mass shootings are cognitively difficult to process in their totality, and the complex shifting landscape of mass shootings they create.  For the spectacular violence of each event is encouraged by the deep and abiding sense that the exceptionalism of America that is increasingly rooted, for a small if vocal minority, in its ownership of guns.  The timeline forces us to confront the increased crowding of mass murders over twenty years not as aberrations, but through the inability to continue to segregate them as inexplicable tragedies apart from a larger picture of the nation.  If we turn to maps in attempts to create a more coherent image of their coherence, since the frequency of mass shootings seem without any clearly recognizable patterns in such unimaginable violent aggression against four or more, as if civil society seems no longer able to contain its members.

For the aggregation of mass shootings presents an image of the United States we have difficulty recognizing as holding a mirror to the present, when amassed in their collectivity, and to search for answers for acts that so sharply run against the very fabric of civil society.  We have repeatedly turned to terms like “disturbed“, “delusional“, “psychotic“, “sociopath“, or “undiagnosed schizophrenic” that continue to be bandied about in the wake of successive shootings–as if a diagnosis could prevent such events.   But in offering clinical explanations for the violent tendencies so dramatically exhibited by their perpetrators, rather than explain the sequence of mass shootings which dramatically grew after 2000, and after 2013 rose so dramatically that over a thousand mass shootings occurred in the two years since Sandy Hook, with little change in background checks, to demand a collective mapping that a focus on mental illness denies.   The array of weapons used in such killings raises pressing questions about their perpetrators’ access to assault rifles, but similarly fails to map reasons for this anguished performance of public violence against lives–



Washington Post


If poignant stories of the mental instability of those who committed rampages since 1984 force us to revisit possible counterfactuals, mass shootings may be less easily collectively diagnosed than mapped against legal discourse of gun ownership and freedom to own guns.  For recent and widely reposted data from Mother Jones suggests that most of the guns used in mass shootings over the past thirty years were legally purchased, raising questions about their contingency.  The rights of gun ownership on which our laws insist are embodied in conceal-and-carry permits, the rhetoric of gun ownership, and growing defense of rights to gun ownership as individual rights protected by the Bill of Rights and US Constitution–which have discouraged a public recognition and accounting of gun deaths.  Although many of mass shootings occur in places not known for violence, the continued championing of assault rifles behind the empty slogan that “the only way to stop a bad guy is a good guy with a gun” valorize the weapon in ways that exculpate public entities or gun salesmen–protected by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act--from responsibility of mass shootings’ occurrence:  the shifting of  responsibility too easily comes to fall into the domain of mental health, without looking at the dangerous opening created by an immobile legal discourse on gun ownership and firearm use.

Can the rise of mass killings be mapped within the access to guns that current laws permit, and the rhetoric of gun ownership that they unknowingly promote?   It truly is unconscionable to see “firearms” as identical, despite the quite different uses to which they can be put?

Although the sequence of mass shootings tallied in the header to this post follows no predictable pattern (save to rapidly increase) and geographical distribution seems happenstance, the growth and unpredictable nature of mass killings demands to be mapped other than psychiatric labeling and armchair diagnosis.   For black-boxing the spread of mass killings in questions of individual mental illness neglects to map against a changing discourse on the ownership and personal possession of guns and abnegates collective responsibility for the density of the clustering of these violent episodes increasingly part of day-to-day life.


Ten YearsMother Jones/Data Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


For “mass shootings” have so rapidly and dramatically accelerated during the past decade to overwhelm understanding.  Indeed, the turn to map their occurrence provides a basis to distance oneself from the terrible occurrence and find some purchase on what seems less a Hobbesian state of nature without government, but a conscious remove of shooters from civil society.  The rise of mass shootings in public places, although but a small fraction of all gun-killings, makes us want to map them to make sense of their inexplicable violence, to give some coherence to the sites of such deeply shocking events, as well as gain perspective on them.  For although fewer than a quarter of Americans fear that they live in a neighborhood where a mass shooting might occur, the landscape of mass shooting has become an image of America.  And if and Gun Violence Archive have crowd-sourced statistics on all gun violence since 2012, to create a picture of the country, the image of mass shootings are both more complex and difficult to assess, partly because of their removal from and far deeper shock to civil society.


Gun iolence .ComGun Violence Project


The more apt coloration of such data from KQED may better suggest the haunting by the dark spectre of mass shootings overwhelming the land:




Rather than being chaotic disruptions, the increasing chronological clustering of individual mass shootings suddenly appear as a connected group of events, whose quick succession both challenges the integrity of their remembrance, but seem cognitively challenging to grasp or gain clear bearings on.  Even as the pace of gun-violence has decreased, the prominence in national news and consciousness of the mass shootings, and the prominent display of murderous violence that parallels their prominence in the national consciousness has created a new landscape of American violence and fear.  Such apparent singularities have grown in the shadows of a country overly preoccupied with attacks of foreign terrorists or extremists, despite the greater than thousand-fold likelihood that between being killed by guns than a jihadist attack on American soil.

Is it possible we have decided not to look for the best ways to map and understand such violence as it has spread?  Or is the confusion of civic and military categories part of the difficulty of comprehending the logic or pattern of mass killings in the United States?  For the landscape of mass-shootings suggests another way of looking at America that may illuminate the gap between the rhetoric of gun ownership and civil society.  The very density with which mass shootings appear on the timeline, blending with one another, reflects the deep difficulties of processing their occurrence, but also the manner in which mass shootings have come to represent the nation to an uncomfortable degree.  Despite the  specificity and unique nature of each occurence, the public violence of mass shootings demands to be mapped in relation not only to guns, but a rejection of civil society.

In its totality, the timeline raises questions about the aggregation of such deeply terrifying tragic events and the limits of comprehension save as an irregular quickening of public violence.  While they surely offer a picture of the nation whose exceptionalism is evident in its rights to own guns and growing frequency of mass shootings–and they just don’t happened elsewhere–the script of such deeply tragic mass shootings recently has become recognizable event. The translation of the compilation of data, which first appeared at Stanford University’s Geospatial Center  as an interactive map of Mass Shootings in America, has been translated into a range of new visualizations to grasp the increased frequency of their daily occurrence, if not, rather terrifyingly, a way in itself of experiencing time.


Mass Killing PulseUSA Today/Gannett–Mass Shootings in America until Dec 24, 2015


Although such killings have a clear history and precedent, at times dated as far back as 1891 or even to 1984, the term “mass shooting” first gained currency around 2012, in reaction to the expansion of public shootings, and the classification introduced by the FBI was soon adopted by CNN, who expanded the bar for fatalities in a mass shooting to four, but also excluded events where the victims were related.  After the U.S. Congress in 2013 officially had qualified “mass shootings” as a single incident leaving three dead in the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act, as if taking responsibility to define the term as part of America–even while refusing to maintain a public registry of such shootings.  The relative frequency of their occurrence suggests a deep confusion between civilian and military space that demands to be unraveled, even if the refusal to maintain a public registry of such public shootings may soon change.

The terrible growth of such tragedies from 2008 can be aggregated in compelling ways broader time-scale for greater dramatic impact, as it was by Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober, using criteria of shooting three or more people adopt by the Stanford Geospatial adopted–




–and then comparing relations between fatalities and injuries over time:




The chronology that most painfully punctures the daily news, in a time of terrorist attacks and refugee crises, tracks an increasingly undeniable anomaly and a violence against civil order, and a willingness to separate oneself from it.  Whereas early chronologies were often closely tied to maps from the late middle ages, as ways to process information, the onslaught of the mass-shooting suggests a rapid-fire occurrence difficult to track.  Their rapid progression sadly seems to mimic banner cable news headlines, their most common medium of announcement, whose timeline of recent history hardly permits processing their memory–save fears as to where and when mass shootings might occur.


7.  Indeed the growing geography of fear–and what Appadurai characterized as a geography of anger linked to a prevailing sense of the deeply chaotic state of the present, animates such mass shootings, as much as a fear of globalization or economic change.  But they target the nation as a whole in a tragically desperate sense:  the nature of mass-shootings have indeed become an image of the defining character and deep insularity of America, as well as a registration of the anger of individuals who feel increasingly challenged, dislocated, and removed from changes that they cannot control.  Indeed, however tempting it is to see mass-shootings as a consequence of terrorism, as the tragic Paris shootings, the scripts for these events are all too similar to the confusion of civil and military spaces, rather than terrorist activities–it is remains more likely to die in a mass-shooting than terrorist attack in the United States.  For such tragic events blur public spaces of civil society and a militarized space of combat in increasingly terrifying ways; the rise of mass-shootings in public life are exclusively initiated by deeply marginalized men–94% of suspects are male–who decide to undertake a striking unprecedented degree of military-style violence.

The geography of such killings seems enabled by their subtraction from civil society. Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, lest they seem as random or chaotic as one might seem:  if offering a map provides such order to such psychically disruptive events, they also challenge clear containment within the order of a map.  The dramatically increasing sales and supply of firearms–until recently most widely sold at Walmart and no doubt soon to be delivered to your home on Amazon drone–have generated an increased legal access to guns and heightened rhetoric to gun ownership that mirrors the culture of mass shootings.  The chronology of mass shootings resist any semblance of coherence of a map, so deeply grievous and inexplicable is the loss of life, but illustrates the terrifying frequency with which they tragically  punctuate time in ways that increasingly press against civil society.  The rather grotesque rationalization of shootings as the “cost” of the liberties we  accord gun possession dismisses their unacceptable risks as violations of human rights, independent of the considerable national cost–if only a small fraction of the total costs of gun violence–currently total over $200 billion in health costs,–more than Apple’s annual revenue.

But the spread of mass-shootings seems to stand at the intersection of the relations to guns that our legal culture has encouraged, and the cultivation of human-object relation in the murderous impact of rifles and other guns.  Although over three-quarters of the guns that were used by those who orchestrated mass-shootings since 1964 were legally purchased in stores, the geography of gun-ownership alone does not correlate to the apparently inexplicable proliferation of angry mass-shootings.  Indeed, we are frustrated however much we repeatedly return to their geographic distribution in attempts to grasp the rapidly spiraling increase in their terrifying violence and frequency, for the mass shooting is undertaken by those who separate themselves from civil society, or willingly conflate the civil space with spaces of combat.  The dramatic rise in the legal availability of firearms and the increased identification with guns gun permits have encouraged radically changed the landscape of gun violence.


Guns used in Mass KilingsGannett/USA Today


Perhaps the difficulty that the number of guns in public circulation in the United States outnumber the population are less a basis that might explain mass-shootings than the close ties that individuals have construed to their guns.  Even though they themselves constitute but a small portion of all violent crimes committed with firearms,  public mass shootings have resulted in the murder of 547 people, with 476 other persons injured, these manifestations of violence first doubled and then tripled, as if breaking what prior watersheds of the violence in public life.  For mass shootings’ recurrence is all too easily recognized when they occur, and far too often accepted as an inevitable consequence of freedom to own guns.  Although there is no clear “map-sense” in the spread of events of gun violence that have injured or killed multiple victims, and no clear pattern among these rampages,  the timeline provides us with a sense of distance on the spread of such shootings–rare in 1990, slightly slowing before 2005–by which to gauge the current spread of mass-shootings, and the steep challenge of any data visualization.  The failure of coherence in the tragically crowded chronology of mass-shootings reflects, more powerfully than any map, the difficulty given their radical remove from a society of laws of processing the chronology of shootings that have increasingly occurred across the most populated areas of the country.  These terribly violent crimes, rarely tied to self-interest or revenge, suggest a deeply distorted world-view, whose distortion of gun-use occasions needed reflection as pushing to an extreme the notion of individual liberty even if few would recognize it as such.


8.  Where such introspection will come from seems difficult to say, so problematic is it to map as a mirror of the country–and so easy is it to use a data visualization to do so.  The timeline creates something of a mirror of the country, but mapping the blurring the unprecedented intensity of mass-shootings in public spaces suggests a way to understand their spread.  While the latest of which almost always seems to constitute a new watershed in public violence, the aggregation of events simply overwhelms ordering–the totality of such troubled shootings erases any agency, and fails to establish the sorts of clarity or reveal the sort of connections that one would expect from a map.  How would a map of the spread of such mass-shootings across the United States be best rendered?

Whereas maps process a coherent relation to expanse, by ordering place for viewers that they can process, the failure of ordering the tragically crowded chronology of mass-shooting frustrates even the most detailed data visualizations, which give limited meaning to the possible motivations and circumstances for such a huge change.  The crowded timeline reflects how shootings have perversely come to punctuate public memory, but at the same time to follow on one another without space for rituals of remembrance of their individuality–or reflect on the national nightmare of the lawlessness of mass-killings as somehow being permitted under the actual rule of law.  If attempts to trace the geography of mass-shootings disorients, it reveals a new image of America.  Even if  few see risks of a mass-shooting near where they reside, that gives rise to a new geography of fears that arise from the sense that no one knows where the next mass-shooting–and there will be a next–will occur:  fears of their occurrence in nearby areas has grown, as the multiplication of mass-shootings expanded far beyond familiar urban regions to become a part of America:  the geography of the 355 mass-shootings reported over the past year–wounding 1,314 and killing 462 in one year, and occurring almost one a day–is vast, but the steady stream of such shootings have occurred most anywhere in the United States, although 5% of Americans stubbornly believe that guns make public places safer persists, and most think the chance such events occur in their own neighborhoods remote.

The landscape of victims of mass-shootings however suggests a new image of the nation.


Stanford mapStanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data of October 27, 2015)


Such is the deeply disturbing disconnect between the actual geography of mass-shootings and the spatial imaginary of Americans:  even if the same proportion (35%) believe that “mass shootings are just a fact of life in America today,” far more Americans are concerned about the risk of future shootings than think that the risk is considerable where they reside–though over half expressed concerns of the such a mass-shooting near where they lived.   Yet how does the distribution actually look?  The geography of “mass shootings,” documented since Sandy Hook by the Stanford Geospatial Center, for lack of a national database, which accepts three or more injured by guns as a mass shooting, if it has grown quite considerably from late October to the late December, 2015, already suggested the difficult density of understanding patterns in how such mass-shootings had already spread across much of the country by October–and constituted what is almost a dangerous republic within a republic.


Stanford mapStanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data of October 27, 2015)


The timeline used  in the header to this post serves to map this increased violence, even if the litany of place-names in the timeline is removed from the nation’s geography. What can account for this crowding of violent killings with guns?   The frequency may encourage both a reassessment of thresholds of violence–Ruby’s Massacre and the Columbine Massacre have morphed to the Aurora, Charleston, and San Bernardino Shootings–as the number of mass shootings in public space with semiautomatic rifles has grown.  As well as reflecting increased access to guns, however, it may be that the rise of shootings has reflected the reception of a particularly perverse and wrong-headed defense of rights to the access to guns as if this entitled their use as a form of public expression–if not a public statement, however pathological or hateful this form of individual expression.

The increase in the vociferous assertion that gun ownership is a right–protected within the Bill of Rights, as if it were an individual right–may have encouraged a quite idiosyncratic misconstruing of individual liberties, and at least encouraged a misguided belief that individual access to automatic weapons is protected by constitutional law as an individual “right.”  The chronology that marks the rapid acceleration of mass-shootings in public reveals the deep difficulty of cognitively processing their individual occurrence–both in the degree to which mass-shootings remain profoundly difficult to process, and even to express.  For the timeline marks a density of mass shootings’ occurrence tragically seems a national map:  although the series of evocative place-names where shootings occurred are not mapped in geographical terms, their chronological crowding mark a nation that, if increasingly difficult to come to terms with, aptly express the difficulty to accept or even address.  If the crowding of place in the above timeline expresses its a failure to lend order to their recurrence, it raises questions as to whether a geographic distribution could adequately capture their steep cost, both as a loss of human life or trauma–since 2007, the chronology of shootings is so tightly clustered to show them as a part of life in the United States.  If firearms are permitted by law, it suggests a deep misunderstanding of gun use as a form of expression.

For mass-shootings have so tragically recurred with historically unprecedented rapidity–each compelling attention but difficult to synthesize in a coherent image, echoing the singular position gun ownership continues to occupy in political discourse.  What, if anything, can be done to direct more attention to the growing fatalities from mass-shootings in an era when the demand for purchasing guns only continues to grow, with no sense of the steep risks such high sales pose for civil society?  The profound, if deeply misguided conclusion that protections of free access to guns addresses their possession and civilian use–rather than being limited to guaranteeing well-regulated local militia–has helped turn a blind eye to the 30,000 plus civil deaths that result from gun violence, including increasingly common rampages of mass-shootings.  The difficulty to address gun-safety reforms has encouraged a blossoming of gun purchases and the advocacy of the protection of gun rights by Americans, and bodes dangerously for the future, even if such killings constitute a fraction of gun deaths in the United States.  Visualizations of mass-shootings provides an interesting–if challenging-way to understand the United States, which reveal something of a hidden republic within the country–one nourished by the insistence on Second Amendment rights to own guns, and fed by a deep conviction of the inviolability of removing firearms from an individual’s possession.

If the increasingly rapid growth of gun ownership has been fed by fear, the difficulty of describing the expansion of mass-shootings on America’s sense of public space remains deeply difficult to assess with certainty.


mas shootings MSAStanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data as of October 27, 2015)


Steep fear of future mass shootings provide an interestingly new picture of the country, and a new geography of fear.  The ways that this epidemic of mass-shootings might be adequately processed–through a visualization or in  geographic terms–is the subject of this post.  For the depressing density of such clustering of mass-shootings in America has grown since 2012 to a degree that has lent an unhealthy aura of familiarity to the term alone, defined by the FBI as a shootings killing or wounding four or more, but which have multiplied to refer to shootings of many more–the comprehensive tally of deaths from mass-shootings in 2015 alone devised using data from have stained North America a bright red to try to give concreteness to the all too familiar term used for shootings in crowded settings or public spaces difficult to comprehend, but necessary to grasp–the interactive visualization tallies actual numbers of killed by Google-like teardrop shaped pointers, casting appropriate shadows over the place where they occurred, as if in a partial gesture of mourning to the many killed in each, but it is impossible that the pointers and their shadows will not at times overlap:


Mass Shootings 2015.pngPBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


While such aggregations of mass-shootings are profoundly affecting, they create little sense of new thresholds for such wanton displays of violence that the rise of mass-shootings seem to have created across America.

The shadows that mass-shootings have come to cast over the country, which seem to get longer and darker with the expansion of collective grieving and dead bodies after each tragically inexplicable event, have gone beyond raising the threshold for violence in the country, but have increasingly demanded attempts to give meaning and concretize their proliferation lest we lose a sense of who we are:  for if the map above is a mirror, of which San Bernardino was the 355th shooting this year, it demands reflection as we approach the year’s end.  The successive occurrence of such heinous and collectively inexplicable crimes–so deeply challenging in their occurrence to lead President Obama to ponder, “as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

Staring at a map, without even knowing what is being mapped in this continent whose place-names are blanketed by sites of mass-shootings’ occurrence.  Yet in the light of  shootings this month in San Bernardino, Calif., the disproportionate role of access to semi-automatic weapons in America raises questions about their place in civil society, and place in a society that values individual life.  If the tragic proliferation of mass shootings in America seems a set of disembodied toponyms that resist clear relations to spatial position, they constitute a litany in which it is hard to find coherent meaning in most data visualizations that have been devised.  For rather than map the occurrences of such shootings by population density, gun laws, race, or affluence–despite the value of such data–it seems both far more important and relevant to map the intersection of guns and political discourse.  Yet we quite regularly turn to maps to explain the epidemic, frustrated by the difficulty in adequately aggregating events so deeply  disturbing, and have difficulty to register how such shootings have come to punctuate national news with a degree of shock and incredulity that proves difficult to sustain.  Perhaps it is ethically unsound to remove from the grotesque tragedy of these newly classified events, in light of the lack of meaning that each and every event occasions.


9.  Would we do better to re-map the rise of mass shootings in relation to the relentless promotion of viewing gun ownership as a right and individual freedom protected by constitutional law, than to aggregate the prevalence of death by firearms in recent years?  Such a map offers a disquieting mirror, to be sure, but only partly captures the assertiveness that mass-shootings have recently come to occupy in public life.

The same statistics from Stanford’s Geospatial Analysis, envisioned in a bar graph of escalating injuries and fatalities by the Economist spanning a longue durée from the 1960s, force offer a deeply depressing recognition of shootings in public spaces–universities, army bases, immigration service centers, movie theaters, elementary schools–that assault civil society.


Economist envisions SGCEconomist


Although every mass-killing seems to reset thresholds for public violence, the collective image presented in the timeline first featured in Mother Jones but based on data designed to supplement the shocking absence of a national database of gun-ownership, shootings across the country raises questions stubbornly independent from their geographic distribution, but demand interrogation as part of a national political discourse we would rather not recognize.  The absence of locations in the above visualization of place-names that became widely known for suggests a rational distribution of mass-killings seems less relevant than how such killings are increasingly a part of who we are–despite attempts to link their spread to terrorists, terrorism,  or foreign wars.  Only 43 of the 641 killed in mass-shootings over the past ten years are credibly related to Islamic extremists, it seems important to overcome difficulties of mis-mapping the relations between their violence and embrace of guns in America rather than as coming from afar rather than rooted in the potential distortions of our own legal culture.

It may be time to examine the extent to which it is home-grown.  The estimates of the increased circulation of guns in the entire United States since the election of a President who made gun control a priority has been dramatic–and whose election in 20008 led gun sales to crest above 1 million per month.  Almost 16 million guns entering the US markets in 2013 alone–and the call for future gun safety regulation has led to a new surge in gun sales, in an increasingly strident (if deeply mistaken) assertion of gun ownership as if it were an individual right that was guaranteed and unqualifiedly protected by law.


gun-sales-terrorism-obama-restrictions-1449710314128-master495-v6New York Times


The gun manufacturers who share profits with the lobbying group of the NRA manipulate the value of stoking fears of gun control measures–in the guise of an attack on gun liberties–to increase their own sales.  The increase of handguns, rifles, and semi-automatic weapons that can be registered such an uptick around President Obama’s election, with fears of the eventual confiscation of weapons, may even serve to catalyze the outpouring of mass shootings since, as the full-throated defense by gun-owners associations such as the National Rifle Association that gun ownership was a legally protected and guaranteed right “to keep and bear arms,” despite the quite different sense of the personal ownership of weapons.  The imagery by which Ted Cruz championed his defense of Second Amendment rights–echoing the explicitly racist Tea Party imagery–by cruelly photoshopping President Obama, in military garb, bent on violating rights of gun possession, eliding civilian and military space and conflating voting rights with a defense of rights to possess firearms in ways designed to circulate widely as a rallying call and fundraising pitch on social media:

The terribly  offensive masquerade of the President as if he were less than the Commander in Chief, but festooned only with a button with the insignia of “change” suggest he hardly has American’s’ actual interests at stake.


Cruz's Character AssassinationTed Cruz Campaign Flyer/


Indeed, the image of Obama is tame compared to with  images of Obama that are sold as targets and used at many shooting ranges in America–sites that, like gun shows, encourage sites of like-minded individuals to use the ranges as underground sites of sociability that promote the normalization of gun-ownership and use, which have grown in number and have acquired increased prominence as sites of access to a world that normalizes gun use.  Such ranges, easy to locate in a nationwide online directory, provide access to an underworld of shooting ranges that sanctions and promotes the use of guns, as well as offer a place to practice firing at targets of your choice, including images of political figures, with faces cartoonishly photoshopped to be dehumanized targets of rage.

anger targets of photoshopped clown-faces.png


The deep confusion of civil and military space is hardly new in a nation that has been repeatedly grieving from mass shootings, but suggests a newly militarized landscape of fear that to rally support for Ted Cruz, down to the more than distasteful depiction of President Obama as endangering the Constitution, rather than a Commander in Chief–as if he were a foreign agent in fact bent on the violation of constitutional liberties.

As it stands, the sense of an information overload of public grieving outweighs any meaning able to be gleaned from any collective representation of such violent and devastating occurrences that continue to boggle the mind.  Perhaps this is partly provoked by the increasing occurrence of what is defined as “mass shooting”–defined as a shooting killing four or more–is graphically suggested in the crowded chronology of individual mass shootings, in ways that oddly supplants geographic visualization with a chronology whose density overpowers viewers:  the intolerably crowded chronology of mass-shootings in public spaces over the past ten years were once unthinkable,– as were the now-common rituals of public grieving that try to process and come to terms with the terrible tragedy of such an event, and the deep psychological impact it has on a community and society.  Even if only a quarter of Americans are concerned about a mass shooting in their neighborhood, almost all are vicarious spectators to the grieving in their aftermath.


524e807d-b969-492b-a5e9-c31f78259603Honoring Victims of Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino  Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times


5c87f211-cb61-49e7-86e9-2c7299fa549aAfter Charleston Getty Images


usa-shooting-oregonMonroe Township, NJ/Daily News


e42adc5e-3bd6-41d3-872d-04d5a26817bbAfter San Bernardino Genaro Molina/LA Times


16firstdraftnl-poll-tmagArticle(after San Bernardino)  Jim Wilson/The New York Times

California ShootingsSan Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino, CA December 3, 2015 (AP/Mark J. Terrill)


The increased frequency of mourning for mass shootings reveals a search for restoration of their occurrence, which almost incredibly becomes ever more tragic.

Despite the valorization of every details of the attacks in the collective obituaries that have painfully become ritualized aftermath of each event, in an attempt to find closure in their very disruptiveness, the tragedy defies mapping in ways that make it difficult to come to terms with its recurrence, or to consider any logical connections between the range of admittedly often psychopathic shootings of innocent victims, and obscure their relation to the increasingly wide championing of access to guns–and the eery current of adamant insistence that gun-ownership is a right, despite the violation of human rights that the availability of rapid fire firearms like the AR-15–championed among its owners as “America’s Guns” to insist on their rights of possession–stands to risk.  The difficulty of confiscating guns reveals the disconnect between their deadly power and the responsibility of ownership in the United States of America.


The epidemic remains to be effectively mapped, if it ever can.  Indeed, at three years distance from the Sandy Hook mass-shooting, which left twenty children and six educators dead with the gunman, and suggested new heights of insensitivity in murdering the unprotected and defenseless.  The landscape of mass-shootings seems hardly to have changed, save by mass-shootings becoming more unpredictable and frequent.  We regularly turn to maps to explain the epidemic of gun deaths in the nation, frustrated by the difficulty in summing up or aggregating events so deeply affecting and disturbing, and so stubbornly attached to individual particularities, that they are so particularly difficult to refer or materialize in a map–or reduce to a single cartographical form of sufficient explanatory power–so horrific is each individual event as a drama, and so stunning has their actual frequency been in recent years.  Even if such crimes constitute but a small share of overall gun violence, the public planned staging of apparently indiscriminate events is difficult to get one’s mind around.  For even three years and a thousand shootings after Sandy Hook, twenty mass shootings of 2015 occurred in the face of a continued absence of gun laws–laws that could potentially have prevented the perpetrators from ‘legally’ obtaining guns.

Such stalemate  is difficult to understand or rationalize, as is the refusal to research the origins of gun violence, or restrict firearm sales of firearms with magazines that are so readily able to be “legally” procured without any examination or scrutiny of their purchasers’ past criminal history.  Yet what, one might ask, is a “legally” procured semi-automatic rifle?  What constitutes or stands to be recognized as a legal firearm?  The multiple asterisks in the Smith & Wesson advertisement for the M&P 15 “Sport” suggest the active engagement of many of its features–a collapsible stock; thirty round magazine; suppressor compensator–with the local legal requirements so prominent in the minds of their clientage.




Beside the inexplicable spread of mass shootings in America, there’s a deep inability to articulate an adequate response to the assertion that the ownership of guns is a right–evident in the stark contrast of the deep conviction of 35% of Americans that guns make public places safer and a geography where four people or more were shot by guns–even if they were not killed–since 2012.  Despite some serious questioning by criminologists about the apparent increase in mass-killings in the United States that grew scattershot across the nation since 2010, the terms of debate indicate deeply definitional problems of even describing what mapping mass-shootings in America are–do victims have to die?  how must die for the occurrence?–and what the fairly new term means.  Such questions may indeed only reflect the great difficulties we still have in getting our minds around and coming to terms with any visualization of the actual or imagined distribution of such unpredictable and indiscriminate events, here mapped from late 2010 in an apparent lack of any clear pattern as to where or when they might occur that is consonant with the sense that there is no rhyme or reason to their occurrence, which must remain the bitter “price” for our continued constitutional liberties.


CKpv4BbWcAAUesX.png-largeMass-shootings since Sandy Hook, by Soo Oh using data from Mass Shooting Tracker, via Stanford Geospatial Center–do check out the interactive web map


Although the prominence such mass shootings occupy in national news surely amplifies the truly traumatic sense, the above timeline used in the header to this post equally suggest the deep difficulties of making sense of their spread–as do and the now common collective biographies of their victims, or harrowing news profiles of the killers who acquired the guns, which almost replace the simple coherence of a data visualization.  But does a “mass-shooting” even require fatalities to be counted?  What can explain the government’s refusal to keep a database of gun deaths, despite the increasing violation of human rights they pose?

The difficulty of achieving closure on such mass-killings challenges the cognitive abilities, much as the crowded timeline of the heading to this post.


10.  The most deeply striking characteristic of this terrifying epidemic of mass-shootings may not lie in the intensity of their occurrence, but their overwhelming occurrence within public spaces.  If mass-shootings might multiply due to imitation or emulation, as public displays of gun violence gain a clear cultural script, shifting the threshold for planning and executing unthinkable mass-murders in public space, the decision to execute the innocent in public has its own terrifying geography:  the spate of mass-killing with rifles staged in public life–in movie theaters; schools; workplaces; clinics; churches–indiscriminately claimed lives in rampages not easily explained only by psychologic disturbance or by psychopathic traits.  Such crimes are staged as if to take justice into one’s hands, in a geography without coherence in a map, reflecting a conviction of individual “rights” to “keep and bear arms” that intentionally distorts what the Bill of Rights never intended as a right of personal possession.

Is the icon of the armed Minuteman–the ever-ready marksman with cocked gun in hand, an eery underside of this proliferation in civil space?  The mistaken acceptance and promotion of such a pseudo-“right”–and its defense has dramatically grown with the belief that rights to the ownership of guns will be rolled back and individual firearms confiscated–that has quickly gained fairly terrifying increased traction in public political discourse.  Indeed, they not only occur as the per capita presence of firearms in America has mushroomed to one per citizens and approximately 310,000,000 million firearms as of 2012–114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–or more than the number of Americans.  At the same time, the expansion of AR-15’s in American hands have crested beyond 3,750,000 by late 2012, as sales of such guns ballooned with astounding rapidity:   background checks that precede the legal possession of semiautomatics multiplied at the alarming rate of 50% in five years before Newtown.

The wildly increasing circulation of rifles and handguns in America have been paralleled in public discourse by a deeply distorted and fraught notion of the liberties of “bearing” a gun–as if this means being equipped with a semi-automatic weapon, rather than holding a musket within a state militia–or as if the reloading and cocking of muskets has some historically essential equality with the expressive abilities of the magazines of rapid-fire assault rifles.  The expansion of an eery political current that treats the rights to gun ownership as a right of political expression deeply distorts the notion of constitutional liberties and freedoms.  Does the representation of gun-ownership and -use as a right correlate to the geography of mass-shootings in America?  Surely the conviction of most Americans that guns “makes public places safer stands in contrast to the rise of mass-shootings in America.  One of the most surprising mapping of reactions to mass-killings may be not only in the expansion of a geography of fear, and the a growing demand for the purchase and owning of more firearms and guns, in reaction to perceived fears of gun control.  For on the heals of individual mass-shootings, we see surges in the sales of firearms–recent sales have especially increased in Southern California, after the San Bernardino shootings, in reaction to pronounced fears of gun control, in the same manner that gun-dealers were overwhelming by requests for weapons after previous mass-shootings–and the increased risk of gun killings in those areas where guns are more clearly concentrated.

If the presence of firearms alone in specific regions of the country constitutes a clear measure of increased risks a clear index of risk, that distribution cannot explain the rise of the mass-shooting phenomenon.  The difficulty of even defining the “mass-shooting” as an event that can be mapped–what, indeed constitutes a mass-shooting?  four fatalities by firearms?  or should three deaths suffice? or are gun-wounds sufficient to identify the danger of mass-shootings?–reveal a difficulty of processing or coming to terms with the rising risk of premeditated killing sprees in public space that seem quite distinct in pressing the limits of public violence and in the tragic consequences of such deranged actions.  The failure of the United States government to keep or retain records or data on gun deaths suggests the odd disconnect between the ability to process such events in ways that would allow a meaningful mapping of mass-shootings.

For the relations between mass-shootings and gun sales demands mapping as an intersection of a spatial imaginary that is rooted in the defense of rights to possess firearms and the proliferation of sales of firearms–and the implicit sanctioning of guns in public use that distinguishes the United States from other countries, and that has become prevalent in recent decades, suggesting a true national nightmare from which we are not likely to soon awake.


National Nightmare: Mapping Gun Homicides per 100,000 in nations


Despite frequent defenses of gun ownership repeatedly rehearsed with increasing force in political discourse, can the possession of firearms be legitimately based on claims to a preexisting right?  The frequency of mass-shootings in America cannot be reconciled with beliefs that their occurrence is to be seen only as the price of the “freedoms we enjoy,” as if these deaths were a sort of collateral for the freedoms that are naturalized within one country.  For their terrifying frequency seems almost to sanction a form of violent expression is difficult to defend by the Second Amendment or an individual liberty, and whose costs are deeper than their benefits–despite the rhetorical championing of the ownership of automatic rifles was a right protected by law, and the AR-15 or AK-47 akin to a muskets of revolutionary militias that similarly served to protect the public safety.  Does the defense of gun ownership create a space for separating oneself from civil society in increasingly violent ways, and combining the militarized behavior within a civil society from which many falsely feel themselves disenfranchised?

As the costs on our perception of public space augment, and the basic human rights of occupying public space or sanctioned clinics grow, so does the preposterously contorted argument that gun-ownership–“bearing arms”–is constitutionally protected.  Increasingly spread over radio and the internet as if gun-ownership were  naturalized to the land, using a deeply and perversely misguided notion that “bearing arms” justifies individual possession of firearms, the Constitution is explicitly misunderstood:  for what was framed by the framers as a right to militias is taken as a right to personal possession, although it sought only to pertain to “bearing” guns in the context of state militia.  But the notion of such a shadow “state”–or unseen republic–is regularly reified within the symbols of a terrifying current in political discourse, as if to imagine themselves as a group whose ownership of guns demands to be defended and whose fetishization of the AR-15 demands further examination.  So does the open and explicit elision of an iconography of military aggression with the emblems of gun ownership, which seek to advocate and advertise possession assault rifles as an unqualified individual right–as if to turn all America into a shooting range.






Is the right to load a musket in any way similar to the rounds of ammunition able to fired with rapidly form a rifle’s reloadable magazine?  Such taunting slogans and symbolic badges bizarrely conflate rights and assault weapons in ways that tie use and possessions of assault weapons to a rhetoric of vigilance–imagining the owner of an automatic rifle as finding historical precedent in the Minuteman’s musket, and imagining gun-ownership as a right to be asserted against fear of the encroachment of an overly invasive national government.

As perpetuated by underground radio stations and internet sales points, the pseudo-right to “bear arms” is taken as itself in need of protection by firearms, even in the face of our marking of time with mass-shootings at a density difficult to comprehend.  The rhetoric of continued vigilance that these items promote create an imagined geography of defending liberties that were able to be secured by guns, as if the right to possess arms was itself in need of vigilant protection and preservation–and  reflects a revolutionary underground that can be imagined as a space of concealed gun permits, based on “exercising the Second Amendment right guaranteed to them” in a true land of liberty, as evoked in the images of minute-men and the date of the Constitution or Bill of Rights that so anachronistically celebrate gun-ownership as a right.


GOA-01Gun Owners of America


Such willful acts of creative anachronism go to the heart of redefining the Constitution–the basis of the civil society and the nation–as the basis for the Republic of Gun Holders’ defense of their pseudo-rights to possess and “bear” arms in the manner historically guaranteed to state militias were sanctioned in the country’s founding document–and to imagine a nation within the nation where rights to carry and conceal firearms are guaranteed.  How “bearing” arms became anachronistically permutated to the carrying of concealed weapons is a long story of tortured logic, but it was most successful in those states that have historically rejected federal oversight.




states-with-8-percent-of-population-with-concealed-carry-permits_crime-prevention-research-centerGive Me Liberty:  Where 8% of Population Own Concealed Weapons Permits


The increased confusion of gun laws that prevent police officers from challenging individuals bearing arms to show their open-carry permits in Texas challenges such a map–and raises pressing questions on the extent to which we are tending to a society that tolerates carrying guns in public space–or diminishes police authority to supervise the presence of AR-15s in public settings in America, as such authority would diminish the rights of individual gun possession.


Bill Pugliano Gun Activitists.pngBill Pugliano/Getty Images


In this spatial imaginary, the United States is seen as the last bastion of individual liberties of owning guns, a category quite largely construed:




This imagined republic champions its vigilant defense of “bearing” firearms including “assault weapons” as a deep form of liberty, placing a deeply anachronistic construction on their belief in “bearing” arms.  Indeed, the neo-revolutionary symbology of individual resistance openly casts possession of firearms with urgency within a vocabulary and syntax akin to the defense of individual rights, suggesting the apprehension of a new state of emergency where rights are in need of defense.

The spread of paranoia of gun control is perhaps evident in the expansion of “California compliant” AR-15’s with detachable magazines.  For the expansion of an imaginary space of vigilance and readiness, though absent from most quantitative data visualizations of mass-killings, firearm assaults, or gun ownership, choreographed as if in an underground nation, replete with news outlets that purport to purvey the actual truth of increasing need for protecting individual gun-possession, given the restriction of such “rights” since the 1988 reclassification of “assault weapons” and the 1993 Assault Weapons Ban.  The symbolic potency of the assault weapon–the icon of the AR-15–within such “gun rights” discourse seems to taunt viewers with its open celebration of a refusal to respect such limits as gun control.


Come and Try.png




11.  The depressingly dense crowding of the chronology of mass-shootings, which melds into a terrifying virtual continuity from 2013, marking how the almost daily recurrence of mass-killings overwhelm time for their remembrance, return us to the problem of processing their continued occurrence over time.   As such mass-killings so tragically come in seemingly swift succession, from Ft. Hood through Newtown to Roseberg, OR, to San Bernardino, CA, linked by common use of the AR-15’s gun enthusiasts champion “America’s guns,” register not only a landscape of increased mass-shootings, but a spatial geography of the defense of gun-possession and -use.  Such claims to the rights to own guns ineluctably moves us further away from discussion of gun control, and paradoxically push public debate away from guns–leaving Republican candidates to affirm their support for gun ownership as an individual liberty.

The new geography of mass-shootings has increased our fears of the near-inevitability of their recurrence, but leave us with a deadened sense that goes beyond individual guilt or criminality–and raise questions of the costs of contorted classification gun ownership as a form of liberty.  The very unpredictability of their sequence elicited an ever-present geography of fear across the nation that is impossible to map:  we return to the stories of the individual lives that were lost, but not the semi-automatic rifles that enabled them.  Because many see restrictions on gun ownership as violating rights, we increasingly seem both defenseless against the geography of mass-killings that increasingly endanger individual safety, despite the increased sense of security gun control would create in civil society.  If the laws of the Constitution have defined the collectivity of the nation, the  vehement fixation on championing “rights to keep and bear arms” as the principle freedom of the country

The stunning sequence of mass-killings over the past three decades makes us turn to maps, in hopes to gain some purchase on what can seem unrelated events and to organize the pace of their occurrence in recent decades in a meaningful way.  The empty recitation of  place-names–Columbine; Ft. Hood; Newtown; Aurora; San Bernardino–seems to attempt to come to terms with the tortured geography of mass-shootings in the United States, intoned as if the sites of Civil War battles, followed by a shudder of recollection far more of numbness than understanding:  although each dot marks a place in time, as much as in space, whose relationships fail to add up.  The relation of this swift succession of killings to gun “rights” is not clear.  But the deep-set reluctance to tackle the issue of assault weapons whose magazines permit such rapid fire–and strength of wide resistance far beyond the 1.5 Americans who already own them to their banning–hints in terrifyingly ways at the introduction of a new landscape of mass-shootings in America.

Any regulation of “assault weapons” is counted by increasing stockpiled by gun owners within a debate about “rights”–and the constitutional protections on gun-ownership–even as mass killings pose clear threats to and violations of human rights.  The openly taunting slogan “Come and Get It,” reproduced in an array of quotidian objects to be coded identifying signs, blends the internet initials that tag the Right to Keep and Bear Arms from US Revolution with the weapons of choice of many killers today.  The array of objects code a sort of revolutionary brotherhood, collapsing and conflating understandings of the law in the black of right-wing militia–


Keychain--Come and Take It

–in a disguise that seems a rallying cry designed to mask the fears of gun confiscation through the very firearms mass-killers most widely used, placing them totemically above the date of the Constitution’s passage, beneath a cryptically coded insignia–“RKBA,” a.k.a. Right to Keep and Bear Arms.


12marquez-web02-articleLargeSan Bernardino Police Department


12.  The terrifyingly crowed chronology of recent mass-shootings is both disorienting and disarming because it affords so little clarity or meaning as a sequence save as an onslaught of taking liberty with guns pose such a clear human rights offense:  the rapid-fire pace in the graphic introducing this post suggests the near-impossibility of ordering time in such an intense onslaught of the occurrence of mass-killings, or to impose meaning on them.  Indeed, the recurrence of mass-killings is deeply troubling because it lack any easy or clear coherence, and reminds us of the far remove of firearms’ use from any sense of personal responsibility.

The frequency of mass-shootings across America appear less to punctuate time or space than they mimic the rapid-fire sequence of banner headlines of cable news which draw attention to their occurrence; the traumas remains difficult to comprehend, or map meaningfully, save as something like a nightmare from which we cannot awake. Despite the overall national preponderance of firearm fatalities resulting from hand-guns, it is striking that something of a caesura occurred in the sequence of mass-shooting during the ten-year ban on such rifles, from 1994 to 2004.  Does the tempo of mass-killings suggest a deep misunderstanding of liberty?  Whether one parses time passed since Sandy Hook, Columbine, or since 9/11, or the threat of terrorist violence on U.S. soil, the growth of gun-related violence is difficult to process save as a nightmare we are trying to awake, so deeply depressing because it’s an information overload so very challenging even to process.  And at the same time as we are confronted with an apparent rise in deaths, just as tragically, we are at odds as a nation in coming to terms with what the “National Nightmare” of gun homicides means.

The suitability of the term, forty long years after President Gerald Ford hopefully declared “our long national nightmare is over” at his inauguration–a famously wishful declaration of a desired break with the past, trying to be auspicious and omitting any mention of Watergate–the wishful declaration of a turning point, as we were recently reminded, rings hollow some forty years later before the current nightmare from which we seem unable to awake.  For as we parse the rise of gun-use and firearm homicides, a subject we almost lack the means to address, turning points or chronologies seem sadly as useless as geographies, but confirm an undeniable progress to an ever expansive escalation of gun deaths on U.S. soil, that seem to stand in some relation to the increased terrorist attacks, but whose scale unprecedentedly grew since 2010 in ways that are not entirely easy to map onto global events–even despite the claims that the objectives and ambitions of ISIS terrorist groups have increasingly begun to stretch beyond territorial borders. Despite the decrease of mass-shootings  during the ten-year ban on such rifles from 1994 to 2004, non-Islamic and Islamic extremists alike seem to have benefitted from access to guns:


Since 9:11New York Times


It is understandable that we also turn to maps in hopes to process meaning in the face of an almost unexplainable epidemic of mass-killings.  But as we do so–tracking sites of deadly assault, tracking the provenance of the weapons and guns the killers used, or crowd-sourced online compilations of the truly staggering human toll in list form, we are apt to find that the raw data often speaks far more than cartographical forms can embody:


National Nightmare: Mapping Gun Homicides per 100,000 in nations


Why does this stuff continue to happen so relentlessly ?  A global comparison of firearm homicides within developed nations may not be exact or be a map.  But it suggests a staggering need to reduce the rates of gun homicides in both public and private spaces, and the specific challenges of disentangling access to guns to the language of rights with which it has been deeply if deceptively conflated.

The bar graph positioning the United States as far off the charts raises questions not only about the access to guns in the US, but raises questions about the value of continuing to map the distribution of gun homicides in the country–although their remapping provides something of a mirror that can only compel further reflection on the apparently increasing stubborn persistence of such an outlier status that seems daily to grow.  The bar graph raises questions about the increased occurrence attacks we have seen recently of heavily armed individual attackers or groups of individuals, which create a crowded litany of place-names immediately identified with premeditated mass-killings staged in schools, churches, centers of social services, or government agencies across the nation, even as little action seems able to be taken to stop the steady expansion of this list of memorials or access to guns–and worries have turned to the provision of expanded services of social and emotional health to process the proliferation of violence, as much as to better serve potential perpetrators of homicidal rampages–without ever addressing the problems of the all too easily obtained firearms, and the perverse notion deadly gunshot provide any statement save ending someone’s life.


13.  In an age when mass-killings have almost come to occur daily, even in the face of  calls for better mental health services for all, it’s hard to know how these levels of violence can actually be processed–not only by children, teenagers, and even adults, but most of society.  The recurrence of public mass-shootings almost suggest a new normal, where the majority of the victims were completely unarmed–even if it is a normal President Obama implores we collectively refuse to accept.

Although gun attacks on  Planned Parenthood office remain relatively rare, despite the daily threats under which clinics across America live, the acknowledgment of the occurrence of firearm assault as a forms of expression strains credibility–as if the public use of guns suggests a right worthy of defense.  And the terrifying entanglement between far right-wing rhetoric and gun  use cannot be continued to be dismissed out of hand since “speech does not breed violence;” because to do so conceals a more terrifying acceptance of gun violence as if it were a form of public speech–rather than an assault on human rights–and continued imprecations, even after mass-shootings, that “Now is not the time to call for law-abiding citizens to put down their guns,” as if more guns would secure greater safety and well-being.  There is nary a mention of the dangers of gun violence in the tweets by leading Republicans, beholden to NRA ratings, to suggest any restrictions on access to guns, lest they no longer secure “A-” grades from the overly powerful and deeply protective advocacy and lobbying body–the tweets couched a language in terms of comforting those “impacted” by the shooting (not killed) and offer prayers, thoughts, and condolences, but suggest the inability of framing any other response.


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The stunning wall of evasive silence that is maddeningly maintained in these quite vacuous tweets reflects the immobility in political discourse to identify the problem as one of ready access to guns, lest they be seen as infringing on the Holly Grail of the Second Amendment, which seems for some more sacred than the United States Constitution.  The reflexive if actually inexplicable refusal to consider to fund research to be done on mass shootings, and the absence of even a budget for gun prevention in the CDC–who have nonetheless continued to tabulate gun fatalities–suggests the perils of the Manichean opposition created in political discourse between any questioning the motives for gun ownership and firearm use and the struggle to preserve gun “rights”–as if they were in fact in need of being legally protected and state-sanctioned.  Governor Chris Christie, currently seeking the White House, can only tweet about those “victimized” by shootings, rather than admit they were killed.



What are these rights to “bear arms?  The conflation of rights to possess firearms  with individual rights have been perilously distorted in public opinion, perhaps as dangerously as they have been rewritten by the courts.  For the tendency to assume such rights all too often goes unquestioned and is increasingly misunderstood.  With any analysis of gun violence presented as ac actual  attempt to infringe inalienable rights of gun possession that are posited to be enshrined in the law, there is a reluctance even to examine its origins:  the recalcitrance against even supporting studies even into risk/benefit analysis of domestic ownership of guns is taken to smack of poor governance and nefarious plots by the National Rifle Association, who discourage any research on the subject of gun use as an infringement on what seem sacrosanct rights to gun-ownership.  The fostering of deep fears of such infringement have gained legal cover, moreover, in a particularly willful misreading of the Second Amendment.  For the obstruction of legal response to the spread of gun-killings has deep roots in the perpetuation of the illusion of the legal exceptionalism of the United States.

Increasingly, a bizarre conflation of the right to possess guns and the acceptance of the firearm as a rightful means of expression seems to have crept into American political discourse in eery ways, and may underscore the clear illustration of such an outlier status, as much as any mapping of gun ownership or facilities in our country:  while Freedom of Speech is of course a right sanctioned by the framers of the nation’s Constitution, and indeed given a prominent position within the Bill of Rights.  Whether the Constitution so openly sanctions such a “right” is of course open to interpretation if not in doubt:  the conviction that it does so rests on the almost intentionally misguided perverse notion that the Second Amendment affirmed “bearing of arms” more than a “well-regulated militia” not only distorted the clear focus of the framers on the necessary possession of such a militia to “the security of a free State.”  Yet the apparent if unconscious absorption of possessing firearms into the Bill of Rights is not only an open distortion of constitutional law, but a justification of gun-owning in America, even in the face of mass-murders.  The perverse insistence on the ethics and safety of firearm possession guarantees open access to firearms in almost unfettered manner within the United States that seems to be increasingly exploited in tragic ways.

For the blatant and brazen misconstrual of the principal of individual gun-ownership as if it were a right has helped to sediment a misrepresentation of  meaning in state-protected rights, and a dangerous distortion in how rights are perceived and indeed defended that endanger human rights to safety and security–quite confoundingly, the very term that is so often cited in the defense of the “right” to bear arms.  Although dating from a very different era when militias were understood as local entities–rather than nationalized–little interpretive leeway or allowance was accorded its interpretation, so strong was the conviction that the right to arms remained a personal prerogative.  Rather, the reflexive conviction to affirm the right to possess firearms–“bear arms“–has become a disembodied imperative, removed from the discipline or order that a militia would provide, as Dorothy Samuels acutely observed, and taken as an individual prerogative never intended by the framers, and severed from the notion of anything “well-regulated” at all–even morphing into a form of protection against an untrusted state.

The slippery grounds connecting unfettered access to guns as a primordial “right” the state must be prevented from interfering or regulating has created increased contortions of logic that strain credulity in political discourse. The near-impossibility to invoke “security” as a reason for the widespread owning and general access to firearms–witness the mental gymnastics both Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have performed around the old but untired argument that greater gun-possession would increase safety against “lone wolf attackers” and better those besieged by such rogue actors, warranting gun safety education in public schools, if not gun training–may conceal a hideous deeper conflation between the Second and First Amendment in the minds of some.  The misconstrual of liberties sometimes seems to underlie the tortured discourse about the need for protection of rights to gun ownership–and perhaps an initial mental block to framing coherent arguments about access to guns in an uncontrolled market, or even dialogue about preventive measures of gun use–and derives from mistaken acceptance that gun ownership belongs in the Bill of Rights that makes it so difficult to historicize the meaning of the Second Amendment.

12.  Perhaps we don’t even gain much by mapping  the increase of gun violence that we’ve seen, which roughly corresponds, it at first seems, to population concentration.  For the terrifying transformation of the map of the country into something that might be more familiar on a firing range than infographic:


Shooting TrackerShootingTracker


Despite value and clear ethical import of counting each and every life lost and individual wounded by the surplus of guns across the country, the additive summary of individual events has limited coherence save as a tragedy.

There is indeed a clear cognitive rebuff of such a visualization of multiple wounding and killing by firearms that challenges the logic of mapping; the limited clarity or coherence can be gained by trying to locate the expansion of gun use through so much of the country on a map, save to illustrate the expansive nature of its threat to public safety:  what all too often seems at stake in the demand to have unfettered access to guns that are able to be readily loaded and not dismantled without restraint seems to rest not on legal precedent or logic but the national imaginary of the gunslinger, and indeed the place of the lone avenger, as much as the concerns for safety that the Framers somewhat cautiously voiced.  Perhaps the blood-splatter symbology used by the Gun Violence Archive, who’ve daily tracked 48,348 incidents of gun violence, and promise new and comprehensive pictures of gun-related violence, is most apt in  inviting us to comprehend the jaw-dropping totality of lost lives:


blood splatter mapGun Violence Archive


Such maps however don’t make much sense, because they offer such little access for viewers to their motives, into the circumstances where and when and among whom they occur, or purchase on the ways folks found their guns and the ease of their acquisition of firearms.  Where they long possessed, or acquired for a premeditated event?  Perhaps this doesn’t make a difference to its scope.

The difficulty and deep frustration of successfully processing any clear sense of the frequency of occurrence of gun killings across the country is intensified by the blurring of concentric circles and oblique markers of at least ten homicides color the map by a confusion of different hues of blue, crowding the national map with spate of a density we cannot even unpack, even if its bluntness raises clear questions about frequent arguments about the safety that owning guns provides.  The inability to drill down in the map allows only limited cognitive access.


Mapping the Dead


The admirably ethical project to provide an actual record of the recent devastating progress of gun-deaths across the country–as the comprehensive Gun Violence Archive project–overwhelm viewers in their deadening additive accumulation of shootings, if desensitization lies farthest from their planners’ intent.  In tracking deaths by fire-arms since the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred in Newtown, CT the non-profit created a sort of watchdog online archive in 2012 that was soon so cluttered to be taken down at the end of the following year, after clocking 12,042 without a sign of deceleration in sight.  The map still strains credibility:   limited to  the top 1,000 locations of gun-related homicides to retain legibility, it rendered opaque many of the twelve larger urban centers of gun deaths.  The mapping became a meme of sorts, however, in attempts to understand what was going on, although the map lacks much coherence. And while the darkening of most of the country reveals a spate of deaths to be standard across 46 states and Washington, D.C. it is troubling that Florida, Illinois and California compete for the most gun killings.


OSM deaths 12,042.png


14.  There are some serious problems with the above maps, however, both as a visualization whose very symbology is so overwhelmed with the current the level of violence that it conceals, as if to create increased distance between the viewer and a disturbing landscape of lethal homicides that so frustratingly seems a data overload almost impossible to process or embody in a map.

For in toting up statistics of those felled by guns as if challenge viewers to comprehend what seems to track an actual epidemic or the spread of a miasmatic force that swallows centers of habitation–although the point of the onslaught is effectively made–it is a pity we don’t map the actual demographics of those with guns, what sort of past history or licenses they have to own guns, how they acquired them, or the role of hate crimes and emotional states of the perpetrator of such acts of violence, if only to help better comprehend and represent what is actually going on.   And the recent increase of intensity in the frequency of mass-shootings, which are now so uneasily discussed to be referred to simply by the sites of their locations–


Time Between Mass Shootings


–have so crowded news headlines so that we hardly have time to mourn the victims of one event before we are presented with another set of images of bloodied shirts, vacant faces, and memorials once again.

We are all fearful and uncomfortably present at the image of lives lost and families ruined, or fatherless children, that the devastating progress of untimely if largely unintentional deaths have led us to despair:  our public imaginary is tethered to the image of a quite different sense of freedom of gun ownership as one of security that is terrifyingly difficult to dimension on a moral canvas, however, even though the sneaking suspicion that the mythology of gunslinging has helped confuse the Second Amendment with the First, as “keep and bear arms” seemed an expressive act, as much as a phrase whose actual meaning can be more properly historicized, as Justice John Paul Stevens has aptly noted, to describe taking part in the military, rather than acting as a vigilante.  Yet the possession of the gun is a particularly haunting presence that now seems to have come to define individual liberty by the fantasia regularly disseminated in film–






–where the geography of guns, marksmanship, and ammunition suggests an almost primordial relation to space, as well as to taking justice into one’s own hands in a landscape already crowded by dangerous guns.


Good v. Bad.pngMarvel Comics


The image of the slayer in video games is but an updating of this primordial image of the individual avenger who takes justice into his own hands.


Call-of-Duty-video-game-Activision-325x195Call of Duty


This imaginary landscape that includes an avenger who has separated themselves from civil society has so solidified that the terrible option of taking violence and justice–even if this also means taking death–into one’s own hands, has paralleled the proliferation of mass shootings:  if some 30,000 lives are ended due to gunshot each year in the United States of America, and we continue to refuse to curtail access to guns or short-term bans of firearms sales or even something so sensible as individual background checks.  But do we misunderstand the debate on gun ownership by removing it from the human rights affront it is?

Although it is impossible to chart motivations for gun ownership, of course, or the emotional states in which guns arrive in the hands of the perpetrators of crimes and assaults by firearms, the increased attachment of ownership to liberty in public discourse is particularly troubling.  For the defense for gun ownership and sales far less reinforces the safety of a militia, but echoes a disturbing notion of self-expression, all too eerily illustrated by Robert L. Dear Jr.’s so very, very, very misguided utterance to police of those four words in the public record, which may provide the clearest insight we will probably ever have into his actual intent, if it can ever be comprehended.

And while such mass-killings are perhaps quite different forms of assault and gun use, the access to guns and their presence in civil life is credibly tied to the defense of gun ownership as a right–although the proponents of rights to gun possession of course clearly don’t see their own stance in relation to the recent expansion of such mass-attacks they also wish to contain.   Yet the relation between gun-use is difficult to see as only arriving from outside the country, and unable to be contained by our laws.  We can see where Colorado indeed clearly lies–like Newtown–far outside the zone where the greatest number of firearms in circulation or possession lie, as is the contiguity of regions where the greatest share of the population possesses guns–or is known to possess firearms–might seem to paradoxically lie outside of those places where by far the greatest fatalities from firearms, as if this would mean that the open possession of firearms indeed could provide a reliable measure of collective security.




But a map cannot really ever explain the conflation of a gun and a tool of public expression, and only reflects the accuracy of licensing or reporting, or indeed readiness to self-report registered firearms.  The problem of access to guns undoubtedly lies partly also in those unreported firearms.


15.  The deep tragedy of the association of firearms and freedom–and this persistently seems to include, in a bizarrely never-intended way, if one impossible to banish from the collective imaginary, to a freedom of personal expression–seems to map onto an expansive notion of freedom that it was never actually meant to carry or enjoy, but which attempts to restrict or curtail gun-ownership, since constitutionally enshrined by the Roberts court, in what can only be described as “faux originalism” of Justices, as it was by Richard Posner, is far more than a judicial distortion or cynical half-truth, but feeds a slew of related half-truths that are all too tacitly consented to be disseminated in public life.   For the distortion of removing the right of individual ownership from regulation of a militia  in defense of local liberties, the question of individual ownership has both groundlessly but all that inexplicably become a Holy Grail, ready to be wildly misconstrued as a deeply uncivil sort of right among libertarians.

The divide of sites where one feels justified in owning firearms is stark.  It is somewhat surprisingly far removed from urban populations, where the densest number of gun-related homicides occur; the landscape of gun-caused deaths seems surprisingly distinct, with the exception of southern states, but such maps speak more to the openness of a culture of owning guns.  They raise questions about what leads gun ownership to be identified with something like a liberty–or what it would look like to remove guns from their current conflation of anything like a liberty.  The investment in guns in poorer states is astounding if one looks at the extremes, as do low rates of gun ownership in more populated areas.




The culture of gun violence is in many ways quiet distinct from such measures of ownership, if one maps rates of death by firearm across the lower forty-eight or fifty states, though the prevalence of gun ownership in the deep south–Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama–raises questions; the entire country seems heated up with high levels of homicides, in the parsing that Richard Florida offer almost a decade ago in an attempt to measure, grosso modo, the contribution of stricter gun control laws to death by gunfire soon before the Supreme Court issued a ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that effectively enshrined the right to “bear arms” across the land as something that should occur without federal oversight:


Deaths by Firearm:100000The Atlantic/City Lab


Although Florida seemed only too pleased to find a correlation between lower gun violence in those states where one sees a greater presence of his fabled “creative class,” this seems almost a red herring in comparison to the presence of even a single law on the books that was related to restrictions on carrying firearms, trigger locks, or safe storage practices–Florida found some negative correlations in those states that enacted bans on assault weapons (-.45) or mandated safe storage requirements (-.48).


Just one Firearm LawThe Atlantic/City Lab


But the notion of a “Geography of Gun Deaths” can hardly be explained by looking for correlations to other statistics.  It just doesn’t make sense, in part, since the circumstances that permit these trips into firearm homicides is sanctioned by a permissiveness of the market, and the broad access to a fantasy that gun access has benefits, which is difficult to geographically locate after all, so much as it is to find across the country.   And a lining up of numbers of death just plain ignores questions of population density-as if presence of deaths per 100,000 can be uniformly colored by state, rather than reflecting the breakdown at the level of county residents, where a similar, but far more disconcerting record of the lack of clear variations that might be explained by local laws, and provides a far more accurate break-down of collective rates of gun mortality in the nation, 2004-2010, whose variations demand to be viewed as a web-map, designed by CartoDB, individuating death rate, homicide rate, and suicide rate across the lower forty-eight and drilling far more deeply into CDC’s actual data, rather than trying to impose our notions of coherence on it:

Gun Deaths:GravesMark Graves Design



The distribution of collective deaths by firearms per 100,000 in county level across six years provides a startlingly shaper different distribution:


Grave Scale

Graves' COuntryMark Graves Design

Drilling down a bit to the southern and western states, we can see some huge cultural divergences, less present by cutting across state lines, and which many urban centers seem relative outposts of tranquility, lying far below the median-level of gun deaths:


Gunshots in the Southern StatesMark Graves Design


Or the western states, where wide open regions removed from cities are unpredictably dense in deaths by firearms:


Old WestMark Graves Design


The more elegant data visualization importantly disabused viewers of a habitual focus on urban cities as sites studded with gun homicides–and calls attention to the deeper question of where folks think of themselves as being safer with guns in their possession, by highlighting the more rural areas, often of lower density population, where firearms may be more seen as forms of safety and security, and apparently are more readily used.  Rather than see urban violence in cities as the source or center of firearm fatalities, if they ever indeed were, areas as Wyoming, Idaho, parts of Nevada, non-urban Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, and southern Utah, as much as Chicago, are centers of gun deaths, and firearm homicides in Chicago have declined.


Firearm homicide chart


What does that mean?

The category of “states,” as Florida should be the first to admit, are less meaningful guidelines to gun-deaths, or the grim landscape of fatalities, even if they provide the jurisdictional filter to try to control the availability and circulation of arms.  It may be helpful to see the extent to which overlays line up with firearm deaths less as a cause, of a marked decrease of deaths due to firearms, than a shifting cultural topography in relation to the possession of the gun:  the refusal to pass any such restrictions, one could as plausibly argue, seems most prevalent in those very regions and areas where the recourse to firearms seems accepted as if it were a right.  For even though the laws are most often designed to protect children from gunfire–rather than curtail gun use–this seems to suggest an acceptance of the need in a specific case for gun laws to preserve fundamental human rights, rather than the civil protection of public security that we increasingly seem to need.

Indeed, rather than seeking spatial coherence in a culture of firearms that seems less spatially coherent than conceptually powerful, it might make sense to abandon the use of a geographical map to seek spatial correlations in a dilemma that is more national than local or regional, even if plagued by some deep regional differences ad divides:


Gun Ownsership:Deaths


The correlation, not so surprisingly, is pretty clear.  Parsed only slightly differently than Graves, and also viewed over a ten-year period, a grim vision of the firearm deaths per 100,000 emerges, which suggests the deeper extent of a readiness for individual recourse to guns in the greater part of the nation, including  terrifying persistently increasing suicide rates by firearms that one can only attribute to increased access to guns–an increased danger if you have a gun that few gun owners confront.




Hawaii remains the clear outlier with the lowest rates of firearm injuries–suggesting that if we might look for a model of well-being, it would be furthest away from the country–though New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey appear relatively low in national context.  The large numbers of gun fatalities, which in 2007 killed over 10 per 100,000 residents, rose to 21.7 in Washington, D.C., perhaps justifying a new notion of how guns would relate to public safety after all.  Poverty levels have the clearest correlation with deadly assault with firearms.   And the majority of victims of violence were women, often in domestic rather than public settings.  But what does the geographic distribution of murders tell us, given that the density of homicides–or mass-murders–is less the point than their occurrence?


16.  The more such killings and mass-killings appear to multiply, perhaps intensified by the barrage of media images and banner headlines that consume our diminished attention and place new demands upon whatever comprehension we might be able to gain, the weaker seems the validity of letting American legal exceptionalism perpetuate the conflation of individual rights with gun ownership in our collective imaginary.  Indeed, the very claims of exceptionalism of the defense of gun ownership within a “Bill of Rights” creates a distortion of the very reasons for owning a gun, and indeed the associations that one should attach to gun-ownership–as much as safety:  gun owners remain far more likely to kill themselves intentionally, and increases the chances of gun-related accidents.

But the global graphic of homicide rates, more broadly construed world-wide, may provide something of a useful touchstone in resetting the place of America in the world.  It interestingly expands homicides to different weapon types, parsing the globe by assailants’ weapon of choice.  To be sure, the US is embarrassingly first, suggesting its greater normalization of recourse to weapons to perform aggression, and surpasses any other country in the world in assault by a sharp object (dark green) or other means (green), even though gun-related deaths in specific inflate U.S. homicide rates to so tragically numbing a state of extreme exceptionalism.


Deaths ranking globalGlobal Burden of Disease Study


Filed under data aggregation, data visualization, Gun Control, mapping gun violence, Mass Shootings, National Rifle Association, public health

Ebola and our Nation

New fears that the infectious Ebola virus might mutate into an airborne disease have triggered deep anxieties of national safety in recent weeks–and elicited fears about national preparedness rarely–if ever–raised before the arrival of Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas, Texas.  Those fears are insistently restated and summoned in the range of monitory posters affixed in all hospitals across the country, creating a widespread mapping of the dangers of the spread of disease far more alarmist about the possible proximities of infection than about geographic knowledge: the point is almost to suggest that this modern disease, or potential third plague, will itself transcend spatial categories of the past, for the very reason that the possibility of contagion is augmented through the connections created by airplane travel and indeed that epidemiological understanding of the danger of infection by the disease is mapped as if mediated by the vagaries of the inter-connections afforded by the networks of global airplane travel–even if infection by the disease depends on the exchange of bodily fluids.

The not-so-reassuring sign at an Oakland, CA hospital reminds viewers to remap their possible relations to the disease, and be mindful of the network of possible communication of the Ebola virus by the vector of airline flights, much like that which brought Eric Duncan to Dallas, and the interconnected nature of a disease’s communication in a globalized world.


The rise of one case of infection that spread in that hospital helped further to transform a dire health emergency located only in West Africa into a danger seeming to lie at the edges of a nation increasingly obsessed with patrolling its borderlands.  How did a virus whose expansion as a world health emergency was so sadly ignored for months as it spread in West Africa come to be re-dimensioned as a subject that, with a dose of posturing, was a concern of national security?  The answer partly lies in the steep challenge to spatially orient individuals to the possible pathways of viral infection, and to hold the fears of potentially new pathways for its contagious transmission at bay.  (The infections of two nurses exposed to the disease raised fears of the abilities that we have to contain the illness in a hospital setting early on.)   Even if concerns that Ebola virus may mutate lack much grounds, given the virus’s unchanging nature over time, the mutation of mapping the spread of a disease in West Africa to tracking possible pathways of communication outside the continent has provoked far more intense reactions than did news of the spread of the virulent disease over several previous months.

Equipped to Handle

Fear is difficult to quantify by exact metrics or measures.  But the increasing density of levels of tweeting with the term or hashtag of Ebola offers a barometer of alarm about Ebola virus’s transmission.  For the 271 million active users of Twitter exploded with 140-character pronouncements about the arrival of the infectious disease across the Atlantic, beyond the expected boundaries in which the highly infectious disease had been first tracked over several previous months.  The rapid expansion of tweets mentioning Ebola illustrates how the virus came to infiltrate (and infect) social media world-wide exploded from the first of October, when the increasing density of tweets in the United States’ 52.7 active users so drastically grew.  The twitter maps show a marked explosion mentioning or tagged #Ebola dating from the announcement an infected Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian-American afflicted with the Ebola virus was being treated for the disease in Dallas on September 30.  Within a week, and for the week before his recent death, the virus had migrated to national news when the arrival of a patient afflicted with Ebola in the United States had raised questions of how his arrival had not only been permitted, but how the way that Duncan had gone untreated after arriving at an emergency room in Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas opened the avenue to the infection.  Even as confidence grew that health risks were minimized, the density of tweets that illuminated the country insistently up to just three days before his death, as if threads that so inundated the twittersphere had themselves grown so intense so as to obliterate the boundaries of the United States, so intensely exchanged were tweets to overload the mapping abilities by firing off some 6,000 tweets per minute with astounding rapidity, compared, according to Time, to a frequency of 100 tweets per minute in the days before September 30.

At the risk of attributing the nation one identity, Twitter users across the country were suddenly passing news of the virus’s arrival in the United States with newfound intensity, in ways that don’t only betray the mass-enrollment of the medium’s 48.2 million US-based users.  The electrifying confirmation of the actual arrival of an Ebola-infected patient spread throughout the country in something like a Great Fear which had been prepared for by the unrelenting news of the infectious virus’s spread across the Atlantic.  While acknowledged, the disease’s spread–or the hashtag–was less clearly an issue of the moment that merited tweeting about.

October 1 Twitter Traffic

October 2 Ebola tweets high

October 3 Twittermap

Twitter Explosion on Ebola oct 5

The mapping of geo-tagged tweets with the hashtag Ebola had dramatically mushroomed as early as October 1–or from the moment news of the arrival in Dallas of the tragically infected Duncan spread.  They register the panic generated as word got out quite quickly that the first case of infection had arrived, undetected, in the United States, not only at the Dallas airport but in Dallas itself, to a local family, in ways that seemed suddenly to confirm both the permeability of our borders and the lack of geographic remove of a virus whose infectious virulence was widely known, but appeared contained in West Africa.  While in mid-September, the extreme intensity of tweeting appears limited to the major cities in the United States, the proliferation of twittered conversations by October 1 triggered something of an information about the arrival of the term in public debate and led to issues that had no prior tie to the infectious disease.  The tweet that the CDC issued describing the spread of the disease by contact with bodily fluids —

–retweeted over 4200 times, bearing the calming words “Ebola poses no significant risk to the United States“–have been balanced by numerous alarmist tweets of the arrival of infected airplane passengers who entered the nation’s purportedly poorly guarded borders and inadequately monitored points of entry.

From a concentration of alarmed tweets largely the coasts of the continental United States, messaging proliferated after the Duncan’s identification as a case of Ebola in the Homeland with an unheard of density that overwhelmed the nation’s cyberspace and clogged up the twitter sphere in something of an information overload as Ebola became the hot topic of 140 characters.

Twitter about Ebola 9:16

October 1 Twitter Traffic

October 2 Ebola tweets high

October 3 Twittermap

Twitter Explosion on Ebola oct 5

It is interesting that while the United States was set aglow with alarmist tweets, as was England, the countries across our borders, Mexico and Canada, show relatively low traffic–as to mark the rebirth of Ebola as a national phenomenon with Duncan’s arrival, at times, by October 2-5, in a startlingly uniform manner across the nation, whose tweeting density cartographically overwhelmed registration of its own borders:  the radii of tweets expanded beyond the shorelines of the continental United States, as if registering the overwhelming nature of national attention to the virus on the internet.  If as early as this last summer, tweets had wondered, with the first news of Americans infected with Ebola to return to the US in hopes of being cured, “How many degrees of separation are between you and #Ebola?,” our friends at Fox posted a handy projection whose alarmist tone seems designed to stoke fears by casting the disease as a national problem by mapping potential treatment centers within our shores, to suggest where those afflicted with the contagious virus might be transported in due time:

Quarantine Stations

Coming shortly before the WHO declared the outbreak an “International Health Emergency” on August 8, the mapping of CDC Quarantine Stations on the nightly news recast the problem of mapping Ebola’s contagion as a problem that might be located within our shores, rather than across the Atlantic ocean.  After all, the map reoriented our attention in relation to the Ebola story as if it were now a national issue.

(The BBC map of early October 2014 that tracked the future displacement of patients that contracted Ebola virus while in West Africa showed the eventual global ramifications of the virus, before the first known case where Ebola virus was contracted in the United States, spreading new fears of transmission that involved state, local, and federal officials; it provides a strikingly poor notion of the spread of the vectors of contagion–


based as it is on a map of countries, rather than pathways of infection, and illustrates the high levels of anxieties around placing Ebola in space.)

The expanding radiation of tweets from major cities charts the emergence of a geographically removed epidemiological crisis of Ebola within the national borders of the United States around a very precise date.  From a phenomenon that was confined to major US cities on a September 28 twitter map, whose points of greatest density were confined to Baltimore and Bethesda, the New York area, Charlotte and Atlanta–

Focus Oct 28 Twittermap

September 30 provided a burst of tweets from Dallas in the center of the country, consumed by tweets–

Focus Sept 30 Dallas Explosion

–which went national by the first day of October that suggest the knitting together of the national twittersphere with new focus by Oct 2 as the entire country increasingly tweeted about the virus’ spread grew to overwhelm the messages that Americans posted on the Internet:

Focus Oct 1 Twitter Explosion National

Focus October 2 Twitter USA

The limitations on tweeting in mid-September in the United States–mostly confined earlier to the northeast and Los Angeles, as well as Texas, was truly explosive.  #Ebola developed conversations in many fronts, at the same time as it was inevitably poised to enter public discourse about the nature of the United States’ borders, until regular checks and screenings at airports and screening agents in full protective gear, poised with thermal guns to greet visitors from the most severely Ebola-stricken nations like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, in order to detect elevated temperatures that might betray signs of the fever associated with the virus, and, should need be, placed in quarantine.  But even as attempts to start screening procedures in hospitals and airports, the fears about the invisibility of the disease, and the difficulty of detecting those infected in the earliest stages, has triggered deep-set anxieties (if not paranoid fears) into which several politicians have, however improbably, sought to tap, in ways that create a powerful new hybrid between infectious pathways and national threats.  The difficulty of screening folks who arrive in the country on all flight pathways leaving countries afflicted with Ebola–given that no U.S. Airlines actually fly to West Africa, outside of Lagos and Dakar–and that any restriction of imports to the region would paralyze local responders.  (One of the more widely diffused maps of the accelerated viral communication air flights from West Africa could encourage imagined the arrival of Ebola from Dakar to New York and Washington, DC alone, rather than Dallas.)

senegalFlightsMapJLMother Jones

A subsequent more DIY iteration of a similar map projecting the dangers of contagion from airplane flights, if one of considerably more questionable politics, imagined the multiple flight-paths, this time from Lagos as vectors of disease from Ebola-afflicted countries:


Such maps raise impossible questions of how to quarantine for Ebola linked to questions of national safety, and oddly removed from a global context in which pathways of viral communication might be charted–or the global count that now exceeds 4,000 deaths.  They have led to multiple maps of the global cases of Ebola to be charted on Wikipedia to more alarmist WordPress blogs, to come to terms with the spread of the fatal disease whose name is now on everyone’s lips–often suggesting, with the intensity of an infographic, information that is somehow being withheld or not fully released to the public.  (The rise of such self-made maps of Ebola, often using data on a Google maps template, has put it into the hands of all to act as muckrakers and unmask the new dangers of the virus’s future spread.)

The “inside story” that has developed on Ebola’s transmission have no doubt generated the spread of miniblogs about Ebola across the twitterverse.  Even the screening measures that are able to be introduced at airports, CNN reminds us, are, in the words of Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague, “something to calm the nerves of the American people, the British people, the French people, and so on” as if this were a first-world problem of anxiety-control; Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation, dismissed them as “entirely window dressing, because we have to do something,” but have little sense of what to do at any rate.  Schiavo cautioned “there’s much more that needs to be done to keep people safe,” as if the government were being lax.  Yet for a disease that does not reveal symptoms for some three weeks after infection, the tracking of potential vectors of transmission is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  On a related front, shortly after Texas Governor Rick Perry announced at Texas Health Presbyterian that “Professionals on every level of the chain of command know what to do to minimize this potential risk to the people of Texas and this country,” mutated over the following week to a message from a Border Control agent in the Rio Grande Valley that “we might not know how to respond [my italics added].”  “Did they train up or come up with a plan to respond to this? I don’t know,” he added, spinning up new fears in the mind of the general public and linking border-mania to Ebola.  The tie between Ebola and our borders materialized the threat of the virus as a “homeland risk” in ways that prepared for its entrance into national debate; members of Congress like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) preposterously describe Ebola as “another instance of the federal government ignoring the ongoing problems on the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Thomas Eric Duncan’s arrival in Dallas weeks after the mapping of imagined pathways of contagion itself suggests a far more complex threats of a network of indirect flight paths than can be revealed in a map of direct flights from Dakar–and reminds us that the danger of infection on airplanes is far less than the transport of the infected.  The data overload mapped on Twitterfeeds reveals how Americans came to suddenly process their relation to a disease that had arrived on their shores, some seven months after volunteers first rushed to West Africa in hopes to contain the disease’s spread.  The delay was astounding, as was the revealing of the increasingly limited and mutable nature of the attention spans that might be measured by Twitter feeds–and the inevitably metastisization of debate about the arrival of West Africans with the disease not only by airplane–a vector of transmission long feared  as it almost inevitably hybridized with other discourses on national vulnerability.  The first warning from a border guard about the danger of Ebola entering the United States in the Rio Grande came from the suspected apprehension of an Ethiopian, so widespread was the fear of African provenance of the disease that had come to appear as if it lurked just across our borders.

Did the relative lack of tweeting on Ebola in Mexico suggest a lack of interest in the spread of Ebola there, or just the absence of how the disease so readily intersected with fears about the preservation of boundaries?

Despite the confidence of the CDC at the abilities to control and staunch the spread of the disease, a panic rapidly grew around the vulnerability that the arrival of Duncan in Dallas suddenly suggested itself across the United States.   For his illness, the story of his rejection at the hospital, and his ability to pass undetected through the Monrovia airport, beyond the fears stoked by quarantining of those with whom he had close contact, offered evidence that our borders were not secured.  The anxieties that were unleashed were either cunningly paired or themselves latched onto, as if by haphazard association, the obsession with borders in the United States, from the wall that has been constructed to keep out Mexican immigrants from the country; fear of illegal migration was openly conflated with the arrival of a threat from which the US government was insufficiently protecting its citizens.  And in a triumph of isolationist thought, talk radio foresaw that should any US soldiers be dispatched to help with the treatment of West African countries that lack an public health infrastructure, they would turn into vectors for the disease to be brought to the US, in something like a homeland security threat some even cast as a plot to inflict punishment on current residents of the United States for sins of slave-holding, linking the severity of the infectious disease in Liberia to the founding of the nation by former US slaves in a despicable bout of geographic free-association and tragicomic transhistorical whimsy.

The story of #Ebola, it was proved, not only has legs, but will travel with the rapidity of the infectious disease itself, in ways that make it the most attention-getting news item at a time when political pundits are thirsty for news stories that would be able to make a big impact and circulate.  The contrast in twitter maps over the course of just two weeks is striking, as is the spike at the time of the announcement of Duncan’s arrival on US soil:

Twittering about Ebola 9:15

Ebola on Twitter in US

October 2 Ebola tweets high

And by October 3, the United States seemed distinctly obsessed, aside from non-Twitter users in Montana:

Focus Oct 3 ExplosionOctober 3

Focus October 4 tweetmapOctober 4

Focus Radiation of Tweets Octobver 5October 5

Much of this retweeting seems to have lain not only in an understandable fear, as the knowledge grew about levels of Duncan’s compelling tragedy and inadequacy of his care, but much of the tweets were no doubt panic-inspired 140 character alarms, a condensed Great Fear in miniature, as the shock that lurked behind Duncan’s tragic history mutated into intense fears about national vulnerability and preparedness–or national safety.

The notion that Ebola should mutate from a global public health emergency to national threat seems particularly cruel, since the long-threatening virus has suddenly gained such widespread traction after being grafted onto free-floating fears for national security.  A categorical confusion occurred bout the infectious nature of Ebola, which mutated as make Ebola’s attack on the lining of internal organs suddenly gained immediacy.  Despite the concern about the future spread Ebola outbreaks historically confined to West and Central Africa, the illusion of the geographical remove of Ebola created a compartmentalization of public health responses that were suddenly, with Duncan’s arrival in the United States, been breached:

long confined to West Africa

Several public response, as manifested in Pennsylvania health posters, predictably seem considerably more measured:


But the fears of how Ebola disrupts previous models of the communication of especially virulent diseases seems to reflect how it stands to disrupt our categories of thought, breaking imagined gulfs between cultures and bridging oceanic expanse, in ways that even the utmost vigilance creates no barrier for.  And in an era when making barriers to immigration, to terrorism, and to the new nature of risk.  The readiness to install teams of officials equipped with infrared temperature guns to take the temperatures of all passengers arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is by no means a fool-proof method or one even guaranteed to detect the presence of the virus among all passengers, but the intensity of the screening procedures enacted by the CDC’s division on global migration and quarantine (who knew it existed?) to be conducted by customs and border protection officials from the Department of Homeland Security–wearing Homeland Security badges–who are already mobilized and stationed at John F. Kennedy International airport, and already invested with authority to stop and search all international travelers.  Eventually, their place is to be taken by members of the Coast Guard and eventually medical workers under contract with the government at five airports, but the men conducting the “expanded screening measures” are supervised by the Office of Homeland Security’s unit if US Customs and Border Protection.

The link was present in fear of border-crossing allowed the risk of Ebola to grow so expansively across the country.  But the breach was apparent not in the breaking of any actual national boundaries, but in the new category of the “homeland”–from airport screening to border stations to the protections that the government can offer to its residents–in a way that made no real sense, but that suddenly invested a new logic in Ebola virus that allowed it to move from the far-off to the close-at-hand.  All of a sudden, the disease acquired  a new identity as it became a “homeland risk.”

That said, we might do well to pause, even given the dangers that outbreaks of Ebola poses, over the multiple other risks for death in the nation.

causes-of-death-ebola-labels.pngBusiness Insider

For the magnification of the local risk of screening for Ebola, for all its rootedness in a deep instinct for self-protection, seems to mark a turn away from an epidemic that is already worldwide–in a dramatically misleading graphic which, while this map by AmericanXplorer13 has made its way to Wikipedia, misleadingly suggested that local transmission of the virus has spread throughout the Eurozone and to at least three states in the US.


Map of Ebola Outbreak – 1 October 2014″ by AmericanXplorer13 – Created with tools from Kartograph, released under the AGPL license

The irresponsibility of such a map, or self-made data-visualization, even though it was careful to note that no deaths from Ebola had yet occurred in several regions, almost intimated that the spread of the virus from West Africa, or out of the zone of its “widespread transmission,” had breached the barrier of containment.  Far better is the graphic from the New York Times, which transposed the same data to a far less troublesome data vis, but is so striking for how it attached a medical narrative to the two cases contracted out of Africa it described, but where the slight narratives of different coloration contrast with the anonymity of the ochre spaces that mark “Countries with Ebola outbreaks,” as if the responsibility lay with their governments.  How can one, indeed, give individual faces to the upwards of a thousand cases contracted each week.

Ebola out of AfricaNew York Times

The problem that we face of mapping the international health crisis of Ebola demands more informative ways to map the virus’s transmission.  We are in danger, even in our hospitals, of transmitting cartographies of fear that derive from a demand of soothing incoming patients’ deeply seated fears about the virus as if it might be indeed airborne–when will it mutate, and where?–instead of providing accurate information.  Indeed, the expansion of those countries included in the info graphics that confront patients in a rather hastily affixed sign taped to the welcoming desk found at the entrance of a basic hospital in northern California–where no cases have been reported as of yet, and where no Ebola treatment centers exist–dramatically magnify the precautions taken with those arriving from “countries with outbreaks,” building on the immediacy of the case of Thomas Eric Duncan in ways that seem designed more to prey upon fears than truly to calm nerves.

cartography of fear

The odd adoption of afrocentric colors in the warming poster–green, orange-yellow, and red–evoking an African flag or a Kente cloth fabric or a Rastafarian trim–both tries to remove the disease spatially as resolutely African, and to locate it as a by-product of cultural and human migration that has arrived on our shores.

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Filed under Africa, CDC, Contagious Diseases, Customs and Border Protection, Ebola, Ebola Outbreaks, Homeland Security, Mapping Disease, mapping health threats, public health, Twitter maps, Twittersphere