Tag Archives: Data visualization

Mapping the Wobbliness of the Polar Vortex

Since we use the conventions of map making to endow solidity, or reify, even the most abstract ideas, it is interesting to examine how the ‘Polar Vortex’ has spread across the mass media as both a meme and icon of the current weather patterns of the new millennium.  Rather than map place by a matrix of fixed locations alone, maps of the Vortex offer a visualization of temperature variants that reveal an anomalous weather conditions that track the Vortex as it moves, intersecting with place, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, tracking not only a “cold front” but, globally, the disruption of the path of the circumpolar winds, or splitting of the vortex from the north pole.  We are most likely to “see” the Vortex as an incursion into our own map, effectively dividing the country (yet again?) this summer into regions of cold and heat.  The currency of visualizations of the Vortex reveals not only a meme, but a model for encoding multi-causational weather maps.  Indeed, the mapping of the divergence from usual temperature range reveals the anomaly of a north-south weather front with the solidity of a national divide, raising deep questions of its forecast of extreme weather throughout the year more than offering something like a “poor man’s vortex.”

 

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As the term has gained wide currency as a challenge within data visualization world for throwing weather systems into legible relief, it set a new bar for producing visualizations that are challenging to fully comprehend.  The Polar Vortex is mapped as it moves, as if on its own, across the stratosphere into our own latitudes, condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts, in ways that map onto current quandaries of atmospheric and climactic imbalance.   The animated superimposition of weather patterns condensed in a range of data visualizations of stratospheric or tropospheric low-pressure fronts themselves map onto concerns about climate change, and conjure narratives of global atmospheric change and climactic imbalance:  the disruption of the usual harmony of the polar jet stream perhaps maps onto both notable rises in polar temperatures or torrential rains off the coast of Japan, but whether due to a spike in northern pacific offshore typhoons or openings in polar ice cover, the markedly increasing waviness of the vortex has allowed increased amounts of cooler air seep south once again, in an eery echo of last January’s mid-winter chill, that has lead weatherpersons to scramble for clarifying narratives about the return of that green blob.  (To be sure, back in January, the naysayers of climate change parsed weather maps as counter-evidence to global warming, allowing them to indulge in alternate meteorological realities, before they were batted down in two minutes by the President’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.)

 

Weatherman scrambling to gloss

 

 

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Offering a marvelous array of vowels and pattern of assonance, with a name befitting a Marvel comics super-hero as much as a weather pattern, the Vortex is a touchstone of climate change and a great case of how we have yet to ken the global as intersecting with the local.   But we have unfortunately trended to oscillate, as it were, in our maps between national weather maps, where the Vortex made such a splash as a newsworthy low-pressure pattern, to maps of patterns in global environmental change, that might better direct attention to changing meteorological realities.

Part of the problem is adopting a point of view on the weather that we are tracking–or of viewing the Vortex as a stratospheric phenomenon around the polar regions, or charting a weather pattern forecast as occurring within our nation’s bounds.  The reprise of the spill of northern air into the upper United States returned the Vortex into national news this July has provided a basis of the latter, to judge by this new visualization that projects the cooling temperatures in the northern United States, as a deep wave in the Jet Stream brought colder air to the Northeast.  Even if the cooling air that arrived was not arctic, the pattern of its arrival to the continental US this summer has prompted some significant debate among meteorologists who have glossed the map in alternate ways, almost entirely still focussing, oddly enough, in a reprise of the mid-January news blip on the Vortex, on the unit of weather in the United States in isolation from a global context.  The anomaly of the “Vortex” has become something of shorthand for a southern swing of cold air from north of the Great Lakes, produced by a decreased disparity between polar and sub-polar continental temperatures that lower the latitude of the jet stream, according to some research that has been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences, and increased its waviness as the Arctic warms.  The maps serve to embody the increasingly newsworthy weather in the Northeast, reaching down to the southern states as if an invading army as much as a meteorological cold front, placing the anomaly of the displacement of cold air against the screen of an iconic national map on which it has been superimposed.

 

polarvortex-321x214AccuWeather.com

 

The map recalls a similar dispersion of circumpolar winds from the arctic into the lower forty-eight already called the “most upsetting” data visualization of the winter of 2014.  The drift of circumpolar winds at stratospheric levels offers a compelling means to understand the arrival into the Midwestern states of cold air once more from the north during the mid-summer of 2014.  Rather than only being a meme of the media, or being coined as a manifesto a group of avant-garde modernist meteorologists who found energy in the abstraction of weather forms, the term tracks the dispersion of the circumpolar whirl usually uniformly swirling about the pole offer both a rogue arrival into our national climate and a sort of emblem of an imbalance of circumpolar stratospheric harmony by pushing down the arrival of winds from the Pacific ocean.

 
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The benefits of shifting iconography to the global are immediately apparent if only because they reveal the divergence of the weather system from a meteorological status quo.  The cycle of wind, usually located in the mid- to upper troposphere, has apparently begun to split or splinter from it usual centers above Baffin Island and Siberia as its air warms, and moves below the arctic regions.  The displaced vortex, which migrates below the arctic circle in the stratosphere, reflects the warming of temperatures at the poles, creating currents able to funnel the figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes, even if the air in question this July might more likely be northeast Pacific more than arctic in its provenance.

 

Displaced Vortex-full color windsEarth.com

The local is, however, far more easily digestible for viewers of The Weather Channel, and the Vortex is shown as an intersection of the global with the regional weather map.  Collating data from divergences or temperature anomalies from a database covering local temperatures in 1981-2010, the spectrum of a “heat map” tracks currents of cold across the backdrop of the lower forty-eight in an easily digestible manner that packed so big a punch for folks trying to puzzle over the freezing over of roads, local lakes, or back yards:

 

Vortex in States

 

Once more thrown off-balance, it sends cooler air below the lower forty eight and forty-ninth parallel, making it national news as a dramatic aberration that marked the entry of intense cold.  Data visualizations provide new tools of making the meteorological concept legible in ways that gain sudden particular relevance for audiences familiar with weather maps, for whom immediately powerful associations of shifts in the measurements of regional temperatures will pop out at viewers of a forecast or weather map, forcing them to pay attention to the meteorological imbalances they portend.

 

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Recent global maps of the Polar Vortex offer more than an icon of the transcendence of territorial boundary lines systems, by processing and portraying the Vortex as an expansion and  breaking off of cold air outside the restraints of an arctic air system.

 

November2013_polar_vortex_geopotentialheight_mean_Large

 

The dramatic splitting of the arctic jet, due to atmospheric pressure anomalies, was mapped by NOAA in this data visualization of July 2014, of a splintering of the vortex, in apparent response to the warming of our poles, hastened by the diminishing snowfall and ice-cover that create new chilly islands or microclimates on the ends of a warming pole we often seen as lying so far away:

 

July Polar Vortex 2014

 

The disruption that results brings the displacement of arctic winds that most often sit anchored around the polar region.  A “weak” polar vortex, interacting with arctic ice-cover decline and reduced snow cover, was some time go modeled as resulting in a meandering arctic jet stream and occasional detachment of a polar weather systems and consequent decline or weakening of pressure gradients of the vortex, and consequent reconfiguration of the arctic jet stream:

 

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Has something like this occurred?  The dynamic visualization of weather maps in five colors and striking contour lines provide clear tools to visualize its speed and energy, in ways that might even have helped resurrect a term that had languished in meteorological lexicons from at least 1853, when the “continued circular gale” was described as flying “more rapidly and more obliquely . . . carried upward to the regions of the atmosphere above,” as lying in the ambitions of a “great Air Map” but based on the recent 1851 NOAA mapping of “great undulatory beds of the oceans . . . for all practical purposes of navigation.”

 

great polar vortex

 

But now we have a recognizable image that can be tracked over a recognizable terrestrial map that concretizes the Vortex in ways that its winds can be understood as extending over a region of truly global expanse.

Tracked in terms of actual temperature anomalies, in the winter of 2014, when newscasters and NOAA (the same agency) mapped the migration of cold air southwards of the pole into our frontiers, far outside the usual path of the jet stream, in a disturbance of the weather systems worthy of national news last January, in a data visualization which tracked a green (or purple) blob whose forced migration of frigid air from the polar regions that disrupted weather patterns with national consequence as it migrated out of Canadian airspace.

 

500_mb_Mon_night Vortex in States

 

In the dramatically eye-catching graphics of television’s mass-media, as the bulge of purple and magenta of detached low-pressure systems migrate south, crossing the very same borders to which we are increasingly sensitized in our national news media, albeit at tropospheric altitudes no fence or border guards could ever patrol.  Indeed, the map suddenly suggests the increasing vulnerability of our delicate weather systems, echoed by the language with which the Polar Vortex’s “EXTREME COLD” loops invasively southward across our northern border, cutting off Pacific Air:

 

650x366_01161627_hd31-1 650x366_01161752_hd30-2AccuWeather

 

The apparent incursion of its jet stream into the bounds of our national airspace, as in this image of cold air migrating across the northern border, results in the proliferation of metaphors all too often violent in tone:  Climate Central may have only adopted the robust rhetoric of sportscasters when it described high pressure systems in quite athletic terms that “block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team,” allowing the air that circulates around the arctic to start “spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America.”  Less dynamically interpreted and understood once cast in global terms, rising temperatures at the poles–the very sites where, we should note, global warming is occurring at a rate twice the global average–displaces the previously concentrated flow of a jet stream of cold air from its arctic abode.

Of course, few seem ready to tie this to the diminishing ice-cover of the north pole, which still seem a leap too far to be made logically. Oddly, the meteorological mechanics of the expanding split-off of polar winds is modeled as an incursion of weather patterns echo the metaphorics of a military situation map by tracing borders, a hold-over of national weather organizations like the NOAA:  the global image of wind velocities around the pole, depicted below, is oddly absent from what is actually a global phenomenon.

 

polar-wind-displaced-vortex-2-1-14Earth

But we are all too used to interpret and read weather maps with both a sense of voyeurism for our friends and relatives, but from a subjective lens.Despite the adoption of globalized images from our friends at National Geographic, who used Mass FX Media’s animation to visualize circumpolar air flows, and despite the continued live monitoring of wind-flows at “Earth,” the isolation of the nation in the maws of the vortex is so readily discussed as the “most upsetting map of the winter,” as if the migration of the pool of arctic air into the northern United States were best understood as a disturbance of national temperatures.

The similar narrative about the Vortex in national forecasts stands in contrast to the maps of rising temperatures, but create a visual modeling of a meteorological distribution that almost resembles an invasion.  Even though the distribution and speed of the Vortex in summer is usually slow, the polar air however seems to be arriving from across the border with unstoppable velocity, the below global visualization, also based on a similar distribution of deviations from average temperatures craft a similarly compelling large-scale weather pattern–albeit one occurring some 3,000 feet above the earth’s surface–in which, rather than reveal a lack of equilibrium, arctic air dips south across the forty-ninth parallel and past the Mason-Dixon line, confirming its occurrence as a shift of national consequence.

 

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Because the “most upsetting map of the winter” tracks the pooling of arctic air into the northern United States created a disturbance of national temperatures into the Eastern United States and much of the central region of the country.

Wasn’t it once more reassuring to understand the polar regions, its topography unknown, as somehow removed from the atmospheric currents than being mapped around the world?

 

UNEXPLORED POLAR BLUE

 

The wonderfully protean animated map of disequilibria in the harmony of stratospheric currents of cold polar air within the jet stream opens breaches across national boundaries, albeit at considerable elevation, and also offers a way of tugging at one atmospheric phenomenon to unpack a web of inter-related phenomena.  Unlike maps of habitation or land-surface, the map traces a low-pressure system at high altitudes far above the settled or occupied land, but intersecting with it in ways that conjure a failed ability to contain colder air over the polar regions.  (Taking the iconography of weather maps as transparent, the blogosphere has suggested the adoption of charges of circumpolar intoxication.)

The distribution of stratospheric air whose flow is charted in global map as an irregular anomaly of temperatures’ spread, is perhaps most concretely rendered by the iced-over bodies of water it left in our own upper latitudes.  The striking freezing over of the Great Lakes, covering some 88% of the lakes’ surface area by mid-February, a greater proportion of seasonal ice-cover than ever registered, and surpassing the 82% record of 1996, according to Caitlin Kennedy of NOAA, which render the striking concentration of ice in frozen lakes a concrete map of the local effects of truly polar weather.

 

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The material manifestation of the cold on the surfaces of those five lakes–all frozen solid, to appearances, save Lake Ontario, seem as concrete a result of the consequences of climactic change one might have in a chart, by placing the ice-covered lakes in a local landscape.

What seemed the displacement of the frigid polar air to the Great Lakes became something like a confusion of the local and the global in the news media that was played out in weather maps.  Of course, the meteorological mapping of this winter’s Polar Vortex in Canadian outlets seemed more the status quo, with most of the country facing sub-zero temperatures:

 

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The US “low temperature map” used a slightly different temperature spectrum, but preserved a more alarmist image of anomalous weather conditions even in the National Digital Forecast:

 

temperature spectrum us vortex

The striking visual by far was from a site located exactly on the US-Canada border, an  eye-catching a frozen Niagara Falls, that icon of liminality:

 

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The distributions that charting the mid-July summer chill newly arrived in the Midwest and much of the East coast of the United States from Canada is less striking, even if it will bring dips of twenty to thirty degrees form the normal.  NOAA omits Canada completely from its prognostications of the arrival of the coming cold, as befits its role as a national agency, and restricts its purview to United States coastal territories, even though it would make the graphic far more credible to offer a greater coverage.  It provides something of a summertime counterpart, however, in which the probability of lower temperatures than usual seem to create a ring about the same lakes, radiating almost to the Atlantic coast:

 

NOAA POLAR VORTEX

 

Where is the center of this new system of cold air? With roots in Hudson Bay–where else?–the polar air will be spinning southwards at the upper levels of the atmosphere, spinning southwards toward the United States. There were past migrations of arctic air over Quebec and Maine, back in late January, 1985:

 

Polarvortexjan211985

 

The Detroit Free Press even seized on a recent NOAA projection of a similar displacement of arctic air, that locates the center of cool air migrated toward Michigan, forming a pool of air that had descended into the central United States, as if to cast the event as something like local news, even as it suggests the rise of two weather systems:

 

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The occurrence isn’t strictly polar, or arctic, in its origin.

But the results are the consequence of a sort of distorting decentralization of the polar cold air outbreak that hovers around the arctic circle, running around the pole and allowing or protecting cold air from drifting south, containing cold air or not it its high altitude low-pressure system.  (Of course, the west coast is poised for a dryer and hotter-than-normal week.)  The decline of snow and ice around the Pole, combined with the warming of the wobbly gulf stream, will allow the chilly polar air to spill southwards to the plain states, covering not only Canada but spilling outside the low-pressure system and over to the seaboard, in a sort of nervous breakdown of meteorological model behaviors.

The disturbances of equilibria in our weather maps makes it worthy of more than symbolic note. The increasing variability that the waviness of the outer line of the low-pressure system, or jet stream, related to the declining snow cover in the far north, in the a “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern, where the compact containment of colder airs was broadly breached.

 

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The lack of equilibrium in the stream of polar winds–distinct from the widening polar ozone hole–opens up more of the terrestrial surface to chilling shifts in temperature. As much as the embodying a low-pressure system, the map is a narrative of the disruption of climactic harmony, and view toward the future of weather systems world-wide.  The results of the wavy polar vortex, joined with rising world temperatures, create a map of bizarre spottiness in average world temperatures that is difficult to conceive or map, precisely because its high-altitude distribution is difficult to transfer from a spherical to a flat surface, and because its distribution unfairly privileges the tracking of cold air in ways that seem, misleadingly, to fly in the face of the maps of our overheating world.  This past January, NOAA crafted a digital globe that displayed the distortion of local temperatures distorted beyond the norm, with cold displaced from its polar resting place, resulting in a cognitively useful modeling of a disjointed jigsaw of cold and warm air, where the warmer deviations of global temperatures spick not only over western Russia and Alaska, but at the polar regions itself.

 

 

polarvortex_airtempanom_610NOAA Climate.gov

 

The result is a jigsaw reveals the breaching of cold air from the cap of winds that encircle the polar cap has a enough of touch of biomomorphism to echo ecofeminism; the forcing of warmer air patterns resembles a blurry sonar image of curled-up embryonic twins resting in a womb as if evoking the shape of future weather systems, offering a biomorphic visual metaphor for something like an eery augur of a future holding limited possibilities for an afterlife–and of the unknown future of our planet’s atmosphere.

 

 

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Filed under climatology, ecofeminsim, Great Lakes, meteorological maps, Niagara Falls, NOAA, polar vortex, weather maps

Data Creep

The relative onslaught of poor data visualizations so plaguing much of the news media may derive from a hope to attract new audiences as budgets shrink and bureaus decline:  by boiling down a “story” by dispensing with those bothersome words, they seek to make immediate impact on an audience by a powerful (and eye-catching) graphic.  Based on the self-reported responses to the “Big Five” personality test questionnaire that was developed in the 1970s, but recently used to aggregate responses via Facebook, which posits “five dimensions of personality” to distinguish personality types, based on the odd belief that, rather than reflecting individual character, one could detect “different regions of the U.S. have different personalities.” The self-reported rankings of attitude (curiosity, energy-level, tenseness, quarrelsomeness, forgiveness), efficiency (reliability, laziness, perseverance, efficiency), and character (shyness, moodiness, distractibility, sociability, rudeness) are values with little possible quantifiable relationship among themselves, which translate into a data-distributions of limited legibility or credibility after they’ve crept into a map.  Projected onto a map the colorful choropleth offers a “mood-ring for the nation” whose choice of hues communicates little intuitively:

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Unimaginative data overlays like this  lie somewhere between video games, a MacPaint program, and an adult coloring book approached with Prismacolor markers–more a diagram than a map, they serve to carve the nation into clear blocks as if this would clarify anything about national unity or collective networks:  such visualizations take pride in how they disrupt continuity in a search for a narrative about the national divides that are revealed in our political process, and do so with varying degrees of precision.   Their production seems to be driven creep of data into overlays atop base maps, as if to awkwardly digest the familiarity with data–and make all feel like they have access to truly “big data”–by using an image of the nation to bequeath authority even to miniscule data samplings by treating them as images able to visualize datasets:  this is an insidious format makes us thirsty for more of the same, as we seek to grasp divides and parse divisions with the apparent exactitude of a surgical scalpel.

The recently widely retweeted but fairly facetious map of “America’s Moods”, an interactive graphic mapping emotions titled “America’s Mood Map,” has circulated online with considerable popularity but is able to be blamed on Time magazine’s website.  The data visualization has just the right mixture of declarative insouciance and light-heartedness make it a meme and bane of online journalism, and a typical illustration of this dilemma.  The distribution of data that results deflect scrutiny from the very data that they’re employed to embody.  The interactive blocks of color in what seems a choropleth distribution are a bit compelling, until one asks what state-lines have to do with emotions after all, or if this just was a nifty way of converting data to visual form.

What sort of embodiment of data is going on here, one might well wonder, and question what the mosaic of colors communicate or signify.  Not to mention the map’s confusion of a question of individual psychology and gross geographic regions–especially such abstractly construed categories as the legal boundaries of forty-eight individual states’ authority in our nation’s union.

The interactive ‘map’ demonstrates the recent discovery that responses to the great American greeting, “How you doing?,” differ starkly across state lines in the lower forty-eight:  if in benign fashion, the result proclaims divisions and splintering that trump the continuity of territorial maps, and perhaps map an explanation for all the differences we already know.

 

 

America's Mood Map

 

 

Why “friendliness” is signified by red, “temperamental and uninhibited” by blue is as problematic as the lack of any continuity among these personality types, and the relative subjectivity of judgment:  it turns out that these are self-classifications, anyway, rather than determined by objective criteria–as if values like these could be objectively assessed.

The lack of material references in such ‘maps’ almost winks to viewers not to take them too seriously.  Yet the relative ease of converting statistics into overlays on base-maps in web-based formats, seems the rationale for their popularity as interactive media in on-line news publications.   Forget the actual map that orients its viewer to the lay of the land:  this is immersion in the map as interactive data environment.

The deepest difficulty of this data visualization may lie in how it confounds the empiricism of a map with pretty relative–and pretty vaguely construed–psychological categories. Although Time magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger seems to have fun downplaying is meaning at the same time as he promotes it, “America’s Mood Map” is the most popular in the section “Science and Space” among readers of Time this past week, and a success by journalistic standards, is the interactive map of emotions across the United States, across which one can glide one’s cursor to reveal a virtual version (and modernization) of the early modern Carte de Tendre over which you can mouse about to find a place that “matches your personality”:  but rather than visualize material renderings of feelings or emotions, as that topography of amorous practices, the imaginary topography over which we mouse to find the ranks of each state’s inhabitants reveals clear divides rather than a detailed qualitative record.  Data has crept into this map’s bright mosaic of colors can’t help but engage other data-vis maps, with which its full-spectrum color schema stands in such stark contrast.

 

Moood Map of US

Although the color blocks are arranged in something like a spectrum of friendliness to temperamental, the actual values on which they are based provides something of a map of mental constitutions, as much as emotions, and one can range of neurotic to extroverted, with open-ness thrown into the mix.  The explorer of the map can find themselves, for example, in “agreeable, conscientious and open Tennessee;” we all know a few who fit the description:

 

Conscientious Tenessee

 

The ranking of each state surely increased its popularity, as the map becomes yet another tabulation of characteristics after one mouses around a bit on its surface.  California, predictably, is both relaxed and open (#2 nation wide!) and low in neurotics (#43; agreeable Utah lies at the bottom of the heap at #49), and New Yorkers are temperamental but ranked as among the most open (#3).  (Such classifications based on a sampling of 30,000 must conceal the detailed nature of the questionnaire.) Who would have thought that largely rural Wisconsin, a state with one large city, possessed the most extroverted population in the country? Or that Maine stood near the nation-wise apex of neuroticism?  New York gets pretty low marks for “agreeableness,” whatever that means (#48 in the nation), if it is also pretty high in “openness.”

There might be some problems with the data pool.  Perhaps the map’s very lack of materiality makes it difficult take seriously, even if the pleasure of using moods to divide the country seems a relief from dividing the nation by ideological divisions.  (The next step that this map seems to invite is no doubt for carto-data-crunchers or map-readers to map the moods of the nation onto those political divisions:  how better to easily explain the ideological divisions that grip our media on the eve of the Affordable Care Act and the morning after the Government Shutdown?)   Indeed, the interest in the “mood map” among Time‘s readers might been generated in part by hits from all those readers, long subjugated to an onslaught of data visualizations, who want to explore their own states in the mirror of their own states of mind or who want to try to map the now-tacit maps of national division onto the far more innocuous (and un-ideological) question of moods.  Indeed, this stepping out of the recently emerged graphic lexicon of ideological division and splintering is somehow reassuring, as, much as the article announced, maybe its mistake  this country “features the word United in its name,” since “we splinter along fault lines of income, education, religion, race, hyphenated origin, age and politics.”

Maybe it does really all boil down to constitution and emotions, all those earlier data distributions be damned.  The end-product is something of a polemic rebuttal to the authority of earlier data visualizations in the news, to be sure, of a very tongue-in-cheek sort of very, very muted irony.  The text’s injunction to find where you belong in the map–by your mood, not by where you actually are–invites you to glide your mouse over a map with the authority of a spatial distribution of the rainbow colors of a mood ring, in a pretty abstracted state of mind, so unlike the ways in which, say, a detailed topographical map registers the measurement of physical elevations by exquisitely exact orographical detail.

The survey employed was based on a sample of under 30,000 respondents, but passes itself off as a pretext for self-examination or -understanding, complete with the assurance that results won’t be reported or stored by Time is respectful of your privacy (perhaps to marketers of antidepressants?).  Whether it is able to map such stark divisions of “mood”-tendency beyond statistical error is unclear, although the almost spectroscopic division of the nation into stereotypes seems somewhat persuasive:  the center of the country, if not so large a swath as the “red-states” of Bush years, is proudly “conventional and friendly,” unlike the creative types on both coasts:  the mapmakers permit little constitutional overlap among these categories, or multiple combinations of them, so much as render one of the three criteria for each state, and allow little overlap among them; the cartographical “paratext” to the map placed above its panels invite its readers to take a short test so that one might place your personal constitution where it really belongs, and suggests that these three metrics are rigidly exclusive from one another.

 

Moood Map of US

The result is a new portrait of the dis-united states, several of which are already in widely circulation–and some even so widely internalized as ideological divides that one can’t make associations between this “map” of emotions to more familiar political and social divisions.  The data visualization may be taken as a pretty light-hearted response to our dramatically increased geographical mobility, or our obsession with data-visualization maps.  But Kluger and co-author Chris Wilson use the data of fellow-American Jason Rentfrow, obtained at Cambridge by a multinational think-tank created data by a psychological survey of their own device, and the map is presented in the rubric of the “Science” section of the magazine’s website.  The data that was used to inform the visualization, under the name of science, claims to reflect the salient divisions of what “for a country that features the word United so prominently in its name, the U.S. is a pretty fractious place,” as if it might be a more credible set of criteria to ascertain relative depths of fractiousness and their causes–despite its odd metric for measuring “emotional” divisions.

And its interactive features create at least half of the fun for its readers.  The notion of locating diversity in our moods is a lot more appealing than finding it elsewhere; the mirror of the interactive map is no doubt a partial reason for its popularity.  Indeed the invitation to guide oneself to one’s own and one’s nation’s emotions might be hard to pass up, if it suggests quite a lack of complexity in the terrain revealed by introspection, which seems, here, to be equivalent to the completion of a modular form, rather than offering a topography that might be worthy of future qualitative detail.

There is a more authoritative, and perhaps more familiar, map of which the map dissected above might be called the comic repetition.  The study of state-specific variations in happiness (one emotion–that’s a better concept already) was the result of a study based at UVM of geotagged tweets, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, whose tabulators ranked over 10,000 words on a graduated scale to score some millions of tweets across the country, irrespective of their context, to reveal significant differences in sadness and happiness across the nation, perhaps better translating what might be called a set of emotional divides:

 

Happiness Score in One Map

 

Indeed, the clear “sadness belt” marked so appropriately in such sombre black hues, and casting a deep shadow over our southern states which curls up to the economically depressed areas of the midwest, suggest something like a meaningful map, with the noting of neat exceptions of particularly happy cities, Asheville and Green Bay.   The weighing of these cities as exceptions lends a credence to the overall distribution of tweets the researchers collated in their data visualization, and the depth of data on which they relied.  The substantive study collated tweets over several years, even tracing computable variations in daily happiness averages that could be mapped to contemporary events, creating a set of stunning data visualizations in this “hedonometric” visualization from 2008 to the present whose units of days are suitably color-coded for weekday, allowing one to register how daily variations are effected by workdays and weekends.  The “hedonometer” seeks to provide the most accurately parsed chart of “happiness” based on daily counts of the tweeted words of happiness–the most common five words of happiness used each day suddenly appear when the day is hovered over.  The  graph is great fun to investigate, and can be tied to news events that impacted the nation’s overall index, from the Newtown shootings to inauguration days or holidays:  note the nation-wide spike on events like Christmas, which, since we still seem to all celebrate or at least note in some fashion, always reliable produces incalculable tweets.

If the first map from Time is a descendant and comedic successor to the UVM map of happiest states, both seem to rehabilitate the paper map in digital form as something like a response to the need for a “GPS for the soul,” an unfortunate mash-up if there ever was one.  Such maps exist in the big data-visualization echo chamber that has dominated our abilities to envision our country.  This echo chamber has existed ever since we came to believe that the country could be meaningfully cut up in meaningful ways for ready consumption.  If it could lie in the easy access to maps and data visualizations, it seems to respond to an unquenchable the thirst for images explaining regional differences that underly such a dichotomously divided status quo, since the division has roots that cannot be purely ideological in nature.

The single spectre that haunts the rise of even the most banal of data visualizations in media news in recent years may be maps of electoral results, especially from the Bush-Kerry 2004 election, in which that large red expanse of the middle of the country created a contrast to a close electoral contest of 296 to 242, which could have been upset by a single state.

Bush 296 - Kerry 242

The map haunted because it was almost repeated in 2008, with a key variation, only to be beaten back in recent years.

Obama:Biden McCain:Palin

These images seem to be seared into viewers’ minds, or at least into the unconscious of data visualizers.  Data of all sorts has since seeped into the map of the contiguous forty-eight.

Of course, the mother of all data-visualization maps is the most spectral, which still resonates with what some still consider the death-toll of democracy that at least one justice has come to regret:

 

ElectoralCollege2000

 

The contrast between that map and the popular vote led to something of a polemic exchange that was based on peering into data visualization maps to parse the vote, we might have forgotten, that familiarized everyone with data distributions:

 

County by County Bush v. Gore

 

The mapping of the country’s population has gained increased symbolic currency as a sort of transparent rendering of national opinions, only dreamed of in the early days of NORC’s General Social Survey, and far more easily visualized.  The creeping of data into such visualizations of the nation as “America’s Mood Map” has, after all, lent new authority to a visualization both more colorful and less depressing than the dichotomous division of the nation into “Red” and “Blue” states of almost Manichean terms.

And they are also much, much less depressing than the sort of heavy-handed Google Map divisions of the country into those regions that are ready to relinquish pre-K funding or subsidies, an idea that seems to undermine our national interest, as well as of those states that refuse the expansion of Medicaid, all in the name of undue federal influence.  To start with the first, we can view it two ways in news media, but both ways to illustrate the difficulty of ever arriving at consensus:  the below interactive (and informative) map that explores the educational opportunities in the Southern states of the US illuminates differences in pre-K funding (click on the above to explore funding changes in each state from 2009 to 2011, since the color-scheme is not self-evident).

 

SATELLITE VIEW-PRE-K FUNDING CITS

 

 

Below is a far more austere and stark way to visualize the data on how low many states rank kids less than four years of age, in which depression about care for pre-schools increases for the viewer in inverse relation to darkening of states’ hues.

PRE-K US 2005

In the colors of the data visualization blender, where data undermines map, there seems no consensus at all, and a pronounced fraying of the country’s diverse demographic.

One can always cut up the country in different ways, and the preferred way seems less based on splinters than blocks.  But some of the choropleths are striking and scary, as the refusal to expand health subsidies in the American Care Act, to which we’ll return.  The proliferation of these visualizations of difference may arise from the rise of the mythic “sea of red” in the general election of 2000 election through the Obama victory of 2008 may have left us barraged by the cutting up of the nation into camps.  The rise of new data visualizations seek to address these divides, but often seem to lie in the data visualization echo-chamber–as in the case of the “map of emotions”–as much as

But then there are those who reject either the Common Core standards or Affordable Care Act alike as forms of undue federal interference.

 

REJECTING COMMON CORE

 

Rejection of the ACA reveals a similar fragmentation, despite some serious number-crunching that went on to illustrate the high proportion of poor, uninsured and low wage-earning residents in may those very same blocks of states:

 

legend- Poor and Uninsured Americans

8% poor and uninsured

This is an odd echo, as I’ve elsewhere noted, between the very regions which outright refuse government expansion of Medicare and those with lack of insurance and large numbers of low-wage earners and some of the same states that refused to accept clearance by the Dept. of Justice before they changed voting procedures as an instance of undue federal interference.

 

Clearance Required

 

It’s nicer just to think that it all boils down to individual moods, which the scientific status of ““America’s Mood Map” nicely parse along clearly defined state-lines–even if its end results may have the scientific status of a mood-ring.  The chromatic variations are at least attractive, and able to be read easily, removed from political dissensus.  And it’s certainly more fun to imagine that we might be able to find a sense of constitutional differences inherent in the atmosphere of a region, and mirrored in lines of state sovereignty, that somehow miraculously reflect an almost Hippocratic sensibility of the shifting humoral constitutions of residents of different climates, rather than political or sociocultural (and socio-economic) differences.

But it’s hard to make any sense of the visualization, largely since the very values that it depicts do not lie on a continuum in the manner of most polls or degrees of gradual difference, but seem qualitatively distinct, and even, often, judgment calls.  The state-by-state map of personal constitutions hearkens back to an early modern notion of how place and season inform the humors, or regional climates color the mind.

It is perhaps not a far stretch to include a data visualization of a state-by-state map of obesity trends (and no doubt diet)–

 

OBESITY 2010–although such a map seems to isolate the deep south and its southern neighbors from Texarkana to New Mexico.

A vague overlap of data seems to exist similarly sized region, sadly, is plagued by lack of completing High School–although this has little relation to body-size, and there is little evidence of a relation between them, even if it does speak to the difficulty of valuing educational reforms like Common Core.

The difficulties created by “inadequate education” does seem to divide the country, however, as this choropleth reveals, and not only among those able to complete High School, but even in those who, having completed High School education, were not allowed to be part of the Army corps–a truly shocking statistic that effectively does divide the nation.

 

GRADUATION OF HS

 

Perhaps the only visualization that communicates unity is one of  cell-phone coverage, which customers, after all, desire–

 

Verizon-4G-LTE-Map-e1370794274644-540x327

 

By way of contrast, and a lightening of humors in how our country sees itself, “America’s Mood Map” shows a diversity around that one red block at its center, oddly located at Iowa–and whose deep red oddly seems to signify conventionality and friendliness–a quality the color does not suggest.

America's Mood Map

Other blocks of states are similarly lumped in oddly generic categories of states of mind–states of mind with limited relation to one another.  Hence, California, following, perhaps, conventional stereotype, is both open (if not that extroverted at all, particularly), and the among the least neurotic of the entire bunch.

 

Open and Un-neurotic California

 

In the most charitable reading permitted by the aggregation of data, the map would be an exercise in empathetic understanding of one’s neighbors limitations.   If one can permits an excursus, contrast it to the varied topography in the historic early modern “Carte de Tendre,” whose richly varied landscape suggests dangerous sites of delay or lack of clarity that the unaware and unsuspecting traveler may chance across by means of its locally detailed variations.

 

Carte de Tendre

 

These elegant enterprising travelers with cockades are gallant explorers of the outdoors, of course, rather than perched behind their screens.  Both the material and metaphorical nature of the data-visualization map are absent:  for in these cartographical transpositions, the data poses irreconcilable and absolute divides, and blocks any consensus from emerging.

“America’s Mood Map” is an artifact that serves as something of a mirror to make sense of our divided polity.  If one can given it a generous reading as an amusement, however, it may merit being taken seriously.  The eerily radical conceit of the data-visualization is not only that we are not “United” at all, but that one can naturalize states’ rights arguments in the radically different constitutions of their inhabitants, as if separate nations:  hence, conscientious Tennessee lies beside irascible Kentucky; open New York nearby to closed New Hampshire, and far from neurotic Maine; agreeable and conscientious North Carolina beside a Virginia that lags behind in both categories.  The authority that data is conceded in this visualization in fact erases mappable divides between rural and urban differences, socioeconomic distinctions, and patterns of wealth or any qualitative detail, taking the blocks of the electoral college as something like a national phrenological map.  The notion of an absolute difference in constitution as lying in direct relation to those state boundaries creates a particularly insidious illusion of differences that essentializes state lines–rather than following the idea of national character–that echoes one of the deepest presuppositions of what might be called Tea Party doctrine.  For the diversity depicted in data visualizations is always one engraved in hues of essentialization, rooting regions dispositions as fixed in a spectrum as different wavelengths, and empties the map of any continuity or local detail with those flat color blocks of distinctly defined individual “moods.”

How are you feeling?

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Filed under America, America's Mood Map, Care de tendre, choropleth maps, data visualizations, Google Maps, Hippocrates, Hippocratic humors, Jeffrey Kluger, MacPaint, mapping national divides, pre-K funding, Red states v. Blue States, Tea Party, Twitter map

Mapping Each and Every Tree

When the poet Gary Snyder arrived in New York City, he evoked an ecosystem blending nature and culture that began form the trees that settle throughout the island’s streets and cling to the edges of its shores:  “Maple, oak, poplar, gingko,” the poet Gary Snyder began “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987).   The list of trees introduces a seamless blending of nature and culture in New York–“New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge/ of steep uplift,” lead to”Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/ Iron.  Stainless steel,” in a metaphorical map blurring canyons of skyscrapers, plate glass, and electric lights buzzing in an ecosystem driven by big finance that might be submarine.  Amidst streams of subways, cars, taxis, rolling carts, people and birds, trees peak out–as “white birch leaves shiver in the breeze” and gingko trees.  Snyder returns to trees that resiliently populate its artificial built environment, as an environment partly forest, but hybrid, neither natural or artificial.  The detailed catalogue of trees and plants in New York’s Central Park displays virtuosity in evoking the variety, range, and density of trees in the city’s largest greenspace, rendering in detail an ecosystem often vaguely mapped.

In the heart of the city lies the park.  Its odd combination of nature and culture is central to most city maps.  When you look at most public maps of New York City that grace public transit, tourist kiosks, or other venues of spatial orientation, the area of Central Park is a monolithic green, less rooted in a survey or in a source of public data, but a light green box, set apart form the city’s streets–a block of greenspace located framed by the overbuilt grey of residences that crowd Manhattan island–which a recent survey of individual trees lovingly unpacks, as if to naturalize the blurring of nature and culture in the planted trees and volunteers that fill the landscapes of Central Park to catalogue its biodiversity, from the great American elms that line the Mall, planted in 1870, to the tuliptrees or elms.  Bound by walls, the map of all the trees in Central Park recently published in Central Park Entire (2011) seems to provide something like a time capsule of the arboreal density of the over 115,000 trees in the greenspace of 843 square meters, as if discovering a camera of curiosity in the dense vegetative habitat of a hyper urbanized city.

Snyder describes New York as a pepetuum mobile moved by wind that “shakes the limbs on the planted/ trees growing new green” beside the “gridlock of structures” of soaring buildings and socially stratified condominiums, unfolding “New York like a sea anemone/ wide and waving  in the Sea of Economy,” where trees are attached to its living mobile surface.  To drill down into the range of trees that cluster on the bedrock of Central Park, Ed Barnard and Ken Chaya focus a snapshot of the Park’s arboreal population in Central Park Entire (2011), cataloguing individual trees by isolating each and every tree that settled in this matte sea of green, as if to reveal the complex ecosystem that developed in the park hemmed in by skyscrapers, and that bears evidence of the porous nature of its boundaries of buildings and rushing traffic that courses noisily beneath traffic lights along storied city blocks.

 

Central Park.Green routes.png

 

The attention to its arboreal detail is supported and in a sense animated by the Central Park Conservancy, dedicated to preserving the park’s landscape, cares for the vestiges of the natural that are carefully curated in the park, which it treats as something close to the cultural patrimony of the city, on a level parallel to the works of art in the museums that flank its greenspace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Guggenheim to the Museum of Natural History.  By embracing the combination of old planted trees and more recent arrivals, or volunteers, the map charts the rich contents of a greenspace that attracts some 3.5 million visitors annually, focussing attention on each of its plants, even as most maps of the city treat it as a block of green that the underground rivers of transportation of subway routes coast beside.

 

750px-nyc_subway-4d

 

The wealth of the trees in the Park grew grew over time, as the park provides something of a fragment of the green that once covered Manhattan island–although, as Barnard and Chaya show, a hybrid space whose trees come now from a wide range of nearby regions and unexpected vectors.  The green of the island is however lost, and the concentration of green space in the park is definitely the prime reason for each tree’s increased value.  In a 1865 topographical map detailing the entire island–created just years before the park was completed, as it was planned–whose generous expansive shades of rich green–arboreal density reaches across the island from its shores, stretching along the meander of creeks, if concentrated on its coastal perimeter–

 

1865-NYC-map.jpg

 

–the density of trees are almost obsessively catalogued as rare treasures of nature in the map of the historical aggregation of tree cover that defines today’s Central Park.

The expansion of the park, and its values, reflects in some sense the degreening of Manhattan over the centuries.  For the confining of the arboreal in current maps of Manhattan that is the result of a new economy of greenspace after a century and a half of real estate development, asphalt, and concrete and the density of the expansion of urban real estate along its streets:  the current map is a space which blends nature and culture, but where nature is rare and green space diminished, each and every tree commands valuation as a scarce resource.  The isolaged open green space in the midst of a hyper-urbanized island documents the radical recession of where green once lay in mid-seventeenth Dutch maps of the region, which colors green the island beside the Noort (Hudson) River and gives surprising primacy of place to Staten Eylant (Staten Island) in Manatus, coloring the present Manhattan as a somewhat mountainous terrain–

 

1639-NYC-map.pngJohannes Vingboons, Manatus gelegen op de Noot Rivier (1639)  Library of Congress

 

The depletion of green space in an age of rapid real estate turnover has led many to ignore the green, or compartmentalize it in a blur.   Rather than chart the dispersal of a tree-by-tree census as that which MapZen created of San Francisco ‘s range of street-trees show their clustering as a sort of virtual green space along streets–and by which one can detect the matrix of streets, even once they are subtracted–as a dispersed greenspace, including acacia, martens, gingko biloba, cherry trees, red maples, ficus, olive trees, magnolia, loquats, stately Victorian box, and evergreen shrubs in its microclimates–all noted by individual green dots.  The export from a street trees dataset from SF OpenData, helps allow the range of 116,000 trees across the city better pop out to its viewer.

 

SF Trees map zen bj.pngLots of Dots: Trees in San Francisco

 

collide_toggle.gif

 

In contrast, the static drawn map of Barnard and Chaya values each and every tree in the rare block of green space of Manhattan.  The map’s very subject may call for a denser sort of tree-by-tree mapping, and not only better reflects deep observation of local variety by the cartographers, but the distinct value of the relative rarity of trees in New York City’s urban space–and the unique sense of open space that the park still offers visitors.  For in New York, the park trees are a precious resource–as well as a microcosm whose arboreal treasures one is able to unpack.   Barnard and Chaya’s Central Park Entire locates some 19,630 trees in the park’s stone gated boundaries byspecies, health, and relation to other plant life to unpack the greatest compression of green space in the city in full detail.  The dense microcosm of the park’s trees unpacks the hidden settlement of settlers, native plants, non-natives, and avian-born seeds that create a mosaic of green in the park that viewers can unpack with far more care, focussing on the species and provenance of each in a mirror of the social and cultural mosaic of the more inhabited regions of the city itself.

The project of mapping each tree, stone, lake, and bush in Central Park is a concrete exercise in the pastoral that animated the project of designing the park undertaken long ago by Olmstead and Vaux, bringing up to date the cornucopia of the ecosystem that evolved around the park and within its walls.  Indeed, the one-to-one map of each tree in the park creates the same bucolic preserve as a pastoral lists the presence of each plant, tree, river and lake for the reader.  If every map is an argument, even an imaginary map, Edward Sibley Barnard and Ken Chaya’s “Central Park Entire” (2011) is an argument about the preserve that the park perfectly constitutes from the city that surrounds, or, in a weird turn around, the nature that the city surrounds.  The ancient Virgil evoked a landscape where “Spring adorns the woods and groves with leaves,” when “birdsong is heard in every secluded thicket,” and Barnard and Chaya mapped the park as a truly green world, outside and beyond the city, and frozen in a permanent Spring in glorious color.  As much as Snyder saw a technological ecosystem of built, they offer a Virgilian catalogue of trees, flowers, and plants verged on a primer of ancient botany.  Chaya and Barnard link their observational passion with graphic design, in a self-funded project of mapping that is a testament to preserving arboreal variety, and a sort of time capsule of urban greenspace.

Indeed, the map provides a sort of analytic attention to detail that few existing maps made today approximate.  In registering floral variety in encyclopedic comprehensiveness, the map stakes a different sort of truth claim, indeed, than any of its predecessors, allowing one to view not only range of trees that exist but to depart from its icons to explore the variety of trees within the park itself, returning cartography to an age of exploration by tempting anyone to undertake their own self-designed survey.  “Entire” is a sort of cartographical response of painstaking draftsmanship to the new horizon of expectations generated by a computerized GIS, or the promise of the totalistic and comprehensive coverage of Google Earth:
central_park_map_poster exp

 

It may be that Virgilian topoi of variety and abundance that seem to shine through the maps’s loving detail.  Building on the tree censuses of the Central Park Conservancy, but taking them to the next degree by actual foot-by-foot comparison of the park, they have mapped almost 20,000 of the 23,000 that the park has itself identified.  As a recent article on its composition from the New York Times cited Chaya as saying, “This is an example of a map that’s never finished” and a snapshot of the evolving project of Central Park:  the map captures the microcosm of plant variety that unfolded over time of pin oaks, European Beech trees and Camperdown elms to London Plane Trees with the wonder of an avid birder; both Chaya and Sibley Barnard are self-described birders of urban space.

The utopic preserve of the park is recreated for readers in glorious detail in this stunningly detailed map.  For this post, an entry on Chaya’s map of the trees, landscape, and built structures of Central Park in New York, is an Arbor Day special–for in a sort of preserve of nature in the city, Chaya’s map offers an arboreal museum of wandering and a habitat for birds. This two-year-old map includes short of 20,000 trees of some 170 species–several of which are unique examples in the park and city as a whole–the map charts with new detail every path, rock, built structure, lake, waterway, and pond with a comprehensive updating of the space that was planned designed by Olmsted and Vaux as a preserve from metropolitan life.  The scale of this folding map allows inclusion each and every tree in the park, with an implicit promise of future updates.   While only some 150 trees from the “original” plantings in the park of the 1860’s, it presents the story of the expansion of vegetal life throughout the park’s confines over almost fifty years, mapping some 85% of its total vegetation with loving detail.

More a living document than schematic guide, the fruit in ways of the expansion of the Central Park Conservancy, which offers it on its website, and at http://www.centralparknature.com, reveals each and every tree as Chaya saw and drew it over the two years he studied its terrain–a composite of drawings, photographs, and repeated consultations and revisions of existing cartographical records with the actual terrain, as if to present in detail every aspect of the park whose more regular visitors know its monuments and vegetation so well.

The Lake--Central Park

The project of mapping the known–the park’s walks and its pathways and each building–raises the stakes of the content of maps, because the bar is set considerably high:  it reveals what one might not notice, despite the huge collective knowledge of so many city-dwellers and park-walkers, of providing and compiling account of observations that extends beyond the notion of mapping the unknown, and indeed presents the sort of detailed accounting of vegetation and landmarks that perpetuate a complete cartographical fantasy.

To put this in some cartographic context, contrast it to the image of the Central Park Conservancy, in black-and-white, which is confined to the paths that traverse areas of the park which highlighted the dispersion of emergency call boxes:

central_park_map

Or the range of information designed for park users in this far more detailed colored, and more iconographically dense, image of the sort that probably provided one of the basic templates for Chaya’s “Central Park Entire,” but notes restrooms most clearly and elides arboreal variety in a uniform kelly green:
Visitor's Map Central Park

 

The above map, that similarly bound a green rectangle of nature by blocks of anonymous urban grey, provided a somewhat more detailed and text-rich colored surface, but  without the detail Chaya’s comprehensive map boasts of every square foot of the park’s terrain.  For the park-goer, this is a sort of mythical return to the Borgesian fable of a map of one-to-one size, in ways that encourages readers to navigate its copious vegetative variety:
central_park_map_poster exp

 

The map tells a story–and presents an argument–about the extent of the graphic techniques and representational conventions that Chaya adapted, drawing from pencils and sightings to software, to design the map from a set of basically abstract conventions and a standard palate to refine the image on which he worked during visits to the site he so intensely mapped. Indeed, the visits that he made over two years to the park allowed him to document some 85% of its entire vegetation over the 843 acres of the park with a patience that reveals a cultivated reverence for its land.

 

central-park-map-1

The careful iconography of the map goes far beyond a simple road map, in other words, to focus on the ‘true inhabitants’ that are growing in the park, the site of some of the sole representatives of entire plant species.  Speaking of Arbor Day, an excerpt from its legend reveals the fine distinctions by which the map orients readers to the park’s arboreal life:

TREES in CPE legend

An abbreviated story of the map and the two-year period of its planning and making is nicely told below by the mapmakers themselves:

 

Rather than allow the greenspace of the Park to recede into the unclear interface of transit diagrams–a light green space that stands apart form the destinations of travelers–the map is a condensation designed for park wandering, and virtual travel among its trees.

 

750px-NYC_subway-4D.png

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Filed under Google Earth, greenspace, Ken Chaya, New York City, Virgil