Tag Archives: GPS

On the Road and Off the Map: Maps for Self-Driving Cars in an Over-Paved World

Even as autonomous cars provide a more radical change in patterns of mobility than any change in transportation, the amazing amounts of information that they synthesize suggest a way to process the rapid increase of roadways that have clogged much of the inhabited world.   Yet the new means that they bring to amassing of data to put places on the map comes at its cost.  Indeed, even the hopes to provide a high-density record to be able to navigate roadspace leaves an eery imprint for what it leaves out, and the ghostly skeletal system of roadways that they try to trace, which raise questions about the sort of space that maps serve to embody.  For rather than trace the deserted roads of an imagined landscape ready to explore, the streets blanched of a world where discoveries are made suggest a tracery of recorded tracks removed from local testimony or a concept of place.

The first promise that paved interstates would bring good roads everywhere promised an opening up of national spaces and the economy, just over a century ago–when roads were not uniformly paved at the same level, a situation that the Good Roads movement sought to remedy by calling attention to the poorly paved nature of the nation before World War One, and the lesser wealth associate with unimproved roads.


National Highways to Bring Good Roads Ass'n.png

National Highways to bring about Good Roads Everywhere (1895/1913)

The promise of self-driving cars to internalize an image of the roadways provides a sense of driving experience presupposing pretty perfect road conditions, but promises to provide a smoother sense of driving, removed from accident.  For the patterns of the maps for self-driving cars, rather than fit into a record of inhabited space, or of the natural world, seem to pose propositions of the existence of a purely driven space, occupied less by cars or at least not by passengers but by a visualization of road conditions, in ways that eerily suggest less of a world that can be filled in as a broader canvas of living or nature, but a purely man-made world.   Despite the considerable appeal of a crash-free world of the automated vehicle that the huge demand for self-driving cars promises, the high data density maps being developed to place space on a map presents a terrifyingly circumscribed landscape of roadways that demand attention as a way of looking at the world–and symbolizing space.  Perhaps this is largely due to their machine-readable nature.  But it also seems terrifying insofar as one rarely appreciates the costs for what is left off the map, and the removal of the map from the roadways–and the alienated image of the roadways that they seem to present.

For like the paths of pilgrimage of medieval times, which viewed isolated itineraries with no reference to geographic space, or the disembodied paths of nautical charts whose rhumb lines, drawn over the world, suggest navigational itineraries drawn across the Mediterranean, the skeletal tracery of the roadscape suggests a sense of routes removed from testimony and disembodied, distilled to the information of the roadways and a purely anthropogenic world and removed from its context, as if roads remain oddly stripped of their local references.  If places are where we inhabit, the disembodied nature of the datasets of the maps for self-driving cars are removed from them, and suggest links around them that lack any actual testimony.


ITaly as Nautical Compilation


And despite the possible benefits for autonomous cars, maps made for ensuring safe driverless driving test the not only the huge amounts of data that enter in maps, as well as the problems of prioritizing selective data, that raise questions not only about the richness of these high density maps, but the sorts of world that the arrival of autonomous cars register.


1. The eerily ghostly roadways of the maps made for self-driving cars seem quite proper:  for they track the road as inhabited by the car, and not by the spaces around them.  If the intellectual property of tools for processing and formulating driverless maps stands at the cutting edge of recent lawsuits, is the increasingly ghostly character of maps made for driverless cars not also a serious cost?  The fragmentary picture of strings of man-made space erase the notion of a pilgrimage to a detention, providing a real-time record of roads’ obstacles, speed rates and traffic density, offering clues for how the car can move across and over space, but does so in the context of distilling the roadways to the basic criteria that cars will most especially need to know, and far less about the spaces that we might visit.  While made for autonomous driving vehicles, the absence of testimony and the lack of differentiation among places seems poignantly and particularly wanting.

The roadways that entangle much of the inhabited earth with transit corridors demand a complicated set of tools for their mapping, but does the erasure of the experience of driving, converted into a matrix of data, also register a deep danger in how we have come to inhabit space?  For if the proliferation of interchanges show the growth of roadways and arteries of automotive transport, some including up to fifteen lanes, branching out into eight directions, inspiring one netizen to ventriloquize, “Car GPS: ‘I can only take you this far, the rest is up to you,‘” imagining frustrated befuddlement at this Chongqing interchange, whose curving on-ramps and shifting elevations can hardly  be untangled by data from motion sensors or GPS.   The radically curtailed influence that the map offers readers stands in uneasy juxtaposition with the fears mazes of manmade roadways may even outstrip navigational capabilities.  One imagines not only the sort of dialogue that might occur with automated navigational services as Siri, their GPS coordinates overloaded by the multi-directional arrival of cars on different lanes in the freeway exchange, but the difficulty–and the need–for the data density of a map for automated cars that would process the possible courses of lane changes and arcs of on-ramps in ways that the driverless car would be able to navigate.




2. All maps are made to meet demands, and the expanding market for maps for self-driving cars is no exception.  But if we have become able to map traffic and routes for some time, the ghostly sense of inhabitation in maps for self-driving cars seem worth reflection–for the image of the world they create; the ethics of mapping the road conditions, and how theses maps orient us to the world. Fort he intelligence of such maps, made to be machine-read rather than read by humans,  propose a different notion of the “inhabited world” that is in truth increasingly closer to the road-covered world that we increasingly inhabit.  While the safety of such maps effectively allow us to be passengers in such self-driving cars, they also render a new sense of the worlds in which we are inhabitants.  For the haunting ghostly worlds that maps for self-driving reproduce and create provide an odd record of our increasingly paved-over world, where roads-free landscape is ever shrinking.  Are the maps for self-driving cars a premonition of a paved over future?

Driving is among the most familiar extension of an embodied experience, and the most familiar experience of navigation and way-finding that we have today.  But as maps are increasingly present behind the wheel, as it were, and built into many cars, today, both in the form of dashboard monitors, handheld devices, and disembodied voices, the relation of the map to the experience of driving has changed.  As maps have become data and datasets, we have no only constructed far more visually elegant renderings of roads and driving conditions.  As the maps for driving have departed from the over-folded pieces of paper, often ripped or worn at the crease, that used to be stuffed into the romantically named “glove compartment” and migrate underneath sun visors or into  the side-compartments on front doors, into interactive experiences that we read, they have in many ways transcended our abilities for attention.  And the increased demands for attention in our society and even for our drivers has led to a new market not only for for data rich maps, but for the maps that would help guarantee the safety of self-driving cars.

In an age where Google dominates mapping, creating the tools to develop maps for autonomous vehicles–“self-driving” cars that navigate by LiDAR software, real-time radar and laser sensors, streaming data libraries and programs–


perched processing directions for URBER.png


–which stands to prove the most important mapping innovation since the satellite, and perhaps the most valuable ever, as over thirty companies are applying to test-run their own self-driving cars in California, seat of the future, and the winner seems destined to be the one with the most complete and sophisticated mapping tools.  The tools planned to allow the cars to navigate real space don’t provide anything similar to a recognizable landscape, but Google’s driverless car division–Waymo–used the code-name ‘Chauffeur’ to refer to the armory of LiDAR tools as if to humanize the tools by which autonomous cars will be instilled with the ability to develop an effective cognitive relation to space.   Although autonomous cars may threaten to overturn the hegemony of Google has retained as a mapping engine,  the new remapping of the freeways also threatens a changed relation to most all extra-urban off-road space.   Is the growth of the market for self-driving cars not in itself emblematic of a new relation to space, where the car is less the instrument of exploration or navigation–the Keruoac’s image of being “on the road”–but a now bulky mode of transit and commuting, whose increasingly mechanical modalities of operation seem to be best performed by an artificial driver, built-in to the car.  Even as it is foretold AI is destined to replace increasing numbers of workers with world-changing effects that are only “50 or 100 years away,” we have kept fears of economic shocks and needs for massive retraining at bay, but face a profound fear of decreased human agency.

The diminished agency of the human is perhaps no more apparent than in the rapid race to design maps for self-driving cars–maps read by cars to familiarize themselves with traffic conditions and their routes, in ways that dispense with human judgment behind the wheel–one of the most privileged sorts of agency in existence–even if the maps for self-driving cars are now limited to the most mechanical forms of transportation on “smart highways” and shipping routes.

What sort of intelligence is lost, one might well ask, and what gained?

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Filed under 3-D maps, autonomous cars, HD Maps, machine-readable maps, self-driving cars

Drones and the Distributed Geography of “Homeland”

When Michel Foucault told a gathering of architects that “the anxiety of our era has fundamentally to do with place” in 1967, he was describing prisons.  Foucault’s fierce generalization argued that the growing shift from time to place was a crucial means to understand the attention of governments, but he could not have foreseen the level at which place has become a focus of anxiety in the Global War on Terror–either in the ramped up security at public buildings and in mass transit, or in the targeted assassinations and shootings of individuals, as the government, threatened by terrorist strikes that seem to respect no battleground, is consumed with tracking networks that have no geographical base.  The very conflation of conflict to the level of the global, and the elevation of the attacks of 9/11 to a regime of terror that cannot predict where violence will strike, and instilled fears of where the next possible target of terrorism might be, has opened a narrative of the place-lessness of terror the the War on Terror–described as global, but long increasingly located in Afghanistan and Pakistan–has increasingly disoriented the American public from the world, and left them reeling for a narrative to describe.

And the audiences that have emerged around the made-for-television thriller “Homeland,” a psychological drama which crosses multiple boundaries and suggesting the confusion or the problematic status of clear boundaries in its dramatic structure, asks audiences to decide what the nature of patriotism in fact is–and indeed the possibility of mapping places of safety in what increasingly seems a post-cartographical world.  For despite the previous security of the mapping of lines of battle and sites of safety that were perpetuated in World War II and its aftermath, as a new era of stability, by a President who looked at its surface from a measured distance–


Roosevelt and Globe.pngCentral Intelligence Agency/”President’s Globe” US Army Presented on Christmas, 1942


–the mapping of danger and of sites for surveillance have so proliferated in the Global War on Terror to make any coherent narrative about them seem cognitively challenging to knit, save to affirm the omnipresence of danger in the world.  While Homeland provided temporary narrative coherence to this world in ways that were increasingly satisfying to its viewers, in ways that have not been fully understood, the Reality TV figure Donald J. Trump created a sense of an imagined link between security, flows of capital and immigration—claiming to reverse the decline of American centrality and supremacy that was avoided by his opponent, but which increasingly dominated the rallies, public statements, tweets, and rallies that Trump held over the two years of the election.  For in the election, Trump provided a sense of the national imaginary that was besieged and looking for moorings that responded to the dislocation that the “Global” War on Terror brought, and that was ramped up in troubling ways by each possible terrorist attack that occurred on “American soil” and which reminded us of national vulnerability.




If the confusion of place, patriotism, and boundaries has in large part contributed to the election of Donald J. Trump–driven not only by economic anxiety, but where economic insecurity became the stand-in on which to displace far deeper fears about the homeland and about national frontiers and belonging–and to respond to a deep feeling of disempowerment not only in the economy, but an emotional satisfaction in an era of particularly acute dislocation.

Vulnerability was the dramatic theme, of course, of Homeland, which questioned the role of patriotism in a country that was infiltrated by hidden networks of terrorists far more than was evident to most.  It was an insider’s look at the War on Terror, from a place that we have only imagined to be able to stand.  For the status of place as a focus of anxiety has been elevated and transmogrified in the broad generality of a Global War on Terror to lose ny sense of security.  In the “Global War on Terror,” there is no clearly defined battlefield, but suspicion and surveillance have been generalized across space in ways that have confounded much of the nation in ways we have rarely seen before.  For a society in which the heightened ratcheting up of anxieties about place are difficult to narrate or indeed process, we have perhaps come to seek new figures of collective strength.  We have been trying to narrate what the new instability of space, and lack of a harmonious sense of place, has come to mean–or the lack of security of any given location with the confusion of sites of military engagement and sites of fear, and of where exactly the Home Front or the next sites of military engagement and future site of terrorist attack might come be.

The destabilization of place was rife in the 1960s, to be sure.  One remembers the instability of the home front during Vietnam that the poet Denise Levertov perceived so acutely:  during the Peoples’ Park Riots in Berkeley, CA, Levertov wrote ominously in her diary, “War/comes home to us,” as police and national guards arrived to quell protestors:  during the Vietnam War, she voiced a common concern that the circulation of soldiers from its front to nation, as teargas, bayonets, billy clubs and bullets appeared in the park off of Telegraph Avenue.  The narration of a deep discomfort with place in HBO’s psychological thriller “Homeland” captures the deep dissonances and uncertainties of place in the Global War on Terror–GWOT–where the act of terrorism makes a fear of violence felt everywhere, and the storyline of a suspected sleeper terrorist introduces us to a broad hidden network of terrorism.


1.  The Global War on Terror may be the only possible culmination of the profoundly asymmetrical invasions of Iraq, before minimal resistance, and inuagurating the declaration of war not against a fixed target or country, but an emotion, Rebecca Solnit noted, and the generalization of the emotion became something of a justification for the war.  The open-ended notion of a GWOT, without  fixed site, has encouraged the expansions of a battlefield less clearly drawn than ever before, confusing categories of “home” and war in ways that the dramatic television series Homeland has dramatically structured over seven seasons.  The War on Terror has provided an everywhere war.  And as we watch the series drawn by the mirror it provides on how fear of the ineluctable infolding of “war” as a threat to “home.” For the GWOT has provoked such heightened tension about place–and the place of a possible attack–to compel a sense of narrative   about place, and the uncertain nature of the front line, or even of where the enemy lies, that the television series on HBO has come to provide on our televisions, where we can watch the narrative that maps the presence of terrorism both on our shores and in our military, and even stage that drama in Syria, Pakistan, and the generic Middle East, from refugee camps to houses and families of suspected terrorists, as if to give palpable stories to the increasing fears of a strike in our homeland that cannot be stopped.

The permeation of anxiety in the nation has in a sense created a captive audience for a drama that unfolds the increasingly complex contours of the a “war” on terror, and map out the sites of contested arenas in ways that they are suddenly materialized and rendered not only as fears, but as something like a clash of civilizations. As sites of engagement on the edge of state sovereignty have engaged the nation in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2000 with particular unease, as if the shock of a narrating a reaction to the attack on American soil has both challenged our sense of place and compelled us to orient ourselves collectively to place, whether to accept a surveillance apparatus to track terrorist organizations with a largely imagined degree of accuracy, or to acknowledge the edges of sovereignty to be effectively redrawn.  The pretence of pin-point precision of drones as combat tools seems designed to quell the anxieties of place with which we are increasingly best.  The ominous disorientataion of how it is that war now “comes home to us” is thematized in HBO’s dramatic thriller Homeland, as inner lives, and we turn to it to  inhabit the changed geography of terror, narrating a changed a collective relation to place through the stores of protagonists whose paths question and trace the margins of state sovereignty.

Place, and the uncertain fear of its obliteration, is questioned from the return of a marine suspected to be a terrorist operative in the first season of Homeland, whose life reveals the presence of terrorist networks across the country, and who in later seasons of the television drama we trace to examinee the rewritten boundaries of state sovereignty with a vertiginous level of anxiety that starts form an increasingly uncertain relation to the map and the opening up of new areas of national vulnerability, as if to offer a parallel escape narrative to the terrorist threat map that he Homeland Security Department regularly generates on its website, as if to tabulate and contain the new threats to national stability at specific sites where sovereignty seems endanger of being undermined.


Terrorist Threat map.png


The rise of the tabulation of “Islamist threats,” of which we are advised that our troops bear the brunt, with law enforcement, are displayed the website of the Dept. of Homeland Security as if to stabilize fears but in ways that destabilize of sense of place,  now inundated with an anxiety of future attacks to which we are most everywhere potentially susceptible, in what seems a deeply unethical  remapping of unending terror.  We mark attacks in hotspots and begging interpretation as if it were the weather, operating by  isolines and isotherms, as if we might predict the future sites of vulnerability to terror strikes–or the level of “terror threats,” calibrated for easy comprehension as “high” in the U.S. homeland, which begs the question of place after all, but all the more unsettles us.  But what would a “high terror threat” be?  Is the map a way of orienting us, or is it a method for disorienting us?  What possibility of orientation exists in an age of such sorts of uncertainty that a new set of attacks might occur anywhere?

For we seem to conceal that none of this has any contingent logic, but tracked in the manner of a disease map or a record of local virulence, it is embodied in spatial terms so that we can try to impose logic on and live with deep anxieties of place.  Yet, of course, the Daily Terror Threat is unable to be mapped by any “snapshot,” and the analogy of a documentary or diagnostic record is only an illustration of our current addiction to maps to which we turn for better hopes of certainty or stabilize insecurity, but whose function seems to suggest the unseen presence of ISIS in our lives and in the space we know.



TerrorThreatSnapshot_Graphic_August_SMALL_Website.pngDaily Terror Threat


And, as the monthly assessment of terror strikes is mapped online, we turn as if for relief to Homeland, in hopes to better gain purchase on a perpetual fear of place the maps as the above, tracking Hatchet attacks that we are assured our troops and law enforcement bear the greatest brunt, placing us in a state of seige unless we can delink, as some aggregated news website warn us of increasingly immanent “main events” on the Homeland as if “Islamic Terrorist Network” is able to be mapped across the majority of the United States.




“Sporadic attacks” seem so recurrent in intelligence assessments that we may forget that right-wing domestic terrorists as “equal to” or “in some cases greater than” foreign-born Islamic terrorists, such as ISIS, and need to generate our own maps of domestic “domestic anti-government terrorist groups”that proliferate in parallel, covering even more of the map, and more than doubling our fears–and having little apparent coherence as well.





2.  Homeland seems to orient geography that was begun by the War on Terror, on the margins of the very boundaries of state sovereignty in ways that we never expected to be allowed, and its invitation is extremely compelling because it seems to map the edges of state sovereignty that are increasingly questioned or up for grabs in terrorist attacks.  Indeed, the series’ own structure has opened us to the danger of localized destruction by immersing us in an extension of its landscape of fear that has no set battlefield, but where any place can suddenly become a new front of engagement, and its progress cannot be clearly mapped.  Much as the fear of terror strikes have justified police raids and surveillance to an unprecedented degree, and opening attacks to new forms of mapping that have placed “place” within a new complex of geospatial control, the dramatic series boasts to orient us to it in ways for which a distinct thirst exists–and it fills the new contours of an everywhere war with recognizable human faces as we follow the protagonists to explore what sort of space for individuality the ongoing and widely distributed “War on Terror” allows.  As we move to the edges of state sovereignty where violence is greatest, the series asks us to explore the new topography of a world where straight edges between terror and civil society can’t be so cleanly drawn–and that violence erupts most strongly and fiercely on the edge of civil societies.

For the uncertainties of drone targeting provide a recurrent theme in the episodes of the first four seasons of Homeland, as if to orient viewers to the landscape of the War on Terror, where any place is invested with instability as a site of potential terror attack.  We move at the margins of space of sovereignty in the television drama, where any site is both able to struck, and exists in a GPS armature at the limits of sovereign space.  With the figure of Carrie Mathison, the heroine and intrepid protagonist who moves on and across these boundaries of sovereignty, moving across actual boundaries between sovereign states–as the publicity for the show so graphically announces in color-contrast–as if moving on the very frontier of state sovereignty and danger.




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Filed under aerial bombardment, Homeland (TV Show), Homeland Security, terrorism, War on Terror

Into the Woods? or, Is Big Data Simply Enough?

The pressing problems of how visualize our rapidly growing environmental footprint–and map the concept of a footprint over time–have found a new answer in the rendering of topographical and thematic layers to chart the degradation of forests world-wide.  If deforestation is hard to get one’s mind around or grasp effectively, the tracking of the quickening pace of the loss of forested regions and indeed of the carbon sequestration that forests provide are elegantly tracked in a set of web maps that provide new cognitive tools to measure the effects of such abstract entities as globalization and free markets on the expanding losses of forested land.

Indeed, such interactive web-based maps provide something of a needed stimulus to the stewardship of intact forests, by offering ways to chart intact forest landscapes worldwide and survey anthropogenic disturbances in forested lands, and inviting analysis of existing forest cover, agricultural conversion, loss of forests to lumber, man-made fires, and industrial conversion, so as to render the planet’s surface area in newly readable form.  While offering an interpretive surface unlike the symbolic forms or indexical referents of most existing GIS maps, the Google Maps base map offers a basis to render a uniform record of human activities on a rapidly shrinking range of forested lands–and the rapidly shrinking carbon storage intact forests provide.  At a time when forest loss spiked in Russia and Canada, even as forest losses have grown worldwide, the map offers an exposé on forest management and best practices of conservation of forested lands, as well as a record of our global footprint in sites of carbon storage.


Forest Loss, Canada 2013

Forest losses in Canda, mapped by Global Forest Watch (2013)

The ability to indicate forest losses with striking precision provides a welcome if unforeseen assistance from satellite surveillance whose data can help visualize the growing footprint of global forest loss.  Although the necklace of satellites that necklace the earth are now more often associated with espionage of cell phone metadata, NASA satellites record the biomass of global forests by measurements that can construct a comprehensive muliti-dimensioned map of the balance between forest growth and loss.  The zoomable map marry technology to ecology to chart a terrifyingly revealing record of incursions into natural resources worldwide, whose detail provides something closest to a tally of global lost and a record of the footprint of our globalized economy on the fragmentation of forests with a startling degree of accuracy.  Remotely sensed data from MODIS satellites has allowed Global Forest Watch to bundle geolocated data for ready consultation by manipulating colorful detailed layers of an interactive map to visualize the effects of recent forest loss with an immediacy and precision not earlier possible.

The comprehensive interactive map of forest loss effectively materializes a global footprint in startlingly effective manner:  for rather than merely mapping the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere in ways that reflect GDP, visualizing the scope of the depletion of forests–and of trees that offer reserves of carbon–suggests a true wake-up call by tracking the progressive effects of forest loss over a global expanse.  The relative distribution of tree cover gain and loss can be readily scanned, beside the density of intact forests, or natural catastrophes, at a level of zoomable detail that stands as both a barometer and a chart of the unprecedented scale of forest degradation over the past fifteen years.

The extent of forest losses since 1960 have been estimated at over 180 million hectares, and the consequences of an estimated greatly diminished capacity to generate new forests of almost twice as many global hectares.  The collation of a detailed map of forest degradation worldwide boggles the mind for its ability to comprehend the accentuation of forest loss in recent years, when inroads were made into the forested areas of Indonesia, Amazonia, and Central Africa–as well as the Canadian north–in increasingly rampant ways.  The map Global Forest Watch has created and featured in their dynamically interactive website invites us to re-examine a global picture of forest change since 2000–of which North America is shown below as an example–translating big data into a set of actual traces and scarring of landscapes, marked by incursions of sensed biomass loss in bright magenta:  at a time when the US federal government may auction off hundreds of millions of acres of national forest, wilderness areas, and refuges, projects the potentially disastrous consequences of sanctioning “increased resource production.”  Whereas often classified satellites are better documented as creating a record of global surveillance, the remote sensing assembles a picture of the increasingly fragmented landscapes of forested land that suggests an often concealed inheritance of globalization, difficult to visualize or conceive on a global scale, that serves as a deeply monitory image of the growing global footprint that deforestation creates.

Does the footprint that these maps trace reveal a more complex dynamic of forest loss than earlier provided?  Might the map offer new tools to understand the threats to the survival of not only old growth forests but intact forests worldwide?  The image surely serves a somewhat stoic function for looking back, retrospectively, at the incursions into a planetary ability to store carbon worldwide, and of the dire lack of restraint and of the enforcement of policies of forest use.

1.  Global disequilibria of legal forest harvesting and trade reflects a global difficulty to meet demand for wood. Structural imbalances are more often mapped as the consequences of population growth, as by Global Footprint Network:

NEt Trade in Forest Biocapacity

National Footprint (2014), http://www.footprintnetwork.org

Yet the differences in the distribution of wood losses worldwide are not necessarily linked to wood market, but a wide range of potential reasons for the degradation of forested lands.  Indeed, the problems of mapping both the expansion of agriculture and the illegal logging trade has created problems of accurate modeling of forest loss, in part due to the lack of an effective system of monitoring.  The web-based maps of the Global Forest Network identify the world’s greatest exporters of wood–Canada, Brazil, and Russia–as not exclusively lying in sub-equatorial tropical rainforests, however, and indeed suggest the broad range of forested land that meets a demand for wood products worldwide–even as the demand has more than doubled since surpassing the biocapacity of forest land from the 1970s.

The intensification of deforestation has dramatically increased since 1995–the conventional date of the social effects of the globalization of markets from 1993-5, even if the process can be traced to earlier precedents, rather than 1492.  As the need for carbon protection by forests has effectively surged, the pronounced patterns of forest loss reveal a lack of controls on forest loss, even at a time when we would require twice as many forests as exist to absorb the carbon emissions generated worldwide.  How can such an expansive loss be fully comprehended?  The layers that map wood losses in the Global Forest Network’s interactive visualization marks the extent to which we have pushed the ecological limits of incursions on forested lands, anthropogenically expanding the effects of natural fires or climatological disaster:  the austere visualizations embody inroads in global forest-cover and intact forests, by tallying forest change by marking gain in blue and biomass loss in pink.  The resulting pockmarked pink landscapes focuses viewers’ attention on the increasingly fragmented condition of forested lands, and raises big questions about their consequences.  Indeed, it offers a definitive and geographically specific way to tally the results of the increased scarification of forested lands, linking the loss of forestsnot only to the extent to which high-income countries are expropriating natural resources of tropical lands, in Brazil or Central Africa, but the extent to which widespread practices of illegal logging has grown globally.

The suitably austere layers the map suggest a voracity of the fragmentation of many formerly intact forest, fed by demand for agrarian lands or lumber,  in a form that gives a plastic and material evocation of the expanding losses of forest over time.  The layers of the interactive web map effectively translate some very big data to create an image of lands are rent by natural and rising global demands, offering a new way to view the  inhabited world or ecumene less in terms of sites of habitation or population, than map a loss of biomass that is almost elegiac in tone, despite its stark finality.  Viewers are invited to scan interactive layers of the web map and take stock of the balance forest loss and growth over the earth since 2000, detect areas of deepest deprivation of tree-cover, and scrutinize the scale, scope and sheer size of forest loss to measure environmental change in an age of globalization.  The Global Forest Network converts data to map the quickly expanding global footprint in forested lands, measuring the ecumene as it has rarely been seen and charting the fragility of forests in which we will now never walk.

tree cover north america

The expansive and expanding degrees of degradation are difficult re cognitively quite difficult to contemplate or process. But the spatial collation of disruptions on local habitats creates a new sense of the readability of the map and of attending to the widespread degradation of forested lands that seem an unnoticed–and somewhat elusive–counterpart to the growing globalization of the demand for wood and for agricultural land, by mapping the disappearance not only of habitat but of wooded lands–and even providing tools for actively engaging with a rapidly changing world.

2.  Cartographers have long worked to render a “mathematical figure of the earth” viewers could readily scan, translating spatial distributions to accurate formats despite the multiple and inevitable distortions of any map and wresting with questions of accuracy.  Interactive visualization wizards of web maps showcase distributions by a spectrum that filters experience in multiple layers:  visualization wizards seem particularly apt tools of responding to problems of embodying data trends–and ffiltering data to generate images which embody exact distributions of forest degradation along roads, rivers, in regions of timber harvesting, and even in currently protected areas. The maps of forest loss provide a record of future archeology of the anthropocene, akin to maps of temperature change or of our overheating world.

The destruction of some 250 million acres of forest since 2000 by human development threatens to bring the fragmentation of forests, compromising not only integrity of ecosystemsanimal habitats, and tropical rainforest, as well as increasing erosion, but the sequestration of carbon in ways that have irreversible impact on the planet.  We see the world with new eyes by measuring the extent of timber lost by something that approaches real-time measurement in the dramatic amps the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch have created online.  Although satellite measurements more often identified with surveillance, the high radiometric sensitivity are able to pinpoint a record of biomass loss across the world’s forested lands that set new standards for a running-time comprehensive map for charting the distribution of dramatic losses of  forested land–similarly to the detection of forest fires–in an increasingly expansive and loosely regulated market for wood.  Even without describing or identifying the causes of forests’ fragmentation, the layers of the web map offer an almost inevitable and irreparable image of the scope of forest loss even in protected lands.

Amazon Cattle Graze:Daniel BeltraCattle Grazing in Amazonia (Brazil)/Daniel Beltra

British Columbia Clearcut:Garth LentzClear-cutting in British Columbia/Garth Lenz

The collation of growing forest loss within these maps raise questions about the sustainable practices in forest regions aptly characterized as the planet’s lungs.  Ten million sq km of forested land have been estimated to have been cleared between 1890 and 1980:   a further 500,000 square miles of lost heavily forested land were lost since the year 2000 that can be watched in stop-action accelerated real time in the web maps that display forest data, by geotracking the loss of a further million sq km of intact forest through 2013, in a sort of stop-action map that includes Indonesian forest fires, land clearance in Brazil and the Amazon, and the increased commerce in wood and forestry in Canada, Honduras, Indonesia, and much of South East Asia that seem an inexorable result of a voracious market for wood in a globalized economy.

As well as documenting the loss of some 8% of the economy since 2000, Global Forest Watch has embodied remotely sensed data in dramatic and disquieting to map the ongoing fragmentation of forested lands in a time-lapse map of some thirteen years–mapping the surface of the earth at a time when the range of anthropogenic incursions into forested lands, and the planet’s history, rapidly grew provoking discontinuities in previously intact forests and forested habitats of which we are only beginning to take stock, and whose disruptions threaten to radically change the planet’s lived geography. The layers of forest change that are distinguished in the interactive web maps the Global Forest network devised present a color-coded basis to gauge the incursions into forested lands of the world by human industry and economy as well as fire.  They offer an image that is both the tabulation of a benchmark and a memory map that reminds us of the loss of forested land over thirteen years which is a cautionary note about the need for better stewardship of forested lands in a globalized economy–and, indeed, those sites that are most intensely aggrieved in the modern age.

3. In a less frequently cited monuments of cameralist thought, Saxony’s Chief Inspector of Mining, Hans Carl von Carlowitz described forms of the conservation and cultivation of native trees where his family had long run mines; the Sylvicultura Oeconomica which in 1713 perceptively responded to fears of a shortage of wood after the Thirty Years War, to benefit the common good by advocating sustainable practices of forestry.  Nachhaltende Nutzung provide a set of responsible practices, or “a blueprint for the guiding principle of our time,” and something of an early recognition of the intentional planning of practices for the conservation of wood “for posterity” that we might look to at a time when the fragmentation of intact forest rapidly grows, as the remote registration of the distribution of decreasing forest biomass detected remotely by MODIS satellites reveal that go beyond the sort of aerial photos of forest degradation below seen in the Rondonia in Brazil over a mere six years.

aster_deforestation_brazil Rondonia over six years

Although the reasons for the degradation of forests due to alternative anthropogenic causes–land conversion; timber extraction; degradation of land–is not clearly distinguished from loss of forests to fire or catastrophe, individual layers allow the reader to distinguish between potential factors that precipitate forest lost, and uncover varied reasons for the growing crisis in sustainability of forests worldwide, as technology provides a useful medium to measure effects on the natural world. The dynamic qualities of static maps is enhanced by  suggestive chromatic variations, the ability of LandSat 8 to create a remotely-sensed picture of the world in but sixteen days allows dynamic records of land change to offer the chance of intensive reading and investigation not earlier possible.  While the causes of wood loss cannot be clearly discriminated, to be sure, the layering of maps provides a basis to take stock of the extent and locations of wood loss.  The layers of web-based maps invite viewers to investigate multiple potential narratives about the shifting ecosystems in a rapidly changing world. The layers of the map suggest a new way to embody data to view its palpable effects.  By importing data that they open or stake directly on the surface of a map or spatial database,web-based mapping offer a supple interactive medium to situate narratives in a global expanse–from situating the relative geographic densities of sightings of hummingbirds–


to relative geographical variations of biodiversity–


Remote sensing of incursions into intact layers of tree cover by Modis satellites provide an even more sensitive tool to display data of habitat change and ecosystems alike, and indeed to trace the incursions of a clandestine economy of wood on areas of forest that remain threatened, from clearing for agricultural areas, prospecting for palm oil, chainsaw logging, or bring of peat.  For remote sensing can record at startlingly high resolution disturbing incursions, breaks and absences in forest expanse and the distribution of intact forest and tree cover at the considerably high resolution of thirty meters, creating a tragically compelling record of anthopogenic disturbances of subtropical and other forested lands regions that comprise some 37.3% of the world’s total land area.

The record stands in inverse negative image of the expanding consumption of wood in the world’s more populated areas, and sets something of a watermark in the growing dangers of the apparent lack of oversight of the global consumption of wood. The stacking of layers of data reveals a particularly striking record of natural degradation and loss of forests, that details the increasing intrusions into intact forests and tree cover worldwide in ways that suggest the continued value of synthesizing an almost pictorially present record of our increasingly poor management of the valued resource of forested lands–both for the species who live in them and the biodiversity they nourish, as well as the atmosphere they help preserve.  These losses are materialized in especially compelling graphic terms in renderings of the comprehensive record of the incursions of lands that have created a steep loss of wooded biomass.

Global Forest Loss since 2000-13Global Forest Change, published by Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al.

The colored layering of data in the web maps devised for Global Forest Watch create a legible balance sheet for accurate viewing the disappearance of forested lands, coloring tree cover gain and loss at an amazingly exact resolution of up to thirty meters.  The cartographical accounting of tree cover loss–and forest degradation–for viewers to begin to process and come to terms, balancing magenta losses of biomass with planting of new trees in deep blue.

Tree Cover Loss

The global purview of this data Global Forest Watch is effectively rendered in CartoDB offers a point of entrance to a dramatic narrative of loss. The mapping of forest loss can be measured against the globalization of an economy for wood that knows relatively few restraints, creating a compelling visualization on scenes of clear-cutting that might otherwise leave their viewer speechless.

Industrial Forestry in WilametteNational Forest, Oregon--Daniel Dancer

Industrial Logging in Wilamette National Forest, Oregon (USA)/Daniel Dancer

4.  Globalization increasingly forces us to try to conceive as well as calculate the steep variations in the consumption and use of resources worldwide.  The increased variations–and variability–in geographical description of how we consume resources suggests the need for new ways to imagine geographic space that foreground its alteration that reveal the huge losses of biomass worldwide over time with a precision that sets new notions for the accuracy and possibilities for the persuasive powers of maps as images.  The charting of the lost biomass of forested lands creates a constructive relation of tragic narrative of loss, to be sure, using thematic maps of the physical changes in the global landscape to direct attention to a range of narratives of loss, and alert us to multiple possible narratives of both loss and potential ways of averting impending future losses by rendering visible the loss of forests and  invite investigation of their causes and origins.  If in many ways the history of the most recent periods is both hardest to tell and to try to comprehend, the multiple thematic maps of tree cover loss highlight the changing landscape of tree cover and carbon stock–and the threats to intact forests that wood use poses–that provide an investigative tool to examine the emerging threats to intact tropical forests and wooded ecosystems in ways that viewers can visually process and cognitively digest.

For the totality of forest loss that the interactive thematic maps of the Global Forest Watch synthesize and render reveal a record of intersecting ecosystems that foreground questions of the continuity, density, and loss of connectivity in forested lands that raises serious questions of concern about their increased fragmentation.  By providing a global synthesis about the use, degradation, and replanting of forested areas and trees worldwide, the tally of global biomass that they reveal provide an elegantly  color-coded record of the limits of sustainability of our forests.  The sustained silence about the contribution of the destruction of worldwide forests to the release of greenhouse gasses in the planet is a deep deception that the illusion of the limitless potential for the expansion of a market for wood and wood products perpetuates in a particularly insidious way.  The global thematic maps of remotely sensed presence of wood and forest density in a remarkably accurate manner provide a necessary corrective.

By revealing the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of forested lands in a zoomable fashion, the thematic maps invite not only reflection on a tragic narrative of the memory of loss–as they do–but might perhaps incite similarly global strategies of protection and conservation, helping to ken the steep risks that globalization portends to the possibility of a truly sustainable future.  At a time when industry increasingly rests extracts revenues in whatever ways possible, the sacrifice of forest lands demands increasing attention.

Global Forest Network has opportunely responded to the need for mapping a totality of forest degradation by assembling a remotely registered image of the scope and extent of biomass loss in forests worldwide.  By mapping an effective tally of trees planted and forested land lost over time in a time-lapse fashion, one can visualize the unsustainable rhythm of an all too rapidly growing footprint of the loss not only of habitat but of reginos that might be called the planet’s lungs.  Their web-based maps reveal offer indices and tools to reflect on the impact of globalization on forested lands.  The 2013 map of the shrinking forests of the world sensed remotely from 2000 to 2012 used the first high-res comprehensive global map of forest degradation to craft an alarming story by directing detailed attention to the question of costs:  synthesizing 654,178 individual images to model human and natural forest loss, the result is a persuasive record of human geography, delineated in the rich color palette of CartoDB, inspired on one devised by Cynthia Brewer:  losses of forest are strikingly rendered hot pink to purplish magenta, fire red-orange, tree-cover pea-green against intact forest rendered a rich kelly green.  Rather than retain national boundaries as the prime units to parse ecological change and man’s impact on the environment, these maps of the sustainability of forested lands provide multiple layers to examine the use of wood worldwide–and contemplate the ecological and economic implications of a huge reduction of over 500,000 square miles of formerly healthy forests by for the first time charting the local loss of forests in an accurate and globally consistent manner–conspicuously marking variations in land use in a year-by-year distribution, discriminating between forest land lost and gained to shine a lens on the question of the sustainability of forests and the fragmentation of forests, tracing the expansion of our carbon footprint through the ongoing scope of forest degradation and loss that has expanded with a demand for wood worldwide with major risks to the surrounding environment.

The survival of a coherent network of forested land is a central to the survival of ecosystems, and to local livelihoods of a large range of humans, as well as to the global storage of carbon in the ecosphere:  the hugely negative effects of forest degradation stand to contribute to upwards of a fifth of carbon emissions, as well as to have disastrous effects of animal habitat and local ecosystems and biodiversity, and an image of the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of formerly intact forests provides a compelling record of human-made and natural incursions into wooded lands from 2000-2013, revealing the uneven distribution of the exploitation of forested lands in a globalized economy.  Although the largest regions of intact forest are located in Tropical and Subtropical Forests (45.3%) and Boreal Forests (43.8%), and almost 64% are located in Canada, Russia or Brazil, they face distinctly different challenges of industrial logging, oil and gas extraction, and natural clearing:  even without distinguishing patterns of land use, the maps suggest the incursions of human influences on these and other particularly fragile forested landscapes, in ways that trace a narrative of the distribution of forest losses in the new millennium, and more importantly the balance between forest loss and gain.

If the loss of forests truly accounts for more than the sum total of carbon emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, and ships every year, and create a more compelling way to combat climate change, as well as acting to purify air, preserve watersheds, and foster biodiversity, and prevent impending dangers of erosion, the shrinking area of forested land provides a particularly sensitive barometer that demands to be on the global consciousness and a site for restraining consumption.  Indeed, once stewardship of forests are included within measures of carbon emissions, tropical rainforest-rich countries like Brazil and Indonesia–both growing economies, to be sure–jump into the group of the top ten global polluters–a fact concealed by the expansive international market for wood.

Rather than only measure the metrics of forest loss, the rates of forest degradation in different areas create an interesting record of the inequities and incursions into forested lands, which has striking parallels to the disappearance and lack of protection of community land-rights in the face of economic demand. How to calibrate the role of pollution that results from forest degradation?  The layered web maps raise the possibility of tally that could lead to better stewardship of forests, and pose a call to manage “carbon stocks” of which we have few comparably accurate measures. The maps offer a quite significant key to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, indeed, by charting the threats to carbon stock of sensitive areas from tropical forests–from the Amazon to central Africa from Equatorial Guinea to Rwanda and to Indonesia–to North America, by visually highlighting the balance of intact woodlands unlike a static map, by conspicuously marking loss of woodlands in pink/magenta and using orange to note carbon stock threatened by tree-cover loss to trace the all too human incursions in the tropical forests, balanced against the scattered tree-cover gain noted by periwinkle blue.

The result is to make the land speak in an almost palpable way by inserting crucial layers to map the shrinking landscapes of intact forest, continuity in tree-cover extent, and note protected regions, biodiversity hotspots, current fires, and regions used for logging, mining, or wood fiber plantations, so that we can, even with the introduction of only a few layers, sense the risks to forests in Amazonia or Indonesia that are particularly sensitive to globalized markets for wood. Tree loss to 2013 and tropical carbon stock Wood biomass in INdonesia One can as easily add a layer revealing the primary forest of Indonesia that maps the extent of its coherence, and allows continued depletion of forested lands in the region to be read in relation to its most densely forested regions, beside the depletion of forests in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Papua New Guinea: Indonesian Forests and Thai:Philipines

The result is a brilliant visualization able to mediate the concept of sustainability in its multiple layers. The idea of such a comprehensive map of forests derive from synthesizing the MODIS images on a Google Earth engine to trace the contours of such a footprint. They can be read interactively by adding, removing, or toggling between specific layers displaying the ever-shrinking quantity of “intact forest landscapes”–regions untouched by human economic activity, settlements or industry of 500 sq km without evidence of habitat fragmentation, regions distinguished by tree loss or gain, and regional tree cover.  Although much wood and fiber has concentrated on economic value rather than ecological effects, the interactive map brilliantly illuminates the changing contours of forest landscapes worldwide, including land-use change, log forests sawn for lumber, fires, and clearcutting over time that provide a baseline for stewardship and management, revealing the extent and nature of the loss of forest extent in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Global Forest Watch has assembled stunning interactive web maps that invite readers to investigate the relative imprints in each region over twelve years, creating a valuable historical document of deeply monitory functions, if as well as a stunning record of historical change on a global scale.

The significant role of forest in contributing to the livelihood of over a billion of the world’s the poorest dwellers suggest the economic as well as ecological imperative of restricting losses that would be impossible, if not difficulty, to ever recuperate or restore.

forestsEndangered Amazonian Forests in French Guyana

The geographical remoteness of many vulnerable areas of forestry creates a clear need for the globalized mapping of forest loss–if only to offer a needed corrective to the globalized market for commodified wood, which enters markets with almost no sense or measure of its site of origin, and with few reports of the degradation of forested lands that result in such particularly sensitive ecosystems in tropical forests.  The interactive web maps may address the considerable alienation of most commodities markets–or even markets for wood and wood-products–from the very habitats and ecosystems that forests create, and the levels of unsustainability of the current market for often indiscriminately forested wood and wood-products. Indeed, many early modern maps reveal the situated nature of local interdependency between peoples and forested lands–and the commerce with wooded lands–that is so often abstracted from market of wood, characterized as they are by the relative alienation of patterns of consumption from the survival of forests.

5.  The sensitivity of early modern notations of forested areas nicely suggests something like a need to change our practices of global mapping to track the  interdependence of urban economies and patterns of consumption on forests that are increasingly far flung rather than surround our lived environments, or the absence of a clear sense of forested areas as rich resources of life and commerce on which a built city–such as this image of the merchant city of Nuremberg, drawn and painted on linen by its own early sixteenth-century surveyor, Erhard Etzlaub, which suggests a particularly complex understanding of forest management and use in depicting the considerable levels of forest density proudly preserved around Nuremberg. AKG98341 Erhard Etzlaub’s View of Nuremberg from the North with the Sebalder and Lorenzer Wald, opaque colors on parchment (1515)

If the Nuremberg surveyor Erhard Etzlaub conveyed the wealth of the surrounding forest to the city’s economy, drawing the clear boundary between the forests and cleared land, Venetian surveyor Christoforo del Sorte attentively sketched the forested regions of the especially rich interior hinterland, or Terrafirma, that would continue to provide so much of Venice’s timber were detailed with a similar care in his 1556 map of the northern Veneto, whose aestheticized painted view reveal a similar consciousness of a relation to forested lands, even in a time of land-clearance:
C Sorte north of Veneto 1556

As well as provide images of a landed patriciate, the mapping of forested areas suggested the lustrous habitat that many modern drawn maps lack. Da Sorte GuardaLake Garda and Surrounding Areas (oil on panel) by Cristoforo Sorte (fl.1510-95)  —  Museo Correr, Venice

The relative absence of maps that effectively preserved an affective record of forest loss has been designed to meet the hugely magnified loss of forests worldwide, and especially in equatorial regions where they seem to have fallen prey to a growing global hunger for consuming wood that cannot be easily sustained.  The series of zoomable maps offer an invaluable basis and provocation to reflect on the virtues of data and the limits of best rendering data in visual form.  More specifically, they provide a basis to use maps as a tool to model the levels of sustainability that exist in forests worldwide, by the actual mapping of both forest loss and forest degradation worldwide that has been increasingly conceived as the growing ecological footprint created through a decline of worldwide forests that have never been able to be satisfactorily visualized or conceived of in their totality.

6.  The Canadian economist William Rees introduced the conception of ascertaining the impact humans exercise over natural surroundings as a “footprint”–using a term developed by his student Matthis Wackernagel with him in hopes to conceptualize the undeniable traces that they left on the environments in which they live, by analogy to the “footprint” of a computer resting on a workplace desk.  The rapidly accepted currency and quick adoption of the term was striking. Its ready adoption reveals apprehension of an unsustainable set of practices to consume resources that exceeded natural abilities for their replenishment, long before the archeological definite that led our own age to be described as the anthropocene.  Although Rees introduced the term of a “footprint” predominantly as a conceptual tool, it has also begged visualization due to its concreteness, and ready connotation as a tangible record of impact–and as such demands to be mapped–it has often been taken too literally as a guide to creating data visualizations.

The linking of levels of emissions to the lifestyles of residents of individual countries is telling, but risks the sense of reminding one of the difficulty of changing differences of consumption as if they were an inevitable cultural choice–and have the odd consequence of removing the figure of speech of the “footprint” from a logic of sustainability, in this image of Stanford Kay, which relies on a bubble map to pose a charge to the most popular polluters, but tends to obscure the scale of the question and its possible impact on the world–the rainbow colors allow us to parse the relation of pollution to continents to some extent, but make it truly difficult to assemble a picture of sustainability, or of the global consequences of the expanding carbon footprint of the earth’s inhabitants.  While we don’t doubt that China creates the largest carbon emissions in Asia, what measures of sustainability need to be taken or could be proposed?  Need we only accept the habits of consumption adapted in the world’s most populous nations or can we curb them? Kay Two Feet-  national and per capitaStanford Kay 

A static if cumulative atlas of carbon emissions was produced by the Energy Information Administration and ran in The Guardian in 2011, in the form of an actual terrestrial map, which charted both the relative contribution of countries to the global footprint in the millions of tonnes of carbon emissions it generates, and a notation of their relative augmentation or decrease in 2008-9:  the infographic provide a document used as something of a running tally of CO2 emissions per country, as a way to measure the reduction of emissions agreed as a goal at the Kyoto protocol, and was imaged by artists Mark McCormick and Paul Scruton of the world’s distribution (available as a PDF file) that took a traditional terrestrial map as an alternative visualization of the greatest emissions by continent–and laying the blame at the doorstep of specific countries.

An Atlas of PollutionThe Guardian

Chuluun Togtokh of Ulaanbaatar invested considerable forcefulness to similar statistics in a pointedly polemic manner when he effectively retabulated a the levels of countries’ levels of sustainability in a brilliant revisionary cartography, including control of carbon emissions within what constitutes the United Nations’ Human Development Index–a metric synthesizing life-expectancy, literacy and purchasing power–but which omits sustainable growth as a relevant criteria of development:  by reminding readers of the ethical imperative to cease ignoring the costs of the greatest polluters in the world, lest we fear to acknowledge the ever-steeper competition for dwindling resources that “growth” perpetuates, Togtokh’s measurements present the ability to remap the question of “economic development” in ways that include environmental stewardship as a criteria:


As vice-chair of Mongolian IGBP Global Change National Committee, Togtokh chastised as much as reminded the UN and other international agencies of the folly of ignoring sustainability or carbon footprints in calculation development.  The map reveals the importance of what data we include in the map, and what story we decide to make it tell.  The visualizations of forest loss provide a far more finely grained story of carbon emissions, less artificially flattened along national lines, and focusses on one variable in need of urgent response.  And at a time when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds natural resources by twice, such footprints might be more compellingly visualized and communicated.  Forest degradation provides a particularly relevant index of global impact, both a record of compromised carbon storage and since the destruction of biomass in land-use change creates a massive 17-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions and irremediable loss of habitat for vertebrate animals.

7.  The vivid contrast between geolocated data within the interactive web maps create a dynamic panorama that tally tree loss to reveal an actual imprint of the human economy on deforested lands–far beyond what it was during the entire twentieth century due to new techniques of clear-cutting.


Darius Kinsey (1861-1945), Crescent Camp Number One (c. 1930)

forestfragmentationMAINSavannah River Site Corridor Experiment examining the effects on habitats on the edges of forest  

Photograph:  Ellen Damschen

The global and regional maps parse local data changes in the size, fragmentation, and density of forests over different periods of time that provide a crucially informative tool to examine the rapid pace of our apparent losses and rabid degradation of forested lands–losses of which many, if not most, are blithely unaware.

The striking coloration of the interactive map jointly charts the diminution and growth arboreal expanse worldwide to alert viewers to the impact of the footprint of forest loss and clearings.  In ways that are easily apprehended, bright colored magenta pink call attention to the relative loss of forests in different areas that one can scrutinize in zoomable fashion, to generate legible maps that show forest degradation that convert available data with a precision that seems almost instinctively legible far more dynamic and more legible than a bubble map that is abstracted from the land. The zoomable record of terrain allows one to track the points of forest loss against intact forests in such disparate regions as Amazonia or around Lake Victoria in the Congo or the Northwest Territories, tracking the extent to which such loss outstrips any areas of forest gain (highlighted in periwinkle blue) and allows one to observe the intensity of loss across land.  Even if they include few words, the variability of color and hue provide a case where the land speaks, and the cumulative loss of tree-cover can be examined in detail across borders, and over a twelve-year period of time in which the forces of globalization have made their impact felt worldwide:

Amazon Footprint? footprint in Central Africa

And to observe the scale of the “footprint” at a considerable high resolution, taking into account the losses of tree cover that are registered in relation to the areas of “intact forest landscape” that is registered in dark kelly green, with small areas of forest growth noted in periwinkle blue, in ways that synthesize a record that shows the degrees to which tree loss is exceeding the capacities of local ecosystems that may be particularly fragile indeed, and forever transfigured:

lake victoria pallette

Weirdly predictable patterns of tree loss line what seem to be rivers that run into older intact forests in the Central African Republic:

tree loss in CAR

The areas devoted to lumbering across the Northwest Territories can be noted in an overlay of tan, setting it off from the areas of considerable tree cover loss that are relatively widespread within it, but spread with a terrifying concentration of clustering in areas of intact forest landscape as well:

Canada forests lumber

The very visibility of a footprint in these satellite maps materialize the concept of a sustainable footprint that Mathis Wackernagel first developed, and is associate with both Wackernagel and his teacher Rees as a fundamental critical tool of ecological economics.  The recent definition of “intact forest landscape” provides a crucial parameter by which the maps invest materiality in the notion of a “footprint” which build upon desires for sustainability, and a mapping construct that allows one to ascertain and observe forest degradation in new ways, and indeed the extent to which most industrialized countries have far outstripped their “carrying capacity” of their lands.

Indeed, the problems of sustainability have been deeply exacerbated by globalized trade that Rees and Wackernagel’s demand to reduce our ecological footprint–too readily directed at a few nations, rather than recognized as important as a global imperative–demands an ability to confront the problem of ecological overshoot that would have as its most obviously persuasive source the form of a world map whose uniform distribution allows us to target the biomass in need of protection.

amazon_soil-Guenter Fischer:World of Stock

It is striking, however, that if the notion of a “footprint” provides a reflective tool to take consciousness of outstripping global resources, it has been widely adapted in ways that almost excavate it of the attention to ecosystems.  Most recently, the notion of the “footprint” has enjoyed far wider currency as a cartographic conceit, diluting its original intent in an almost comic turn, when adopted by the US Department of Defense in 2008 to illustrate the global dominance of the presence of military forces over an unprecedentedly far-flung portion of the globe, in an apparently odd appropriation warping Rees’ original intent.

DoD Footprint 2008

If one feels need for taking break from the depressing metaphorical use of footprints global and military, a nicer appropriation of the footprint lies in how vineyard-owner Bonnie Harvey decided in 1968 to include her personal footprint as the playful logo to evoke the stamping of a grape harvest, before the widespread adoption of Wackernagel’s phrase–in this “wet” footprint, if its connotations of local eating carry far more self-satisfied semantics of the California coast–albeit in ways that are now marketed by Gallo wines–as well as a sponsor of fun-runs across the state, playing on the image of the former tradition of treading grapes in vats by foot to extract their juice in annual crushings:


With the sort of untrammeled demand for commodities and consumption that has led us to double the Gross World Product in less than twenty years, driven not only by population growth but a rapid expansion of per capita energy expenditure, the importance of acknowledging and recognizing the accelerated appropriation of global resources and natural capital seems increasingly tied to crafting such an “ecological footprint” analysis in adequately persuasive terms. Yet it is reassuring that the growing footprint of the globalized economy on forest worldwide have encouraged the adoption in Canada of a Plan Nord, in which the same government often challenged for protecting foresting rights has promised to protect some 50% of the forested land above the 49th parallel in the province of Quebec, in a major accord to protect intact forests in the northern part of the country from mining, industry, lumber and development, that commitment to conservation that provides a possible basis for similar program of protecting forests in the Northwest Territories, and much of the world. Plan Nord

8.  The peculiar construction of the maps of forest degradation prepare a record invites examination through the concept of a “footprint” as both a metaphor and figure of speech implying an ecological balancing act.  If Longfellow described the hope to “leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time” able to inspire exemplaric lives that “can make our lives sublime,” the maps of dramatically diminishing forest-cover detail a threat that, while the public commentator and self-styled linguist William Safire once disdained this apparent “March of the Metaphoric Footprints” as a migration of meaning that seemed sloppy in its claims, and Safire, although long pro-corporate, may have been upset by the ready currency that it gave a metaphor which barely indicated the scale of its actual impact and, even moreso, the notion that an Emersonian image of untampered nature that “shines into the eye and heart” to create a “perfect exhilaration” was far from what Safire sought it worth the time to preserve.

But the incommensurability of the image might have been a large part of the problem for the New York Times pedant. The conceptual tool of Rees and Wackernagel, however, did not build on the notion of the “virgin land” and “untrammeled” landscapes as free from human impact, pace Howard Zahniser, as would be evident in not leaving evidence or footprints from a visit, but to suggest a recognition of just how great such footprints could be.  Wackernagel adopted the more pedestrian metaphor of the spatial footprint that a computer left on a desk, to suggest an empirical index and analytical tool that could be quantified.  The economics of ecological footprints provides less a figurative than an analytic tool, able to be identified and measured by global hectares, rather than by marks in the sand, and measured against the biocapacity of the earth, and a question of the consciousness of individual impacts on the environments in which one lives.  As Togtokh calculated, the footprint seemed to decisively grow in countries where levels of consumption seem so widespread to outstrip consciousness of environmental impact.

Emerson imagined the glory of nature from a subjective position, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,” as triggering a place where “all mean egotism vanishes: and “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” in a transcendent moment, where in the “line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” the notion of an ecological footprint returns to the material dependence of man on nature.  How to map that dependence, and describe the amount of land required to support a person, and indeed the ecological footprints of economies, and the appropriation of land in each, poses a question that the MODIS satellite images help map in a cognitively persuasive fashion.


It is hard to see how such an ecological impact could be adequately visualized or grasped.  Safire may have been intentionally obtuse in pooh-poohing the footprint’s use as a figure of speech.   Wackernagel and Rees strove to indicate the impact humans exercise on the environment, the image of an idyllic erasure of egotism and uplifting to infinite space was less the aesthetic than a hope to minimize the impact of human activity on the landscapes.  The constraints or limits on hopes for sustainability have often been charged, based on data of national policy, as a failure of ecological responsibility, or of running against the limits of what is able to be sustained by natural resources:  and the sensitivity of the biomass of forests as a reserve of CO2 provides a uniquely tangible instance of such a national responsibility.  While often not included in the maps we make of carbon emissions, which distinguish countries by directly translating data of million metric tonnage of carbon produced–the map’s tones suggest a scolding of lifestyle, habits or inefficient policy controls, but fail to render the emission-levels in tools of critical response.  Indeed, most maps root emissions them in levels of industrial production and population density that provide limited possibilities of being grasped save in a very broad sense of differences of lifestyle or something so broad as if it were a cultural choice in consumption patterns. map_CO2_emissions_Patz05University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab

The alternative of parsing data in slightly more sophisticated manners on a scale of sustainability can foreground surpassing an threshold of biological capacity of local resources, alerting us to where the planet exceeds its biocapacity in hectares, which shows, again, the concentration of populations within those areas that individual consumption exceeds the biocapacity of regions, creating a heuristic tool to understand the inadequate relation of markets to levels of natural goods worldwide.

footprint:biocapacityGlobal Footprint Network–Wikipedia

9. Although there is some value in giving a embodied form to Wackernagle’s metaphor for measuring the regional release of gaseous emissions and carbons in the popular infographic of Stanford Kay’s Information Graphics Studio, intended for the international edition of Newsweek, but popularized in the Atlantic, the foot-shaped bubble map metaphorically removes the “footprint” from measuring environmental impact on the globe.  It seems a playful reference to the measurement of gasseous emissions, able to be perused to note the extent of the problem, but not to communicate the impact of emissions on the world–and hence perhaps of more elegance than either hortatory or monitory value.


Kay’s quite colorful mapping of carbon emissions quite unsurprisingly located the most populous nations as the greatest emitters–China is at the ball of the foot and the United States as its heel.  A complimentary view of per capita emissions instructively altered the picture a bit–suddenly, the Virgin Islands appear at the foot’s ball, and not the populous United States.

Kay Two Feet-  national and per capita

Despite the infographics’ elegance, does there remain a risk that such a statistical distribution of emissions distracts us from the changes that globalization has wrought in our environment, and the drastic degradations of the forests that are themselves the consequence of such elevated levels of consumption?  And does it detract from the degree to which the destruction of biomass and carbon storage provides an equally looming biological danger, of proportions that we have not been able to fully grasp?  Indeed, by revealing the shared nature of what remain common problems of the loss of carbon storage worldwide–and animal habitat–the map departs from a nation-by-nation mapping of dangers, in ways that might seem to inherit nineteenth or twentieth century classifications incommensurate with a problem of truly global proportions of the loss of biomass, by spacing and ordering of uniquely obtained data of forest loss that the viewer can readily grasp, rather than being forced to confront in all its monolithic immensity. The problem is one of organizing data in a suitably readable form.

For such powerfully damning visualizations, while embodying a footprint, often remain quite disembodied from the nature of the losses of resources or generation of waste that they imply, and ask whether the display of data is enough:  the limitations on engaging with the maps suggest that the display of data is so overwhelming to ifrustrate or press against the limits of representation, and discounts the effectiveness of how meaning can concretized in maps that direct attention to the disappearance of resources and the alterations of carbon footprints on the land.  The detail of the Global Forest Watch web map is brilliant in the ability to investigate a uniform global standard for accelerating degradation that help us grasp meaning in all the mess, in ways that almost make one start to think good things about Google Earth, as surprising as that might be.

10.  The image of loss of forested lands–and loss of trees–provides a concise statement of the growth of our collective carbon footprint.  Although one continues to wonder whether data is enough to represent the compromise of the biosphere, or how global footprints can be more crisply visualized than the bubble maps of carbon footprints, the loss of lumber is revealed with indelible accuracy on these maps’ face that make them more readily graspable, their content most cognitively persuasive and suitably compelling in impact to impel viewers to navigate local details in their surface:  the distribution of data in this map is rendered more transparent and uniquely able to preserve a sense of local impact in less disembodied manner.  The below distribution indeed concretizes the local lossses of tree-cover that MODIS has registered over twelve years–or from 2001 to 2012–in ways that remind us of the reduction of tree cover over that decade not only in the American south or shores of Mexico, but in much of California, Washington, and Oregon, and across British Columbia with a texture difficult not to admire. loss:gain north america w:o xGlobal Forest Watch By the insertion of layers, the map’s snapshots of the earth’s surface can be investigated by drop-down menus, allowing one to map tree loss across regions of intact forests or tree cover, to calibrate the nature and consequences within a picture of existing treecover loss in, say, California: tree cover loss california GFW 2001-13Global Forest Watch or to map the targeted intensity of wood losses on the edges of denser woodlands in Central American forests in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras against regions in Mexico, using data that might otherwise be less often assumed to be interchangeable and equally valid: Deforestation in Central America and Mexico against tree coverGlobal Forest Watch

11.  The huge value of the dynamic cartographic synthesis by Google Earth Engine lies in the comprehensiveness and accuracy with which it allows us to start to comprehend forest loss.  Indeed, elegant search functions allow users to detect, despite some questions that could be raised about the ability of the MODIS satellite to detect lighter forests and brush, rapidly advancing variations in forest-loss worldwide. The visualization allows one to scrutinize the relative extent of the forest cover’s local degradations worldwide and over time:  the amassing of this data on a Google Earth Engine was achieved in several days that offered both a compelling advertisement for its readiness to process geospatial data, and the possibility of modeling the relative intensity of losses of forest land in a brightly vivid dayglo green, creating a compelling graphic that testifies to the depletion of forested lands worldwide that clearly coincides with globalization:  indeed, the comprehensive tracking of the lost of forests in fluorescent green areas from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo and Brazil, and from Cambodia to Russia to Central America and northern Canada reveals substantial clearance of forests, independent if linked to forest fires and protected forestland.

The layering of degrees of forest loss moreover creates a compellingly synthetic record of land-use. waterspace in world?World Resource Institute The chromatic variations among our shrinking forests worldwide was remapped to model the loss of tree cover worldwide from 2000-12, courtesy the World Resource Institute, is perhaps more shocking–and more easy to know how to respond to–than global warming.  The illustration of a loss of tree cover since the year 2000, which has doubtless progressed far more extensively since, suggests something like a plague of deforestation, which far outweighs tree cover gain in the same period–over this period, the loss of 2.3 million square kilometers constitutes something like an atrophying of the forestlands worldwide, approximated by the WRI to equal the disappearance of some fifty soccer fields of forest each and every minute of every day, for long over a decade, at the same time as only .8 million square kilometers of forest was replanted.

If by 2005, about 30% of the land on earth was covered by forest, just under four billion hectares, the increasing loss and degradation of forests poses an ongoing challenge. The data reveals what is happening to the world’s forests in a globalized economy.  If the amount of energy expended on clearing forests alone has been estimated to constitute between 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2012, the storage of carbon in forests–and the forest’s value as a source of economic livelihood–are both threatened by the dangers of deforestation worldwide.  The detailed interactive map that was produced by real-time feeds of a MODIS satellite and synthesized by a Google Earth engine combines sensed layers of forest depletion over time to create a suitably sensitive platform to monitor forested land, using work of Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland to map forest cover  in that suggests a dramatically new way that we might understand and comprehend the effects of globalization on our concepts of the inhabited world, by toggling back and forth on a sliding bar to reveal the scope and scale of forest depletion from 2000 to 2013. The data is striking–but is it ever enough as an effective embodiment of the scale or varied concentrations of such an expansive loss of biomass?

tres loss 2000-2012Forest Loss World-Wide (Global Forest Watch)

To an extent, the maps of tree loss that were created by the Global Forest Watch, a partner of the University of Maryland, use satellite readings to refine the forest/non-forest global mosaic that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) assembled from Aperture Radar aboard the Advanced Land Observing Satellite DAICHI.  The composite imaging of an accurate global distributions of forested land, at a resolution within ten meters, called attention to the degree to which forest degradation increased CO2 emissions created for a 2010 summit of the Group on Earth Observation in Beijing that set a new standard in remotely observed calibration of earth cover that starkly foregrounded threatened areas.

20101021_daichi_1 20101021_daichi_3

The unprecedented resolution of these images created a compelling watermark for future forest loss, and directed attention to deforestation that provoked the United Nations to declare 2011 as the Year of the Forests that celebrated heroes of local land management.  The layering of measurements of forest loss over time in the MODIS maps offered a comprehensively view the effects of forest loss  and view tree loss over time. What can explain such a radical augmentation of deforestation, concentrated in relatively specific areas?  Despite the improving curbs on forest loss in Brazil, for example, the deep increases in forest losses in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia, offset any gains across the earth, and suggest a lack of orientation toward conservation or stewardship, or an economics of sustainability of the sort that is only beginning to be championed–if Paraguay had the highest ration of forest loss to gain, Cambodia and Malaysia among the highest rates of loss and Indonesia the greatest increase in forest loss in the period under study, when the rate of local annual deforestation more than doubled, suggesting the complete lack of any safeguards for sustainable forestry.  And rather than being based on self-reported numbers, as is often the case, the Landsat picture that emerges is effectively able to balance the objective disappearance of forested land in ways that the principal scientists broke down by year, with the aqua and red corresponding to 2013 and 2012 respectively, and orange noting years between 2000 and 2012, and yellow 2000: forest losses 2013 At times, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, the effects can be particularly dramatic, if not traumatic:

loss of forest over time teee loss legend

The maps suggest the very limited weight carried by notions of forest growth conservation worldwide. To examine the loss of forested land alone, highlighted below by a bright magenta, the drastic diminution of forested lands lost, alone, in North America that occurred was concentrated predominantly in Canada and Alaska, including the Boreal Forest, as well as an unprecedented destruction of forested lands in much of the American South, suggests a huge shift in the human relation to the environment, and was matched with a vigorous and systematic degradation of forested lands in Russia and Scandinavia, to suggest an almost obliviousness to the losses incurred in forested lands and their habitats, as what seems a truly free market eats, rather like mildew, into the forested regions of what have been aptly called the planet’s lungs.  The rather unprecedented decade-plus long expansion into forested areas is not only a displacement of natural habitats, but a severe compromising of tree cover in our lived environment, that undoubtedly contributes to the increase of global temperatures.

Forest losss-forests lost

And to model the impact of tree losses, noted above in magenta, against the layers that mark regions of sanctioned lumber (tan) and forests that are intact (kelly green)–and even introduce layers of areas that are designated focusses of conservation.  The impact of the deep incursions in Alaska’s forests is as striking as the expansion of lumbering in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan of formerly intact forests. Canada forests lumber The isolation of forest loss alone suggests a broadly shifting Eurasian landscape, with the deepest incursions on outlying areas of Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland, to be precise) as well as the expansive forest cover across the far eastern lands of the Russian Federation–regions with forests denser and holding far greater amounts of carbon that other national forests. Eurasia Forests LostGlobal Forest Watch, 2001-13 MODIS information might be placed against intact forests mapped in Russia: intact russian forests diaspora And identify its relative density and biomass: biomass forests Russian Fed within a record of those dispersed protected areas in Russian parks: Forested Russian Parks

The modeling of satellite data amassed at the the University of Maryland‘s Department of Geographical Sciences, with a Google Earth Engine, has led to a far more detailed interactive map to be published by the newly founded Global Forest Watch to document that shrinking lungs of the planet, when one balances the imbalances between contrasting tree cover gain (blue) and loss (pink) from 2001 to 2013 offers a way to register interaction with our environment in stunning local detail, that reveals the extent of the aggressively pockmarked surface of forests in much of northern Canada, in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, inland of Hudson Bay.  Despite a degree of forest gain, the deep incursions of tree cover loss create a grim picture of the future landscape of the continent, and suggest the benefits of layering levels of growth v. loss of forests, and revealing the clear imbalances between the two.  If sustainability is about maintaining a level of balance–and of ecological equilibria–the virtual assault on the forest, that last refuge from urbanized space, increasingly seen as an obstacle to growth, reveals both an abdication of responsibility for environmental impact, and a broad scattering of the extraction of forest growth from the globe:  the scattering of forest loss in remote areas, perhaps subject to less rigorous oversight, makes such a mapping of the global impact of deforestation over time particularly pertinent.

loss:gain Nafta areasGlobal Forest Watch 

For the impact of deforestation, if we might begin from North America, is truly globalized. The concentration of tree loss in the US South is not only pronouncedly accentuated, but seems to have occurred without restraint as “wooden pellets” were gathered, often for exportation across existing wooded areas, removed as a layer of in the first map, but shown in light green below.

Tree Loss in US South

widespread forest losses in South East

The northern regions reveal an even more pronounced targeting of forested areas in northern provinces jut below the Northern Territories. Despite dedicated spots for foresting in Ontario, there seems to have been a much greater expansion of regions of something approaching clear-cutting to the farther north, that tell a story of large-scale licit forest degradation in the particularly pock-marked lands of northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, stained with blotches of magenta that record the intensity of forest depletion and sites of local degradation:

Canada clearcutting

The same region where matches the areas of tree cover across North America.

tree cover belt in canada below NT

Layering of areas of conservation reveals how several protected regions closely intersect–and indeed overlap–with the extent of forest loss, in ways that could provide a prompt for investigative journalism, as well–potentially–an illegal wood trade that is quite difficult to control: protected canada The local degradation of forests to the north can be placed in the context of both tan regions denoting zones that are dedicated to lumbering and the kelly green regions of intact forests, often bordering on ocean waters–

intact forest Canada:logging:tree losss

or, thanks again to Global Forest Watch, balanced against the degree of degradation of forests and range of intact forests in the data bank over an eleven year period from 2000: 2000 forest levels The strikingly similar selective inroads into forested areas are evident across Russia–where severe inroads in pockets of the deep forest lands north of Mongolia–seem to suggest the global character of an almost systematic program of deforestation, far exceeding the intense lost of forests in other areas of the country.

Russian incursions

Above Kazakstan and Mongolia

If one is to map the same region against protected forests, the composite revealed of protected areas that are often violated by loss of forests and odd balance between scattered regions of protectionism and deep inroads of forest loss are difficult to reconcile.

protected areas?

Or map the widespread absence of tree cover in relation to the shrinking intact forests of the region:

Russian forests

Or the limited growth of new forests, shown in periwinkle blue, against the lost tree cover and intact forests:

Russian forest cover, blue cover gain

Is the concentrated incursion into forest lands–and resulting loss of forest–a shared condition condition, a result of laissez faire economics, apparent deregulation or lack of coordinated protection of forests, that is a consequence of globalism?  For if globalism entails, as Giddens has it, not only ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’ but a shift in the understanding of place and localisms with distinct bearing on geographic understanding, the depletion of forest cover in concentrated but widely dispersed regions suggest a new understanding of forest loss.  The years from 1990 has seen a dramatically unprecedented expansion of CO2 emissions, especially in developing nations, that may be closely tied to the depletion of tree-cover worldwide.

12.  The loss of tree-cover quite constructively is mapped against the gain in forests, contrasting losses in bright pink/magenta against blue growth, as a means to track local variations in a spreading environmental catastrophe that suggests a colonization of former forested lands, not only due to deforestation but to the disregard for arboreal habitats, with deep losses in the boreal forest and pacific northwest that will haunt the continent to come–despite some repeatings, leading areas to be colored purple, the acute absences of forests has progressed over the interval of twelve years tracked by the LandSat images to an extent that the local environments may never recover. It may be the case, sad as it seems, that we are actually increasingly tied together and to one another in an age of globalized economies by the disappearance of forests at multiple spots across the globe:  if there is a clear consequence of the 1992 trade agreement that lifted all tariffs between the US, Canada and Mexico known as NAFTA, for example, it is evident in the dispersal of trade in wood pellets and chips–at times a notorious means of smuggling–as previous duties on wood products from Canada of up to 16% on softwood and lumber were eliminated, expanding the amount of hardwood lumber imports to the US, US imports of wood more broadly, and trade of US wood to Canada (including hardwood lumber, veneer, plywood) as their prices lowered or decreased.  The large amounts of oak and hardwood from Mexico to the US in pre-NAFTA days would definitely increase. While the government has encouraged such trade as an economic benefit, the expansion of forest degradation that results–and which the below map tracks–they mask the considerable global problem of greenhouse gas emissions that are due to forestry and land-use change, and the troubling finality of a change in greenhouse gas emissions hat the degradation of forests–and especially old growth or boreal forest–creates.  (Clearing and burning forests creates a fifth of such emissions worldwide; the loss of trees constitutes a deeper damage on the global environment.)

n + c americasGlobal Forest Watch

And purely by mapping loss, and noting the pocking of the northern forests due to inroads of depleted tree cover:

los n and   ameicaGlobal Forest Watch

The relation of the degradation of forests to globalization is perhaps most sharply revealed when moving to the Central America, and the regions of Guatemala and Belize mined for forest wood: targeting central america over 11 years The widespread compromising of local environments can be read through the foregrounding of layers that creates quite compelling narratives about forest-cover even for those who had limited sustained interest in the economics of wood:  despite some densely intact forest landscapes inland in Malaysia, for example, and regions in Indonesia and Thailand, the tree cover loss from 2000-2013 suggests narrative of expanded logging for lumber, oil palm, and wood fibre, indicated by tan, ochre, and brown, in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore and a picture of economic squandering of resources:

despite dense with logging

The degree of loss by forest fire might be isolated, moreover, to determine which sort of loss of regional carbon is described in Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines:

fires vietnam malaysia singapore

Deforestation in central Africa seems more due to a combination of mining and logging, and seems to have grown up surrounding the remaining intact forest landscapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and conceals multiple narratives of commercial sacrifice of landscapes to an international demand for wood, as well as for the monies of other countries, the forests of Western Africa long depleted:

deforestation in Central Africa

The areas of Brazil and South America that constitute the Amazon suggest a growth of compromised forests on the edges of intact forest in 2013, concealing the far greater expanse of tree cover just thirteen years earlier:

intact tree cover amazonia

Intact forests in 2000, noting also tree cover expanse in lighter green:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

Tree cover in 2000:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

One is, in the end, overwhelmed by the range of maps and layovers, in ways that are almost as difficult to process as the data on which they are based.  How to hold onto it, or ascertain the economical exchanges that are, so to speak, lying under these maps?

13.  There has clearly been a pronounced warping since 1990 of local attitudes toward wood and forestry, and a rising appetites for wood:  and despite the value of the time-lapse visualizations of forest growth or loss in a truly world-wide picture, the maps provide a point from which to raise questions about how global markets for wood are hastening the degradation of the untouched forest lands of specific environments, they also remove that data from a larger picture of economic exchange.  A counerpart is offered in how the Worldmapper tool and website valuably reveals regional imabalances and discrepancies through its warped cartograms, highlighting, based on FAO statistics, the disproportional nature of the appetite for wood, and the increased reliance on international markets that concentrate the decimation of existing forests in an ever more disparate trade of woods from China, Indonesia, Scandinavia and Brazil–as well as Canada, Malaysia, and the United States.  (Indeed, the specific imbalances of areas like China, which is known to buy up wood from neighboring regions and then resell wood products to the United States and Japan, offers evidence of the degree to which economies of wood are removed from woodcover questions, although wood purchases often originate form nearby areas Malaysia or, in the case of the United States, Honduras, Canada, or Belize.)

The compromising of local forests is not only due to professional farming of wood or “forestry” production of “farmed” wood, which has been nicely plotted for the year 2011 by Worldmapper in the form of a cartogram which reveals a large and flourishing industry of forest growing, using data from the FAO, in a warping of nations’ relative sizes that reflects the large-scale outsized business in forestry in China, Japan, and Indonesia, where wood seems plentiful, and across much of Scandinavia and the United States.

who produces forests?Worldmapper

If the process of globalization has been pegged as convincingly as elsewhere to the consciousness of climate change around the summer of 1988–and the first collective calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions–the process of deforestation is a nice cast of the the impact of what Anthony Giddens aptly and succinctly described characterized as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.’  It reveals distinct change in how we experience localness and place, and indeed a distinct change in the absence of attention to the devastating local effects of the consumption of wood–and entitlement to continued access to a perpetual availability of wood products–in an increasingly globalized economy of natural resources.  Although the Worldmapper maps have the unfortunate effect of warping countries to erase place, the maps that were designed to show global imbalances in forest production, consumption, and growth provide a regional context in which to understand the losses of trees in many regions of the world, and the deforestation of particular places.

Whereas the statistics don’t include the considerable illegal wood trade, the limited nature of forest growth worldwide–nil in Canada or Russia, slim in Central America or Brazil, and significant only in some regions like the US or Vietnam where wood is an important cash crop. The production of forests in different lands seems proportionally concentrated in China, doubtless to meet local markets for wood, and is reflected in the mapping of forest growth from 1990-2005–a time over which the range of forests in much of Brazil and Mexico was rarely augmented to great extent, despite the heavy loss of forests in those regions, and a pronounced lack of the sustainability of forests in Indonesia:


The scale of planting forests surely respond to deep differences in the consumption of forests, outsized in industrialized nations, no doubt for tastes in consumption, and particularly bloated in Japan, Germany, England and the United States as well as Brazil, each of which–particularly England, Japan, and the US–seems to outstrip its production considerably; Canada clearly destines most of its produced wood for export, but China was using an outsized share of wood worldwide –given the near absence of extensive forests in its territory, after the destruction of much of the forests in the South:

Forest Consumption--2005

The consequent degradation of existing forests worldwide might be nicely visualized, in a map generated also by the University of Maryland, this time with Greenpeace, by situating the areas of marked degradation against forests lands as of 2013, against the spectre of those forests that are now no longer intact–against which we can orient ourselves and imagine the scope and scale of the loss of woods–and no doubt the economy and ways of live that the woods provide, as much as their role as lungs of the planet that allow for its very habitation.


The issue of wood exports is clearly an issue of sensitive proportions for the hypertrophied regions of Southeast Asia, as well as North America, and one that suggests particularly pronounced effects of globalization on the wood market in both Sweden, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Korea, which suggests the distorted nature of the market of legal trade in wood that motivates the degradation of the forests in those countries–and to some extent in Brazil:


The effects of the loss of forest-cover seems among the most prominent–if rarely discussed–aspects of the arrival of the anthropocene, in which the subtraction of forested lands has explicitly altered the nature of the environment.  Hennig was quick enough–as well as ever-industrious–to create a range of a stunning cartogram warped by the relative depletion of forests  of the loss of forested environments between 1990 and 2005, which was not offset by the growth of forests in the same years.  The cartogram is particularly stunning for how it depicts the disproportionate nature of the depletion of forest lands across the southern hemisphere, especially in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Brazil as well as central America and Central Africa, whose disproportional distribution amounted to a loss of 7.3 million hectares over those fifteen years alone.

forest lossesAmount of Forested Land Lost in Each Country of the World, 1990-2005

At the same time, few forests grew in the southern hemisphere in that same period of fifteen years:


But the most convincing map of the global disparities that arose in the last twenty-five years is what is evident in the most distorted of cartograms showing the relative depletion of the resource of forested lands, based on the irresponsible felling of trees without provision for future growth:  for the world doesn’t exactly fold in half, in this map, but the pronounced lack of responsibly sustainable growth in Guatemala and parts of Central America and much of Malaysia, India, Pakistan, and Central Africa and Ethiopia, reveals a world where poorer countries seem the largest losers, less habituated to practices of sustainability as they are, and more driven by market forces against their own interests–or at least against the interest that the cameralist Hans Carl von Carlowitz would be able to recognize.

Hennig maps forest depletionWorldmapper/Benjamin Hennig

A compelling Worldmapper cartogram maps tree cover against local population is particularly powerful in the suggestion of how disproportionately the survival of forests is endangered by high areas of population–the very areas with an elevated populations, if not necessarily “global footprint,” are among the least forested areas of the world.  And the spread of globalization often threatens precisely those increasingly isolated areas of intact forest marked in light green, revealing the relative lack of forested regions in the most popular areas–and the low concentration of intact forests in the Amazon, Central Africa, and parts of Russia.


To be sure, the scale of the radical reduction of global tree cover in a similar transformation are far withdrawn from centers of economic growth, but the remove of forests at an even greater degree from the equator constitutes a dilemma of global consequence. treecover population hennig It is striking, after a somewhat exhausting world tour of the disproportionately skewed nature of forest loss and arboreal compromise, to return to the United States, that remaining densely forested areas in the continent mirrored the striking distribution of the recent map modeling the spread of highly audible levels of anthropogenic sounds across the country, based on data released by the National Park Service, and offer a telling sign of how we inhabit the land in which we live.

green areas on map

USA sound map in decibels

The relative rarity of areas of dense tree cover that remain today in the United States–together with the significant loss of wooded areas in just the past decade, and the marked degradation of forest–suggest a clear record of environmental compromise, if not an evacuation of what might be called the nation’s living landscape–even if the map indicating tree cover noted below it suggests a further diffusion of greenspace in the lower forty-eight:

intact tree cover US

tree cover US

The loss of tree cover in a sense stands out most prominently in the context of what degree of tree cover exists–for the spread of a loss of trees across the deep south, especially notable on the eastern seaboard and in much of Louisiana, as well as outside Denver, in Idaho, and parts of California and Oregon–suggests a loss of the local landscape that may well come back to haunt us.  The spread of forest degradation is not so visibly pronounced in the US, but the extent to which the region is haunted by the specter of long-lost healthy forests or “non-intact” forests surely is–the modeling of our current forest cover is being eroded less by a rapacious economy for wood products than it is concentrated in fairly specific sites of large-scale clearing.  But non-intact forests seem in clear danger of greater compromise.


14.  It is striking that although the origins of the word “sustainability”–Nachhaltigkeit–and the concept of sustainability have often been traced only to recent years, expressing ideas linked to the 1969 US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for some was first coined in 1972 in Blueprint for Survival as a concept that related to man’s future. But when it was introduced in the Enlightenment, the Saxon nobleman Hans Carl von Carlowitz employed Nahhatligkeit in an illustration of his cameralist thought as a matter of good sense back in 1713.

Von Carlowitz apparently coined the ethical charge of sustainability in the context of sustained-yield forestry, Sylvicultura Oeconomica, a monument cameralist thought in forestry affirming responsible stewardship of forests.  If responded to deep fears on the continuing ability to derive a sustainable economic value unless one refrained from over-forestation and depletion of lumber stocks.  If written out of deep concern as a civil servant and mining inspector who sought forest ordinances in the Electoral Saxony to conserve resources for the common good, von Carlowitz deliberated the forest ordinances in theElectorate of Saxony where he served as Chief Inspector of Mining, introducing an ethics of economic conservation of nature that preceded the Tharandt Forest Academy in 1811; in calling for conservation of forests for lieben Posterität, he communicated a powerful notion of bequeathing a world undisturbed by unwisely aggressive or opportunistic interventions. Von Carlowitz’s message framed the concept of mitigating human intrusiveness on the landscape as a “sustained forest yield” around his native Saxon lands, Ulrich Grober has observed, with an intentional of the present’s responsibility to future generations, and as a reasoned reaction to the shock created by wood shortages after the Thirty Years’ War.  The war created a contempoorary crisis in the availability of wood prompted assuaging of fears to ensure that the “great wood shortage . . . be pre-empted,” and awareness that “more wood was felled than grew over many ages” that were more reasoned than the deep-seated apocalyptic fears of the humanist Melanchthon’s prediction that in  “the end of time, man will suffer great need for wood [am Ende der Welt man an Holtz grosse Noth leiden werde].”  It is likely, Grober suggested, that von Carlowitz wrote with knowledge of John Evelyn’s hope to manage England’s forests in Sylva or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber, where he advocating the need to coordinate replanting forests to secure future ships for the navy, the “wooden bulwarks of the kingdom.”  Evelyn cautioned that”Men should be perpetually planting, that so Posterity might have Trees fit for their service,” but did not do a map to chart the losses of trees that had occurred; Evelyn however articulately feared lest “we thus continue to destroy our Woods, without this providential planting in their stead, . . . felling what we do cut down with great indiscretion, and regard to the future.”  These dire warnings shortly preceded how Colbert initiated a similar program for protecting forests for shipbuilding in France to calm fears about wood shortages, leading him to be cited by von Carlowitz as a model for responsible conservation.  But von Carlowitz’s cameralism went farther in calling wood “essential for the conservation of mankind [daß das Holtz zur conservation des Menschen unentbehrlich sey, (p. 372)],” and constraining consumption in relation to the resources forests could support, and intentionally managing a forest’s limited resources as an incumbent responsibility and an ethics of good stewardship.


US Forest Service

The importance of continued responsible stewardship is no longer only based on academic expertise for the common economic benefit, and transcends the concerns or training in administrative expertise.  Indeed, the maps of global losses in biomass are both more shocking than the fears of an impending lack of supply for wood markets, since they reveal the steep consequences of the disappearance of tropical rainforests and subtropical biomes to meet the needs of a growing global population–both by wood extraction and the conversion of forested land to pasture.  

But they provide an effective embodiment of the ongoing loss of forests that go far beyond the needs of an individual state.  Even though the United Nations only used the world in a document in 1978, according to Charles Kidd, and “ecological footprint” entered public policy papers as a sort of benchmark and measurement in later years and perhaps widespread usage only after 1987 in the UN World Commission on Economic Development, the lack of a common metric of sustainability no doubt led William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel to advocate the importance of an “ecological footprint” as an ethical imperative, and its adoption as a criteria for the responsible harvesting and planting of trees (as well as, of course, in the economics of forestry).

If we have been increasingly blinded to the sense of such a footprint–even despite the continued ability to map its occurrence for decades–the rise of disproportionate deforestation of the subtropical biomes in the globalized economy finds a counterpart in the measurements of a MODIS satellite–an instrument more widely associated with surveillance and spying, to be sure–to preserve an eerily unimpeachable public record of environmental loss.  Although the loss of wood is not effectively embodied in the above maps, the concept of sustainability and sustainable practices demands comparable efforts of mapping, as is partially suggested by the degree to which we risk warping the use of our resources, lacking much sense of the language of sustainability or biocapacities, absent a clear visualization of the extent of forest degradation worldwide–and an awareness of the intense over-foresting of areas of critical habitat, as well as of forests critical in their storage of carbon.

15. Those remaining areas of intact forest landscapes has receded outside many of the areas of the habited world, as the cartograms designed by the Sheffield group and Worldmapper that map forest growth against population on an equal projection reveal, suggesting how astronomical levels of population growth occur at considerable remove from forested lands in much of the world–in ways that have large consequences for the lived environments transmitted to future generations extremely significant in the maps of the future we might imagine.   (It is far more difficult to visualize or imagine the loss of forests on a local level, so tremendous are they in scope.  One must consider, however, the loss of forest around the areas so severely afflicted by the recent outbreak of Ebola virus, however, to start to do so.) The naming of 2013 as the Year of Intact Forest Landscapes sought to direct important attention not to the conservation of forests, but the need for the protection of the increasingly isolated islands of intact forests across the world–an image that becomes especially scary if one thinks of forests as the world’s lungs.


It is particularly worthy and jarring to remember the relatively recent date of many losses of formerly intact forest, as we consider how to use maps to start to think–or to try to start to learn how to think about–as well refamilairize ourselves with and recognize where the greatest continuous areas of tree cover in the world are located–both in the band of tropical forests along the equatorial regions of Brazil, Central Africa, and Indonesia, as well as the Russian plains and large stretches Canada above the central wheat fields and south of the Northwest Territories.  These tend to be the same areas where an uneasy balance is occurring between loss and gain of forests, and the losses of of specific regions have been strikingly surpassing gains since 2000.

forest loss since 2000

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Filed under data visualization, forest cover, forest degradation, forests, sustainability

Mapping Feline Itineraries

Among crowd-sourced mapping projects, Cat Tracker is something of an innovation:  rather than map a human environment, it is dedicated to mapping the motions of specific outdoor cats–their individual, day-by-day itineraries–rather than create something like a comprehensive map of a region, such as the HOT (Humanitarian Open Street Map Team) mapping of West Africa to track cases of Ebola.  But the mechanics of mapping are strikingly similar, if perhaps not destined for a larger audience.  While the HOT team uses the Bing imagery to trace a set of shape-files on different quadrants of Liberia or Sierra Leone, high-accuracy GPS sensors attached to the harnesses of individual cats provide the overlay for maps of cities to which they are resident, so one can imagine the regular radius of their strolls.


Cat Migration


User experience designer Alex Lee took the time to track his own cat’s motion by an attachable GPS sensor, tracing his motion around a London neighborhood over a few days to track her explorations around his home.




Where Kitty might go might be quite restricted, and be ompholocentrically concentrated about where she can count on being fed.  Researchers had earlier argued in 2011 that the meanderings of domestic cats are far more spatially restricted or circumspect than the zones of feral cats, one of whom roamed over 1,350 acres in rural areas–the domesticated cat only roamed in the area designated yellow, or usually less than two acres:




The issues of the rise of feral cats, and the danger of zoonotic transmission of protozoal diseases like toxoplasmosis is a serious issue that is only increased by the considerable breadth of their geographic wanderings.

The availability of sensor-laden harnesses to fit domestic cats with accurate GPS sensors has most rapidly expanded, however, and provoked a parsing of feline itineraries that might strike some as just TMI–although they carry the promise to provide a better sense of how cats interact with their urban environments, and engagement with urban wildlife.  While the initial tracking of cats might map as something like noise–


crittercam restricted


an image of itineraries over several days might distinguish paths or even register that one time that the cat’s owners were out of town, and their pet made an itinerary to their old house in the hope of finding food when it could not locate them otherwise, traveling unerringly for almost a full mile.


Big Feline Excursion


Creating a more complicated overlay distinguishing different days allows one to trace a clear record of the cat’s relation to its environment–and the potential incursions cats make into the wooded areas around towns such as Raleigh, NC, where  Cat Tracker has posted feline itineraries mapped with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an online database dedicated to tracking animal movement, Movebank.





Tallulah K seems to have been attracted by a variety of surrounding rural prey or targets, but avoided most major roads:


Talllulah K


Sometimes cat travels seem to record instances driven by car, as a record of feline meanderings over multiple days shown below.  (It is unlikely, if possible, that cat space and human space were so completely congruent.)


Cat-TrackerCat Tracker


Similar results of GPS tracking, perhaps especially entertaining to cat-owners who let their felines  out of doors and wonder about their whereabouts, might provide a composite map of cats from different houses in a single neighborhood, in an attempt to find out what cat-roaming was about, or if it followed any particular logic at all–or what their relations might be called one another’s routes.


_68110711_catsmapRoyal Veterinary College, Structure & Motion Lab


The maps tracked by the Royal Veterinary College offer a basis to answer questions of how cat space maps onto human space, as much as to merely document feline itineraries.

Mapping cats in Surrey may seem like a bizarre surveillance of the domesticated:




Despite the sense that the signs tracking cats have limited legibility, do they signify a premonition of things to come?  On the one hand, this seems an extension of our own expectations for tracking and searching geographic locations.  Mapping seems to have its own logic here, providing the very terms by which we can undertake the variety of projects that technology allows.  Perhaps we’re experimentally using our technologies on our allegedly domesticated animals, as we affix ankle-bracelets with GPS trackers onto sex offenders, and map their residence and whereabouts, at the same as we get used to being tracked ourselves.

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Filed under Cat Tracker, cats, data overlays, Feral Cats, GPS, GPS Sensors, Movebank, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, OpenStreetMap, Royal Veterinary College, Structure and Motion Lab, toxoplasmosis, zoonotic diseases

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

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

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

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

SF Traffic

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

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


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

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


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

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




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

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




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


Stamen Cabs



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


colored map cabs' speeds


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

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


Densest at midtown #4


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


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


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


Densest at Midtown #2


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


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


Big Mapping NYC Taxi Trips from Open Data


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


Uber hand


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




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

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


187 mill Taxi Trips in NYC


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


Blur of Midtown's White Heat


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


GPS Fixes near LaGuardia Airport


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

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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Veins around park and Mysterious Red Dots


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


Strats Blue:Ends Orange-BrooklynBridge #2


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


Corners are often Bulbs


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




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

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


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

Suggested Pickup POint UBER


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

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

Rides into neighborhoods Bradley Voytek


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

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


Vehicles:Sq Mile NYC   Vehicles:Sq MileStreetsBlog LA

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


Car Ownership in NYC and environs Vehicles:Person StreetsBlog LA

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

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


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

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

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

Are We There Yet? The Plane in the Map

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

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

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




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


United Flight Paths:GeoNova.png


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





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




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

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





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


Miles to NY


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Filed under air travel, airspace, flght maps, flight paths, spatial imaginaries

The Will to Map: GPS and its Discontents

Navigating the necklace of highways that hug the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond San Jose with a GPS map affixed to the windshield, you become both disoriented from the panorama before your eyes and quickly aware of the token roadmap GPS offers.  What is the map on the screen doing in the car and when do we need to look at its content?    The question emerges since it’s not clearly a partner to the voice-directions; the interface between isn’t evident or apparent:  the overlay of data on the terrain graphic of a Google Maps backdrop seems interactive, but shows a route, and not a guide or a means to explore paths of other possible travels.  There’s a need to offer a map in our map-saturated culture–but the map is no longer a clear way to translate familiarity with space to their readers, so much as an added document.

The difficulty of internalizing directions from the onscreen map derives from its limited use to orienting oneself, and is unlike the roadmaps that readers internalize over time.  It is not only ready-made and disposable, but seems to exist to satisfy customer expectations for a visual record more than offer users an actual guide.  It has limited relation to the injunctive directions declaimed by a Siri-like voice, and seems a source of ornament despite an absence of actual visual interest, as if it was designed to meet nostalgia for the visual records of automotive navigation on highways and interstates or for a time when we needed maps.  Some drivers might object to directions from a disembodied voice, instead of someone informed about the topography or terrain.

Without those over-creased highway maps in our glove compartment, one grapples with the minimalist Google Maps graphics before surrendering passively to the intoned directions, still frustrated that we can’t  transpose directions from the map, and conscious of being cognitively challenged, but perhaps pleased to contemplate a landscape of trees overhanging on each side of the mountain roads and to follow a course traced from on high.


Boulder Creek Map Traffic


The mechanics of the synthesis of a digitized map is of course completely different compilation of meaning.  But it is most striking that the map didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t that likely to be consulted as a navigational tool and of limited use if one strayed off course the curvy roads in the Santa Cruz mountains; if so, we’d be more likely to look at a paper map anyway, for the image provided little easily-consumed information of fine grain about the mountain roads; the verbal directions were so removed from the map as if to devalue the long history and use of maps as autonomous media: rather than provide the purification of spatial experience often attributed to maps, the schematic Mapquest image distances experience so abstracted from an actual route of travel to minimize our sense of reading space.

As well as a shift in how mapped information is synthesized, digitized maps mark a shift in reading terrestrial expanse and reading one’s place in maps, diminishing the relevance of a coordinate system or apprehension of spatial inter-relations.  Whereas the Mapquest route that defined a path of travel, navigation by GPS seems a new relation between map-use and environment.



The relation to its pixellated surface is rooted in fascination with the image that adjusts on one’s screen synchronized to one’s actual bearings, rather than reading one’s course and the options that it presents.  GPS was not made for wanderers.  The screen notes a route on a formal schema abstracted local terrain, which is replaced by a generic image, its data mediated at a remove from the world as if “flattened” to two dimensions, rather than the sort of surface that invited multiple possibilities.   The map produced on demand places cartography with limited sense of permanence; the personalized nature of the map it creates, as in a service economy, offers an image of terrestrial location that dazzles, but is only commensurate with a specific viewer’s specific needs, and as it is part of a system that provides on-demand maps that can be immediately generated for any global region.

Santa Cruz Mountains

The place of reading a GPS map in a car or a mobile phone is independent from the expectations for both providing and decoding the map.  How maps are read over time offers perspective on how maps address their readers by embodying a relation to space through their synthesis of spatial information.

Such an emphasis is distinct from, say, one on the mathematics by which cartographical projections synthesize data on a uniform graticule or techniques of transferring the curved surface of the world:  one can appreciate these precepts only in a very vague sort of way, similar to ignorance of how GPS generates a map, to read its organization.  As the video by which Google promotes Trekker as a natural extension of a user’s relation to their environment during a walk in the woods.  The mechanics by which the cameras stuffed into a bulky backpack remain both mystified and  outside of the average viewer’s appreciation or ken, but the user is amazed at how the digitized synthesis takes us through a mind-bogglingly detailed record of space.

One is awed by the alternative surrogate awesomeness that the map provides of the Grand Canyon.  The data such maps compile for readers implies a very different sort of map-reading from te far smaller-scale trail maps of a similar region which offers clues to travel on foot, rather than car, whose color-coded signs of elevation, trail lines, and symbols of orientation offer a semantic register to decode.


The legibility of the above map engages different cognitive skills to decipher our position than the plastic formats of mapping in GPS, which derives from a  dramatically different context of the corporate investment in map making, less dependent on attracting viewers than provide comprehensive access.

Google Earth’s data collection and synthesis is unlike that of the National Geodetic Survey’s mandate to maintain “a consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States” for the public, by which “everyone accurately knows where they are and where other things are anytime, anyplace.”  Criteria for mapping are now market-driven and based on providing information for consumers in an explosion of available maps.  Google acquired the digital mapping company Keyhole back in 2004, allegedly when Sergey Brin claims to have been so wowed by digitized maps of bombing Iraq he saw on television.  The digitized satellite maps that Keyhole provided afforded a new way of defining one’s relation to an over-mapped world:  Google’s vice-president, Jonathan Rosenberg, celebrated how the military-grade map-provider used by the Department of Defence was repositioned as it became “a valuable addition to Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” allowing users to “fly like a superhero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere in the world–or . . . map a road trip” by tapping information collected via satellite and airplanes through easy-to-use software.  The rhetoric was fulsome as the acquisition was completed: “The sun is shining brightly in Mountain View,” read the press release, describing Keyhole employees as “all smiles” and Google employees as “all open arms,” as the same software used by the US government to track the arrival of smart bombs to Iraq via a multi-terabyte database (and begun by a venture capital firm backed by the CIA) was re-deployed to dramatically expand the wide, wide world of GPS.

Driving through the region near Mountain View, one couldn’t help think of how the removed view on the GPS screen was a diminished share of the mapping tools Google had purchased.  It’s striking that even in 2004, Google felt the need to calm anxieties about the potentially intrusive nature of such satellite technology that would cover the United States, but was energized by the belief it could unseat Time-Warner’s Mapquest–as it has– in providing its users with a far more robust mapping technology to orient themselves.  “It’s not like you are going to be able to read a license plate on a car or see what an individual was doing when a particular image was taken” in ways that would violate their privacy,” Keyhole’s General Manager, John Hanke reassured the public.  The photographs, after all, were from a database generally six to twelve months old, rather than being real time.  But recent indications about intrusive surveillance suggests that such a project might not have been far from the CIA’s mind in funding the project, which Google rolled out as an innovation in both convenience and reach to craft high-tech maps for viewers from satellite views by its powerful search engine.

GPS  situated its customers into a culture already bombarded by images by granting vicarious participation in a Brave New World of digitized maps.  What is striking in the maps is the near-absence not only of textual but semantic content, which are dramatically reduced in its imagery to increase its ready legibility.  The ways maps were understood in specific sites of reading, argues the medievalist Patrick Gauthier Dalché, who examined the questions that readers from Italian humanists, monks, or the readers of marine charts had for maps, and called attention to the ways of reading maps as much as their semantic construction.

Considering the combinations and forms reading practices a printed map engaged opens interesting possibilities to understand relations of text and image in early printed maps whose readership is not known; it documents the cultural translation of mapped information from manuscript to print, and raises questions for the materials of reading we wax nostalgic when using GPS systems.  It is common to compare the shift in mapping space that digital  interfaces allow to the shift from manuscript and print in the European Renaissance, both as an increased legibility of space that maps diffused and the greater circulation of  maps as reproducible engravings.  We might take time to reconsider the different semantic varieties of map-reading print encouraged,  examining how early printed maps ask viewers to engage a representation of expanse to understand them as forms of spatial literacy.


Ptolemaeus Teutsch


Few land-masses are evident to modern viewers of this printed map of apparently spherical form, an early German translation of Ptolemaic precepts that transposes the form and outlines of a manuscript projection. Most likely adapting the semantic forms originating from a Ptolemaic codex its printer or engraver transposed the map onto the gridded surface of a globe to create the illusion of a mathematically derived spherical projection.  Although the spherical projection is but an illusion, the transposition of a Ptolemaic projection to a spherical grid provided a new way to read its place-names:  a few place-names on the surface of this printed map–“Europa,” “Asia,” “Ethiopia,” and a “Mare Indicum.”  Although the map echoed the tripartite organization of mappaemundi, numbers keyed locations to written descriptions unlike the ancient places listed in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s geographic manual:  the names were not only abstractions, but numbers provided tools to gloss a sophisticated primer of geographic knowledge, using Euclidean precepts to render global expanse on a uniform plane.  Readers would have seen the map and its accompanying German text–the map appeared as the fold-out endpaper of a book titled Ptolemaeus Teutsch–as mediating the ancient classical treatise of world-geography to a broader audience than a tradition of learned geography.

The map abstracted expanse as if to address readers familiar with single-line engraving by compacting of terrestrial relations–although it does not seem to have been as successful as a commodity as its printer hoped.  The limited success of the booklet may reflect the extent to which it dramatically and rather drastically condenses geographic data to symbolize measured expanse in a spherical format that imitated how globes prepared a surface for readers to  actively gloss, interpret, and reflect on its symbolization of expanse, and a dynamic tool to render and encode the distribution of worldly expanse.



The reduced size of the engraving encouraged its engraver to use numbers instead of bulky toponyms, in order to create an easily consultable spatial template for placing the known regions on a ruled plane surface which comprehended–and mimicked–the terrestrial globe.


Globe of Ptol Teutsche


If the GPS system made me think of the manner information was processed and distilled on the screen in a passive form of readership, the positioning of place on the globe suggested a combination of tools of single-line engraving and a facility to abstract a geometric record of spatial relations, often tied to a unique exchange between humanist and artists in Nuremberg’s visual culture that printers eagerly exploited to expand the book market.

The map recalls its rough contemporary, Martin Behaim’s Globe, celebrated for concretizing a “mental image” of a new relation to space and place in Nuremberg around 1490. Although it omits America,  the globe’s surface assembled an image of oceanic expanse that confirmed Behaim as master of crafting a modern relation to a  legible space from nautical charts circa 1492.


Behaim Vorstellung


This modern recreation of the Behaim globe’s underlying map suggests how the engraved spherical map reflects the status of globes as material records of regional relations, representing terrestrial curvature as much as to measure spatial relationships with precision or provide a guide for travel, and indeed to arrange the disposition of place on a globe.

The engraving reproduced skills of reading the commodity Behaim presented Maximilian I in 1492; it indicated appreciation of the material construction of the globe in imitating the epistemic claims and encyclopedic intent by combining visual and written on its surface, if in far compacted form.


Behaim's Globe


Behaim had earlier sailed with Portuguese vessels for several years, where he gained access to supposedly secret charts, and fashioned the globe from them, working with the painter, woodblock cutter, and printer Georg Glockendon to assimilate an abundant and expressive tradition of written geography even as they embodying expanse in a new form of material media. Earlier  publishers of colored maps for translations of Ptolemy’s ancient Geography unsuccessfully attempted to reach broad audiences; Behaim’s erdapfel provided a  materially impressive way to depict a comprehensive record of the inhabited world; if it exaggerated the world’s oceanic expanse, it  profited from empty oceans to inscribe written accounts of travelers from Marco Polo to Mandeville, in ways readily readable at a reader’s eye-level.



The self-standing globe attempted to replace written geographic media it amply cited in as a materialization of global expanse, as much as completing empty spaces on the map’s surface:  it suggested empty spaces as a way to pique interest among its readers.  Unlike scholarly editions of Ptolemy, the material condensation of Behaim’s erdapfel was a powerful painted media, juxtaposing huge continents with islands that spill across its surface, making less reference to meridians or parallels than texts to orient its audience and invite them to pour over its content.

Globe's Written Surface


The globe echoes imperial regalia.  Designed for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the modernity of the globe is thematized in a 1939 film about Behaim as a man of action, “Das unsterblich Herz,” portraying Behaim as a  precursor to Columbus, and a Germanic figure of modernity (rather than, say, Luther), whose will to map the world and African coast modernized the imperial heritage of Holy Roman Emperors:  no doubt his globe was imagined as something like a precursor to the Third Reich.  The cinematic retelling of how Behaim fashioned a globe of comprehensive coverage for Kaiser Maximilian I glorified the mapmaker’s imperial service.

The master of kraft, roughly contemporary to Columbus, is presented as conscious of the strategic deployment of maps as tools of dominance that broke with the medieval past:  this Behaim recognized the inaccuracy of sundials or timepieces at sea, and his decisive realization of the need for portable clocks enabled him to map the shore of western Africa, filling uncharted regions of the globe on account of his dedicated perseverance.  The film celebrated Behaim as a man of action and genius, representing the globe-maker’s craftwork and the material globe as an icon of modernity.  The Nuremberger’s skilled instrument making is indeed juxtaposed in the film with two other measures or standards of modernity, clocks and ammunition, which define a modern conception of time and finality that fundamentally broke from medieval conceptions of time and space; the globe-maker seems a figure who rises above medieval conceptions of the closure of the world’s confines, if not of the confines of an imperial expanse–if he also seems a bit manic in his vision than one might suppose of the historical Behaim.


Behaim--Unsterblich herz


The historical Behaim is far more complex, and so is his modernity.  Although the film lionizes a globe-maker who epitomized a way of being-in-the-world for its audience, Behaim worked from manuscript nautical charts to make his globe, and if he fashioned the globe was a modern way of interfacing with space by embodying it in concrete form, the globe provided a medium for reading space informed by multiple sources that its surface effectively synthesized.

Modern reconstructions of the globe and close-up photographs demonstrate how the globe creates a legible surface, a site of reading where place and space not primarily mediated  by meridians or parallels, as much as a grandiose modern conceptions.  Islands as those here around Taprobana suggest less of a unified than fragmentary regions for their reader to imagine, haphazardly situated on  the surface of the far-off the unknown shore of Asia, and as incomplete as closed.  Panels of text seem to anticipate the reading of a new notion of expanse, but treat the globe’s surface more as a composed text than a pictorial cartographical record.


Globe's Written Surface


The organization of meaning on the globe was no doubt in many ways understood as a site of writing, as well as a surface on which to trace extensive rivers, discovery lakes, or find move from the landscape to surrounding written texts.  Conceptually familiar sites like the rubicund Red Sea  provided reminders as much as depicting actual oceanic conditions–as is evident in this lovingly crafted modern facsimile of the globe in Alberta (Canada)–as much as a uniformly distributed graticule; the globe reveals the epistemic difficulty of synthesizing nautical and terrestrial maps even as it provides a surface for reading both in relation to one another.


Globe of Behaim- Africa

Interrogating the map as a scene of reading afford a lens to read the map than evaluating it as a purely formal geometric projection of expanse, but as a material interface.  Behaim’s stationary globe and the printed spherical projection both vaunted the map as a form of reading that its printers believed would reach a large audience.

The German translation seems less profitable as a printing enterprise, and survives in but two editions–only one of which includes the map, now stored in the New York Public Library which was discovered and squirreled out of wartime Europe by the book collector Erwin Rosenthal.  But it suggests a new consciousness of the map as a form of reading space, one that might be reproduced in the form of a German-language primer for a large audience of readers.  The preservation of a measurement of terrestrial relations is often argued to have redefined the map as an autonomous register.  But the sense of the globe as a legible space is even more apparent.  It’s not a coincidence that some of the first globes were donated to libraries, synthesizing written information that parallel the growth of early modern libraries; early globe-makers donated terrestrial and celestial globes to the Vatican libraries–still private, but a world-famous repository of manuscripts and codices.  If print was an early information overload in demand of new expertise to process, the globe was both an abundantly copious container of meaning and a particularly modern means for ordering terrestrial expanse.

Questions of legibility provided the engine for the reproduction of early modern maps.  Even as lines of parallels and meridians were foregrounded in this map by Peter Appian, amplified by Vespucci’s maps and those to include the Americas, reading a globe-like surface was more important for consumers than being able to trace terrestrial locations, although it clearly vaunted the indexicality of place as a basis to better organize place-names or textual content–which now seems subordinate to the disposition of a mapped expanse within a frame in this image based on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1506 wall map, which first named “America,” vaunting a new ability by which a framed expanse could be read, over which our eyes could skim in super-human ways, much as maps offer the neat trick of both embodying  space and allowing us to escape our own embodiment.


Iuxta Ptolemei Cosmographi Traditionem

It’s difficult to recast maps as other than sites of intensive reading. The digitized screen of GPS seems strangely disembodied because it lacks similar tools of decoding. For rather than a dynamic semantic surface, GPS provides limited visual navigational tools that interface with the viewer, even seeming to diminish its readers cognitive skills by replacing a legible register of space.  That is why the map is hard to replace as a material object or legible register.

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Filed under Google Maps, GPS, GPS maps, Keyhole, Mapquest, Martin Behaim, National Geodetic Survey, Siri, Trekker, user interface