Tag Archives: New York Times

Refugee Traffic Scars the Globe’s Surface

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

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

 

Flag_of_the_United_Nations.svg

Harrison Polar Map/Official UN Flag

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

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

7_refugees_and_asylum_seekers

WRSC

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

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

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

 

displaced persons

 

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

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

IDP

IDMC

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

600px-Emblem_of_the_United_Nations.svg

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cancelled Europe?

 

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

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

 

refugee highway map Refugee Highway-Legend The Refugee Highway

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

Refugees-world

Martin Grand Jean

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

actual areas

Martin Grand Jean 

 

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

 

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

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

 

Flag_of_the_United_Nations.svg

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

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

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

Global Trends in Displacement: DestinationsNew York Times

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

 

detail refugees map New York Times

 

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

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

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

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

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

IDP's New York Times

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Syrian refugee displacement New York Times

 

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

admissions of refugees--refugee resettlement assistance FY 2015

White House

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

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

85% refugees

 

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

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

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

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

600px-Emblem_of_the_United_Nations.svg

 

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

 

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

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

 

1930_1366189226_province-orientale-january-2013

 

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

 

179514-ECDM_20140318_SouthSudan_Refugees

 

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

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

 

Global Water Storage 2003-13 legend UC Irvine

 

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

 

GUARDIAN MAPS MEDITERREANEAN MIGRATION ROUTESThe Guardian

 

01_Mediterranean-Sea

 

85188.adapt.676.2 National Geographic

 

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

 

mediterranean-460-1 New York Times

 

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

 

15 million displaced in sub-Saharan Africa

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

 

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

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

On the Repeated Mapping of the Unknown Flight Path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The proliferation of maps tracking the diverted flight path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 repeatedly re-enact an exercise of mapping the unknown:  if the early proliferation of possible maps of its flight path matched the shock of its disappearance, the continued frenzy of the search for signs of the fate of the airplane and its 238 passengers, as if trying to help get our minds around the implausible nature of its disappearance on a rather routine commuter flight.  The rapid proliferation of hypothetical maps of plausible diversions hang on the turning points in the trajectory of the vanished plane from its last point of contact and observation all seem to be seeking to explain what happen with something like the surety we expect from maps:  in the absence of any information that is clear, we turn to the map as a way to ground what we know, and to try to find meaning in it.

But the multiplication of these maps almost seem to respond to a lack of real information, or conceal the absence of any clear leads as to what happened.  For each map includes an abundance of bathymetric contour lines, shorelines of islands, point of take off and the place of the satellite had last contact with the flight are all included in these maps, which obscure the sadly open-ended nature of the tragic narrative that exists around it.  While none presents the individual narratives of the passengers or pilots on the flight, by necessity, and may even represent the frustration of our remove from whatever happened on board the flight after it left the airport, the multiplication of news maps and digital reconstructions capture desperation at not knowing what sorts of events or potential diversions occurred.

At the same time, the underlying narratives of all accounts is often left unstated and go unexpressed:  that of how the flight path of an airplane managed not to be tracked.  The proliferation of news stories seem driven by the continued technological attempts to produce a comprehensive detailed account of what happened on the plan in its final moments–or of the location of potential wreckage –as we openly worry about the controlled nature of our international airspace, and the extent to which it can ever be fully mapped.  The inflection of this story, which is in a sense the parallel story that has been driving the story of the search for a narrative to describe the tragic events of the flight that left 239 passengers in the flight and its crew missing and presumably dead.   The assurances of international authorities on the International Investigation Team (ITT) that the search for fragments of the inexplicably vanished aircraft in the Indian Ocean will continue over a search area of nearly 50,000 square miles–aafer the perfunctory issuance of death certificates for all passengers by the Malaysian government–creates a puzzle about both our mapping abilities as tools of surveillance and effective control, and sustain a continued wish to compensate for such concerns by repeatedly illustrating the abilities to map, remap, and map again the area and the plane’s flight path, producing maps that might provide a narrative structure to events that seem dangerously incoherent.  For the map offers uniquely reassuring coherence on an event whose narratives have literally gone out of control.

Existing maps largely proceed from reconstructions of plausibly altered itineraries the airplane may have taken after it veered dramatically off-course in the course of an otherwise routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The underlying questions to which they appear to respond is how technology and ramped up security could prevent us from losing another plane, and how we can, as Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, Tony Tyler, calls for the need “track aircraft wherever they happen to be, even if they go outside normal traffic coverage . . . in the most effective way.”  After the intentional closure of the transponder during the flight, the increased suspense of any air travel–and the anguish of the families with members on the Air Malaysia flight, increased attention has been directed to border control, as minimal information seems provided by attempts to map–or digitally reconstruct–the diverted flight.

 

Site of Last Contact

 

The map of flight-paths is often combined with maps of search missions and sites of possible wreckage in news maps and online media, as if to condense the slight information we encounter in a single map.  Chances of discovering or locating whatever is left of the lost plane–the ostensible goal of the search mission–seem remote, like a needle in a haystack, despite the lack of an appropriately marine metaphor.  The insistent and repeated mapping of the Boeing 777’s flight path and its contact with ground control is not only an artifact of the news cycle; it is an incomplete narrative we keep on trying to resolve or find resolution for:  the story of the interrupted flight path has left audiences world-wide wondering whether the storyline will ever be resolved, how the intervention in flight path was made that caused it to shift its planned itinerary, and why our apparently refined abilities of mapping can’t complete the narrative we all want to bring completion to. There is a commanding logic in matching the search area to the possible diversion of the plane’s in-flight trajectory, but everything is complicated by trying to balance a narrative of the flight’s tragically diverted course with the mute azure surface, without landmarks or points of orientation, of oceanic expanse over which jets travel on search missions and boats patrol.

In ways that have gripped viewers but also raise frustrating questions of how to best search international waters, as well as unfamiliar perspectives on mapped space, all eyes were for a time directed to the South Seas with an intensity that oddly echoed eighteenth-century speculators. For after we have watched a cycle of maps of the flight paths, we have found them substituted by the maps of the dangerous search conditions of the area, and the stories that they tell of the challenges of searching in the South Seas, at the same time as a fairly constant drumbeat of the maps of potentially sighted objects–things that can at least be mapped, unlike the plane itself–in the hope to locate something that might close the rather terrifying narrative of another potential diversion of a passenger jet’s flight path.  (That fragment of the story–an entrance into the cockpit or pilot’s cabin; the diversion of the path of a preprogrammed flight–is so powerful to summon nightmarish scenarios, and to search for any sign of resolution.)  That “other map” that has increasingly dominated news-shows and newspapers of potential fragments of the lost Boeing 777-200’s wreckage in the Southern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Thailand or even the Mediterranean has taken over, spinning the search mission into something like a cartographical myse en abyme, which lacks the possibility of clear resolution of perspective in mapping the shifting sites of searches that are super-imposed into maps of the flight path.

For fragments are repeatedly being reported in the ever-expanding and shifting search area for the tragic and still as of yet inexplicable disappearance of an airline with 239 passengers aboard:  in ways that have driven comparisons to black holes into which the jet mysteriously disappeared have created an almost near-impossibility of locating what one thought were the most trackable of flight paths, if only given the broad area of the radius of 2,500 miles which the fuel tank of Flight 370 might have allowed it to have gone after its last contact with radar.  The open seas that provided the only places to be less carefully tracked, as it left Malaysian for Thai airspace, seem a rare region removed from land-surveillance, as well, as we have since discovered, the sort of windswept area of fast-moving currents that have sufficiently flummoxed the densely concentrated and often multi-national surveillance systems that have mobilized around the area.

 

mh370-range

 

The mid-March findings that the airplane took a planned sharp turn westward, most likely programmed by someone inside the cockpit contributed grounds for fears of hijacking by someone on board, bolstered by the swerve of flight path toward the Strait of Malacca that the Royal Thai Air Force observed, traveling back out to the Indian Ocean, rather than its planned course to China, and the search has progressed along the lines that Flight 370 headed in another direction than was first believed, costing significant delays in time for the search for the missing plane, but not reducing the search area beyond 2.97 million square miles. But how does something like a plane fall out of contact with civilian radar or satellite?  Where, simply put, could it go, and how did it get there?  As the story has circulated in the major news outlets, a sort of popular response to the inability to map its course has surfaced or emerged.   The disappearance of the American-made airplane has recently provoked the existence of something like—you guessed it—a Bermuda Triangle, that often evoked conceit of the 1970s, or provoked (in less responsible news outlets) the existence of a “greater force” that just gobbled it up, in ways that explain (in comparable  ways) the sudden disappearance of aircraft from civilian radar monitors or satellite reception.  The notion of a “Bermuda Triangle”-like theory matches the odd absence of clear territoriality over the open seas in the region from the Gulf of Thailand or Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, whose rapidly expanding search area that has involved the Chinese, American, Australian, Malaysian, British, New Zealand, and Thai governments, and evoked potential dangers from Uighur separatists, as much as Al Qaeda.  (Or might it be, as was recently suggested by a Canadian-based economist with ties to the petroleum industry, that the United States was involved in targeting MH370?)

The notion that no government is prepared or able to adequately chart the waters of the wild South Seas suggests an absence of governmental supervision that somehow links the plane to separatist groups–even if no one seems to dare to claim responsibility for diverting the flight. The difficulty in stopping the search starts not only from the tragic disappearance of a jet with some 260 people aboard.  The compulsion evident in the maps of air traffic controllers to the sighting of debris seems almost to derive from the fact that something managed to evade the system of worldwide surveillance somehow managed to escape being tracked, despite its size–or, more probably, the fear that we are not being surveilled and mapped as well as we had all hoped.   The latter not only opens the door to invite a further future opportunity for terrorist acts that we might all of course want to avoid, but lifts the veil on the surveillance industry itself. The images distributed by the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office, no doubt in response to how frustration made the government an early target for the inquiry, seemed to suggest an eery possibility of a middle-eastern connection, now doubt familiar to American ears–even though this expanded search area suggests little basis for such fears.  How, a concern runs across the media, did it ever disappear from radar coverage and surveillance?

 

mh370-possible-positions

 

But the very vagueness of potential trajectories Based on the amount of fuel within the jet’s tanks, the possible position of the flight when it was last heard from satellite suggested only that it lay along one of the red arcs of potential diversion of the aircraft’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur in the 7 1/2 hours after its 12:41 take-off, tracing some  2.97 million square miles in which to conduct the search for the areas to which it was originally delimited and confined:

 

Estimated Range of Possible Flight PathsNew York Times

 

Although the area the arcs encompass approach the expanse of the continental United States, the arc to the Caspian Sea or Kazakhstan seem to have received far more initial attention:  it would, one supposes, be confirmation of the tentacles of Al Qaeda rearing their head.  The far smaller areas in which the plane had first been searched, defined by white rectangles, suggested in this map, made a week after the airplane had disappeared, as well as the difficulty of tracking what had been assumed to be so readily confined to the Gulf of Thailand, but which now has expanded to cover much of the South Seas.  But the fact that even those flying the most up-to-date jets of American Navy surveillance like the  P-8A Poseidon have been peering out of glass airplane windows and not looking at their electronic screens to spot the potentially downed craft, relying on the human eye to scan the open waters, and only spotting such objects as orange rope, white balls, or blue-green plastic reminds us of how much ocean-borne garbage might create distracting signs to frustrate the search.  And the reports of a low-flying plane sighted March 8 near the Maldives might potentially refocus attention in other areas that might well be mapped.

 

INitial Search AreaNew York Times

 

It’s a bit shocking that in over three weeks, no sign of the airplane’s disappearance has been noted, despite numerous potential sightings that have in the end proved red herrings.  The oddness of plotting an opening of an escape from surveillance and tracking that are the basis of the concept of modern airspace find reflections in the repeated maps of loss of contact with controllers, exit from tracking systems, and potential paths of flight, all concealing the absence of surety in being able to verify what happened to the unfortunate passengers on Malaysia Jet 370 more than the results of an ongoing inquiry with little sign of any clues in the transcript of exchanges between the flight and controllers for the seven and a half hours after it took off, and little indication of the expected tussle that would be associated with a diversion of flight paths. The potential sites of wreckage that have been found are something like the catalogue of a junkyard–including some 122 pieces of unknown floating objects in the Indian Oceanseventy-eight foot debris off Australia’s coast; white balls, orange string or other junk–in ways that have led to an explosion of articles on potential sightings that seems without end, each announced as potentially “credible” as the last.  So many potentially distracting objects that bear no demand for further scrutiny seem to exist that the Australian military took it upon themselves to include a list of those objects worthy of follow-up, including “debris, distress beacon, fire, flares, life jackets, life raft/dinghy, marker dye, mirror signals, movements, oil slick, person in water, smoke, wreckage.”

The demand for news maps suggest the shifting areas of the search and the aporia of inquiries that reinforce how difficult it is to believe that anything like an airplane would be so difficult to map.  The Australian government assembled a colorful collage of spots already examined, indicating the intensity of their daily attempts, which have shifted as time progressed and new theories emerged:

 

Australian Colorful Collage of Searches

 

The Chinese government sought to provide ocular proof and exact coordinates of what looked like aircraft, 74 feet long and thirty feet wide, as if to reassert their claims to be monitoring the airspace by satellite, and staking claim to a region of particularly intensely disputed nautical boundaries–but so far finding little confirmation of the wreckage by boats:

 

Chinese Object in India Ocean

 

Are we just discovering how much garbage is in the ocean?  Or are we staking a claim to rights of sovereignty over maritime lanes, when maritime sovereignty still seems particularly difficult to define–raising questions of what sort of waters the craft may have been lost in, and whose right it is to retrieve whatever of the plane is left, but also pushing the search out to international waters, to avoid fraught questions of contested maritime sovereignty.  The oddly international complexion of the search parties that have been engaged so far has all too often muted the deeper salient question of the complex contestation of conflicting lines of maritime jurisdiction in the very region of the seas over which the plane flew.  (While few would want to suggest that the search has progressed in reaction to disagreements about jurisdiction, the difficulty of mapping jurisdiction in these waters has received far less press coverage than one might expect.)

 

Complex Delineation of Nautical Borders Legend-boundareis

 

In a field of disputes of maritime boundary lines, the search for the place is filtered through the actually contested sovereignty on multiple fronts, in ways that greatly complicate questions of responsibility for searching for the aircraft and its presumably dead passengers:

 

Complex Maritime Boundaries   Legend-boundareis

 

Indeed, the territorial complexion of many of the uninhabited islands of the South Seas resembles the random bright coloration of the multiple islands of medieval and early modern isolari, or books of islands, even if the colors are no meant to denote sovereign claims:

 

Spratly_Is_since_NalGeoMaps

 

The larger picture is even, of course, both a bit more complex, and carries deep conflicts of how one can best understand maritime bounds, in ways that raise but a corner on the difficulties of resolving maritime boundary lines:

 

Complex Question of Boundaries

 

For most Americans, of course, oblivious to contrasting claims of sovereignty over water in a globalized world, and amused by the idea of contesting the sovereignty of maps, the questions might turn around the simpler incredulity at what has happened to our satellites or systems of radar.  The amount of ink spilled over the absence of indications of a major airline’s flightpath leaves viewers aghast at not being able to interpret the map that results. The pleasure that commentators on ‘The Ed Show’ or ‘Bill O’Reilly’ take in evoking and imitating authoritative maps that show potential arcs of air travel provide a scary shock-tactic of disorienting observers to an over-observed world, and suggests the discomfort not only at the potential for future skyjackings or dangers of flying aboard airplanes–but that we’re just not being watched as well as we all wanted to be, as if that was what we wanted. Or is it that the mapping of the results of post-9/11 surveillance have let us lapse, reassured, into a false sense that we need not worry about the dangers of the diversions of commercial flights, or that all is indeed under control?  Yet the hunt has now turned to the southern Indian Ocean, based on scattered new evidence of active flight diversion, after being centered in the Gulf of Thailand or South China Sea, with concern arising from the fact that the batteries on flight data and voice recorders–the main hope of finding the plane’s location–are due to die, and with them much potential evidence of what transpired in the cockpit, as pings emitted to facilitate their geolocation are due to die, after which the hopes to find evidence of what occurred would be drastically reduced.

The search for the information is being collected in the need to affirm the continued safety of airspace, not to mention confidence in the air travel industry.  Does it also serve to conceal the huge costs that the US government is ready to spend on the search, already having allocated 2.5 million for the participation of US ships and aircraft to this mission, presumably in the hopes to find clues to the disruption of monitored airspace.  (The flight of an search of the average high-tech surveillance navy jet of the sort equipped with the requisite surveillance cameras lasts two hours, deploying the most cutting edge example of surveillance of the “sea state”:  the theater for remapping the waters by planes such as the P-8A Poseidon suggests a rehearsal of the gamut of equipment that the Navy has assembled and huge costs to use must be balanced with the eagerness of being able to deploy our latest surveillance toys.)

average Search Plane(from The New York Times)

 

The frames of geographic reference somehow seem part of the dramatic narratives spun about the disappeared plane, whose possible paths not only inspire limited confidence in the accurate measurements or tracking capacities but oddly orient viewers to the South Seas from a strikingly new orientation on landmasses and marine space, in which the dramatically open areas frame the aerial search along a diverted flight path far from land, in an area that is moreover swept by winds that often exceed 100 miles per hour, and rough seas:

 

Reconstructions of Flight PathsNew York Times

 

The deployment of all this technology to map the region by weather charts or debris-sightings seem designed to bolster confidence that this area, if blocked by cloud cover and rain and tremendously powerful waves, and deep waters, is still being mapped with relative accuracy. Yet what is one to make of the mapping of potential sightings? What significance does their clustering in the Indian Ocean mean save the intensity of searchlights turned to that direction, and the new horizon of expectations that results–even if the idea that pings from the airline’s data system, ACARS, dating from the period of four to five hours after the last transponder signal, and transmitted to satellites, indicate its arrival in the Indian ocean.  But why map potential sightings if they are not confirmed, except to try to restore some confidence in a search that might be akin to searching for sightings of Elvis or Christ?  In the meantime, the proliferation of alternative theories continue, from the plane being attacked by extraterrestrials, captured by folks who’ve shrouded it in an “invisibility cloak” or the locally generated theory that the disappearance of the plane is part of a an ambitious life-insurance scam, and not a terrorist plot–floated by Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar.  Over the month since the airplane’s disappearance, the biggest winner has no doubt been CNN, whose 24-7 coverage has stoked continued interest in the story; CNN President Jeff Zucker boasted how the new ratings showing reveal “a record-setting month for CNN’s digital platforms, including record-high page views, video streams and mobile traffic,” as if he was addressing shareholders, as it continued to describe and map objects floating in the Indian Ocean, without any sense of whether they were related in any way to the flight–so long as they were located along “possible flight paths.”  Is the technology of mapping a legitimation here for the absence of any actual detection of the flight path?  

 

Objects SpottedNew York Times source Australian Maritime Safety Authority

 

It’s hard to follow the logic of those who are organizing the Australian search teams, even thought the New York Times does its best to keep us in touch with the latest, but the recent relocation of the search by some 700 miles to the northeast suggest the hunt is a grab-bag of guesswork, and reveals the intense feelings of desperation at the narrative spinning out of control.

 

Relocation of Air SearchNew York Times; source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority

 

But to generate more information about the “unfolding story” of what CNN has continued to call the “airline mystery,” given the fact that no resolution of this mystery is in sight, and no indications that the plane crashed have emerged, nothing does the trick like a map to link the event to a number of alternate narratives and abstractions.

And as it has emerged after almost three months that the unending search is the most costliest episode of recovery of a jet in human history, the devotion of such emergency apparatuses to locating a lost jet must be assessed:  at the cost of millions of dollars per day, and over three and a half million dollars just to deploy an underwater detector of potential pings over the past weekend, it might be time to return attention to what is the end of the search, save seeking closure on a traumatic disruption of any illusion of totalsurveillance of airways such as that which the United States government wants desperately to be able to sustain?

What else occasioned the repeated search for the ruins of the jet without any sense of limits of cost, and indeed the devotion of a recently developed technology of surveillance to the detection of potential signs of the lost plane and its passengers?  At the same time, the rescue mission seems a sort of dress-rehearsal for surveillance of submarines on the high seas, the narrative of locating fragments of wreckage of the plane’s fuselage or wings fits into a sense we need to find closure in a sense that something happened while we all thought we were being watched:  this notion that the incident of Malaysia Airlines 370 suddenly disrupted and shattered that sense of an achieved limited peace, even in a time of ongoing contained military engagement in several theaters of the world.  It is hard to get used to the fact that we are not, and cannot be, safe in air travel.  (But at least, perhaps, we have generated these detailed maps, which seem to be reassuring of a sense of monitoring an unfolding story, even if it is one that seems to have not gone very far after all.)

The sense that we’re somehow being less well-watched than we once were seems to have driven the constant stream of news stories—unconscionably, never edited or diminished on airline flights, but almost increased in an attempt to keep passengers more relaxed and on their toes, the jet has increased critical thinking to the extent that it has provoked calls for the re-introduction of “reliable psychics” (in a return to the Nancy Reagan White House).  Where the plane went is less the concern of these maps, it seems, than the fact that draw as many maps as we want, not much turns up on them. The courses of potential flight paths after the pilots lost contact with the airport in Malaysia from which they first took off on that tragic day seems less directed to the protection of our own frontiers—or even airlines—than the notion that we cannot map a map of that path, even with all our satellite coverage and technologies that we’ve devoted, in the wake of 9/11, to monitoring maps of all movements along flight paths across the inhabited world. One problem may be that 9/11 opened a narrative, or saw one forced on us, so haunting that we don’t know how to bring to an end, or cannot see an end of, so deeply unsettling is it all.

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Filed under CNN newsmaps, flight-tracking maps, infographics, mapping flight paths, radar maps, satellite surveillance, surveillance mapping