Tag Archives: US Census

Deep Blue Openings in an Increasingly Sound-Filled World

The detection of sound provides a primary registers by which we are able to judge spatial relations and experience space.  But sensitivity to auditory sensations may be increasingly compromised to orient ourselves across much of the country; recent mapping of increasingly elevated sound-levels that exist across the nation that was created by computer algorithms based on some in a distribution that has rightly commanded increasing attention after tis being released on February 17:  synthesizing about 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring, the portrait of sounds likely to be heard on an average summer day presents an image of the extent of places where one can expect to encounter aural intrusions.  The flyover view illustrates shifting decibel levels across the continuous forty-eight states, but most strikingly reveals the rare places marked by an absence of human-made sound.  The almost inevitable infiltration of anthropogenic noises is only poised to grow further in coming years, standing to change our experience of place and how we inhabit the world.

The unprecedented registration of sound-levels mapped across the country and rendered by computer algorithms is a significant achievement, but a benchmark of human geography.  The shifting hues of blues used to map the registration of sounds at above-average decibel levels reveal a significant diffusion of high levels of background sound across the nation–and suggests the radical changes our national soundscape has experienced in recent decades.  For background noises have become an almost inescapable aspect of daily life.  While registration of auditory differences in ambient sound across space have rarely been able to be charted with such precision, the resulting map shows a national both distinguished by far higher sound-levels than the past, and a diffusion of human-made sounds spreading from megacities to the rural hinterland, leaving diminishing differences between the two:  the near-absence of lands removed from human-made sound across much of the land suggests a radical remaking of our auditory world, as loudness is no longer clearly localized.  Rather than reflecting clear boundaries, the almost inescapable nature of noise-levels across much of the Eastern seaboard, midwest, and west coast lights expanses by a dim sulphuric glow, confining “wilderness”–if by that we mean by that a space where we can listen to hawks cry, hear water running in streams, rustling grasses, the conversation of rainwater with leaves, or insects’ buzz–to a small regions of deep blue that roughly match the largest national parks.  Who’s to say that this is not a shift as significant as climate change?

The rising levels of human-generated background noise across the country may constitute a health risk, given established links between sound-levels and blood pressure; the near-ubiquity auditory interference also suggests a significant compromising of our sensitivities to the particularities of place that seems both particularly troubling and of historical note as a change in our lived environment and auditory atmosphere.

USA sound map in decibelsScienceNews

While reflecting human density, the map is not only a reflection of population centers–although it does map onto them–but of ambient noise.  And it is even more revealing not of where noise is concentrated, than on where it is absent–those deep blue openings on the map.

2000_Population_Distribution.jpgU.S. Census Map/Population Distribution, United States

The rapid expansion of anthropogenic noise has profoundly altered the national soundscape, and indeed made the protected aural environments that suggest the limited success of the management of sound a generation after the 1972 Noise Control Act set a standards of local and regional acoustical management.  The acoustic data was processed by computerized algorithms to exclude local street traffic as well as variable air sounds of jets that predicts spatial differentials in the levels of unavoidable local background sound even without such outside intrusions.  Human-made noise has not only outstripped population growth; the growth in rising ambient sounds has surpassed three decibel levels is perceptible in almost two thirds of the protected regions and National Parks–roughly mirroring that region of greater natural sounds, not accounting for sounds likely to be soon unleashed by the expansion of hydraulic fracking, pipeline construction, drones, and the expanding density of air travel.

The portrait of our decreasingly differentiated auditory environments raises the stakes for preserving secluded spaces that will undoubtedly compromise our own future sense of space.  To be sure, the notion of a comprehensive acoustical monitoring of the entire continuous United States is not possible, and would require far more funds than the National Parks Services has at its disposal.  But the picture that emerged of a shrinking space of silence–and a shrinking space of focussing on “natural” sounds, not generated by humans, is striking.  Even as we receive increasing recommendations from ecotherapists urging us to act to remedy widespread affliction by nature deficit disorder by immersing ourselves in greater sensory engagement, and ecopsychologists note the health benefits of hearing leaves rustling or wind through trees, the map paints a picture of a future of radically reduced horizons for auditory engagement with unavoidable nature of anthropogenic noise.  The illumination of up to half of the nation, if not two-thirds of its inhabited areas, by striking bursts of yellow suggest an encroaching inescapability of noise that may compromise our sense of space:   with refuges to experience soundscapes under thirty decibels of loudness increasingly rare, ecotherapists may be conducting some seriously long distance guided trips.  One’s eyes are drawn to those deep blue spaces of repose in select areas of the inner recesses of national parks, but one is simultaneously struck by their distance from the environment where one lives.

The imagined soundscape without the presence of humans–or filtering all anthropogenic sound–would reveal a national soundscape pronouncedly divided into relatively noisier eastern and significantly more silent western halves, reflecting the greater inhabitation of the half of  the country east of the deserts:  this seems almost an auditory Continental Divide.  When Kurt Fristrup and Daniel Mennitt of Colorado State University of Fort Collins sought to map a landscape of differentials in “natural” sound across the country, they used it as a sort of base-map on which future data levels could be read:  indeed, one can distinguish the deep green swirls of sounds of the Mississippi, silences of mountain ranges, and noisy coasts–but an expansive stretches of silence across most of the region west of the Continental Divide.

scivis_graphNational Park Services Natural Sounds and Night Skies

One can usefully compare it to the contacting regions of the forested United States, based on this 2012 remotely sensed map of the woody biomass of the continuous United States, released by NASA’s Earth Observatory and created by computer modeling, that reveals the growing expanse of those regions permeable to extensive infiltration by sound.

Woody Biomass from NASA 1999-2002



One might compare it to horticulturalist and dendrologist C. S. Sargent’s 1884 comprehensive mapping of the density of US Forests, now digitized by David Rumsey, which presented the first detailed survey of the sort, to note the decline in tree-cover across the Great Plains and Mississippi, as well as the Great Lakes:


United States Density of Existing Forests 1884

Wired; from Rumsey Collections

The map of “natural” sounds reveals the levels of under 40 decibels marks a threshold in the intrusion of an array of anthropogenic sounds, one that reflects the changes of how we now inhabit the continent, and how we perceive the inhabitation of space, that might be compared to Global Warming in its cascading effects of how sound spreads across its sonic space.

 And in creating a synthesis of sound-levels across the nation, Frist has not only set something of a high watermark in the sound-drenched nature of our landscape.  The marked change across the national soundscape that Fristrup has helped chart based on 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring reveals a shift in hearing that seems on the level of that described by visualizations of the alarming local rises in regional temperatures across the nation, which providing apparent evidence of an inevitable process of global warming:  the maps below seems to suggest similarly ineluctible changes of the anthropocene at the nation’s edges that we have only begun to track, although the causation of such environmental impact to a release of greenhouse gasses is less clearly mapped in terms of causation, and human agency less readily determined than the registration of something that seems like climate change.

RISING TemperaturesNew York Times

Rather than consuming the edges of the country, as the above visualization of rising temperatures across the nation as evidence of impending global warming from the New York Times, noise encroaches on the country from the more populated areas more often located on its coasts and eastern shoreline.  The region providing platforms to the world is not organized as a clear workspace or a set of clear property lines, but as corporate entities and logos, and where the bulk of the wealth produced has proved increasingly elusive for many of its residents.  But the expansion across much of the nation’s soundscape by human generated sounds reveals what an analogous trend of man-driven change, if one that one can map with fine grain, and which impacts our perception of local experience in ways that seem more easy to measure and render at fine grain.

For the compromise of the sonic sensorium across much of the country suggests the degraded sonic environment we are transmitting to future generations.  The map of the auditory landscape across the United States suggests the emergence of sizable and rapidly growing rifts on the amount of audible sound to which we are daily exposed that seem as prominent as a Continental Divide:   radically different soundscapes in different parts of the country suggest a country increasingly plagued by noise–middle America or what was once known as the Midwest is distinguished by almost ubiquitous manmade background noise; intense acoustic shocks are rendered as bright corridors of noise run along Eastern seaboard of notably high loudness; only pockets of western parks, rendered as deep blue expanses in the interior, are distinguished by sound-levels of less than 20 decibels.  The Acoustic Society of America used some 270,000 hours of measurements across 190 sites in the country’s National Parks in the contiguous United States to assess an initial picture of levels of ambient human noise that seem all but inescapable in the U.S.  If the 1972 Noise Control Act was directed to strengthen legal protections against “unwanted or disturbing sound” to regulate noise pollution, sound-levels seem  so widespread across the nation to be hard to distinguish how unwanted sounds adversely affects one’s quality of life as unwanted disturbances.  Yet we now have a means to visualize the collective rises in ambient sound in ways that are truly as compelling as maps of global warming.

The change in our aural landscapes has gone largely unremarked, in part because the data is less easily available, and visualizations were long less able to be confidently rendered in such clear detail–or the amount of data not able to be clearly synthesized.  Even at first seeing the map of sound levels in the nation released by workers at the National Parks Services in past weeks, it’s hard not to be drawn to these scattered refuges that lurk inside the map, as we shun the bursting supernovas of  aggressively bright yellow whose streaks across the overstimulated sonic landscape where most of us live.  The brightness of areas in which greater levels of sound were sensed seem to push us to the relatively few remaining quiescent places in the continent:  it is not that they remind us of just how fully the sounds of motorized vehicles have come to penetrate most of our auditory worlds most of the time, but that they seem so ever-present and so visually loud, even when the levels of sound seem to fade miasmatically into the midwest, but reflect the growing population centers across the country that undoubtedly generate the greatest noise.  The map creates a compelling picture about how we can interpret the current distribution of populations as filling the nation’s space.


Ex01_Mega-Region-Population_500pxMartin Prosperity

Much of the attention that the map has received respond to just how rarely sound-levels have been so closely integrated–or so clearly shown to overlap–with the mapping of an environmental space, or so compellingly integrated within an understanding of environmental change.

The question of registering an atlas of urban sounds have most often responded to less to subjective or individual perception than public policy issues that surround very specific local levels sonic pollution in urban environments from San Francisco to Oslo, based on visualizing noise levels across urban streets through GIS-based simulations that synthesize variations in decibel levels over time–and reflect a desire to control urban noise that even predate the Industrial Revolution, and which, R. Murray Shafer has found, there is evidence in Bern back in 1628, but which computerized maps provide a basis to visualize the results of such acoustical monitoring today.


San Francisco



Despite such concern for managing urban soundscapes, less attention has focussed on comprehensively mapping endangered sounds–and even less on the endangering of silence, which have not been often imagined as a comprehensible object of concern.  Attempts at mapping local sound-levels for reasons of public health have focussed on a local level to assess problems of noise pollution and to assess aural impositions in urban spaces–and to measure benchmarks of tolerable sound-levels in urban space.  We more often consider noise abatement in relation to crowded restaurants than open spaces or countryside.   The registration of a varying range of decibel levels across the United States created the opportunity to visualize a color-coded record of ambient sound, grouped according to spatially situated environments, applied a broad palette to geographic space based on a much larger dataset, and one that responds less to problems of placing future projects of construction than measuring the increasing ubiquity of sound-levels often linked to urban environments across the country.

The innovation of the NPS sound map of the country’s less inhabited and more densely inhabited regions presents a particularly persuasive picture of the extent of the growing uniform nature of our aural environments.  Based on the 1.5 million hours of motoring across the country to capture  sound levels sensed on an average summer day, researchers with the National Parks Service have collated an impressive acoustic topography of the continental United States in hopes to map average decibel levels across the country, and found few areas of relative quiet.  The result is particularly striking for suggesting deep scars of sound that radiate aglow from urban agglomerations in a heat map of loudness that registers the diffusion of human-made noise levels across the country, and the extent to which much of its illuminated center is flooded with ever-present background sounds–acoustic pools, as it were, of almost 50 dB, or able to drown most natural sounds from animals.  If the sound map created from algorithms suggests just how urbanized we are today, and how far urban noise-levels extend across much of the country, it offers evidence of the auditory effects of anthropocene from which there appears no turning back.

USA sound map in decibels

The picture does not look good for the future of quiet spaces in most of the coterminous United States.  The stars and streaks of aggressively bright sulfuric levels of smoky yellow–indicating concentrations in urban areas of a level of 51 decibels or more–maps clearly onto population concentrations from the shores of Lake Michigan to Dallas, Atlanta or central Florida.  The noise map reveals huge differences in noise tolerance and indeed background noise that most Americans experience as normal, and indeed the auditory expectations most bring to their days, and the relative absence of silence over a large part of the inhabited country that noise has infiltrated, from a light gauze of yellow that surrounds are largest farming industries to the clusters of noise around expansive urban areas.  In those deep blue swirling patches of the interior lie the most silent spots of the country,abysses of quiet which register the lowest absolute levels of sonic interference, far from the pollution of urban noise which seems to spread like age spots across much of the eastern half of the continent.  (The very deepest deep blue regions designate areas of background noise below twenty decibels, the sound of a ticking watch, far below  the  a refrigerator hum, and very far from the ever-present ring of cell phones, piercing blasts of jack hammers or car alarms, freeway rumble or such sudden spikes as sawing concrete that now seem to so often mark the hubbub of urban life that is often difficult to blank out save by white noise machines.)  A considerable share of the population must be quite habituated to an almost constant loudness of almost fifty dB, or about that of constant traffic–and just below that which is claimed to increase high blood pressure, tension, and heart attack risks.

Remapping the limited areas of low-level sounds top stand out more dramatically in black as isolated islands of greatest quiet gives the map an even clearer urgency as a manifesto for the shrinking spaces of silence across the continuous United States:


The map advances a narrative of the shrinking areas of silence in the soundscape of the continental United States that is decidedly not rosy, and in which levels of noise pollution stand to double or indeed triple every twenty years, making this a particularly troubling prospect that challenges the future of silence in America.  Not so surprisingly, it maps well onto a randomized map forecasting air quality across the nation in its contours, although variations in the NPS soundscape in the header to this post reveal more finely grained variations and seems to exploit a broader dataset.

Feb 20 AQI

The deep discrepancies in decibel levels however bears little clear correlation to the current mosaic of political preference across the continuous forty-eight, however Lamarckian one would like to be about the relation between collective preferences and aural environments.  Despite a tendency to link weaker support for Republicans with louder areas of greater ambient noise, the data just doesn’t bear it out in full at all:  some of the reddest areas are those register considerably greater decibel levels.  (Low support for Republicans in Maine contrast with its predominantly low levels of ambient sound; noisy areas of the South are pretty darn red, despite strikingly diverse levels of ambient sound registered in those states; noise-levels in California’s central valley are roughly equal the blueness of its coast.)

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 9.10.13 PM


The narrative that the soundscape implies is far from rosy, however.  What seems most frightening is the lack of any clear map of the future penetration of high decibel levels across much of middle America.  Along the frontier of the decibel divide, much of the nation’s center appears flooded dark yellow; Denver, St. Lake City, Las Vegas and Boise seem beacons in an expanding aural frontier, burning bright already in Seattle and Olympia.  The registration of these ambient sounds include not only vehicles, but from factories, radios, sirens, televisions, construction sites, trains, or mechanically generated sound of any kind, registering the range of overlapping sounds at any space at any time, in a manner more like Zefrey Throwell’s 1,000-car-horn symphony than the heterogeneous ensemble of percussionists György Ligeti enlisted in his Grand Macabre.

Looking at the nation’s soundscape, it’s hard not to be drawn to the chasms of deep blue where sound levels decrease.  National Parks Services’ researchers took some shots when they compared these areas without background noise to the notion of traveling back in time to the sound-levels before Columban contact–on their apparent ignoring of the dense population of the continent before its “discovery”–one might see it as the sonar landscape Lewis and Clark experienced with the collection of animal trackers and Native Americans which composed the Corps of Discovery,  traveling down the Columbia river or pausing in their portages:  these are the areas distinguished with a sound level of lower than twenty decibels, areas where one can access a pristine auditory experiences characterized by the near-absence of the background noises that we are tempted to screen out of our auditory experiences,–and against which would stand out the perception of local wildlife.

The attractiveness of these seemingly pristine places not only provides a compelling advertisement for visiting national parks during whatever summer vacations one might have, but is a compelling soundscape of a world not likely to return, where decibel levels fall far below the fifty that almost seem low for urban areas, the deep blue recalling something like the cold of oceans’ depths.  Created by the National Parks’ Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, it reflects their mission statement to create an inventory of sound that seeks to preserve “acoustic and night sky environments unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” Fristrup worries, and provides something of a watermark on our aural environments, but it is also intended as a diagnostic tool to measure the degree to which manmade noises affect owls and bats who depend on locating insects to find food–the somewhat synesthetic record renders an acoustic environment married by bright yellow splotches and sulphuric streaks, and ubiquitous noise levels comparable to hearing a washing machine churn from a distance of three feet away.

The ever-present scars of unwanted sound spread aggressively in almost radial fashion from major population centers and seem diffused across many the rural areas of the country.  The maps suggests the auditory compromises created by the road network which generates ever-present background noise across the continent’s more inhabited areas, even if the algorithm used to generate it discounted traffic, with non-human made sounds of wind and water.  Rather than present a watermark of sound levels, the map bodes poorly for the growing levels of volume in years to come.  If much of this noise-generated hearing loss perhaps on account of noise-levels artificially generated in iPods and MP3 players which funnel amplified sound into directly our ears–and which may have helped elevate the number of five million 12-19 year olds who have compromised hearing thresholds, according to Dangerous Decibels–a site which is full of tips on living with hearing loss and the risks of noise-induced hearing loss–the desensitization to environmental sounds that the map charts creates a landscape where even those without Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) have a compromised relation to their environments.

But the map suggests the changing nature of outdoor hearing for most populations, compromised by the rise of background noise, and the deep penetration of what used to be considered urban sounds of mechanized movements across much of the country.

USA sound map in decibels

Reading the stark topography of sound levels across the lower forty-eight, one is indeed almost instinctively tempted to run into its scattered pockets of deepest blues:  these seem the safest areas of respite, as one shrinks from the bright incandescent yellows of even a tolerable amount of ever-present background noise–maybe not to the deserts of southwest Texas, but if not to the national parks bordering California, in the Cascades, the Colorado Plateau, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Dinosaur National Monument between Colorado and Utah, and in the Great Basin.  (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that some of these ecosystems, many home to Native Americans, were to be preserved “from injury or spoliation” by the National Parks, preserved thanks to Carl Shurz, David Brower and Howard Zahniser.  Is the aural intrusion not a deep form of injury?)

One might as well get out a paper map of the greenspace in parks to correlate them with the deep blue lakes of silence .  . .



It is almost difficult to imagine the experience of those deep blue areas of silence today.

The expansive chromolithographies of Thomas Moran depict deeply hidden, inner resources of nature in sites such as the future Yellowstone or Zion Park, preserved from industrializing life of in ways that raised interest in the hidden landscapes of the United States, after he had accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden on the 1871 Geographic Survey of the Territories, in ways that created one of the first romantic images to produce a popular movement for the protection of a landscape as undisturbed.  One is struck in Moran’s monumental landscapes by how these awesome environments dwarf their  human visitors, arriving in what seem uninhabited lands, far from the noise of railroads or cities in the industrializing United States:


Thomas Moran, “The Valley of the Babbling Waters, Southern Utah” (1873) 18.71.14


Thomas Moran, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1875) 18.71.8



These are the ideals of We now look at the romance of arriving at deep blue spots in the algorithmically generated soundscape, far removed from Moran’s monumental renderings of geographical formations that first communicated a sense of the natural majesty of the western United States to a large audience of viewers that communicated the wonder of a landscape he saw as both untouched and pristine, in contrast to the ever-present ambient noise that seems not only inescapable in remote regions of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park but all but inescapable in much of the U.S.

But the levels of noise pollution that illuminate or almost incandescently light much of the country marks the encroaching of an auditory anthropocene from which there will be no turning back, and which has already altered the landscape as well as soundscape of the country.  The spatial collation of audio registrations finds most people live in environments “where night skies and soundscapes are profoundly degraded, Fristrup notes, describing the extent of both sound and noise “pollution” as almost spanning the continent, where median background noise plagues most, out of a desire to “conserve natural sensory environments for future generations” registers his deep and abiding sense of loss and the inevitability of a landscape of increasing auditory degradation that could bring a generation of “learned deafness” destined to dull one to the very soundscapes National Parks seek to conserve–and the notion of such environmentally provoked desensitization to sound seems backed by the datum that some 10 million people in the United States were judged, in 1999, to have permanent hearing loss from noise or trauma.  Are we becoming increasingly hard of hearing or deaf, or in danger of slowly losing a sense by which humans have long interacted with the world and gave meaning to it?

The argument has had special resonance–no pun intended.  The map that was quickly shared upwards of 10.9 K times record penetration of high decibel levels (above 40) across much of the country’s inhabited land–and the rarity of those deep blue chasms that seem to almost fall through the map.  Although the idea that they record the sound environment of the country before Columbus is doubtful, and not only because of the folly of thinking that it was not inhabited before 1492, the absence of industrial ambient background noise over a level of forty decibels is no doubt a pretty modern creation–though anthropocentric presumptions that the noise be generated by humans, rather than animals–stampedes of buffaloes?–seems more unwarranted.  But the map based on measurements of midsummer decibel levels is a unique map of how we inhabit the land, and a nice record of what we might mean now by the “inhabited world”–or ecumene.  It is a record, perhaps, of how we have chosen to inhabit space, and the ways that we have chosen to inhabit it–the landscape scarred with sound bizarrely analogous to the barren scored and spotted pock-marked lunar landscape, and the connotations of un-inhabitability it inescapably provokes in evoking this surface without life.



The sterile landscape of the moon is an odd choice of comparison.  The worry that we may be facing the rise of a “deaf generation,” unable to hear the world as men and women once perceived natural sounds, due the growing decibel levels of constant noise in larger cities, and not be able to hear or register the natural sounds in cities, and even National Parks, has led Fristrup to worry about the threats and healthiness due to increases in ambient noise and wonder if future generations might not even appreciate the sounds of nature in cities or National Parks.  If such fears seem alarmist, they are reflected in the deep attraction most observers will have to the deep blue identified with tranquility–and with restfulness or even curl health–an association according with the profound healthful benefits of silence.

Fears of a growing disconnect with aural experiences makes the strong similarity between the scoring of the national soundscape and the lunar landscape somehow appropriate.  For the scientific synesthesia that results suggests how we’ve filled the continent with sound, from jack hammers to jet airplanes to trucks to power mowers to daily traffic to sanitation trucks to bird-calls.  The sonic landscape closely corresponds to the expansion of manmade environments across the continent, and ignore the level of noise that was made by earlier inhabitants.  The measurement of strong levels of sound pollution claims to screen out the traffic of nearby automobiles, but is appears to echo the very network pattern of freeways and highways that traverse the country and link cities with one another, and were no doubt privileged sites of measurement; where few or no roads exist, it seems that regions of deep blue must perforce prevail–or at least that the grids provide a basis to generate noise:  grids of streets even appear in the noise map, much as the splotches of bright yellow mark cities and sprawling urban areas that have made silence almost inaccessible for large shares of the nation’s populations without considerable geographic mobility, and moved all landscapes of deep silence far west, removed from traffic’s perpetual hum.



The apparent density of noise may indeed be partly explained by the density of the network of highways that course across the Eastern seaboard and much of the midwest.

What might be called the noisier half of the United States–

Noisier places

is the same region where highways define a distinctly different relation to expanse:

half highways

In other terms, the noise, roads, and urban areas reveals an image of how we inhabit continental expanse.  We might compare the division of the country, grosso modo, to the imbalance in the density with which McDonald’s restaurants are spread across the contiguous United States, shown here by illuminated dots that reveal the proximity of fast food restaurants across the land, sometimes suggesting strikingly similar highway paths, and no doubt mirror population trends, and indeed the density of businesses:



Stephen Von Worley 

Does space tend to collapse in interesting ways once one is less able to sense sounds?  Such levels of noise pollution offer a sonorous residue or acoustic remainder of how we have come to inhabit the world’s environment and to remake it, and register the arrival an auditory anthropocene which earlier maps have often been hard-pressed to detect.

As much as being confined to the United States, the prospect of such elevated decibel levels in areas of dense population and the modern humming of transportation networks across the country find a parallel in the noises of the global traffic networks we have created in the seas.  Indeed, the oceans seem increasingly characterized by constant presence of such noise recalls the “background hum” of oceanic shipping lanes that resounds across the oceans, by modeling a global soundscape seeks mapping the range of sounds ships create in transatlantic voyages, that seem the actual material reminder of the increased intensity of a global network of shipping lanes.  Such sound levels, to be sure, often obscure the cresting of waves, with the upshot of radically compromising the auditory experience of the ocean for its actual inhabitants–especially imperiling animals that employ sounds to communicate, cetaceans from whales to dolphins, in ways that may mislead the sonar skills they have evolved to map their own courses underwater, in ways that create more than auditory interference with how they experience space.  And with noise traveling some 4.3 faster in the watery medium than in air–and traveling at an unchanging intensity over considerable distances–the gigantic impact of large-cargo vessels that generate more noise than we would often permit on shore from constantly running diesel engines creates considerable ambient noise to which different marine creatures are especially vulnerable.

A map of the auditory intrusions of passenger vessels alone that was recorded and released by NOAA based on anthropogenic noise of cruise vessels alone suggest a shifting in the oceanic environment:


Yet the spectrum of noise from the chronic levels of noise modeled from larger commercial vessels was far more chronic:


And when summed, the picture that results is of a radically sonically altered and disrupted environment, apparently in ignorance of the disturbances that they create for actual (or any) ocean populations:


The map below registers sounds that extend to a depth of 650 feet in a similar color spectrum map–which doesn’t include either seismic exploration or Navy sonar noise that add considerably to the range of ocean sounds that obscure today’s songs of humpback whales.  Indeed, if whales often base their communications over expanses of hundreds of miles through their song, whale space has undoubtedly against such background noise in a a sea with startlingly few areas absent from auditory interference.  Such changes would not only affect the cetacean populations of marine mammals as they navigate underwater transit–if von Uexküll suggests that whales are attuned to other worlds, it might be important to contemplate what they make of the ships’ apparently unavoidable background sounds, or whether they accommodate to their presence.

lead_large NOAA

If one goes to 200 Hz, a slightly different picture of the local variations in background hums emerges:

ocean sea noise global map noaa nasa decibels noise pollution marine animals mammals 200hz_NOAA

But what might be considered more broadly is the very difficulty of erasing the imprint that such ships that travel across the seas exercise over the entire marine environment. The sonorous surroundings characteristic of the oceans were earlier mapped at 400 Hz and a depth of fifty feet by NOAA in 2012, from passenger ships, commercial ships, to seismic surveys in an annual average, present a similarly pronounced offshore acoustic disturbances and an even more pronounced augmentation of background noise offshore, as if hidden from landlocked observation stations, as if ships’ engines are only started at full throttle after arriving in the open seas, where ship captains or automated pilots crank up their speeds and plow full speed ahead:

1211-sci-OCEANNOAA Underwater Mapping Sound Field Mapping Working Group/HLS Research/ NCEAS–Details of North Atlantic Shipping and local noises near Long Island–from the New York Times

The rumors of transatlantic voyages notwithstanding, it is somehow wonderful to move from the noisy oceans to their landlocked counterparts.

The deep blue sites of relative silence, often confined to the areas close to the coast, may indeed obscure the extent of noise we have created far out at sea, far from the increasingly noisy shore, where we cannot hear their hum.  The shifts in the national–as well as the global–soundscape makes one wonder whether, in obscuring some sounds or making other sounds inaudible, one is not changing perceptions of space in ways that the great majority of  data visualizations cannot register.  But both present us with digitized images of sound-levels so strikingly ever-present that we can almost hear them resonate across space.

Like the deepest blue spots on the sound map of the United States, they mark the rare areas of respite in an every-noisier world.

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Filed under environmental mapping, megacities, national parks, sound maps, Soundscapes

More Better Mapping of Oakland’s Populations


Maps have long been described or conceived as windows–analogous in ways to pictorial perspective–that invite viewers to look into a space in new ways.  But both word maps as the above, made of the names of Oakland’s almost 150 different neighborhoods, or more statistically derived data visualizations of the city are mirrors that present a less homogeneous or continuous image of the city that we want to see:  if the roughly type-set image above suggest a make-do approach of the somewhat scruffy post-industrial port city with big loading docks, but erase its dirt or drastically depressed areas with lively type.

Data visualizations offer mirrors of the city’s inhabitants and shifting neighborhoods that are both dependent on the source-data that they use, and how they obtained it, but also on the dynamic layers that digital mapping allows us to place as overlays on the base-map of the city’s mountains and shores.  While these maps are only as good as the data that they use, they reflect back some of the divisions in the city that we might not otherwise notice or want to see.

And while not based in prose in the same manner as the Ozan Berke’s word-map that nicely knit together the city’s 146 vastly different neighborhoods, they offer ways of reading the city’s multiple divides.  The increased data that is available from Open Oakland and other sources will doubtless offer further–and far more refined–images of the city’s deep differences and their bridging, and can serve as better and more detailed maps of its populations.  But in the meantime, the sorts of mirrors these maps offer can also provide ways to imagine paths toward a future for Oakland, and better understand ways forward in its public policies.  Many of them draw from the American Community Survey, created by the US Census and discussed in earlier posts, but all seek to focus attention on the city and to serve, as mirrors, to show differently refracted visions of its divides, in the hope that few distort Oakland’s diverse populations.

A famous image of the distinctly uneven distributions of Oakland’s inhabitants is clear in a recent mashup of maps of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s public transport map–or, more simply, BART map–with the very zip codes that the American Community Survey mapped, which offers a condensation of the remarkable disparities and differences between income, education, child health and life expectancy at separate stations on the same public transport lines:

BART Health Map:Life Expectancy at BART stops

While, to be sure, the system includes suburbs such as Walnut Creek or Fremont, its focus on the East Bay  immediately indicates the deep divisions in a city where a BART stop can take one between areas of over ten years difference in life expectancy, and two more stops down either line sees life expectancy rise by seven or eight years once again.  The huge rise in childhood hospitalizations because of asthma in the City Center–far greater than in Fruitvale–suggests the unique pollution habits of a city whose air quality is still shaped by its proximity to a port.

The image of the diverse city whose neighborhoods are bound together as one unit starts to reveal fissures when one examines its ethnic and voting distribution at a somewhat finer grain, adding to the historical variations in the picture of the city summarized and surveyed in an earlier post.  The problem of mapping those populations adequately, both to reveal the ongoing inequalities and spatial injustice within the city, is not inherent in the city’s structure or divisions, but something that compels visualization in a myriad of ways, and in which we can look for different understandings of the shifting nature of the city’s socioeconomic (and sociocultural) divides.  As well as mapping the lay of the land, mapping the habitation of space creates even more of a “mirror” on the organization of th eplace.


The census mosaic only shows part of the inhabitants’ picture.  Indeed, perhaps a “racial dot” map can be rehabilitated, rendering one dot/twenty-five people, to create a rough distribution Bay Area-wide that respects the looser definition of “neighborhoods,” and does not impose strict racial segregation, as in this image by Eric Fischer, using red dots representing whites, blue representing blacks, green representing Asian and orange Latino populations, in trying to prevent  overlapping and blending of color-points,  and better to define neighborhoods as an ethnic or racial enclave:

Racial Map SF--25:dot Eric Fischer

Fischer seeks to respect Bill Rankin’s cautionary words that boundaries of neighborhoods are never so stark as on informational graphics, and that a cartographical index of one dot for twenty-five people is better able to allow “transitions also [to] take place [registered] through gradients and gaps” in the map’s surface, suggesting an urban geography without clear boundary lines, clear spatial differentials clearly emerge across the neighborhoods of Oakland, CA:
Oakland Alone--Fischer

And while the city was once historically predominantly black, or African American, in its population, one still found clearly define enclaves of blacks that are, sadly, starkly isolated in census blocks, based on results of the 2005-9 U.S. Census:

2005-2009 % Afr Am Oakland

One can map, in relation to the racial composition of the city, the relative percentages of kids in public schools, one index of its community, and the stark dividing lines created by some of its highways and major roads, which divide the regions of the hills from the flats, where few kids attend private schools.

Elementary School Kids in Private Schools

This is given much further definition by the map of those who have completed high school, already used in in my earlier post in a slightly different version, which suggests a chasm between cultures of neighborhood far deeper than race alone.

High School Graduation

Perhaps the starkest underpinnings of this cultural divide is a map using the 2010 Census to define an ESRI visualization, of the city’s divide in income levels in the city and outlying areas:

oakland's Income in bay Area

Which one can zoom into for the City of Oakland, revealing a clearer divide in incomes around  Highway 24, still using Census Blocks, that again reveals some intermingling albeit with sharp divergences in Oakland that stand in sharp contrast to the larger Bay area:

Median household Income East Bay-Oakland in it

To track a deep change in the population of the city that occurred in only recent years,  Pietro Calogero tracked racial displacement from many neighborhoods that illuminate this divide in incomes, around the aftermath o California’s housing crisis.  The map of foreclosed real estate in west and southeast Oakland, the former “industrial areas,” which stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas in the hills, to illuminate an economic ravaging of the city that shows up in no other way in a simple map–and indeed masks innumerable individual stories of foreclosure and moving out:

Foreclosures OAK

Although perhaps the map of foreclosed houses is difficult to tie to race, Calogero comes closest to revealing stories with a map in choosing to map how African American families were in fact disproportionately effected by foreclosures, and how former African American neighborhoods were gutted from the inside out as residence became unsustainable:

African Americans and Foreclosure in Oakland

The effective narrative of racial displacement that these dynamic maps isolate and present is not only compelling, but raises questions of social justice–and perhaps of social justice and urban mapping.   Despite the broad interpretation of displacement, both when occupied by owner or purchased as an investment, the clear overlap between categories of race and foreclosure seems not only unjust, but a deep crisis, underscoring and mirroring the deep segregation that continues in so many American cities.

And the repercussions of this sort of segregation are evident in the apparent disenfranchisement of despair, revealed in this simple map of voter participation that Ofurhe Igbinedion so astutely thought to create from Alameda County electoral data, which shows a valley of voter absenteeism in an area where the 2010 voting held low potential or positive prospect:

Oakland Voter Turnout

(Igbinedion’s striking–and dismaying–map, reduced in size above, may be viewed in far greater detail here, and will be posted in full with a commentary at http://www.infoalamedacounty.org).

The huge fall-off in turnout among the same population of a territory of disclosure suggests a political disconnect scary in its dimensions, if sadly typical for most American inner cities.  But the cavities of voter turnout in an election for which turnout was itself particularly high–or just short of 75% (74.52%)–suggests a sense of a politics of abandonment.  What, indeed, did the election accomplish for a large percentage of the city?   What resonance did the candidates even hold, or could they hold?  The topography of disenfranchisement is arresting if not puncturing of a vision of a city united in its neighborhoods, and sort of undoes the unity of its own mapping of continuity.

It is a sort of inversion of density.  Mapping the density of population in Oakland by census blocks reveals not only clear neighborhood divides but a uniquely geographic dispersal of demographics, most dense between the freeways and thinning out to the hills and the flats:

Oak Pop Density

There may be real reasons for not living by the shore below the freeway:  the area is not only late-industrial, but the ships spewing sulfur dioxide and pollutants exceeding standards for vehicles that are registered in the United States create a spew of particulate matter over the downtown area not confined to West Oakland, but reaching in to Chinatown, Emeryville and the Downtown area, areas downwind of the port, in this truly terrifying map, posted in 2013 by Sarah Brady and Alfred Twu, and charting the sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions of ships, using the Port of Oakland Emissions Inventory:


The map reveals regions with air pollution up to 10 times the national average a couple of miles from the port, but whose effects increase risks of cancer and asthma extending twenty miles inland, creating a poorly-known map of particulate matter as an argument to raise pollution standards in Oakland’s port.  Notwithstanding the much-vaunted clean-up of the Port of Oakland, which were aimed primarily at legal safeguards at the level of diesel particulate emissions–emissions that have been largely blamed for sever respiratory problems among local residents–which have indeed decreased from 261 tons to some 77 tons in seven years. (If this was a reduction of 70%, the stated goal of the Port is to further reduce the emissions by 80% by 2020; since July 2009, ships have been required to use low-sulfur fuels within twenty-five miles of the coast, however, and the sulfur-dioxide emissions tied to asthma are not likely to decrease.)

Perhaps it’s not uncommon to value (and inhabit) property away from the shoreline.  Examining relations between elevation and population density in the wake of the shifting consciousness of the relation between water-elevation and land-use after Hurricane Sandy, Stephen von Worley offered the following interesting alternative visualization mapping elevation and population density on a spectrum moving from white to yellow to orange to blue, to show the sharp divide between hills and flats in the East Bay:

Stephen Whorley, Elevation and Poopulation Density (2010)scale von whorley

A nice register of how this space is actually used or perceived, and, equally important, moved through, based on a collation of the adjustments to Open Street Maps of the city, suggests the well-travelled nature of Oakland’s major arteries and downtown roads.   How might this be registered in the surface of the map? is a question that is nicely resolved in this map of Oakland’s self-mapping of its major roadways.

Oakland, McConchie-every line, every point- OaklandAlan McConchie–Stamen design

The Open Street Map view of Oakland, rendered so distinctively by Alan McConchie, tells a perfect story of the inhabitation of Oakland’s space by its routes of mobility, recalling the sort of GPS-derived maps increasingly common from artists like Jeremy Wood, who practiced “drawing with GPS” as a line of work:  it would be interesting to be able to map street-use at different times of the day, if possible, though deriving data of the abandonment of downtown Oakland when dark is undoubtedly difficult.

The divergence of nighttime and daytime is evoked, if not measured, in Michal Migurski’s brilliant layering of a “heat map” of crime–based on police visits per unit of time–over an OSM template, both layered with a semitransparent streets that interact smoothly with the underlaid data; the combination of layers effectively allowed Migurski to adapt a heat-map of crime to downtown Oakland, using police visits per unit of time as a metric as part of his active and for its time particularly innovative Oakland Crimespotting, in the hope that the HeatMap APIs won’t obscure either context or specifics, and provide a legible text.


One could argue that this mapping of hot-spots excessively illuminates those areas of BART stops, where more police calls would tend to occur–and, in the case of 12th street and downtown, more street folks congregate.  But the increased number of calls provides a basis to register local attention to crime and property protection, or how the city sees itself.

And how Oakland maps its own crime, or tends to monitor its own possessions, is foregrounded in this striking map of the downtown density of security cameras, often placed in response to fears as much as evidence.  This final map of the installation of security cameras downtown points up the increased anxieties of its safety, almost in response to and the perceived need to monitor public life, and registers the odd dynamic of a downtown business zone that has few residents, and whose topography of suspicion vastly changes as one moves from daytime into night–when downtown is increasingly abandoned by workers or street populations.

We’re clearly fascinated by the different images of the city’s different composition and divides, and in understanding how best to work within them, or to heal them as best we can. The mapping of security cameras–if focussed in the downtown area–reveals a sense of deep divides, and a perceived in security, no doubt partly voiced as inadequate police coverage among businesses, as much as the city’s residents.  This map, also a mirror, in part doubtlessly contributes to the image Oakland projects, an image that is underscored by deep divide Eric Fischer revealed in his remarkable ‘Bay Area’ map of photographs uploaded by “tourists” v. “locals,” red v. blue, in a database that charts a tale of the visual interest of two cities:

Eric Fischer- Locals v non-Locals in SF:Oak

There are many other, more positive maps of the city’s populations, no doubt, and other mirrors that reveal great changes in the city’s diverse communities.  But only by understanding the lay of the land, as it were, and situation of these communities, can we hope to understand the unique challenges that the city faces.

The ambitious investment by a generous benefactor of a whopping $34 million in Oakland’s job-training and education efforts in the summer of 2015 may be the start of a broader investment in what the city has to offer.  The distribution of needed resources by the San Francisco Foundation seems both brave and smartly apportioned:  the decision to focus on specific neighborhoods, and improve the access of those regions to both in-school training and potentially productive housing to public health and from public instruction to community arts groups seems a good one, and breaks down along lines that the city could use, with East Oakland getting an important and much-needed injection:


If many public services are lacking in Oakland–and the poor fit between local economy and job-training has been endemic to much of the city–this seems at least to be a fortunate and very well-intentioned start.

The huge impact on introducing training and resources for early childhood education, trauma and health specialities, and, in part, conflict resolution, provides an important start to break from the deep divisions that have long been present in public education, and the lack of needed resources for many public schools not located in neighborhoods that are able to subsidize or assist needed programs.

Impact on Oak Schools


Filed under mapping racial segregation, Oakland

Infographics in America

If the nineteenth century America has been often described as an era of geographic integration, perhaps no one more than the ambitious statistician Francis Amasa Walker created a new way of seeing the nation that foregrounded both the local differences that continued to divide the nation, but staked out the challenges for integration that the country faced in geographical terms.  His extremely influential 1874 Statistical Atlas, based on the unprecedented 1870 US Census that he directly supervised and made the case before Congress about the undeniable need for funding, whose maps created an image of the challenges of national unity that remained in the republic in the wake of the Civil War in which he had fought:  the Statistical Atlas extends the enterprise of the expanded Census, validating how statistics present a synoptic picture of the political economy–illustrating relations of the local to the polity across continuous United States as if processing part of a mental effort of consolidation.

Even before the unprecedentedly bitter electoral divide of 1876, Walker advanced maps as providing a new way to embody the polity through the visual records derived from statistical aggregates.  Although Walker’s subsequent tabulation of the data on immigrants in the late nineteenth century led him to fear their arrival as threatening the nation’s productivity, based on his perception of the depth of racial differences to the national polity, and encouraged others to do so, he advanced the embodiment of statistics in geographic maps, in ways no doubt influenced by his close collaboration with his father, the economist Amasa Walker.  In ways that prepared a basis for his use of maps to express the contested electoral results of 1876, Walker treated maps as coherent statements about the nation’s divides otherwise not able to be articulated, as a basis to start debate about the well-being of its political economy.  (His maps were so convincing, indeed, in framing a question of geographical organization, that they may have encouraged a narrative of geographical integration only recently challenged by investigations into the geographies continued to be produced on the local or regional level.)

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

Mapping Population Density in the US, 1870

Susan Schulten has recently advanced the quite compelling argument that Walker’s innovations constituted gave the “invention of the infographic” distinctly American roots.  Her argument spoke appositely to the almost obsessive return in recent elections to infographics that suggested the likely tendencies of voters, and indeed often reframed a narrative of division into “red” and “blue” states–and even designated some “purple”–in ways that revealed an undeniable undercurrent that verged on obsession of questions of national unity and division that were of the very sort that Walker had similarly sought to address when he undertook the reformation of the decennial Census in 1869 at an amazingly young age of twenty-nine–no doubt with insight as to the ability to advance and illustrate the distinct distribution of space that the nation occupied.

Even as a staggering proliferation of maps of electoral zones flooded airwaves, newswires and web during the 2012 election, Schulten traced the invention of the American infographic to the innovative visualizations of data and government statics by an enterprising statistical mapper who after working to organize the 1870 Census, not only drew up a comprehensive reform of the census but treated its findings to create a “statistical survey” that came to  embody the nation’s political and economic unity.  While earlier Censuses were strikingly unscientific, Walker advanced issues of political economy in maps as an extension of his expansion of the decennial census, organizing the tabulation of population, agriculture, mortality and manufacturing data on 39 million Americans, and placing prime importance on geographically orienting statistics as tools to better visualize the nature of social and economic divisions after the Civil War in which he had fought and been grievously injured.

Walker’s maps framed the issue of integration in legible fashion–and produced them to allow the fate of the nation’s unity and division to be processed for a wider audience than would have otherwise confronted them–they did so since they readily processed statistics that went far beyond physical phenomena to chart the racial composite by which the national economy could be understood, moving beyond existing models of its physical geology–which he also included in the Statistical Atlas

walker-map-geologyPrinceton University (from Statistical Atlas, 1874)

–to attempts to embody the composition of its human inhabitants whose aggregates were earlier not clearly understood, in what was indeed the first public census to count African Americans who were former slaves as part of the nation’s fabric.

Colored in Aggregate

Colored Populations in the United States (1874) (Courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Walker’s advocacy of such choreographic statistical maps as snapshots of the political economy led to an invitation to join the editorial board of the New York Times–which he declined, probably since he continued publishing in competitors from Scribners’ Monthly to Harpers’ New Monthly, emerging as a public intellectual of originally progressive bent.  For Walker had convinced the US Congress to adopt a variety of projects that used recent lithographic techniques and statistical correlations to use the results of the 1870 US Census map an coherently compelling image of the nation’s situation for public debate.  If all maps reflect both the character and competency of their makers, Walker’s maps reflect the excitement and tenacity of mining data from the Ninth US Census of 1870 that he had compiled with congressional authority, compiling, correlating, and refining the image of the distribution of wealth, illness, and health to a degree that had not ever been earlier achieved.

He engaged in mapmaking in print as a form of public discourse that elevated the statistical map as a tool for envisioning the nation as an aggregate.  Walker’s early involvement with late nineteenth-century newspapers like the Springfield Republican Newspaper as well, from the late 1860s, at the Atlantic Monthly, in fact no doubt encouraged his trust in the power of such organs of public debate–and the power of printed supplements based on the US Census, several of which he published for Harpers’ New Monthly, as well as in Scribner’s Monthly, The Century and North American Quarterly, in ways that no doubt led to his conviction in the infographic as a way to shape public debate on political economy, population density, home servitude, and the working classes.  Walker’s position as Chief of the Bureau of Statistics and Taxes may have helped him use his position as Superintendent of the fifth US Census at just twenty-nine to present the project of the first Statistical Atlas of the country, a project which he expanded in the 1880 Census, whose unprecedented twenty-two volumes collected an even greater range of information than ever previously collated and greatly refined the unscientific nature of previous decennial censuses.

Francis Amasa Walker saw the U.S. Census not only as a way to view populations of states, but to expand the vision of and the likeness of the nation by the more arduous measure of density per square mile, and to then use that image to chart the distribution of the national population as a demographic tool.  He worked with the census to conceive of the map as a measure for mapping complementary sets of data, by mapping relations between density and select quantifiable variables, mapping population density against wealth distribution, literacy, childbirth rates and disease–but not voting preference–in maps that created a legible record of the country, whose public good he convinced the US Congress to fund Atlases in 1872 and 1873.  By transferring statistical observations into a detailed picture of the nation, he began from a base layer of the contours by which its population was distributed, without focussing on jurisdictional bounds, in ways that effectively augmented the independent authority of maps as media of sociological investigation and public communication to an extent that had never before been the case, but established a central place for detailed choropleths in the American Grain.

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

The maps are stunning choropleths that exploit lithographic techniques to picture the national population in great detail.  Walker started from the initial map of density, using the census of 1870, of which he was superintendent at the age of 29, and whose possibility for converting into cartographical form he seems to have readily perceived.  The plans led to the publication in 1874 of the Census’ data, in an initial atlas that totaled just fifty-six pages, each map of which has a degree of detail never seen as a visual embodiment of the nation, but emphasized its distribution of population and industry to an extent never realized–and, at least among its readership, posited questions of national coherence that concretize concerns for the country’s political economy:

Mapping Density in US

Density of Population in 1870–including African-Americans as well as Whites

For the first time, they also offer a mode to integrate African-American former slaves within a national economy, and posit a detailed, comprehensive and analytic image of population density across the north and south that suggest the value not only of statistics but of imaging the nation and its divisions in a decennial census.  The embodiment of issues formed as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury placed issues of political economy before the eyes of their readers in especially effective ways.
The fine grain of variations provided a new way to look at the nation, as the compelling lithographic choropleths of Alexander Bache, by using line-engraving to chart the population rather than topography as their concern, or coastlines or hydrography, than the shifts that the 1870 census revealed.  If riverine paths were noted, the South looked distinct when one saw the vast “gaps” or absences of population in much of the rural areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, and indeed the concentration of the population most entirely along rivers where agricultural trade grew.
Population Distribution chloropleth
The image of population density dramatically grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, in ways that charted the new image of the nation, and must have posed questions of how  population density mapped onto the distribution of wealth, or, an extension of it, childbirth rates, in order to refine and better understand the picture of national population it put forth.
Virginia to Georgia Chloropleth

Things got more complicated and more exciting when Walker mapped the distribution of wealth among these densities of population, in ways that helped reveal the uneven distribution of incomes across the post-war nation, and revealed a conspicuous ongoing divide between northern and southern states that related to industry but also to the extreme impoverishment of much of the population in the southern states that would continue to be a contradiction and difficult conundrum in the nation:

Mapping the Distribution of Wealth

The sort of graduated shaded in maps that Walker created provided something of a counter-map to the symbolic uses of mapping as a way to envision national unity, and pinpointed questions of the intractable nature of differentials of wealth.  If pockets of wealth extended deep West into Iowa and Kansas, and lit up Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in deep auburn hues, the Mason Dixon line was a divide in how wealth was distributed whose light ochre and pockets of white were rarely interrupted by redoubts of wealth, almost entirely along the coast or select segments of the Mississippi River.  His maps adopted the recent precision of mapping population density against its distribution that had been pioneered by Alexander Bache’s compelling visualization of the records of the 1860 Census with the German emmigre engraver Edwin Hergesheimer

The detailed cross-tabulation of population and wealth seems a bit of an odd ancestor of the modern infographic, although their kinship is clearly recognized.  For the image of Walker demanded the sort of detailed attention as a picture of the nation to which the compacting of information or metadata in the range of infographics generated by GIS programs rarely provide.  If Walker anticipated GIS in a fashion, the rapidity of generating the infographic that synthesized metadata with amazing facility and rapidity rarely demands the sort of attention that Walker’s images command.  In part, the lithographic medium habituated viewers to the parsing of refined distinctions in the economic landscape that variations of shading revealed:  the starkest of our blue/red maps with some pink or light blue question marks are removed from the fine-toothed sort of distinctions drawn in the census, or from a similar statistical subtlety.

But the proliferation of the infographic so readily produced and tabulated provides less of a reference tool than an attempt to hold onto the permanence of a snapshot provides within the rapidly shifting and changing landscape that often seems adrift in the electoral sea.  The questions that Walker asked–distribution of wealth, literacy, disease rates–are rarely raised in the infographics we see most frequently, even excepting Fox News’ proclivity for the infographics that perpetuate stark divisions.  The ‘mediazation’ of the modern infographic as a labor saving device not for observers, but whose construction demanded a more limited investment of detailed attention, has created a new assembly-line production of images of limited refinement, whose authority rests on their mapping substrates, rather than on the measurements they mediate and encode.

The limited subtlety of the infographic suggests not only their ideological points, but a shift in what might be called, with the late Michael Baxandall, a “period eye” to express the tastes of interpreting images from media to the viewing map–the habitual practices by which we look to maps in an age of the rapid-fire production of new infographics each day for broad consumption and, also, ratings appeal–or how infographics snappily  process an argument in a bottom-line nature, rather than approach the social topography whose complexities we’d maybe rather not want to detect or explore at close range:


Most items that bear the name of infographics might not be data visualizations, or even use the map as a tool to construct the meaning of its contents, since the map is so often and so readily abstracted from the territory. Maybe a map might even suggest what we might want to keep distance from, rather than to consider up-close:

Top Party Schools

These pilfered objects are a bit extreme, but their divorce from any sense of geographic meaning is somehow telling.  Sure, these are something like visual jokes, but they make the point I want to make about the liabilities and deceptiveness that the using maps to organize contemporary infographics reveal that adopt maps to bolster their suasive abilities as much as frame a problem.  The mock-maps–the second based on an episode of Ira Glass’s “This American Life” by E. J. Fox, from a series he titles “This American Infographic”– illustrate the problem of the need that cartographical infographics fill, of both adopting the authority of the map (without containing much geographic information) and of using it to display the ready access to metadata that most images of GPS presume–or, in the most banal but most common case, the weather maps on the Weather Channel–and that most folks expect.  Data-mining becomes replaced by graphic design tools imported from the world of advertising, and the maps are a blunt instrument to make blunt arguments, or present an image of the status quo:  the big parties happen at big state universities.

Maps are especially powerful tools to process information for viewers.   Some less ridiculous examples of infographics reveal some surprisingly similar attempts at using mapping forms or mapping syntax to preserve an illusion of omniscience and often to illuminate or make a comment about national unity.  But they also often use maps in ways that, unlike the maps  derived from government censuses that Walker examined with considerable care to demographic variables, conceals an absence of  analytically meaningful argument.  They treat the map as a form of metadata that reduces analytic specificity–from a map of the “battleground states” that effectively uses a format of mapping in order to suggest either the limited support for the Democratic party in the nation (by using a shade of yellow closer to red than blue) or indicate the deeply flawed nature of the democratic process to their viewers.

Recall the sort of maps that were all the rage when Schulten described Walker’s innovative practice, if you can bear it.  Rather than resting on numeracy or the tabulation of relative measures of difference by a statistical model, the map foregrounds the indeterminate nature of places where polling was within a margin of error, rooted less in mathematical literacy but in pollsters’ relative ability of prediction.  The mediazation of the map is removed from a mathematics of mapping or an expectation of refinement, for it is almost more of a symbolization of a politics of stasis or an electoral divide:


The greater refinement of other maps that shaded “tending towards” in lighter colors foregrounded the unpredictable nature of voters’ preferences, more than the composition of the electorate, as they seem to table the question of national coherence or cohesiveness as a whole other issue.


In each of these admittedly varied cases, mapping indicates an aura of accuracy or invests a sense of stability in the face of indeterminate data.  The map is a totem by virtue of its processing of information from varied diverse sources, but the map blunts potentially far more precise tools that seem to divide the polity and focusses on electoral results.   The questions of numeracy that divide the nation are less based in a tabulation of data or statistical familiarity; the block-hues of states mute meaning analysis.

Blocks of red in the map seem possible of being emptied of geographic meaning.  One famous FOX infographic purported to identify a strategy for Republican victory, but undermined the very legitimacy of this potential scenario for the attentive few by mislabeling the states it purported to count with accuracy–as well as deceptively reinterpreting polling trends:

%22Western Path%22

The absence of an expectation of reading measurements beyond numerical addition are evident in a map more reminiscent of the refined criteria of a jigsaw puzzle than in puzzling questions of national unity or ideological difference:

electoral colors map

In part, ideological differences are just not that pronounced, and the maps are oriented to processing polling numbers that were changing like a stock-market ticker-tape, rather than providing a firm basis for a national portrait.  But the father of the infographic would most certainly not be pleased.  The adoption and diffusion of mapping forms in infographics provide metadata constructions perhaps most significant for how they quash related questions or discussions, by ordering a massive amount of data whose impression of preponderance is more likely to take away one’s breath than pose a question, and is almost always likely to conceal an argument.

To some extent, of course, the new elevation of infographics is the creation of the new media economy.  There’s an odd dynamic of devaluing of the analytic power of the map at the same time as elevating its explanatory power.  The map, in an age of reduced news content, seems to substitute for the strength of an analytic news story, as a GPS program produces a snappy infographic that seems both content-heavy and a pleasing amuse-bouche.  The need to process different news sources or on-the-ground informants might be both excused and avoided, where we can come up with a symbolic rendering of what happened, even if we don’t need to look so closely at what its causes or its actual ramifications were.  The absence of analytics in the infographic–which presents, as with the weather, the state of things as they are as an actuality that does not need further analysis or attention to local variation–is perhaps its most pernicious feature as a medium.  They stand at a remove from the maps that the great nineteenth century statistical geographer Francis A. Walker so valuably labored to design.

We develop infographics such as the following by crunching some obtainable numbers–in an image that unsurprisingly perhaps uses the residue of a weather map as its base–to tell a story that collapses multiple different narratives into a single set of information that the viewer can quickly process.  The iconic map that was diffused after the last election was less about fault lines or divisions in the nation, than a cartogram of the new image of alliances in the nation, where the entire midwest stood as a block of blue with the Western states:


That is not to say that infographics can tell a subtler story of similarly chorographic proportions, to describe the image of unemployment in 2003, for example in the country:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2003

But at what cost?  Choropleths such as the below seem to remove individual experience from their comprehensive picture–and provide a “big picture” that is actually difficult if  to comprehend for all the metadata they synthesize.  And they present an intractable image of a social divide whose dark bands of dark blue reveal a density of those out of work that only grew by 2008 in the very same areas:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2008

There was a similar crunching of numbers at a remove from individual experience of tragedy in a map of electric outages suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, providing a purview of outages from Augusta to Raleigh.  The map is powerful and striking, but also elided the stories of its destructions or narrative of its meteorology with an easy infographic of a sort of least common denominator to everyone can easily relate of the lights going out.

infographic on power outages from Sandy

These maps erase their inhabitants. So what, then, we might ask, is the territory?

The ghost of Walker, and continued prestige of his aesthetics, have led Nathan Yau of Flowing Data to provide a comparable set of visualizations that embody our national territory, based on the ongoing statistical surveys of the American Community Survey of 2010, to “revive” the project of a Statistical Survey in the footsteps of his august predecessor, noting with some evident pain the absence of any plans by the US government’s Census Bureau to produce one after 2000, perhaps due to the high costs of the Census itself–and the recent Republican-led effort to even claim that the decennial Survey is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy–even though it provides the best basis for the apportionment of government funds, and one of the clearest demographic portraits of the country–that tarred the survey in no uncertain terms as “intrud[ing] on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” according to Daniel Webster, an inspiringly named first-term Republican congressman from Florida, who questioned the random nature of the survey as illustrating its “unscientific” value, despite its assessment of over three million American households in considerable demographic detail about their occupations, housing, literacy, languages spoken at home and at work, and levels of education, as well as their approximate computer use.

Perhaps with some premonition of the dangers of resting our democracy on the thin infographics consumed by watchers of television news, the self-published Survey Yau published online imitated the august elegance and clarity of Walker’s maps to point up the absence of needed visualization of the data that the Census compiles.  The images–able to be bought individually as posters–suggest the deep presence of Walker’s idiom of visualization within our current media circus, when the proliferation of news maps from various outlets and Graphics Depts. seem dislodged from the interest of the public good.  Yau’s project was may seem to have obviated need for an impartial assessment of all the data that the Census compiled.  Indeed, while the Times, which once offered Walker a seat on its editorial board, created a brilliantly colored set of interactive visualizations based on data from 2005-9, Yau offered nostalgic images that embodied the images of the nation that the government has puzzlingly withheld, with climatological and agricultural data that provide a similarly detailed atlas of the coterminous United States which, in an age overflowing with data visualizations, remind us of the need to preserve a picture of the nation to ensure we keep the public informed.



The detail of the maps, set in a sepia background with shadings that somewhat approximate the exacting palette of Hergesheimer’s half-tones, provide a set of gradations of population as revealed in the data of the 2013 ACS,



Or, to depart from the demographic and verge into the statistics of the environment, the distribution of levels of rainfall,




or landcover:


The data waits to be visualized, and the simple monocular visualizations capture its complexion with quite understated elegance.  While less rooted in concerns of political economy, the visualization hearkens back to a unified choreography that we often seem to lack–even if it only pictures tornadoes–in ways that go beyond the existential qualities of weather maps as records of the present day.



To be sure, the political economy of the nation has become so fragmented that it is hard to visualize by such clearcut lines or shadings, even though the Times’ visualization of the American Community Survey similarly uses the map as a surface on which to throw the composition of the nation–and the nation’s cities–into relief, here drawing on the Survey to present the complexity of the population of an actually quite segregated New York:

ACS 2005?

from New York Times–“Mapping America: Every City, Every Block

Should such mages serve to whet your appetite for better visualizations that embody an accurate image of the nation, folks based in the Bay Area might want to check out how the students at UC Berkeley’s I-School stack up against Fox News, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and even Francis A. Walker, by looking at the results that are now showcased at http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/newsandevents/events/finalprojects2013.  (The website promises to present recent graphic charts of Changing BehaviorsEnhancing Information Systems, and Information Organization and Tools that have been refined over the last three years.)

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Filed under data visualizations, GIS, infographics, political economy, statistics