Americans Retreat, Turks Invade, Syrians Return, Kurds Die

I did not have a lot of time to cover this story last week. So let us try to get into it a little bit today. The New York Times published this morning an article about what is next for Syria, titling the online version 4 Big Questions About Syria’s Future. So I went with four statements about what is happening today for the title of this post.

If you somehow missed it, President Trump announced that American forces were retreating from the Syrian–Turkish border because Turkey wanted to invade Syria and crush the Kurds, a minority population in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. There, in Turkey, Kurdish separatists have fought a war for autonomy if not independence from Ankara. (I am dramatically oversimplifying this.) The group that organised these attacks, which Turkey considers terrorism, has ties to the Kurds in Syria that have organised a relatively peaceful and stable region of Syria during the Syrian Civil War—no small feat. But because of those ties, and because Turkey fears an independent Kurdistan on its border, Ankara decided to invade Syria and crush the Kurds and has launched heavy and devastating airstrikes alongside a ground invasion to that end.

Of course the Syrians would like to regain control of their entire country. But they had left the Kurds in relative peace as the Syrians shifted most of their forces from the northeast to places like Homs and Aleppo where they fought the various opposition forces and then the jihadists and then ISIS. The Syrians and Kurds did occasionally skirmish, but these were often far smaller engagements than the heavier fighting in the west of the country.

But now the Syrian army and air force, weary but battle hardened, having retaken control over most of western and central Syria, can move back into northeastern Syria where the Kurds have power and re-exert control. The Kurds have asked the Syrians (and the Russians) for help repelling the Turkish invasion and both countries seem eager to oblige.

Amidst all of this, Kurds die.

But the New York Times article does a really nice job explaining all of this and it frames the answers to its questions around three maps. This screenshot is from the main one that shows the sites of Turkish airstrikes and Turkey’s desired buffer zone (though there are reports Turkish forces are pushing well past that line).

It's all a mess right now
It’s all a mess right now

The maps uses the four colours to represent the four main power blocs. The others provide additional context, especially in terms of the ethnic makeup of Syria. Overall it is a solid piece that goes a long way towards showing just how messed up things have gotten since Wednesday.

Here, the annotations help identify key battlegrounds and locations. But since being published this is already out of date, as there are reports that the Syrians alongside Russian troops have retaken the town of Manbij. Suffice it to say this is a fluid situation and by tomorrow this could all be different.

Credit for the piece goes to Anne Barnard, Anjali Singhvi, Sarah Almukhtar, Allison McCann, and Jin Wu.

Back to Being Runnerup

Another week, another Wednesday, another night of pub trivia tonight. So after several weeks of disappointing scores and placement, the last few weeks has seen us triumphantly returning to second place. And so what better way to show that than showing our rank at the end of each night.

Consistently second.
Consistently second.

More encouragingly, as the line chart shows, we’ve been becoming more competitive. Our number of points behind the first place team has been dropping. Last week, for example, we were only one point off from first place.

Credit for this is mine.

The Vaping Outbreak Spreads

And now with more deaths.

On Friday, Pennsylvania reported its first death from the vaping disease spreading across the country. So I decided I would take a moment to update the map I made a month ago charting the outbreak. Then, the CDC had tallied 450 cases. Now we are at 1080. And whereas last time New England, parts of the deep South, and the Southwest were untouched, now the disease is everywhere but New Hampshire and Alaska.

But we are starting to see a pattern in a clustering of high numbers of cases around Lake Michigan and the Upper Midwest. Though I should point out these bin breakdowns come from the CDC. They did not provide more granular data.

Now with deaths in Pennsylvania.
Now with deaths in Pennsylvania.

Credit for this piece goes to me.

Urban Heat Islands

Yesterday was the first day of 32º+C (90º+F) in Philadelphia in October in 78 years. Gross. But it made me remember this piece last month from NPR that looked at the correlation between extreme urban heat islands and areas of urban poverty. In addition to the narrative—well worth the read—the piece makes use of choropleths for various US cities to explore said relationship.

My neighbourhood's not bad, but thankfully I live next to a park.
My neighbourhood’s not bad, but thankfully I live next to a park.

As graphics go, these are effective. I don’t love the pure gradient from minimum to maximum, however, my bigger point is about the use of the choropleth compared to perhaps a scatter plot. In these graphics that are trying to show a correlation between impoverished districts and extreme heat, I wonder if a more technical scatterplot showing correlation would be effective.

Another approach could be to map the actual strength of the correlation. What if the designers had created a metric or value to capture the average relationship between income and heat. In that case, each neighbourhood could be mapped as how far above or below that value they are. Because here, the user is forced to mentally transpose the one map atop the other, which is not easy.

For those of you from Chicago, that city is rated as weak or no correlation to the moderately correlated Philadelphia.

I lived near the lake for eight years, and that does a great deal for mitigating temperature extremes.
I lived near the lake for eight years, and that does a great deal for mitigating temperature extremes.

Granted, that kind of scatterplot probably requires more explanation, and the user cannot quickly find their local neighbourhood, but the graphics could show the correlation more clearly that way.

Finally, it goes almost without saying that I do not love the red/green colour palette. I would have preferred a more colour-blind friendly red/blue or green/purple. Ultimately though, a clearer top label would obviate the need for any colour differentiation at all. The same colour could be used for each metric since they never directly interact.

Overall this is a strong piece and speaks to an important topic. But the graphics could be a wee bit more effective with just a few tweaks.

Credit for the piece goes to Meg Anderson and Sean McMinn.

Baby You Can Drive My Non-automobile Personal Mode of Transportation

Last week was the climate summit in New York, and the science continues to get worse. Any real substantive progress in fighting climate change will require sacrifices and changes to the way our societies function and are organised, including spatially. Because one area that needs to be addressed is the use of personal automobiles that consume oil and emit, among other things, carbon dioxide. But living without cars is not easy in a society largely designed where they are a necessity.

But over at CityLab, Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander created an index trying to capture the ability to live without a car. The overall piece is worth a read, but as usual I want to focus on the graphic.

The Northeast is where it's at with its dense cities designed for a pre-automobile era
The Northeast is where it’s at with its dense cities designed for a pre-automobile era

It’s nothing crazy, but it really does shine as a good example of when to use a map. First, I enjoy seeing metro maps of the United States used as choropleths, which is why I’ve made them as part of job at the Philly Fed. CityLab’s map does a good job showing there is a geographic pattern to the location of cities best situated for those trying to live a car-free life. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the big clusters is the Northeast Corridor, including Philadelphia, which ranks as the 17th best (out of 398) and the 7th best of large metro areas (defined as more than one million people), beating out Chicago, ranked 23rd and 8th, respectively.

Design wise I have two small issues. First, I might quibble with the colour scheme. I’m not sure there is enough differentiation between the pink and light orange. A very light orange could have perhaps been a better choice. Though I am sympathetic to the need to keep that lowest bin separate from the grey.

Secondly, with the legend, because the index is a construct, I might have included some secondary labelling to help the reader understand what the numbers mean. Perhaps an arrow and some text saying something like “Easier car-free living”. Once you have read the text, it makes sense. However, viewing the graphic in isolation might not be as clear as it could be with that labelling.

Credit for the piece goes to David Montgomery.

Brexit Crazyness Continues

The British Supreme Court ruled today that Boris Johnson unlawfully advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament. And because the advice was unlawful, the act was therefore unlawful. And because the act was unlawful, the effects of said act were unlawful. And because the effects were unlawful, said effects are null and void. So, you know, prorogation never happened.

So the Prime Minister has misled the Queen. He has failed to pass all but one bill in Parliament (it was a bill for the restoration of the Palace of Westminster totally unrelated to Brexit). He lost three seats, one via a by-election and two by defecting MPs. And then he purged 21 MPs from his party to completely obliterate his working majority. In any other year, this would be cause for the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. Instead he is sticking around in New York to give a speech about, what else, Brexit, before flying back to London tonight (Eastern US time).

So what’s next? Who really knows. This has never before happened in the history of the United Kingdom. But one possible option is that the opposition parties may hold a no confidence vote. But there will be significant pressure against that, because, as my graphic shows, any election that would likely result, would mean Brexit happening with Parliament dissolved. And that would, ahem, defeat the entire purpose of preventing a No Deal Brexit. Consequently, a no confidence vote or general election is unlikely. (Unless, the opposition and Tory rebels can agree to a non-Jeremy Corbyn caretake prime minister, e.g. Ken Clarke or Margaret Beckett.)

Omnishambles. Even Iannucci couldn't have made this stuff up.
Omnishambles. Even Iannucci couldn’t have made this stuff up.

Regardless, get ready for a crazy day of Parliamentary procedure tomorrow.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

The UN climate summit begins in New York today. So let’s take a look at another data visualisation piece exploring climate change data. This one comes from a Washington Post article that, while largely driven by a textual narrative, does make use of some nice maps.

Ugh.
Ugh.

There is nothing too crazy going on with the actual map itself. I like the subtle use here of a stepped gradient for the legend. This allows for a clearer differentiation between adjacent regions and just how, well, bad things have become.

But where the piece shines is about halfway through. It takes this same map and essentially filters it. It starts with those regions with temperature changes over 2ºC. Then it progressively adds slightly less hotter regions to the map.

I mean at least it could be worse?
I mean at least it could be worse?

It’s a nice use of scrolling and filtering to highlight the areas worst impacted and then move down the horrible impact scale. And because this happens in the middle of the piece, giving it the full column width (online) allows the reader to really focus on the impacts.

Credit for the piece goes to Chris Mooney and John Muyskens.

Wicked Hot Islands

Though the temperatures might not always feel it, at least in Philadelphia, summer is ending and autumn beginning. Consequently I wanted to share this neat little work that explores urban heat islands. Specifically, this post’s author looks at Massachusetts and starts with a screenshot of the Boston area.

Wicked hot
Wicked hot

The author points out that the Boston Common and Public Garden are two areas of cool in an otherwise hot Boston. He also points out the Charles River and the divide between Boston and Brookline. I would like to add to it and point out the Fens and the Emerald Necklace.

I wonder if a scale of sorts would help, though the shift from warm yellows and reds to cooler greens and blues certainly helps differentiate between the cooler and warmer areas.

Credit for the piece goes to Krishna Karra.

The Map

I mean come on, guys, did you really expect me to not touch this one?

Well we made it to Friday, and naturally in the not so serious we have to cover the sharpie map. Because, if the data does not agree with your opinions, clearly the correct response is to just make shit up.

By now you have probably all heard the story about how President Trump tweeted an incorrect forecast about the path of Hurricane Dorian, warning how Alabama could be “hit (much) harder than anticipated”. Except that the forecast at the time was that Alabama wasn’t going to be hit. Cue this map, days later. As in days. As in this news story continued for days.

Note the sharpie weirdly extending the cone (in black, not the usual white) into Florida and onward into Alabama.
Note the sharpie weirdly extending the cone (in black, not the usual white) into Florida and onward into Alabama.

So to be fair, I went to the NOAA website and pulled down from their archive the cone maps from the date of the graphic Trump edited, and the one from the day when he tweeted about Alabama being hit by the hurricane.

Important to note that this forecast dates from 29 August. This press conference was on 4 September. He tweeted on 1 September. So in other words, two days after he used the wrong forecast, he had printed a big version of a contemporaneously two-day old forecast to show that if he drew a sharpie line on it, it would be correct.

Here is the original, from the National Hurricane Centre, for 29 August. Note, no Alabama.

No Alabama in this forecast, the OG, if you will (and if I'm using that term correctly).
No Alabama in this forecast, the OG, if you will (and if I’m using that term correctly).

And then Trump tweeted on 1 September. So let’s take the 02.00 Eastern time 1 September forecast from NOAA.

By 30 August the forecast was already tracking northward, not westward. So by 1 September the idea that the hurricane would hit Alabama was just nonsense.
By 30 August the forecast was already tracking northward, not westward. So by 1 September the idea that the hurricane would hit Alabama was just nonsense.

Definitely no Alabama in that forecast.

This could have all gone away if he had just admitted he looked at the wrong forecast and tweeted an incorrect warning. Instead, we had the White House pressuring NOAA to “fix” their tweet.

Now we can all chalk  this up as funny. But it does have some serious consequences. Instead of people in the actual path of Dorian preparing, because of the falsely wide range of impacts the president suggested, people in Alabama needlessly prepared for a nonevent.

But more widely, as someone who works with data on a daily basis, we need to agree that data is real. We cannot simply change the data because it does not fit the story we want to tell. If I could take a screenshot of every forecast and string them together in an animated clip, you would see there was never any forecast like the sharpie forecast. We cannot simply create our own realities and choose to live within them, because that means we have no common basis on which to disagree policy decisions that will have real world impacts.

Credit for the photo goes to Evan Vucci of the AP.

Credit for the National Hurricane Centre maps goes to its graphic team.

Where the Vaping Illness Is Spreading

Yesterday President Trump announced that the FDA is seeking to implement a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes. Ostensibly this is to combat teen uptake on the habit, but it comes at the same time as an outbreak of respiratory illnesses seemingly linked to vaping. Though, it should be pointed out that preliminary data points to a link to cannabis-infused vaping liquids, not necessarily cigarettes.

Regardless, the day before yesterday, I want to the CDC website to get the data on the outbreak to see if there was a geographic pattern to the outbreak. And, no, not really.

No real clear pattern here
No real clear pattern here

The closest thing that I could argue is the Eastern Seaboard south of New England. But then the deaths are all from the Midwest and westward. So no, in this graphic, there really is no story. I guess you could also say it’s more widespread than not?

Credit for this piece goes to me.