Midwestern Shrinkage

Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation
Charting the Rise and Fall of the Midwestern Congressional Delegation

The United States was founded on the East Coast as English (and the odd Scottish) colonies with the old cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. These first colonies became the original 13 states. Ever since the 18th century, we have expanded westward into the Ohio Territory, the Northwest Territory, French colonies, Spanish colonies turned Mexico, and then again the British in the Pacific Northwest. (Overly simplified history of the United States’ growth, but it shall do.)

Every ten years, the United States is constitutionally obligated to hold a census. You cannot elect representatives to make political decisions for you if you do not know how many of you there are and where you live. But what these decennial censuses show are how the demographics of the United States have changed, with the population shifting from the East Coast, once almost 100% of the population, to the lands south and west. It’s only natural when you consider how unpopulated that part of the continent is.

But, because we rely on these censuses to redraw political districts and boundaries, every ten years politicians make much ado about…well, something. This article by the New York Times looks at how these changes are set to affect the Midwest in particular and this graphic, while simple, charts the congressional power of the Midwest through the total number of seats held in Congress over the years.

Delaware, Home of Tax Free Shopping and Political Upsets

The big voting day in November is slowly—or rapidly—approaching. But before we get to the main fight, we have all the small-ring events to tease us. And to whet our appetite for magic walls and holographic projections and all the other technological wizardry that shall amaze and astound us all, we have nice graphics about the primaries.

Screenshot from the Delaware Senate Primary Page
Screenshot from the Delaware Senate Primary Page

This comes from the New York Times, in particular covering the Delaware primary where Mike Castle, long-time moderate Republican, has lost his party’s primary to a Tea Party candidate. (One wonders what would happen if the Tea Party candidates ran as an actual third party instead of co-opting the Republican party.) In general, the Times has there coverage pretty nailed down.

It is worth checking out their site for the mid-terms coming up if not for the news but then for the maps and charts they use to visualise all the data. (And with modern-day polling, how could we ever not have enough data to visualise?) After all, I will probably comment upon their work a few more times before Election Day.

Clerks. And Not the Death Star Discussing Type.

The New York Times has a story about the clerks supporting the Supreme Court justices. And how, surprisingly, the Supreme Court is polarised. Truly surprising considering how unpolarised—or would it be depolarised—the remaining two branches of government are these days. Sarcasm aside, the staff at the Times put together a diagram to explain the polarity.

Where all the clerks go
Where all the clerks go

My only real concern, however, is the potential for an audience disconnect. While you and I may know who John Marshall and William Brennan are, would the rest of the infographic’s readers? Does that mean not to include the justices? Personally, I always believe that design should lift and educate people and that designers should always avoid ‘dumbing things down’ for their audiences. Maybe not having the information in the diagram helps, and it will spur casual readers to do their own research. Or perhaps the targeted audience are those who have a grasp of the history of the Supreme Court.

It’s Hard to be a Saint in Hell

Perhaps the 21st century version of the Pentagon papers, the ‘War Logs’, as they are being called, consist of some 90,000 classified documents centring on the Afghanistan War. While they do not paint a necessarily different picture from what is known publicly, the War Logs do provide interesting glimpses into the war, a war that, like any other, is a messy and ugly business despite the polish of design, propaganda, and the media.  To put it differently and perhaps in another sense, the War Logs offer depth down to the ground-level, unpleasant details of warzone combat. But the documents lack an overall, strategic-level—I daresay antiseptic—breadth of understanding. The War Logs suffer from a lack of the broader context—but they do provide useful and interesting stories, vignettes, and anecdotes that flesh out the story we all broadly know.

The Guardian is one of three main newspapers that received the leaks in advance; the others were the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. And one of the things the Guardian did was create an interactive piece exploring improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and where and when they occurred in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

While I understand the use of Google maps, I always see the map as a distraction. For example, why in a story about Afghanistan do I need to see a map that includes the small cities of India. To some degree, the same can be said about the bordering countries like Iran and Pakistan—but as those countries are along the border and are to varying degrees involved in the action, their inclusion can be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Guardian Piece on IEDs
Guardian Piece on IEDs

Choice of map aside, the piece  highlights the detonation of IEDs as circles whose area reflects the number of casualties. The colour of each circle represents which ‘group’ of people had the most casualties: civilians, Coalition soldiers, or Afghan soldiers. However, by reducing the data to a single circle of a single colour, we lose the potential added depth of breaking down the event into the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike. Do I have an instant solution on hand? No. But I do note that if one clicks on the specific event, a window appears that breaks down the event into said figures.

One of the more interesting things about this whole story is that at least the Guardian is putting out the data as a spreadsheet. Perhaps in the near to intermediate future those with the time and inclination will take that information and make something truly interesting for the public’s consumption.

Damn the Torpedoes…We’ll Just Use Our Fists

A brief bit of background before I begin, a few months ago, a South Korean warship, a corvette, was sunk in waters claimed by both South Korea and North Korea. And technically speaking, the Korean War has never ended and the two countries remain at war. An independent commission studied the situation and determined that a North Korean submarine sank the ship with a torpedo. It did not help North Korea that North Korean markings were found on the remnants of a torpedo not far from the submerged wreckage.

Regardless, North Korea claimed innocence and the case went before the United Nations. The UN expressed, per usual, its toothless displeasure at the entire affair and everything has since sort of faded away—at least here in the United States it has. However, apparently somebody has smuggled a poster out of North Korea that hints at responsibility. According to the article, the text in the poster reads “If they attack, we will smash them in a single blow”.

North Korean Propaganda Poster
North Korean Propaganda Poster

photo uncredited, via the New York Times

I just found it fascinating that in 2010 we can still see good, old-fashioned propaganda posters. Even if we can only get them smuggled out of North Korea.


This is not strictly related to information design or maps or any such things, however, India has adopted a new symbol for their currency, the rupee. The symbol joins the dollar, the pound, the euro, and the yen in having a special symbol. According to the article in the New York Times, adding the symbol to unicode will take some time. But when it eventually happens I will probably have to learn a new shortcut.

New Rupee Symbol and Its Designer
New Rupee Symbol and Its Designer

Photo is from the Associated Press via the article.

Oil and Water

We all know about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and so there is no need to rehash what has already been said. However, I do want to point out the continuing and evolving coverage from the New York Times. At the outset they located the spill on a map and began to add interactivity to the map in order to show change over time.

When I returned to the NYT for the latest—after admittedly more than a few days away—I discovered that an interactive supplemental to news articles had transformed into an interactive article in a sense. The story is broken into different chapters or components and each of these chapters uses graphics or photographs or videos to explain just what is going, what happened, and what the effects may be.

The site is worth checking out, though it shall take more than a few minutes to read and look through. But it evidences how the smart use of charts, graphics, and photos can be combined with well written prose to tell a great—or in this case perhaps tragic is more the word—story.

The New York Times' Latest Update
The New York Times' Latest Update

Frisky New York

Today the New York Times published an in-depth examination of NYPD stops of individuals ‘based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime’. The item includes a lengthy article; a printed, full-page information graphic; and an online, interactive piece from which the printed piece appears to be derived. The print piece is credited to Ford Fessenden and Janet Roberts, the online piece to the same along with Matthew Bloch.

Print Version

Print Version
Print Version

Online Version

Screenshot of the Online Version
Screenshot of the Online Version

Each version of the information graphic centres upon a street map of the five boroughs. Data for the number of stops is graphed at the appropriate addresses, thus making a geographically-correct map appropriate for the type of data. What is interesting is that a decision was made to represent the number of stops by means of the area of circles presumably centred upon the address or the street—each police stop is encoded into the circle by an incremental edit to the circle’s radius. This is despite the fact that area is less than an ideal means of discerning comparisons between discrete datapoints. I am left to wonder if other means of representing the data could have been perhaps more effective. Perhaps if individual streets were coloured according to a carefully crafted distribution one could see a better examination of individual streets. For while absolute fidelity would be lost in grouping datapoints into bins, individual streets and intersections would become far more visible and, perhaps, accessible. Perhaps there are even other ways of representing the data that are not so readily apparent to me.

And while on the topic of street-specific data, an interesting point about these pieces is that the online piece displays the circles atop a desaturated Google map of the region whereas the print piece is atop a stripped-down outline of the five boroughs. Some of this may well be due to the difference between the screen and print resolutions. However, I find that the Google map is distracting for displaying too much in a nearly garish fashion. To the designers’ credit, they reduced much of those distracting elements by eliminating colour from the equation. However, and perhaps this is an issue of personal aesthetics, the map is still competing too much with the circles. Despite the reduction in quality on the newsprint, I prefer the print version of the map.

That all, of course, assumes that one is looking at the full picture of the city. The online version allows one to zoom into particular neighbourhoods and intersections. To some degree this alleviates the clutter of Google’s maps but for the loss of realising the larger message. From my perspective, the printed piece provides a more interesting view of the whole story, for the large map is clearer through the reduction of extraneous map data but the interesting neighbourhood stories are highlighted on the large map with the most interesting given a detailed review. And it is in this review that the specific features of street names, buildings, &c. are made available to the audience. Indeed, the detailed look at Brownsville, Brooklyn is not available in the same level of clear, concise depth as it is in the online version.

Another advantage of the print format is the ability to present the map in a larger context and integrate stories and supplemental charts in the white space carved out by the natural geography of the boroughs. Combined, these elements occupy all the space above the fold whereas in the browser windows I used at both work and at home, only the map and one story for the selected neighbourhood is immediately visible. Thus the print’s integration, albeit made at the expense of the online’s interactive map, makes for a more inviting initial experience.

The remainder of the print and online versions are largely the same with the exception of the detail about Brownsville—which, as aforenoted, is available as a subset of of the online map and is provided outright in the print version. The space of the print version allows for the charting elements to be laid out amongst two columns whereas the online version is a single, vertical column down the webpage. Between the two versions, the largest difference is colour. I would suspect this is due to the differences in fidelity between printing the charts and viewing the charts online. I think both colours work in their respective medium.

Of the remaining graphics, the most interesting is that which displays the breakdown of stops by age in comparison to the city’s population as broken down by age. The first interesting point is the omission of a vertical scale; I can only assume that the scales are identical in both positive and negative directions. I did, however, readily understand the chart. Some may not ‘get it’ as quickly as one is asked to add the city population as it heads in a typically ‘negative’ direction. However, that the entire piece is designed to invite one to explore the statistics in detail, I think creating charts that may require some to think just a few seconds more are perfectly acceptable.

When the information graphic is combined with the whole of the article, the New York Times has again pulled off an impressive feat of editorial design that combines adeptness at the use of the English language with video and photography—from the associated multimedia from the article—along with the here-critiqued information design. Such level of depth provides a well-rounded examination of the issue or subject at hand and better informs the audience by way of both anecdote and fact while photography brings the audience visually into the story.

New New York

Not quite of the New Earth (and therefore the 15th reincarnation of New York) variety, but, with maps being a key means of defining a city, state, or country, when a map is changed its meaning can also be changed. So, the new MTA map for New York presents some interesting changes summarised in this piece by the New York Times.


When you compare the new map to the most recent, a few things stand out. The blue is much brighter—which I think detracts from the purpose of communicating rail routes over land—for starters. Beyond that we see that the boroughs are all larger with the exception of Staten Island. An unfortunate implication is that reducing the prominence of Staten Island on the map will, well reduce the prominence of the island to those who ride the MTA. To be fair, that is likely an acceptable trade-off given what I understand about the demographic, commercial, and cultural scales of importance between Staten Island and the other four boroughs when you factor in the need to display routes and other such transit information.

Another key change is the reduction in the additional information at the bottom of the map. Removing the text—perhaps the bus connection information referenced in the article, but as a non-New Yorker I cannot say for certain—allows one the space to make the boroughs larger. This allows the rail map to be more a map about rails than about bus connections.

All in all, the map appears an improvement. I disagree with some of the colour choice and the drop shadowing of the lines over the map. But for making the map larger and more about being a map, I could live with those changes. On the other hand, I still prefer non-geographic maps for transit maps. And so I shall never quite understand why they dismissed the Vignelli map.