A Wetter Midwest

Here in Philadelphia, I think yesterday was the first day it had not rained in over a week. Not that everyday was a drenching storm, but at least showers passed through along with some downpours and definitely grey skies. But what about my old home, Chicago?

Well, FiveThirtyEight turned to a longer-term look and examined how over the century the amount of rainfall in the upper Midwest has been increasing. We are actually looking at the same places the Post looked at a few days ago. But instead of political maps, we have rainfall maps.

This one in particular is weird.

Water water everywhere
Water water everywhere

I get why they have the map, to show the geographic distribution of the rain gauges that collect the data. And those are site specific, not statewide. But did the designer have to choose area?

We know that area is a less than ideal way of allowing users to compare data points. And as I just noted, a choropleth, even at say the county level, is out of the question. But what about little squares? Or circles? Could colour have been used to encode the same data instead of size? And then we would likely have fewer overlapping triangles.

I suppose the argument is that the big triangles make a bigger visual impact. But they do so at the cost of comparable data points across the Midwest. Maybe the designer chose the area of triangles because there were too few gauges across the country. I am not sure, but for me the triangles are not quite on point.

That said, the graphics throughout the rest of the article are quite good, especially the opening scatterplots. They are not the sexiest of charts, but they clearly show a trends towards a wetter climate.

Credit for the piece goes to Ella Koeze.

Knuckle Cracking

I used to work with a designer who was an expert knuckle cracker. So when I saw this article from the Guardian last week, I was hoping that it contained some kind of an illustration. Thankfully it did.

Pop goes the bubble
Pop goes the bubble

What I like about the graphic is its simplicity. The illustration does not add a lot of extraneous details in the hands or fingers. Instead it focuses on a three-step zoom into the joint between the fingers and the hands, showing how the bones connect and just what happens.

So Happy Friday, all. Just relax, lean back, and—made you want to crack those knuckles, didn’t I ?

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics department.

Warmer Winters

Philadelphia is expecting a little bit of snow today, 20 March. We should not be seeing too much accumulate if anything, but still, flakes will likely be in the air this evening. That made me think of this piece from just last week where the New York Times looked at the change in winter temperatures across the United States for the last almost 120 years.

Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that climate change does not mean that temperatures always rise. Instead, while the general average trends upward, the curve flattens out meaning more extreme events on both the hot and the cold parts of the spectrum. (Actually, the New York Times covered this very subject well back in August.)

As a cold weather person, yeah, this isn't great…
As a cold weather person, yeah, this isn’t great…

Anyway, the map from the Times shows how the biggest changes have been recorded in the north of the Plains states. But the same general shift is subject to local conditions, most notably in the southeast where temperatures are actually a lit bit lower.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Blacki Migliozzi.

Undersea Mining

Today’s piece isn’t strictly about data visualisation. Instead it’s a nice article from the BBC that explores the nascent industry of undersea mining. What caught my interest was the story of Soviet submarine K-129, which sank mysteriously in the middle of the Pacific. But that isn’t even half the story, so if you are interested go and read the article for that bit.

But that sinking may have created the beginning of the undersea mining industry. And so as I read on, I found a nice mixture of text, photography, and graphics explaining processes and such. This screenshot is a comparison of the size of an undersea mining zone compared to a land-based copper mine.

An undersea mine vs. a surface mine
An undersea mine vs. a surface mine

Some of the graphics could use some polish and finesse, but I do appreciate the effort that goes into creating pieces like this. You will note that four different people had to work together to get the piece online. But if this is perhaps the future of BBC content, this is a great start.

Credit for the piece goes to David Shukman, Ben Milne, Zoe Barthlomew, and Finlo Rohrer.

The 2017–18 Flu Season

Last week I covered the Pennsylvania congressional district map changes quite a bit. Consequently I was not able to share a few good pieces of work. Let’s hope nothing goes terribly wrong this week and maybe we can catch up.

From last Friday we have this nice piece from FiveThirtyEight looking at the spread of influenza this season.

Red is definitely bad
Red is definitely bad

The duller blues and greens give way to a bright red from south to north. Very quickly you can see how from, basically, Christmas on, the flu has been storming across the United States. It looks as if your best bets are to head to either Maine or Montana. Maybe DC, it’s too small to tell, but I kind of doubt that.

As you all know, I am a fan of small multiples and so I love this kind of work. To play Devil’s advocate, however, I wonder if an interactive piece that featured one large map could have worked better? Could the ability to select the week and then the state yield information on how the flu has spread across each state? I am always curious what other other forms and options were under consideration before they chose this path.

Credit for the piece goes to the FiveThirtyEight graphics department.

Onwards and Upwards

Yesterday SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket on its maiden voyage, and then recaptured several, though not all, of its reusable rockets. The Falcon Heavy represents the most powerful rocket available to mankind today, though NASA’s Saturn V of the Apollo programme era was considerably more powerful. That was all the stuff you could read in the news yesterday and today.

But how much more powerful? Thankfully we have the Economist who put together a nice graphic detailing not just the standard size comparisons of the Falcon series to the Saturn V and other famous rocket systems, e.g. the Space Shuttle and its boosters. The Economist graphic also adds information about the payload capabilities and timeframes for either historical operation or expected service dates.

It's big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…
It’s big and powerful, but SpaceX still has a long way to go…

From the illustrative side, there were three really nice touches. First, the faint Statue of Liberty to give the rocket height context to famous landmark buildings. Two, the little human figure on the left-hand side to give context to ourselves, these things are big. Three, the ridiculousness of the Saturn V is captured by having its peak break the top frame of the chrome or graphic device, i.e. the red bar, standard on Economist graphics.

Overall a solid piece. (Yes, I know these are liquid fueled.)

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics team.

All Your Base Are Belong to Internets

Over the weekend news broke that since November, plans for military bases around the world were available to anyone and everyone on the internets. How? Why?

Well, it turns out that soldiers using wearable tech to track their rides or cycling routes had forgotten to disable that feature whilst on military installations. And so when the company collecting the data published a global heatmap of activities, well, this happened.

You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.
You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.

This is not one of the worst offenders, because this is the site of what was formerly Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, the American and British, respectively, military bases in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But we all know those bases exist and where they are. But, what is interesting and perhaps worrying for military planners is that sites like this do not show up on publicly available sites like Google Maps, for example. Take the same heatmap and look at it on satellite view and you get…a whole lot of nothing.

A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.
A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.

The problem is that when this technology is applied to places like, say, Syria. Given the civil war there, it is far more likely that users of wearable tech belong to or are working with one of the western military forces operating in the country. After all, the rest of the country is dark. So what is this set of rectangles and a grid-like pattern?

A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.
A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.

Well, by looking at the satellite photography, it is clearly a field situated between two small hamlets.

Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…
Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…

Most likely it is an American base. Could be Russian, though. But now we know where it is and have a rough understanding of its layout. You can see why military planners are concerned.

And it all owes to the ubiquity of tracking data on wearables, mobiles, vehicles, &c. And as we continue to generate data and want to see it visualised, are there or should there be boundaries? Alas, not a conversation for this blog to solve, but a conversation we should all continue to have.

Credit for the piece goes to the Strava design team.

Earthquake Early Warning

Last month, two massive earthquakes devastated Mexico. Now, if you were like me, you were captivated by the photos and videos of the quakes striking and tearing down buildings and infrastructure. But, think about it for a second, how did people know to take out their mobiles and record the tremors for posterity’s sake?

Well, the first thing you should know is that earthquakes consist of a number of different waves of energy. Some move quicker and are less damaging than the slower travelling ones. And it turns out that scientists have been able to use that speed differential to build early warning systems along and around fault lines.

The Washington Post did a really nice job of explaining how earthquake-prone California is developing just such a system to deal with its tremors. I won’t spoil all the details, you should go read the article if earthquakes are of any interest to you.

The Shake Alert system
The Shake Alert system

Credit for the piece goes to

How Big Was Irma?

Like many Americans I followed the story of Hurricane Irma over the weekend. One of my favourite pieces of reporting was this article from the Washington Post. It did a really nice job of visually comparing Irma to some recent and more historic storms, such as 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

It can be difficult to truly compare hurricanes, sometimes they are small and compact, other times more dispersed. Irma was just big with lots of potentially destructive power spread out across a wide area, almost the width of the Floridian peninsula. The article uses several graphics—I am also quite partial to the satellite image comparison so check out the article—but this one is perhaps my favourite.

A look at four big storms
A look at four big storms

It uses a colour palette that deepens in redness nearer the storm’s centre. This allows the user to compare the geographic area or footprint of the storms destructive winds.

I wonder, however, what would happen if the designers had superimposed each graphic atop the other. It might have allowed for an even better comparison of size instead of having to have the user mentally transpose each hurricane.

Still, a really nice graphic and visual article.

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis, Reuben Fischer-Baum, and Chiqui Esteban.