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.

The Timeline of the Voyager Mission

There are a bunch of things to look at this week, but what am I most excited about? Voyager. No, not Star Trek. (Did you know that the Vger entity from the first Star Trek film was a replica of the Voyager probes?) I am of course talking about the Voyager mission to the outer Solar System and beyond.

40 years ago today Voyager 1 lifted off from Cape Canaveral—Voyager 2 left two weeks earlier, but would reach Jupiter and Saturn after Voyager 1, hence being named 2—and it has been collecting images and data for science ever since.

On 25 August 2012, Voyager 1 emerged from the heliosheath and entered interstellar space. In other words, Voyager 1—and sometime in the next few years perhaps—is the first manmade spacecraft to ever leave the Solar System. Mankind is finally out there among the stars.

I love space things.

So JPL and NASA put together this interactive timeline of the mission, which of course continues tomorrow and for years after today until their nuclear fuel runs out.

Boldly going…
Boldly going…

Credit for the piece goes to JPL and NASA.

Plotting Cries for Help

So I thought I would be done with Harvey coverage, but this morning I saw this map from the New York Times that plotted out requests for aid throughout the storm.

You can really see the storm’s movement through the impacts upon the people. It’s especially true later in the timeline as the storm moved further to the east.

Early on the focus was in Houston
Early on the focus was in Houston

Credit for the piece goes to Gregor Aisch, Sarah Almukhtar, Jeremy Ashkenas, Matthew Bloch, Audrey Carlsen, Jose A. Delreal, Ford Fessenden, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Adam Pearce, Anjali Singhvi, and Karen Yourish.

Harvey’s Rainfall Part Two

Let’s consider today a follow-up to yesterday’s piece. (No, I do not believe I have ever done a follow-up piece, but why not start now all these years later.)

Yesterday we looked at the Post, Journal, and Times for their coverage of the fallen rain amounts in southeast Texas. But at the time, we only had actual totals from the Post and Journal. The Times had only produced a projection map. The Times piece yesterday was perhaps the most underwhelming of the three, though it certainly did some things correctly, namely it was small, simple, and quick to get the reader to the point that Houston was likely to be flooded by storm’s end.

Well that had changed by the time I got home last night.

The Times' graphic
The Times’ graphic

What is different about this piece? Well this one is an animated .gif showing the cumulative rainfall. In other words, Texas starts dry and every hour just makes the map bluer and bluer. An additional feature that I find particularly useful is the dot map, which indicates where the heaviest rain was falling in each hour. Especially early on in the event, you can see the bands of rain sweeping in from the Gulf.

The bins also work better here, though I wonder if more segregation or a different palette would have worked a bit better. But, my biggest critique is the same I have with many animated .gifs: the looping. And unfortunately I do not have an easy solution. You certainly need to see it loop through more than once to understand the totality of the rainfall. But then I really do want to be able to examine the final map, or at least final as of 03.00 today.

Anyway, this was a really nice piece that should have been showcased alongside the others yesterday.

Credit for the piece goes to Gregor Aisch, Sarah Almukhtar, Jerey Ashkenas, Matthew Bloch, Joe Burgess, Audrey Carlsen, Ford Fessenden, Troy Griggs, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Jasmine C. Lee, Jugal K. Patel, Adam Pearce, Bedel Saget, Anjali Singhvi, Joe Ward, and Josh Williams.

The Solar Eclipse as Seen from Philly

As my last two posts pointed out, yesterday was the Solar Eclipse. It certainly garnered media attention as a news helicopter hovered over my building during the height of the eclipse. Very peaceful indeed. But, knowing that my smartphone would not be able to take the best photos of the eclipse, even with a solar filter, I decided to do what any good designer might do. I sketched out the eclipse.

The task of sketching an eclipse is not easy. You cannot, or at least should not, look directly at the sun. (You’ll burn your eyes out, kid.) But the solar filters make seeing anything but the most intense light sources near impossible and so you have to remove them in order to doodle in a sketchbook. Eventually I found a solution and was able to quickly move from filtered glimpses of the Sun to the sketchbook. (At least when the clouds would permit.)

Last night I digitised those sketches into this simple graphic. The sketches are not entirely accurate as the position of the Moon jumps in a few spots. But it does give you the impression of peak eclipse about 14.45 with just a sliver, or 25% of the Sun remaining visible. And indeed the neighbourhood was visibly darker.

The colour may be too yellow, but since I only saw it through a filter, I cannot say what the exact colour of the Sun was
The colour may be too yellow, but since I only saw it through a filter, I cannot say what the exact colour of the Sun was