The Arctic’s ice age problem

We often see maps showing the diminishing extent of sea ice in the Arctic. The issue has big consequences for global warming as well as geopolitical. Ice free areas in the summer mean the Arctic Circle is being ventured more and more by commercial and private entities (oil tankers, fishermen, maritime traders and even cruise ships). And governments are looking at the possibilities for future oil and gas exploitation.

Although the maps we typically see show a decrease in the overall extent of sea ice, the interesting story appears when we look at the age of that ice. We did the graphic below for the Fall 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The author spent time with the Norwegian Coast Guard, which is having trouble to respond to the emergency situations associated which the much higher activity in the area. The map shows how old is the ice that doesn’t melt. As the caption says

“… not all ice is created equal. It used to be that ice that had been around for more than five years was much slower to melt. These maps show the decline of ice aged 5 and up in September when ice extent is at its minimum. Older Arctic ice should be thicker and thus less likely to melt during the warm summer months. Younger ice breaks up more easily and allows more heat to escape from the ocean to the atmosphere, leading to higher ocean temperatures during the summer.”

So it’s the dramatic decrease in the extent of the older ice what is alarming, much more than the overall extent which is decreasing but doesn’t change that much from one year to the next. A series of simple and nifty maps unveils what is hidden below the surface.

 

 

Updated samples in our website

In the last few days we have been busy updating the gallery section of our website with lots of additional samples. It had not been updated in a long time. The new images are a mix of recent and older graphics, including some of the graphics done during my years at National Geographic magazine (For those Nat Geo graphics, sometimes including collaboration with other researchers and artists).

Feel free to navigate to see a range of different types of graphics including charts, diagrams and maps. You can also look by subject or technique, and see examples of branding and graphics style guides from our consulting side. Here are some of the newly uploaded samples, in no particular order (here and on the website, click on any image for a larger version):

We are working on more extensive changes to our website, with a fully responsive and redesigned site coming up before the end of the year. It will include examples of interactive graphics and animations, and this blog will be part of the main site. In the meantime, if you are interested in additional samples or want to get in touch, drop us an email to contact@5wgraphics.com.

How America Uses Its Land

We just came across a really engaging graphics feature by Bloomberg.com. How America Uses Its Land, by Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby. It’s well sourced and nicely designed. As the intro states, “The 48 contiguous states alone are a 1.9 billion-acre jigsaw puzzle of cities, farms, forests and pastures that Americans use to feed themselves, power their economy and extract value for business and pleasure.” There are quite a few surprises for the reader, such as the massive amount of land used as cow pasture/range (see map above). 41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states is used as pasture or cropland used to produce feed.

Here is the overall distribution of land uses:

Forest and timberland take another large chuck of the space. Did you know a company called Weyerhauser Co. owns or controls an area of timberland equivalent to the size of West Virginia?

 

 

Zones of noninfluence, new map for Foreign Policy magazine

“Well over a year into U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure, the State Department is in disarray”, says the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Dozen of key positions, including 38 ambassadorships, remain unfilled. In filled positions, many are political appointees rather than career diplomats. And former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was recently fired by the President. Our map for the April issue of Foreign Policy shows the status of American ambassadorships around the world, highlighting the most conspicuous absences such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia, North Korea or the European Union. We worked with Chief Creative Officer Adam Griffiths on this project.

 

ArcGIS maps in Illustrator and Photoshop

Design and communication professionals should be really excited about a recent development in mapping: ArcGIS maps for the Adobe Creative Cloud.

GIS (Geographic Information System) software links location information in the form of databases with latitude and longitude coordinates to different types of information: demographic data to census tracts or divisions, election results to states, land use to natural or urban areas, etc. The user decides what layers (which may come from government or private sources) are going to be combined in order to visualize, analyze, and interpret the data to show relationships, patterns, and trends. As I mentioned in a previous post, GIS packages such as ESRI’s ArcGIS are rarely used by designers or news infographics departments as they are expensive, difficult to learn specialized tools normally used by GIS analysts and cartographers. With very, very few exceptions, those designers and graphics editors limit themselves to fairly basic mapping techniques that don’t take advantage of the power of GIS to uncover patterns through spatial analysis of large datasets.

The partnership between ESRI and Adobe offers ArcGIS functions within Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop via an extension or plugin. Designers can access thousands of data-driven map layers inside the Adobe programs as vectors or raster files, and play with colors, layers and styles to customize the maps using the familiar tools of Illustrator and Photoshop.

Creating maps with the extension is fairly straightforward. Without leaving Illustrator and Photoshop you define the area extent, size and scale of the base map, then search for data map layers (street maps, political boundaries, terrain, satellite images, election data, demographic information, economic indicators, environmental, etc), and finally you add/download the map to your Adobe workspace. It’s then already arranged in layers and ready to edit and polish by manipulating colors, appearance and fonts with the usual Illustrator and Photoshop tools.

You can get the beta version here. It has been available for a while, and the first full version is slated for release in the second Quarter of 2017, with no specific date yet (it’s been delayed before). Some of the functions are clunky and/or slow, but it is definitely great news and I can imagine how in few years this may become an essential tool for infographics designers to create and publish advanced data maps. You do require a subscription to ArcGIS Online (pricing info here) to be able to sign in but there is a trial version available.

Here is an introduction showing the capabilities of the plugin and how it works, and a longer, more recent video with added detail:

All images by ESRI

 

 

 

 

Latest D3 Work

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When it comes to create data-driven interactive infographics, charts and maps for the web our tool of choice is D3. This JavaScript library can connect data to graphic elements in the page and create data-driven, dynamic transformations for them. The possibilities are enormous. D3 was created by Mike Bostock, a computer scientist at Stanford University. Until 2015 he was also working at The New York Times creating some of the best interactive graphics out there. According to Martin Velasco, our Director of Web Development, “D3 is possibly the most powerful and flexible tool out there for creating sleek and precise data visualizations for the web. We really enjoy working with it”.

During the last few months we had the opportunity to experience once again the power of D3 while developing several  graphics for Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. that do research on economics and social policy. One of the more interesting is this data-intensive electoral map that connects the recent election of Donald Trump to several social indicators of financial insecurity. It is truly remarkable how D3 allows you to work with massive amounts of data (about 50,000 in this case) and transform them into beautiful rich, smooth-moving graphics. We are looking forward to more D3 work.

The power of cartograms and creating them easily

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We love the power of cartograms to show thematic data maps because they overcome some of the problems of classic choropleth maps. And they can be beautiful. So it’s exciting to see a promising new tool to create nice cartogram hexmaps automatically. It’s called Tilegrams (for “tiled cartograms”) and it has been developed by Pitch Interactive in collaboration with Google News Labs. But let’s back up a little bit, since many people are not familiar with cartograms in the first place!

A cartogram is a map that actually functions as a chart by distorting the size of geographic areas (such as countries or states) in proportion to numerical values they represent. Here are two nice examples by John Tomanio, Director of Graphics at National Geographic. In the first map, each dot represents a specific number of people—2 million— living in a country. In the second map, each dot represents $20 billion in GDP for that country, as a proxy for consumption. The dramatic, yet entirely accurate data representation allows two different stories to emerge nicely as we see the relative weight of each country for that particular dataset. That’s the power of cartograms (the black circles here represent the same variables a few decades back, for a nice representation of growth over time).

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You may say “ok, these look a little weird, why not represent these data in a choropleth map, or in other words using different shades of color in a “normal” map?”. Like the example below. Choroplet maps are ubiquitous and, while they are not incorrect, they are seen by many as misleading. They overrepresent the importance or large areas, and diminish the importance of small ones, just by virtue of their size in the page. If I plot GDP for different countries, for example, a large country with a medium value (say Brazil) “lights up” much more prominently than a country with a higher value such as Singapore, simply because Singapore is tiny and hard to see in the map. See a nice video from Vox here explaining the problem with choropleth maps.

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One solution is to give all entities equal area and then use the choropleth technique (different shades of color represent different values). That’s more fair. But we can only show a few classes or “buckets” of data ranges, rather than precise values in each area.

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So it may be interesting to resize each area according to the number we want to represent. Some cartograms can be fairly abstract. Instead of using the approximate shapes of countries or states, they use squares, circles or other geometric shapes to represent quantities in highly stylized maps. See this map we did for Fortune, with the number of millionaire households by state in the U.S. (color here represents a second variable, the median household income).

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I love this type of cartogram. Here is another one by John Tomanio, a few years ago, for Fortune.

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Cartograms can be really striking and powerful. Lately we have seen a comeback, and they were often used by different news organizations in the UK in the recent election cycles. A cartogram of the U.S. can be a nice way to represent that a small state in the East Coast may have many more electoral votes in the general election than a sparsely populated but large Midwest state. Here is the tilegram showing how much each state actually matters (how many electoral votes it holds) in the U.S. Much more telling than showing actual size in the context of election stories! Don’t be misled by how much blue or red you see in typical election maps.

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Complex cartograms have been done manually forever, for example in Adobe Illustrator, as in the case of the National Geographic maps. It’s a painstaking process, but human judgement is critical to make sure the composites of little shapes will still resemble the actual map of the area, which is entirely the point if we want to avoid confusion. You have to put them together as a jigsaw puzzle.

We have seen tools that create cartograms working in conjunction with other GIS software tools, but if you ask me, they produce grotesquely deformed maps that are a hard to decipher mess (with that strange fisheye lens effect. You have probably seen them around). I think these are useless:

cartogram_lens

Tilegrams is a really nice concept, still evolving. It plots U.S. maps using hexagon shapes, which are more versatile than squares to assemble them together in adjoining shapes with different configurations. You can use some preloaded maps (electoral votes, population, etc) or load your own data. Tilegrams allows you to show different levels of resolution. For example, the first map below shows U.S. population with 4 million people represented in each tile. The one below shows 300,000 people per tile. As you would expect, the higher resolution allows us to resemble the shape of the U.S. better (but remember states are meant to be oversized or undersized to represent the values, so the unusual proportions are to be expected.

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If the map starts looking a bit too weird you can drag hexagons to move them around. The tool tells the user about the statistical accuracy of each region’s surface area, as it tries to be both accurate and resemble the actual map in a difficult trade-off. You can export the map as a TopoJSON or as a SVG file, a wonderful option since it’s fully editable in Illustrator!

Pitch Interactive explains the tool here, and it continues to develop it. The company is now working on a U.S. county map. It sounds like a daunting task (there are over 3,000 counties in the U.S.). And hopefully one day we can show any country and their divisions in this simple way. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!