1. France is bacon, and other nuggets of wisdom

    Posted January 2, 2014 in visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    Yahoo! has an autocomplete service much like Google’s. When you enter the name of a place such as “France”, the results it suggests give an indication of what the Yahoo! search system thinks about it. Almost all of them are either derogatory or surreal.

    Kier Clarke over on Google Maps Mania has produced a Google Map which displays these Yahoo! auto-suggestions over the associated regions. It’s a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous.

    Western Europe as seen by the Yahoo! autocomplete algorithm

    Western Europe as perceived by the Yahoo! autocomplete algorithm

    I especially like the ones where the algorithm gets confused over homophones and generates sentences that have nothing to do with the country at all, like “Greece is the word” in the screenshot above.

    But while those examples provide an insight into the rules and quirks of the Yahoo! system, most of the others reflect a disdain for the world as a whole – “Italy is racist”, “Wales is crap”, “Germany is being crushed” and so on.

    There’s something strange and uncanny about the effect the map creates, its jarring combination of bleakness, hostility, confusion and nonsense. This seems to be par for the course for objects created by the haphazard collision of software algorithms with the real world.

    (via Atlantic Cities)

  2. Using money to carve up the United States

    Posted May 8, 2013 in links, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    Fast Company has a piece about a research project which redraws the map of the United States based on the movement of paper currency.

    Dirk Brockmann, a theoretical physicist, is the person responsible for it. He thinks that state lines are arbitrary boundaries with no relation to how people actually live and move around, and that we should rethink our representations of how human societies arrange themselves across geographic space.

    In one such effort he’s taken data from a website called Where’s George which tracks the movements of dollar bills (even when you do the legal bill review), and used it to draw a new map of the US whose borders indicate the regions where money tends to circulate. The thicker a blue line, the less likely it is that paper currency will cross it.

    Brockmann's US map

    Dirk Brockmann’s US map based on the movements of dollar bills

    One thing that leaps out at me is the circular region with Chicago at its centre. This region’s boundary starts in the north-east and follows the Appalatians southwards for a bit, flattening out westwards when it meets the Kentucky-Tennessee border, then curving back up to the north as it crosses St Louis. If you used its borders to create a new state – let’s call it “Chicago State” it would eat up parts of nine existing states, including all of Michigan, all of Ohio, and the western half of Pennsylvania.

    I like this kind of analysis as it recognises the fluidity of human societies and takes advantage of information that would have been nigh on impossible to obtain a couple of decades ago. Projects like this help us learn more about the real ‘shapes’ of the countries and areas we live in.

  3. Mapping out the distance covered by my baby son

    Posted January 28, 2013 in projects  |  No Comments so far

    In the early days of my son Aidan’s life, his mum Cathy & I kept a log of pretty much everything he did. I can, for example, tell you his first audible fart occurred when he was precisely 7 hours and 9 minutes old. This obsessive note-taking didn’t last, however. Its usefulness faded as we adjusted to the relentless rhythms of parenthood, so we forgot about our log and worried instead about the fortnightly baby-weighing sessions and their nervewracking scatterplot diagrams. We no longer updated Evernote after every burp and fart.

    But there was one piece of data that I kept tracking, and it had nothing to do with his bodily functions. Whenever we took Aidan further away from his birthplace than he’d yet to travel in a particular compass direction, I’d keep a note of the time and place and save it for posterity.

    At first I wasn’t sure what to do with this information. Maybe it’d be of interest to Aidan when he was older. Maybe it’d help us identify holiday destinations if, say, we wanted to push back his western frontier one year. Yet all these ideas seemed kind of long-term and I wanted to do something now. Then it struck me – I should turn the data into posters.

    And so a project was born: every December, I’d make a poster-sized infographic to depict the extent of Aidan’s travels in that year. Here are the first two, which can be viewed in more detail if you click on them:

    Aidan's geographical extremes in 2011

    Aidan’s geographical extremes in 2011

    Aidan's geographical extremes in 2012

    Aidan’s geographical extremes in 2012

    You can probably tell, but the 2012 poster was the first one I made. Aidan was only around for the final three weeks of 2011 and didn’t travel very far, so I had expected it would be the more boring map, but as it turned out the London street map made for a more interesting backdrop and I just think it works better.

    The process of making these posters wasn’t just fun, it was educational too. As well as the usual design challenges, there was also the surprisingly fiddly job of getting the geophysical data in order. Embarrassingly enough, I started out under the impression that lat/long co-ordinates could be mapped directly to geographical distance: an approach that would have worked out well if the Earth was flat, but because it’s actually globular I ran into a dead end and had to start over.

    With that sorted out, I’ll hopefully be able to create new posters each year without shameful cosmological misconceptions getting in the way. If they’re interesting I’ll share them here – but as for that data about his early pooing habits? I’m sorry, but some things are better left unshared.

  4. Recursion and online maps

    Posted November 15, 2010 in ephemera, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been thinking a lot about online maps recently. This is probably because I spent most of October in France, depending mainly on Google Maps for finding my way around. They’ve certainly come a long way in the last ten years. Remember when Streetmap seemed fresh and exciting? It seems like such a dinosaur now, compared to the more advanced map services that have come along since then.

    There’s something appealingly recursive about online maps too. Before, there were no computers and we all lived in the real world, in physical space. Then the internet came along, and we had to learn how to navigate this new virtual world, an “information space”, represented by windows and menus and buttons and so on.

    After a while, the information space itself became rich enough to contain useful maps. In other words, we encountered the physical space represented within the virtual space, which we in turn encountered in the physical space. Maybe this graphic will help:

    Click to see full-size graphic

    OK, maybe not. But if you ever find yourself walking down a street while ignoring your surroundings and looking only at the blinking blue dot on your phone’s mapping application, you might know what I mean. And yes, I’ve done that.