Rendering Unseen Stories

I was recently alerted to this lovely collection of maps on Canva – a collection that isn’t meant to provide physical directions but to provide inspiration for design. Map-making has almost always been a way of telling stories at least as much as it has been a way to find places.

 

'Berlin rangé,' a tidied-up map of Berlin. Source: Armelle Caron

‘Berlin rangé,’ a tidied-up map of Berlin’s cartographical elements.
Source: Armelle Caron

This particular collection, which could hardly be more diverse, made me think of a cartographical story in progress. Namely, that we are seeing a democratization of cartography that is practically revolutionary.

I contacted my old friend Peter Skillman, who has a deep knowledge of cartography, and we talked about maps. When you ask a master about one of his favorite topics, you might just end up following an elusive tail down a deep rabbit hole.

Peter has more to say about the evolution of cartography than I have space for here, but what we talked a lot about was the use of maps to communicate the unseen – from political borders to financial interests (especially these days, with the listing of business locations and data so important to map users and providers) to how the same map can look different depending on where you’re viewing it from (the exact location disputed territorial borders viewed from India or Pakistan, for example).

Berlin divided, 1961. Source: Berlin Wall Online

Berlin divided, 1961.
Source: Berlin Wall Online

And then there’s the fallibility of maps, whether intentional or accidental, that can disappear towns or put roads where they aren’t. Once almost purely due to political agendas, now often due to glitchy data.

What I liked, though, was our talk about metro maps. We’ve all gotten accustomed to the abstract lines of color that represent transit lines, the dots that represent stops, but consider the leap in understanding required to read a map so completely non-topographical. This “intentional distortion” is often the only representation of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment a city can offer its citizens for a system that can only be seen in small bits.

Genuine maps of unseen, or only partially seen, realities.

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world. Source: DesignBoom

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world.
Source: DesignBoom

It used to be that if you wanted to give someone a map to your home, or your favorite swimming hole, or that terrific back road BBQ rib place, you had to sketch it out and somehow get it to them. Even those sketches were a way of talking about how we thought of getting from one place to another, our individual travel perspective.

It used to be that we mostly learned to navigate our way through paper maps because we had no other choice if we wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

Berlin. Source: Vianina

Berlin.
Source: Vianina

Now we click and point and create our maps from readily available online maps, which are, in turn, often created/improved/optimized by user-generated input – much of it collected anonymously via GPS. And our maps tell us what to do, where to go, and warn us when we’ve gone astray.

No more serendipitous sauntering to points unknown. Except that with every map telling its creator’s story, you can still get lost, even if you think you know where you’re going.

 

Subterranean Lines

A fracking well at the surface. Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

A fracking well at the surface.
Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

The bulk of the fracking boom currently underway in the United States is not only in one of the least populated and remote states, North Dakota (population 724,000 – and it’s only that large because of the fracking boom and all the new workers there), but it also takes place mostly underground. Sure, there are the ominous towers of gas flames and the torn up ground at the extraction points, but the real action takes place so far beneath the topsoil layer as to render it abstract.

The gap between what fracking looks like from above, and what it looks like from below, reminds me of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s drawings in The Little Prince. What everyone initially takes to be a sketch of hat is actually a rendering of something completely different, namely, an elephant inside a snake.

From The Little Prince By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From The Little Prince
By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

We humans are creatures of visual dependence. Or rather, what we can see tends to make the most conscious impression upon us, ahead of the more subtle senses of sound, taste, smell and touch.

And often, what is out of sight is truly out of mind. If we can’t see it, we have a hard time even thinking about it.

Well locations around New Town, N.D. Source: Fractracker

Well locations around New Town, N.D.
Source: Fractracker

These various maps and renderings of fracking in North Dakota attempt to make the underground activity more tangible, to show us the elephant inside the hat.

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota. Source: Mason Inman/Wired

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota.
Source: Mason Inman/Wired

According to Mason Inman over at Map Labs, who created the map above, “Each well travels down about two miles, then turns horizontally and snakes through the rock formation for another two miles. There were 8,406 of these Bakken wells, as of North Dakota’s latest count. If you lined them all up—including their vertical and horizontal parts—they’d loop all the way around the Earth.”

The New York Times took the added step of inverting the wells as if they were above ground, the long vertical drills standing like slender trunks one or two miles high, with only one or two branches of equal length suspended in the air, a high forest of activity.

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground
Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

 

Fractalling the Paper Paradigm

Branch from the mammal tree of life - OneZoom

Branch from the mammal tree of life – OneZoom

The more information we gain about phylogenetic trees – the trees of life used to visualize species evolution and relationships – the more difficult it becomes to represent their intricate complexity within a traditional ‘paper paradigm’. I recently posted the avian circle, which is an excellent tool, and now I’ve come across another tool which could prove to be very popular.

OneZoom is a project that was introduced in late 2012 by James Rosindell and Luke Harmon. From their article published on PLOS Biology:

“Mega-trees” with millions of tips (species) are expected to appear imminently. Unfortunately, there has so far been no practical and intuitive way to explore even the much smaller trees with thousands of tips that are now being routinely produced. Without a way to view megatrees, these wondrous objects, representing the culmination of decades of scientific effort, cannot be fully appreciated.”

Born, appropriately enough, following a walk on the thinking path at Charles Darwin’s Down house, OneZoom uses fractal patterning in an interactive application to generate trees that can branch and grow, almost infinitely. Fractal patterns are infinitely self-similar, iterated, and detailed mathematical constructs having fractal dimensions. Fractals are not limited to geometric patterns, but can also describe processes in time. From the OneZoom website:

“Trees with millions of tips, richly embellished with additional data, can now be easily explored within the web browser of any modern hardware with a zooming user interface similar to that used in Google Maps.”

In addition, the trees are beautiful to look at, easy to use, have great flexibility and (even if this sounds like an advertisement for a new video game) they are just plain fun to explore. They can be embedded in websites and used for data entry, they can provide an interactive educational tool, and at some point I am sure people will create animations of particularly dazzling fractal tree climbing experiences. I’m sure more work is being done on some of the elements – it’s a little hard to get an overview, so the relative size of taxonomic groups isn’t yet readily apparent, and I’m not yet sure how ‘time’ can be visualized (for example, whether different branches within one group are all of the same age or not) – the OneZoom trees represent quite a remarkable revolution in the treatment of vast amounts of data.

The makers of OneZoom envision using the method for other Big Data applications, as well – monitoring of complex industrial processes, global financial data, complex computing structures including hardware and software, and family trees, genealogy and pedigrees.

Sometimes, when I hear people say they just can’t imagine life without their constant attachment to the virtual world, I find myself getting into a pair of boots, shutting the door behind me and going for a good, long, non-virtual hike. And then I come across something like the haunting OneZoom trees, and I almost have to agree: Virtual tree-climbing can be both fascinating and indispensable, as well.

Article: OneZoom: A Fractal Explorer for the Tree of Life – J. Rosindell & L.J. Harmon