2012's Year in Maps

It's been an eventful year for cartography.

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Rosenwald Collection/Library of Congress

Cartography ain't what it used to be. Development and disaster continue to mold the physical world, but for mapmakers, keeping up with geographic changes is busy work -- a tweaked direction here, a freeway exit there. It's very important busy work, as we learned this September when Apple reminded us not to take a good map for granted.

The intersection of geography and data, though, is just beginning to fill out. Together with interactive functions like sliders, timelines, and embedded information, the best new maps resemble Rand McNally's about as much as movies look like photographs. Creating an accurate representation of geography and infrastructure is only the tip of the iceberg. What happens when you integrate statistics about rising seas, gang affiliations, metaphors and beer?

A whole new understanding of the way the world works. And some pretty sweet maps.

Without further ado, our favorite maps of the year...

1. An inconvenient map

The single biggest story of the year, for people who work with cities, was the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. A near-total shutdown of the nation's biggest city for several days -- complete with a long shortage of gas, heat, and electricity -- made us realize how unprepared we are, as a civilization piled along low-lying coastal land, for the damage of even temporary flooding, let alone a permanent sea level rise.

As it happens, we may get both, and the most frightening, important maps of the year come from Climate Central's Surging Seas project, which offers an interactive map of all coastal areas of the Lower 48. In the discussion of potential sea level rise, these maps are the most alarming images out there. Below, a map of Boston with a sliding marker to show the water's rise above high tide. White areas are above water.

Climate Central

Read more about the project here, or explore the full maps with prediction odds data here.

2. Far from the tree

Of course, maps aren't all about data visualization. They're also useful for navigating, the importance of which we tend to forget, since most of them are so good at showing accurate representations of geography.

Which brings us to another event this year that left us feeling utterly helpless and unprepared, though in this case, the consequences were mostly lighter fare. I'm speaking, of course, of Apple's decision to replace Google maps with its own, glitch-ridden mapping software this September. Critics showed the world's most successful tech company no mercy in their mockery. The fallout was huge: Tim Cook sent the world a letter, the responsible party was fired, and, this month, Google Maps became freely available in the App Store.

But in the meantime, some people were stranded without food or water for 24 hours in Victoria, Australia. This screenshot shows the guilty map, released by the the Mildura Police, via the BBC.

For more highlights of Apple's experiment in cartography, go here.

3. Voting alone

Another of the year's big stories was, of course, the presidential election, which was something of a triumph for the nation's urbanites, who voted in overwhelming numbers for Barack Obama. Our traditional electoral map, though, doesn't do a very good job of showing where electoral power lies, except by inference -- Ohio, a sea of red in which only 16 of 88 counties voted for Obama, was a blue state, so... go figure.

But when data jumps ahead, maps are never far behind. First, as Emily Badger recounted, University of Michigan Professor Mark Newman created a map of the U.S. that showed all counties as somewhere on the red-blue spectrum. Then he distorted each county by electoral influence. But this cartogram had lost touch with geography. So Chris Howard took Newman's initial map and blended it with census population data for every county. The shades of red, blue and purple are made lighter or darker according to population. The result makes the geography of electoral influence clear:

Chris Howard

4. The Chicago Outfit

For one thing, this map contains an astounding, bewildering amount of data. The key alone is a triumph of patterns. For another, it represents -- in an unusual context -- the sort of block-by-block variance that makes great cities so interesting, the subtleties of urban design that divide one neighborhood from another, or in this case, one fiefdom from the next.

Chicago Police Department

But it also tells an interesting story -- it shows how geographically particular the Chicago Police Department's understanding of gang data is, or how particular they think it is. (Whether this is the right way to view gang violence is another question entirely.) And like many of the maps, it represents a victory for the media in prying data away from government organizations. In this case, credit goes to WBEZ Chicago, which obtained enough information from the CPD (with help of the State Attorney General) to superimpose these lines over an interactive map, which allows users to search the map by address and explore the exact boundaries.

5. Russia is the Florida of Europe

Metrophors is the map that keeps on giving, because it takes live information off of Twitter when it detects geographic metaphors. Anytime someone tweets x is the y of z, where x is a place, the map records it. Because of the language bias, much of it represents the American desire to place the world in familiar terms.

Some random, selected gems I found today:

6. Mapping controversy

Mayor Bloomberg's insistent support for the NYPD's Stop and Frisk policy has been the single most contentious policy of his tenure, and WNYC's illustration of where the stops occur makes clear why. For one thing, it gives a geographic base to the racially biased search data. As I wrote in August, the mix of those subjected to the humiliating procedure sometimes varies from population data by a factor of nine: "last year, black and Hispanic men between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops, though they make up only 4.7 percent of the city's population." According to the same ACLU report from which that data comes, "the number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406)."

Most importantly, though, the map shows that blocks with large numbers of searches don't yield more guns than blocks with fewer searches.

Via WNYC.

7. Church vs. Beer

As users continue to incorporate geography into their social media use, we can hope to see more maps like Floating Sheep's U.S. map that compares geotagged tweets with the words "church" and "beer" over a one-week period this June. It was published, fittingly, on the Fourth of July.

Floating Sheep

San Francisco and Boston had the largest margins in favor of beer, while Dallas led the way in sheer numbers for church tweets.

8. The Blitz

The Luftwaffe dropped many, many bombs on London during the Blitz; this is old news. But this month, the Bomb Sight project presented this history in an interactive map that uniquely demonstrates the range and frequency of the explosions. From the wide angle shown below, it looks like the city has a bad case of chicken pox, but if you visit the site, you can navigate throughout the Greater London area, learn exactly when each bomb fell, or sort by date or bomb type.

Bomb Sight

As cool as this is on its own, it hints at the greater growth of historical data mapping. As universities and libraries become familiar with interactive mapping technology, this type of collaborative research project will become more common. Here's to maps that make history come alive.

9. Metro Maps

Sometimes -- particularly where police work is concerned -- cities like to keep data close. But when cities share information with mapmakers, we get cool things like this map of D.C., by Matt Johnson at Greater Greater Washington, which shows where people get on and off the D.C. Metro each morning:

It's a simple way of showing how important the D.C. Metro system is for suburban commuters: only one of the top ten entry points in the morning is inside the city limits, and that's at Union Station, where commuter rail joins the Metro system. By contrast, check out a similar map created by a release of subway data in New York. And for more open data, check out our recap of the best data releases of the year.

10. The Rich Are Different from You and Me

According to a report this summer from Pew, segregation by income is increasing in 27 of America's 30 largest cities. Emily Badger wrote about this study in August:

In 1980, the report found, 85 percent of census tracts in America were either predominantly middle-class or mixed-income (this is a pretty impressive number). As of 2010, that figure had fallen to 76 percent. Today, considerably more upper-income Americans live in neighborhoods where the majority of their neighbors are upper-income, too (18 percent, up from 8 percent in 1980). And lower-income households are increasingly clustered in the same neighborhoods, as well (28 percent, up from 23 percent in 1980).

Though racial segregation of neighborhoods is still more common, it is decreasing, while economic segregation is growing. New York City has the most segregated districts of lower-income households, while Houston is leading the way in isolation of higher-income households. Below, a map of Houston, with the most homogenous, wealthy areas in blue, and the poorer ones in red. Along with the study's other interactive city maps, it may not be much to look at -- but its story is clear.

Pew

Top image: Library of Congress, Rosenwald Collection via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.