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Gorgeous Maps of an Ugly War

A Barcelona-based mapping company has visualized the ongoing conflict in Ukraine in colorful, complex cartography.

While Donald Trump’s presidential campaign continues to lionize Vladimir Putin, the bloody conflict in Ukraine that the Russian president helped instigate shows no signs of letting up.

The seeds of unrest in that region were sown back in 2013, when a trade deal between Ukraine and the European Union—which Russia opposed—went sour. As Ukraine’s political machinery buckled under domestic and geopolitical pressures, Putin saw an opportunity. In early 2014, Russian troops seized the Crimean peninsula, which has been part of Ukraine since 1954, but has deep historical ties to Russia. A referendum was held, in which Crimea overwhelmingly voted to re-join Russia. Since then, the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine has been embroiled in chaos, with Russian-backed separatists battling the Ukrainian government for control of land and infrastructure. Around 30,729 have died in this conflict since it began, the UN estimates.

As in any war, accounts of what’s happening on the ground in Donbass vary depending on what side of the de-facto border they’re coming from. That's why the Ukrainian nonprofit Izolyatsia Foundation enlisted Barcelona-based mapping company 300.000km/s to gather information from various non-governmental sources and visualize the costs of the conflict in a map. “The project aims to unveil an ongoing situation which is affecting everyday life in Ukraine,” says architect Mar Santamaria, who specializes in urban design and spatial analysis at 300.000km/s. “It tries to put data into the geography and make visible how the war is transforming the territory.”

Santamaria’s map contains layers upon layers of geolocated information. Here’s a legend explaining the colors and symbols:

  1. The base map: Using Open Street Map, the cartographers traced the natural topography and urban features of region in question.
  2. The color gradients: UN’s Global Assessment Report (GAR) contains datasets with population and demographic data. On the basis of these, Santamaria and her colleagues created two color gradients. The green-to-yellow gradient represents the income spectrum from low- to high-income, respectively. The white-to-pink gradient represents population density. The whiter the region, the sparser its population; the pinker it is, the more dense.
  3. The red contour lines: The cartographers analyzed almost 2 million news hits about the war from Google’s GDELT project, which monitors news around the world. They represented the density of news stories as contour lines: “The most steep parts correspond to hot point with more news,” Santamaria explains.
  4. Green and teal circles: Redonbass is a platform that collects messages, pictures and videos about damaged and destroyed infrastructure in the Donbass region, home of key cities like Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol. The green and teal circles stand for damaged and destroyed structures, respectively. “It enables us to see, for example, a whole neighborhood in the east of Mariupol that has been seriously damaged,” Santamaria says. (Mariupol is pictured in last image below.)
  5. Liveuamap mines information about the incidents in most militarized areas of the war zone. Santamaria and her colleagues analyzed 3,000 such incidents and divided the information they found into five categories:
    • Black and white circles with numbers indicate how many people have been killed and captured, respectively, in that particular area. The size of the grey halo around the black circles corresponds with the number inside. White circles also increase in size when the number of captured rises.
    • Little red triangles show the areas where skirmishes have taken place; the thickness of their walls corresponds with the number of attacks within the triangle.
    • White circles with a cross in the middle represent where humanitarian activity is taking place, and include sites of refugee camps.
    • Blue dotted circles depict where speeches and protests have occurred.
    • The squiggly blue-green lines of varying lengths show the shifting borders between rebel- and government-controlled territory. The thickest line represents the most recent boundary.
  6. Cobalt blue patches: Flickr allowed the cartographers to locate areas that were in the dark—visual dead-zones, where no photos were being taken and uploaded to Flickr. “Flickr images are linked to people's perception and identity of a place. So, having no pictures mean that there are certain zones with no identity,” Santamaria says.

Despite the ugliness they represent, the resulting maps are pretty gorgeous.

300.000km/s/Izolyatsia Foundation
300.000km/s/Izolyatsia Foundation
300.000km/s/Izolyatsia Foundation
300.000km/s/Izolyatsia Foundation
300.000km/s/Izolyatsia Foundation

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.