John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The screams of the newly born and grim silence of the dying is visualized in this statistical tango that's mesmerizing to watch.
If God had a tracking system for human existence, it might look something like this simulation of real-time births and deaths in America.
The slightly anxiety-provoking map is the work of designer Bill Snebold and programmer Brad Lyon (not "Flyon"), who writes on his blog that he recently found himself wondering "what it would look like to 'watch' as births and deaths were occurring across the globe." So the men put together an application that visualized the cycle of life in cities across the United States, conveying the screams of the newly born and grim silence of the dying in a statistical tango that's mesmerizing to watch. Click here to begin it – but beware, these people's lives are in your hands.
Well, no. These are not actual births and deaths, just a model of how likely they are to occur in places based on statistical formulas that Lyon is much better off explaining ("λ = (birth or death rate per year per 1000) * (N/1000) * dt"). If you let it run for 24 hours, the simulation ought to log about 11,500 births and 6,800 deaths, the average daily rates for the country. Good to see life is winning, for now!
I asked Lyon to talk a bit about the project. Here's his slightly edited reply:
Well, what this started from was simply a curiosity as to what would it be like to visualize the qualitative pattern/rhythm of birth/death events as they happen, in a modest but not trivially detailed way. The sheer size of the population numbers underlying these processes is difficult to comprehend. Someone named JoshDickson had a comment on this visual that articulated this better: "You can’t really get a grasp on, seriously, how many people there are in this country/in the world, while living day to day. There really are very few ways to comprehend it."
These associated events are happening around us all the time. While the simulation is simple (for me, personally), I think that by including the somewhat-detailed geographic information (city/county) coupled with the randomness, it has more impact than one might think it should. It's one thing to read that there are thousands of births/deaths per day, but it is a very different experience (for me) to see these events played out on that map, even though I "know" that it's a simulation. I've grown up with that map – it's home.
The mapmakers relied on different data sources including a scalable vector of U.S. counties from Wikipedia and the population data for "Places" in the 2010 U.S. Census, a trove of information regarding some 30,000 inhabited areas. The project has impressed a few folks over at Metafilter, who have chimed in with enhancements for future versions. These include making the simulation more "uncanny" by adding personal identities from the Fake Name Generator and programming it so each birth and death is "accompanied by a scream."
Adds one joker, "dragstroke": "Hey, it's showing a death right where I live! That's pretty co-"