5 Maps for the Visually Inclined

I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at, reading about, and – lately – making maps. No, this obsession with maps is not a new thing for me: I was totally the kid who pored over the AAA map on family vacations, the college student who lugged that same dog-eared AAA map on numerous cross-country treks, and the trucking dispatcher who tacked xeroxed, highlighted maps of Iowa and Michigan and Wisconsin over my desk.  When Google Maps finally unveiled their Bike Routes feature – well hey, there was at least one GPS-less bike hipster in Austin who took a victory lap around the neighborhood to celebrate.

One of the many things I love about maps is their ability to tell a story in a way that is somehow both totally objective and entirely personal. Certain elements of a landscape – the length of a road, maybe, or the location of a county line – are relatively fixed, but other elements – whether a road is safe to bike on, where the best barbecue is located, where the boundaries of a neighborhood are, how best to get from North Austin to the East side – are products of individual perspectives and ways of filtering and evaluating data. A really good map is one that visualizes the relationship between the objective and the personal in interesting ways; an awesome one makes a good argument or raises some good questions and has fun doing it. Here are five of my faves.

1. John Snow’s 1854 Cholera map

As Pete Warden points out, Snow’s map is the poster child for effective visualization of information, mostly because Tufte wrote so convincingly about it in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Snow, who had been trying to convince NYC officials for some time that cholera was not just water-born but related to a particular pump, created this map to show the correlation between high numbers of cholera-related deaths and proximity to a contaminated well in SoHo. The details of the story might be the stuff of legend, but I still love this map: it is simple, clear, direct, and uses spatial information to make a compelling argument for the cause of a deadly disease.

2. Eric Fischer’s racial integration maps (click through for more images)

Contiguous United States, Census 2000

Janet Davis sent Eric Fischer’s maps my way and I’m so glad she did. These maps aren’t interactive nor are they even particularly flashy, but the way that they present data on race from Census 2000 – one dot for every 25 people of a particular racial or ethnic background – reveals incredible variation in how integrated (or not) major US cities are and just begs for further cultural analysis.  The map of Austin is telling, but my fellow east coasters might want to check out New York and DC, too. The data from Census 2010 is just starting to come out – it’ll be interesting to see if any of the racial landscapes represented here have changed.

3. The CDC obesity epidemic map (click through for more images)

An oldie but a goodie, this map traces the changing rates of obesity in all 50 states from 1985 to 2010. Yes, we’ve all heard that obesity rates are increasing, but the regional differences represented here hint at so many different stories: different food cultures, exercise cultures, infrastructure, economics, climate, standards of beauty. The time-lapse bit is pretty awesome, too.

4. Where Americans are moving (click through for interactive Flash map)

This map might have its issues – for one thing, data constraints mean it has to track moves by county rather than by city or state – but it’s still a lot of fun to play with and a great way to display population flows in different parts of the country. A friend in Detroit sent this to me, and comparing Detroit’s flows with Austin’s is certainly food for thought – as is the whole interactive mapping concept.

5. The Walmart Virus

So many awesome references. So little time. The great thing about this video is the change in tone from the original graphic on FlowingData: with the voiceover, what FlowingData describes as a “wildfire” or as “organic growth” becomes something menacing and destructive. One map, many perspectives, incredibly fascinating visual.

4 comments on “5 Maps for the Visually Inclined

  1. Noelle Ronald Heyman says:

    Culture, transportation, socio-economic (and) human migration patterns, illness, hiking–almost everything can be mapped to great visual effect. I wonder if you’ve come across or know of resources to help identify visual patterns for aging and where the aging population is across the country.

  2. You know, I hadn’t, but as I’m looking into it today, it’s a fascinating question. The Census Bureau has some fun interactive maps at


    Since the 2010 data isn’t out yet, these graphics use 2005-2009 data from the American Community Survey, so they’re not the whole picture, but they are a pretty accurate estimate. If you go into the maps and change the display to counties, you can really hone in on aging patterns: looks like folks over 65 are concentrated in the center of the country (from the Dakotas to Texas), Florida, and Arizona, with the very oldest folks (85+) up in the upper Midwest. Why is that??!

    This particular graphic doesn’t allow you to add other characteristics like income, education, health, population density or migration, but that data is easy to get (and I bet it would help interpret this thing…)

    Does that help?

  3. JP says:

    NYC’s SOHO has issues, with gentrification maybe, but it was cholera in London that Snow documented.

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