ArchitectureBoston

Things Visible and Invisible

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

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Postmodern theorists writing in the late 20th-century once surmised that, during an era of airplanes, cell phones, and the Internet, the importance of geographical space was quickly diminishing. The French anthropologist Marc Augé, for example, famously claimed that modern technological developments such as these had led to a homogenization of culture that was reflected in the proliferation of “non-places” (non-lieux) that were devoid of any particular cultural identity. For him, a perfect example was the airport: surrounded by impersonal signs and identified by government-issued documents that cloaked individuality, travelers waiting for a plane epitomized the late 20th-century transitory experience and its lack of concern for place, cultural particularity, and personal identity.

The graphic presentation of infrastructural data yields more than a map.

The following images demonstrate that, whether or not the importance of geographical space has diminished, the representation of topographical space certainly has not. The fusillade of modern technological advances over the last several decades has only precipitated an explosion in cartographic curiosity and related explorations into data visualization. The very existence of multiple websites and conferences devoted to exploring innovative ways of depicting infrastructure cartographically begs two key questions: What lies behind this surge in the production of maps of all kinds, from simple delineations of proposed high-speed rail projects in the United States to more creative ventures in “experimental geography”? What does the practice of cartography allow us to see that we would not otherwise have seen?

Most fundamentally, mapping illustrates where elements of what we choose to include under the umbrella term “infrastructure” are currently located or planned. In turn, this information can be used to illuminate a whole range of other trends. For example, some major newspapers have recently shown how Obama’s planned infrastructure projects tend to overlap areas that supported him on the campaign trail. Yet, going further, the abstraction involved in this process also serves a more philosophical function: It moves us to reflect upon the spaces in which we live and work. Removed from the chaos of everyday life at the street-level, the geometrical forms of transportation networks, roadways, and even healthcare policies become visible, and therefore more comprehensible. Like a child staring into an Etch-a-Sketch, we are tempted to imagine alternative transit systems and links between disparate places, not to mention the political and economic structures that produced them. The widespread practice of visualizing infrastructure, therefore, is not solely about concrete projects. It is a medium for self-reflection. In the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, one might say that infrastructure is “good to think with.”

One of a series of visualizations depicting airline traffic across the United States.

FLIGHT PATTERNS: One of a series of visualizations depicting airline traffic across the United States created by Aaron Koblin, this image is based on data from the US Federal Aviation Administration for August 12, 2008. Free of traditional territorial lines and city icons, the geography of North America can be seen in terms of connections, providing a fresh understanding of land-use and economic activity.

This map shows positions and names (or identification codes) for commercial vessels around the world.

SHIP LOCATIONS: This map shows positions and names (or identification codes) for commercial vessels around the world at 2 pm EDT on August 26, 2009. Commercial ship activity provides a largely unseen but vital transportation infrastructure. Created by Hal Mueller from a real-time tracker, the map is based on weather observations sent from ships every six hours and collated by the World Meteorological Organization; some additional positions were derived from automated position reporting (AIS). Ships represented include supertankers, freighters, cruise ships, research vessels, and workboats.

A depiction of ring roads from 27 cities, all layered at the same scale.

RING ROADS OF THE WORLD: A depiction of ring roads from 27 cities, all layered at the same scale. The largest, shown in black, is from Houston, Texas, home of Rice University School of Architecture, which commissioned the image in 2009 from Thumb as a poster. The second largest, shown in red, is Beijing.

Mass-transit systems of North America drawn to the same scale.

NORTH AMERICAN MASS TRANSIT: In this image, the mass-transit systems of North America are all drawn to the same scale, and placed in relative locations. Current as of 2005, it includes regional or commuter systems that connect two downtown areas of comparable size. Revealing differences in both density and growth patterns, the map was created by Bill Rankin, now a PhD candidate in both architecture and the history of science at Harvard.

These two images are part of a series representing text messages sent in the city of Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, 2007.

CELL PHONE USAGE: These two images are part of a series representing text messages sent in the city of Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve, 2007. Left: activity at 9 am. Right: activity at midnight. SMS visualization tool developed by Aaron Koblin, with MIT SENSEable City Lab and CurrentCity, based on data from KPN Telcom.

4 Responses

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  1. uberVU - social comments said, on November 14, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by MUDEO: Nice article and visualizations on information mapping. See it online on Architecture Boston http://j.mp/1i6tpT

  2. Kurt Creager said, on November 19, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Dear Ms Haffner; This is a gorgeous depiction of data that affects our everyday lives. I took the Phoenix LRT transit system today and for some reason it is not found in your scale maps on page 39. The system has been operational for 11 months (since December 2008) and ridership is far above expectations. It links Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix and exceeds the size of many systems depicted. It would be interesting to show the same system maps loaded with ridership data to effectively compare market mass transit penetration visually.

    Kurt Creager, Principal, Urbanist Solutions LLC

  3. Paul Meinerth said, on February 11, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Awesome perspectives

  4. » Things Visible and Invisible branta said, on March 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    […] article at Architecture Boston and see the other stunning […]


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