Monday, September 20, 2010

Radical cartography and neighbourhood segregation

Here's a fascinating post from Gawker about racial neighbourhood segregation in the top forty US cities. Using 2000 census data, photographer Eric Fischer, create the maps, where one dot represents twenty-five people. The dots are color coded based on race: pink is White, blue is Black, yellow is Hispanic, and green is Asian-American.

As a temporary Michigander, I often hear a lot about the racial divide in Detroit. Even folks who have never been to Detroit know about the infamous Eight Mile divide between the white suburbs and the black inner city. But never have I seen it so starkly illustrated as in this map:

Racial segregation in Detroit. The blank area to the right of the middle
is Dearborn. The artist clearly didn't choose a colour for Arab-Americans.
Some of the other maps created have interesting anomalies. This map of San Francisco and the Bay Area has a small circle of dense Black and White (blue and pink dots) in the upper right corner:

Racial segregation in San Francisco & the Bay Area.
That dot represents San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest prison and only death row for male inmates -- the largest in America. 

These maps provide the same information as Census date, but because of the mode they use to present it, they impact the viewer in a very different way. I'm a big proponent of information aesthetics -- I hate bad infographics more than I hate PowerPoint. Sometimes I just like graphs because they're beautiful, or because they're useful. These maps are both, but they're also something else -- political.  Projects like Radical Cartography redefine our understanding of what maps are for in a way that challenges our ideas about what demographic data (among other types) can tell us about our society at large. Maps like these challenge us to understand neighbourhood segregation that takes into account the particular histories of different cities, while still demanding that we sit up and pay attention.

David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful and The Visual Miscellaneum, recently gave a TED Talk on the possibilities of data visualization in a world where we are often threatened with 'information overload'. Check it out:

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