The Oil Spill in Maps – Best and Worst
One month ago today an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizion, beginning one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history. Since then, the spill has galvanized the environmental movement, brought oil company CEOs before congressional hearings and of course, has been mapped over and over again, at times beautifully and elegantly, and at times in ways very ugly and fashioned simply to score political points.
Fun task: Try telling where the oil is predicted to be on May 3rd on this map. Especially if you are red-green colorblind. This shows why stacked, partly transparent polygons are a poor choice to show a multi-day event. Bad stuff.
Next up we have a map that shows us the complex pipeline and drilling infrastructure set up in the Gulf. The message seems to be “wow, look at this completely out of control system we have down there” and while I agree with the author’s point, I disagree with some of the ways he tries to convince us of it. First, all pipelines (other than those owned by BP) are shown the same here, there is no distinction between a 6-inch and a 4-foot diameter pipe. Imagine if someone made a map of the Midwest, put every single gravel road and interstate on there and marked them all using the same symbol – it would look like absolute anarchy, just like this. Secondly, the author includes a lot of irrelevant on land information. Maybe it is just because he is from ESRI and wants to show off their nifty basemaps, but there is no reason to have interstates on a map of a water feature no matter how grayed out they are. Lastly, he has the same, multiple overlapping polygon problem as the NOAA map, although his way of dealing with it is significantly better.
The last bad map of the bunch has some of the unnecessary complexity problems of the second bad map, however what is uniquely bad about it is its contempt for the map user. All I have to say to the map author is please, trust us to use your scale bar. If you need to give specific distance figures, tuck them neatly into a text box somewhere but why, oh, why do you think we cannot tell how big things are, or how far they are from each other, when you have given us the key to doing so, right there in the bottom left corner?!
The New York Times map is simply amazing. In order to give users a feeling for how the situation changes from day-to-day, it runs as an animation. It contains relevant data – habitats affected, states affected, fishery closures, and benchmarked estimates of the spill size, but still does not feel overwhelming. Quality stuff.
A Google employee also created a good animated offering in the mix – http://paulrademacher.com/oilspill/#San+Francisco – with a nice comparison of the spill to many metro areas worldwide. Simplistic, sure, but also quite effective.
Lastly, to prove that NOAA can make good maps we have :
A daily forecast map of the spill’s trajectory and status. Great, meaningful legend and coding for the legend at the bottom. Extremely clear, and without unneeded on-land complexity. Nice.
The takeaway message from all this for map authors is yes, I know we want info on the disaster, but if you shove too much at us at once it ends up like that all-you can eat buffet in Vegas, horribly unappetizing.