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The Oil Spill in Maps – Best and Worst

May 20, 2010

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.

The worst:

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 best:

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 – – 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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. The Destructionist permalink
    May 20, 2010 3:23 pm

    While watching the latest news about the BP Oil spill, a frightening thought came to mind: what if we can’t stop the oil? I mean, what happens if after all the measures to cap the pipe fail, (i.e., “Top Hat”, “Small Hat” and “Top Kill”). What then? An accident this problematic is new territory for BP. The oil pipeline is nearly a mile down on the ocean floor, accessible only by robots. Add on top of that the extreme pressure at which the oil is flowing out of the pipeline and there you have it: the perfect storm.

    Moreover, scientists also claim that they’ve found an enormous plume of oil floating just under the surface of the ocean measuring approximately 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. (I’m no math genius, but I bet one of you reading this could figure out just how many barrels of oil that is…)

    There are new estimates that the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico is anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil a day: that’s a far cry from BP’s estimated 5,000 barrels a day. If BP’s estimates are correct, the total amount of oil now in the Gulf would be approximately 150,000 barrels (or 6,300,000 gallons). That’s barely enough to fill 286 swimming pools: sixteen feet, by thirty-two feet, by eight and a half feet deep. That wouldn’t cover an area the size of New York City, let alone an area the size of Delaware. Obviously, the spill is much larger than we are being led to believe. If the leak can’t be stopped, in a year’s time, we’ll have roughly 18,250,000 barrels of oil (or 766,500,000 gallons) in our oceans, killing our marine and animal wildlife. Such a calamity would be environmentally and economically disastrous. I’m not a religious man, but I pray that BP and our government work fast to end this catastrophe.

  2. July 6, 2010 9:43 am

    thank you for posting.

    pipeline sizes were never considered for the reason you’ve suggested.

    i just tried making that map. it doesn’t look any prettier than you might be looking for, but if you want to see it, let me know.

    it’s still a bloody mess.


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