More than arrows

This week I took to Twitter to offer a critique on way we might map (at the time of writing) the nearly 1 million people fleeing Ukraine.

It’s time to innovate the ways we show people fleeing war. 8 arrows for 874,026 human beings is not good enough. It’s also the same visual language we use for the invadersIt’s clear but shows just 8 (shocking) numbers: Poland: 453,982 Hungary: 116,348 Republic of Moldova: 79,315 Other European countries: 69,600 Slovakia: 67,000 Romania: 44,540 Russian Federation: 42,900 Belarus: 341

It’s had a great response so I wanted to set out some of my thinking a bit more and feature some of the responses to my critique.

The first thing to say is that I am not singling out the BBC here for particular criticism – they do great work – theirs just happened to be the map that appeared first in my timeline. Second, I think we should acknowledge that the Ukrainian crisis is not the first – and sadly won’t be the last – that requires us to map the movements of millions of people.

When we create a map or chart we should ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Who is it for?
  2. What will the map be displayed as?
  3. Why is it being produced?

These questions are important because they will influence the information we include, its design and how we might share it. For example you cannot use video if you are creating a map to be printed on paper, and you wouldn’t use very technical language with lots of detail for a map that might be shown for a few seconds on TV to encourage an evacuation to safety. Click here for more examples.

So lets look again at the BBC map with the above questions in mind.

BBC map showing the numbers of people fleeing Ukraine
  1. Who: A global audience – probably one of the broadest and most global audiences there are. So the map needs to be easy to read, unambiguous and – crucially – factually correct.
  2. What: I think this is the biggest question that we overlook as consumers of these maps, but something that their designers have to grapple with. In this case the map needs to work as a thumbnail on social media, a slightly larger version on the BBC website and as an animation for the BBC News broadcasts. It needs to work the size of a postage stamp or a on an 86″ HD TV monitor. Nuance and detail are rarely options in this context.
  3. Why: To communicate the impacts of the invasion to as wide an audience as possible.

The map is effective based on these criteria – but I think it (and others like it) need to be looked at more critically to see how they might contribute to some of the more harmful narratives around migration.


There’s an excellent piece by David Shariatmadari entitled ‘Swarms, floods and marauders: the toxic metaphors of the migration debate‘ that I thought of here – we often talk about a tide of migrants, which can be dehumanizing and a trope that the map – perhaps inadvertently – contributes to with the flow of blue cascading out of Ukraine*.

[*John Burn-Murdoch has questioned this association – for me I think its the combination of symbol + colour + language often used to describe such a map that gives this impression. On reflection the blue in and of itself is less of a concern (see The Economist’s map below, which I like. To follow discussion see here.]

It also gives the sense of invasion – not least because the same arrows are used in the BBC’s maps of the Russian advance.

I have nothing against arrows and connecting lines, they can be extremely effective, but in these maps they over-stretch the data.

We have eight numbers – nothing more – that are simply the counts of people who moved from Ukraine to neighboring countries. If we had city to city flows – or even detail of border crossings and routes taken then arrows can help here, but we don’t. With more flows you need some sense of direction so arrows are useful or as the New York Times has done here you can use tapered lines.

Source. NYT map of refugees leaving Syria.

The eight numbers (Poland: 453,982 , Hungary: 116,348, Republic of Moldova: 79,315, Other European countries: 69,600, Slovakia: 67,000, Romania: 44,540, Russian Federation: 42,900, Belarus: 341) are not so large they are hard to interpret, but large enough to be shocking and I think stand alone in their power. The BBC map groups them into 4 broad categories of unequal size.

The result is a loss of information combined with something that is a bit tricky to interpret – as you scrolled past on your phone, did you spot the second smallest category is 10 times larger than the smallest? This is immediately clear from the numbers.

With the lack of precise origin and destination information we also have to avoid the trap that arrows can give us a sense of the journey or flow. All we know from the data is that a border was crossed somewhere between two countries. Proportional circles overlain on a basemap, the approach taken by UNHCR, avoids this issue.

What can we do?

So how might we create more human, less stereotypical maps of people fleeing war, whilst still remembering the checklist of Who? What? Why?

Financial Times: Precision and Flow

This from The FT is a huge improvement – it keeps the dynamism and movement but it keeps the precision we have in the data.

FT version on Ukraine refugee movements.

They report the actual numbers – as well as the total over Ukraine – and sit the circles over the centre of each country to make it clear we have no more precise data on where people have moved to within countries. The choice of colour keeps us well away from the water imagery (tide, flood etc) we are so used to hearing and could do without.

Greater Humanity

An arrow or a line on a map can never capture the depth and diversity of experiences people have had following Russia’s invasion. The fear, the cold the uncertainty are best shared through words and pictures, but we can think about giving visual reminders that the arrows represent people and not something abstract or distant. In Atlas of the Invisible these are some of the issues we grappled with when trying to show cross border movements from Syria and opted for icons and smaller arrows. I reflect on the responsibilities of creating the map in this video.

So what are the other ideas people have had?

Ken Field responded with a map that breaks the arrows into dots to each represent 100 people.

Ken Field’s arrows from dots map.

It’s more abstract than using icons and serves to soften the arrows a little. With animation, perhaps to show the numbers increasing over time, it certainly underlines the numbers involved.

Daniel Huffman suggested the use of icons – in this case isotypes – to give a sense of the numbers.

Daniel Huffman’s isotype map.

The overall impact is less dramatic than sweeping arrows (I quite like that) but it slightly risks leaving people wanting more information – how many women vs men vs children have left Ukraine, for example? Can they be shown in the icons?

The final example from The Economist combines all of the ideas above.

Economist map of refugees leaving Ukraine.

Small icons give the immediate sense of people on the move but are abstract enough for people not to hanker for more detailed demographics, they are moving to the centre of countries shown as proportional symbols with the exact figures and there is no sense of using arrows etc for dramatic effect – things are dramatic enough already!

Joshua Stevens has posted a great response to these points – see here.

A Couple of Final Examples

It is impossible to create maps that can truly share the full complexity – and horrors – of war and there is a place for more abstracted representations of it, especially in breaking news situations. After all the maps often supplement text, video and images that are able to offer the important personal experiences much more effectively.

That said, here are a couple of inspiring examples of maps that do add the extra layers or detail or capture the human element lost to arrows.

One of my favourite is Levi Westerveld’s Those Who Did Not Cross that attempts to visualise the extent of the deaths in the Mediterranean as people attempt to cross to Europe. He has made some compromises around the precise locations of shipwrecks and so on, but that doesn’t matter. What we see here is the scale of the toll.

Source. Levi Westerveld.

This ESRI Story Map The Uprooted is a nice example of combining a range of media – with the maps front and centre – to help communicate the breadth and depth of the journeys taken to Europe around 2016.

Both maps however take much more time to make than the BBC one and only work in specific formats so they won’t be reproduceable in breaking news stories, but there are elements we might take forward and develop when we think more carefully about how to show human flows.

For more on Ukraine maps…

This is an interesting article from Mateusz Fafinski worth checking out.

PhD Opportunity: An Atlas of Health and Social Inequalities

Excited to announce that we have funding for a +3 studentship in the UCL Department of Geography for the project “An Atlas of Health and Social Inequalities”. The research will be carried out in association with the Health Foundation and will comprise the creation of a range of innovative datasets presented through a series of ground-breaking maps and graphics. The project will centre on the Health Foundation’s Social and Economic Value of Health: Place programme, which is designed to generate new knowledge about the ways in which the physical and mental health of a population shapes their social and economic outcomes. The Health Foundation have funded a number of research projects already that focus on understanding the relationship between a given population’s health and the health of individuals within that population.

The PhD will benefit from insights from these projects and focus on the creation of a nationwide atlas to demonstrate the social and economic value of health. It will produce a series of research-led maps created from innovative and granular datasets to demonstrate the new ways that health data can be visualised. These will convey a range of variables including health metrics such as mortality, self-reported health, prevalence of specific health conditions, and social and economic outcomes including employment, pay, structural changes to industrial sector composition and social fragmentation.

The work will be supervised by myself ( and Dr Anwar Musah (, to whom enquiries may be directed. The successful applicant will hold a First or Upper Second Class honours degree in a quantitative social science or computer science discipline and/or similar Masters qualification.

For further details on eligibility etc please see here.

CLICK HERE TO APPLY (Deadline 4th April)

Being creative is reason enough to try different data visualization

ocean in the spilhaus projection

A simple line chart might be all you need to communicate the patterns in a dataset, but it might not be given a second glance. Getting the viewer to work a little harder to interpret and think about a graphic can be a very effective way of generating engagement. This is where the art meets the science of data visualisation.

There are many ways charts can misfire, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something new and it certainly doesn’t mean we should heed calls to do things the ‘right’ way if we miss a chance to change how people look at a dataset.

In the case of this ‘tapeworm of doom’ plot by NYT, it has certainly worked!

I actually rather like it and think it does it’s job well….so in it’s honor and in honor of any viral plots in the future, here’s my favorite examples of maps/ charts that you can say present data a particular way for ‘literally no reason’. Or you can say by doing something a bit differently they create much more engaging graphics – I’ll leave it to you to decide!

Du Bois’ Spiral

A hero of mine and pioneer of innovative visual forms, Du Bois chose a spiral over a bar chart for his ‘City and Rural Population’ graphic, and what a difference that makes. You can read more here and here, buy the book if you can.

Emma Willard

Emma Willard pioneered many maps/ graphics but the example I want to flag here is her ‘Temple of Time’. A normal timeline would have sufficed, but we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Messing with Maps

Maps are full of distortions, but we are used to seeing them with north at the top. The sea is generally blue, the land green and all to often Europe is at the centre. You might ask why we should mess with these established norms if people are used to them – I would argue that if you can effectively disorientate the reader then you can get them to think much more deeply about the map. I’m not suggesting all maps should do this because done badly it’ll cause more harm than good, but here some examples that I think work well.

Sabine Réthoré‘s rotated Mediterranean completely threw me when I first saw it, and got me to really re-appraise my impressions of the region.

The ‘Spilhaus Projection‘ is one I really love and that we used in Atlas of the Invisible to show ‘One Stormy Sea‘. By pushing the land to the edges you get a single connected ocean view that would be hard to appreciate with a more traditional approach.

Inspired by Nature

Pedro CruzJohn WihbeyAvni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya drew inspiration from tree rings to show the history of migration into the US. A stacked bar chart would have done this too, but would not have been as widely shared as this approach. You can see an animation here.

Power in Imagery

Valentina D’Efilippo’s Poppy Field chart is a multi-dimensional plot that charts the deaths during the Great War. Much of the data could be portrayed as a scatter chart with proportional symbols, but choosing the imagery of a poppy adds a powerful angle that leaves the reader in no doubt about the horrors of war.

Joy of Circles

This SCMP chart of the world’s languages carves out proportions of a circle – a square treemap might have done it just as well, but visually would have lacked the appeal of this perhaps less precise approach.

Peaks and Troughs

Finally, I created this map of world population nearly a decade ago to show it’s peaks and troughs. You can’t accurately establish the population of specific regions, perhaps as you might a choropleth, but that isn’t the point.

The contested borders on my Christmas tree

Every Christmas I love being reunited with my growing collection of globe-themed baubles. Each has its own cartographic style – from the glittery to the antique – and I take a moment each year to admire them. As I hung the final one on the tree this year, I spotted something that offered a fascinating insight into how geopolitics can play out in the unlikeliest of places: my box of decorations.

I spotted an attribution on one of the globes to ‘Beijing Boom Cartographic’ and ‘Sinomaps Press’. I then looked at the others and found – in tiny writing – ‘Copy certified by the Survey of India’.

All maps mark a moment in time so borders are always subject to change- especially if the globes were made in different years – but both China and India have tight controls on how borders can be drawn. Even something as innocuous as a Christmas decoration will need to have the ‘correct’ state-sanctioned map, which will differ from international conventions. And sure enough I have spotted some important differences in how the world is shown on my Christmas tree…

South China Sea

The South China Sea is a contested area of ocean where China has made several claims. On the Chinese made globe I’ve pointed to the ‘nine-dash line‘ marked in red that marks the extent of the Chinese claim. It is also one of the most heavily labelled parts of that globe including labels for the ‘South China Sea Islands’. Compare that to the Indian made globe, none of these labels exist and Taiwan is given it’s own colour to differentiate it from mainlined China. On the Chinese globe they are they same.

Disputed Borders

India, Pakistan and China are involved in a border dispute over the region of Kashmir and this too plays out on the Christmas baubles. You can see on the Indian made decoration the Indian border kinks into China and prevents Pakistan from touching China. On the Chinese bauble we see Pakistan extending to China and the kink is gone.

The dispute is really nicely explained here and by the maps below.

Credit: Al Jazeera

Of course these differences will go unnoticed for the vast majority of the globes hanging from tree each year (I had to use a macro lens to photograph them), but if I were to take the Indian globe to China and I’ll be reprimanded by the authorities. The first forbidden items listed on Indian customs declaration forms are ‘Maps and literature where Indian boundaries have been shown incorrectly’ so if I were to pack a Chinese decoration in my suitcase I might be refused entry.

The stockists of these globe decorations look to India and China to manufacture them cheaply perhaps without realising they are subject to these geopolitical disputes that are now being played out on my Christmas tree. Fortunately I live where maps – however contentious – can be safely displayed so I’ll keep hanging the globes, but I’ll certainly never look at my collection of baubles the same way again.

What maps made by 20th century suffragists can teach us about holding leaders to account on climate change

I’m a geographer who’s produced many maps depicting human effects on the environment – and demanded we create more of them. A question I am increasingly asked is: how do you not feel powerless in the face of such depressing data?

With climate anxiety now affecting young people’s mental health, and widespread doubt about whether limiting global warming to 1.5℃ is possible, it can be tricky to answer. What I’ve found is that we can use a surprisingly commonplace tool to communicate danger and to bring about positive change: the map.

Throughout history, it has generally been society’s elites who have used maps to exploit, not help, the planet and its people. They’ve used them to pinpoint oil reserves, carve up continents and justify wars. But maps can also be used to empower and defend those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Over a century ago, the women’s suffrage movement developed one of the largest ever map-based campaigns, spanning decades and continents, as part of its drive to give women the vote. We need to use their principles if we are to persuade leaders not just to deliver but to improve upon the promises made at the recent UN climate conference COP26.

What the Suffragists did

Suffragists used maps to celebrate jurisdictions across the world that had given women the vote – and to shame those that had not. They reasoned that the action of some policymakers would highlight the inaction of others, betraying the most misogynist politicians and their supporters.

American suffrage maps with the headline “Votes for Women a Success” showed the US states that had granted women the right to vote. To challenge those with backward views, some versions of the map were also adorned with provocative statements such as “How long will the republic of the United States lag behind the monarchy of Canada?”

In 1930s Europe, where France was still withholding votes for women, suffrage campaigns published maps showing the country’s outdated approach to democracy in contrast to its neighbours such as Belgium, under the banner “French women can’t vote! French women want to vote!”

A map showing states where women had been granted the vote
Maps provide a powerful tool for demonstrating inequality. VCULibraries/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Suffrage maps were plastered on walls, hung across streets, paraded on sandwich boards, printed in newspapers and even used to petition the US Congress.

Geographer Christina E. Dando has pointed out how American suffragists’ work was not just focused on creating maps, but changing them. For example, the map below was submitted by the Nevada Women’s Civic League to the US judiciary committee, which was resisting granting women the right to vote nationwide. As the catalogue entry for the map tells us, “this petition shows that women were not just lobbying Congress in general, but strategically pressuring committees to act”.

Maps were central to political lobbying. National Archives Catalog

In the US, the 19th amendment guaranteeing all women the right to vote was ratified in August 1920. But the fight for equal access to the ballot box was far from over.

Racist voter suppression policies were enacted in many states against women of colour, who were themselves creating maps to campaign against the horrors of lynching. It was only after the Voting Rights Act was passed nearly 50 years later, on August 6 1965, that such policies were outlawed. Even today, maps remain a weapon in the continuing fight to achieve fair racial representation in some US states.

Modern maps

In the past, creating maps to counter the status quo – or indeed creating pretty much any map at all – would have required significant design expertise, a lot of manual effort and the financial means to print and promote it.

Today, these challenges can be overcome more easily. The majority of sites and social media platforms are free, do not conform to national borders, and are out of government reach. That means that images that hold those in power to account can spread more freely. So it’s time to use maps to challenge the greatest social and political crisis of our time: the destruction of our planet’s environment.

Take a look at this map of nitrogen dioxide – a gas released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels – from a hot July day across Europe in 2019 (click to make it bigger). High levels can damage health, create acid rain and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Although the map shows gas moving around, it’s clearly concentrated in certain areas. There’s a big cloud caused by shipping in Marseille and spots marking industrial plants around Dusseldorf.

Map of nitrogen dioxide concentration

High nitrogen dioxide concentration is shown in yellow and red colours. Atlas Of The Invisible, Author provided

Rather than view this as purely an image of scientific interest, we should see it as a call to action. Living beneath the swirls of nitrogen dioxide are policymakers who can design tougher legislation, such as introducing low emission zones, to erase the yellow marks from this map.

The battle for women’s equality is clearly not over, but the idea that at least half the adult population should be legally deprived of a vote is now unconscionable in all but the most extreme jurisdictions. Maps created for women, by women, helped make this so. Now, let’s unleash the political power of maps to ensure that a failure to act on the environment becomes unconscionable too.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Science and Cocktails: Maps of the Invisible

Filmed in Copenhagen October 2021. I talk about the power of maps to reveal the invisible, drawing examples from history as well as my co-authored books: Atlas of the Invisible, Where the Animals Go and London: The Information Capital.

Failure is part of the visualization process

I often liken the process of creating data visualizations to a game of snakes and ladders – you can race up the board with a great dataset only to land on a tricky issue with software that slides you backwards. And there’s always the longest snake lurking a few turns from the end – the realization that the map or graph just isn’t working for the audience and you will need to return to square one.

When starting out it can feel like there are many more snakes than ladders and this sense of frustration can be compounded by the fact that we only really share the successes – or at least the maps and graphics that made it out the door. But behind every success will be graphics that failed.

Real snakes: Heinrich Berghaus (1845) – Three maps of the world showing snake distributions.

As I scroll past the many amazing maps and graphics I see online I need to remind myself it can be rather like aspiring to the ‘perfect’ lives of Instagram influencers without zooming out to realize what’s really happening behind the camera.

In recent weeks I have had a few people ask about challenges I’ve faced or to give examples of graphics that didn’t work out, so I thought this would be a good excuse to share some outtakes from my work on Atlas of the Invisible.

What made it into the book – both the text and the graphics – really is just the tip of an iceberg created from late nights shouting at crashed software, long days staring blankly at a spreadsheet or hours spent on drafts that were later pushed aside!

As well as the examples below, Oliver and I discussed a couple more with the amazing John Grimwade for his Infographics for the People blog.

Go with the flow

When I was looking for some examples to feature in this post I happened upon this list of files – I recall they were the images I’d created of glacial flow lines after a tough day of coding.

‘BOOM’ is my file naming convention of choice when I think I have decisively solved a problem…it turns out that I needed a further 8 attempts and by looking at the time stamps another 7 hours to get to the final version!

This was just the flow lines for this map, there were many hours of additional layering and design to follow.

As it happens I also discovered the folder also contained probably one of the most beautiful outtakes – a map of the ice flows in Antarctica.

I think it works nicely as a standalone image, but it didn’t make the cut because we wanted to feature both Greenland and the Juneau Icefield as they told us the stories we were most interested in telling about accelerating ice in the face of climate change.

Too much shipping

Oftentimes you need to put significant effort into a preliminary idea to be able to decisively discard it as something that won’t work out. The image below is of shipping traffic around Denmark and it was created from an ENORMOUS dataset that took an age to download and format in order to map.

For whatever reason I just wasn’t feeling it – I didn’t know enough detail about the shipping lanes and boat behaviours to create the compelling narratives we aspire to. The data needed some cleaning up, which I wasn’t sure how best to do and we already had maps in the book that covered shipping routes, shipping’s impacts on the weather and also fishing. If I could have mastered a stronger story for this one it would have made it into the book at the expense of another on a nautical theme (we wanted a variety of topics). The draft made us question our choices again and feel firmer in our decision about what to include – and what not to.

Never a walk in the park

Of course, there are many more examples, but this final one eclipses them all as an example of when it’s sometimes best to let something go…hard though it is.

The map above is pretty much finished and it shows a long walk, short cycle, bus ride and finally train ride I did around London on a hot August day in 2018. The idea behind it was to demonstrate the various ways that fitness apps and sensors in your phone can track behaviour and be used to determine the modes of transport someone might be using. We triangulated these with images I took along the way.

So this is an afternoon puffing around London to collect the data, plus then a couple of days of processing it and creating the final map. It also felt quite personal to me and it told a bit of a story about parts of the city I enjoy visiting etc. We wanted it to be a relatable example of what our data can reveal, the privacy implications of such technology, and so on.

The initial reaction from our editor was that rather than being relatable the map was a bit random – why is my walk a story worth telling?

We then remembered that the US Military had doxed themselves with a fitness app…which even I had to admit was a much more interesting and compelling way of sharing the perils of tracking data, so my walk was cut. I consoled myself that at least it wasn’t raining that August afternoon…