Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Seduced by BBC’s maps of British infrastructure

I’m in love.

I’ve been blogging these past few weeks about infrastructure and how we understand and misunderstand it. My motives are a bit oblique – I’m working on a writing project that looks at how we have and haven’t used the internet to connect across borders of culture, nation and language. It’s my suspicion that we look at infrastructures like the global internet and assume that since the “pipes” connect us all, we’re building connections. That’s often not the case. When we look at how these networks are actually used – the flow, not the infrastructure – we see that most traffic on international networks is local, and that our interactions are profoundly shaped by patterns of language, culture, friendship and familiarity.

Somewhere in the process of exploring this, I’ve started trying to collect maps that depict flow rather than infrastructure, wondering whether it would be possible to build an atlas that depicts globalization and flow.

Which brings us to my inamorata, the BBC’s series Britain from Above. A set of documentaries aired on BBC in August 2008, Britain from Above uses a combination of aerial photography, visualizations and maps to show the infrastructure that makes modern Britain possible and the flow that occurs atop that infrastructure.

I stumbled onto the series looking for city maps made by following taxis, like the Cabspotting maps of San Francisco by Stamen Design. The video clip above doesn’t offer as satisfying and comprehensive a map as I would like, but does include a critical insight that one can only get from a flow map – the overflow of taxis in Central London from crowded thoroughfares to back streets. The thirty seconds of video when London fills with taxis looks like an advertisement promoting congestion pricing.

Other segments do a similarly lovely job of mapping the flow of air traffic, ferries across the Channel and the massive grid of telephone lines. Other segments simply hint at grids I’d love to see, like the water and sewage lines that provide billions of gallons of water to the nation. (On second thought, mapping flow there could get slightly disgusting.)

The site provides a wealth of segments, and more is promised with a book and DVD planned for release. For a moment I thought I’d found nirvana (nerdvana?) with the project offering a Google Map overlay – unfortunately, it just includes the locations where episodes were shot, not a full visualization of the British sewer system. Oh well, a man can dream.

4 Responses to “Seduced by BBC’s maps of British infrastructure”

  1. Tracey says:

    We would also have way more of these maps if the data that underlie them were in the public domain. In some respects our imagination of infrastructure – geography – are determined by our access to mapping infrastructure and also and i would say more so our access to data – and then of course priorities to map those data! Maps are renderings / visualizations of data.

  2. Ethan says:

    That’s certainly true, Tracey. I think there’s at least three things that prevent access to these sorts of maps:

    - Concerns (legitimate or not) about security flaws that might be exposed if infrastructure maps were widely available

    - The ways in which mapping flow is a form of surveillance and tends to trigger many people’s privacy concerns

    - The ease of monetizing this sort of data, which leads governments interested in cost recovery to sell the data instead of making it freely available.

    Agree that the data access is a much harder challenge than the visualization – there’s lots of amazing visualization folks ready to make maps when data becomes available.

    Love the name of your blog, btw…

  3. Chris Blow says:

    Beautiful visualizations. How has this influenced your thinking on “architecting serendipity”? That is, based on your realizations, what do you think of the possibility that the “pipes” can still be bent? Or are we still just left with “paving the goat trails” as they say in the interaction design list?

  4. sara says:

    I dont think any gov will be ready to monetize these sort of data by the name of cost recovery. Things will go highly insecured with the current situation.

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